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John Clarkson, Outside the Majors

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  • John Clarkson, Outside the Majors

    John Gibson Clarkson was born on July 1, 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. His father, Thomas G. born in Scotland in December 1836, ran his own prosperous jewelry manufacturing business. John was born into a family of means, in stark contrast to most big leaguers of the era.

    John’s mother Ellen M. (born in Ireland in May 1842) had six other children: Isabella G. (born in Cambridge circa 1864), Arthur Hamilton (future major leaguer born in August 1866), Hellena (born circa 1870), Thomas H. (born in February 1876), Walter Hamilton (another future major leaguer born in November 1878) and Frederick H. (born in May 1881). The family lived on Rockwell Street. Also from Cambridge, Clarkson had two cousins who made the majors: Mert Hackett and Walter Hackett.


    In high school, the Webster School, Clarkson landed a position as the team’s catcher in 1878. Pretty soon, he was toiling on the mound as well. After leaving high school, he trained at his father’s jewelry store and went to the local Comer’s Business School.

    Starting in 1880 he played amateur ball for a local club called the Beacons for two years. Clarkson was the star hitter and also astounded opponents with his curve ball. In Cambridge Clarkson met major league pitcher Tommy Bond who was winding down his pitching career. Bond worked as a pitching coach at Harvard University.

    Stemming from that acquaintance (Bond was familiar with Worcester management and soon would become the club’s manager) and word of mouth about his exploits with the Beacons, Clarkson landed a spot with the Massachusetts’ National League club, the Worcester Brown Stockings in 1882 without any minor league experience.

    He joined the club and started the second and fourth games of the season for the Brown Stockings. However, he soon developed arm soreness and was gone from the team six weeks later.

    In 1882 Clarkson met Massachusetts-native Art Whitney who was an infielder and occasional pitcher for the National League Detroit Wolverines. After the season, Whitney was named manager of the Saginaw (Michigan) Greys of the Northwestern League, at the time one of only two official minor leagues.

    Whitney brought Clarkson to the Greys in 1883. With the club set for pitchers, Clarkson played every position but catcher for Saginaw. Just when ownership was pushing for Clarkson’s release, Whitney installed him as a pitcher. It proved to be a success. The team challenged for the championship all season, falling two games short.

    Clarkson returned to Saginaw in 1884, posting 34 victories and 388 strikeouts to lead the league. The stats were accrued prior to the disbanding of the franchise on August 14, 1884. Clarkson then had a tryout with Cap Anson in Chicago and was immediately signed by the Cubs (modern nickname).

    Despite leaving the Greys, Clarkson lived in Michigan for most of the rest of his life. He had met a local girl, two years his junior, named Ella M. They were married in 1886. The couple didn’t have any children (none listed in the 1900 U.S. Census).


    Clarkson’s career was probably doomed as soon as the major leagues extended the pitching distance by five feet for the 1893 season. The sidearmer would soon fade from the bigs.

    Towards the end of his major league career, Clarkson was drinking heavily. It didn’t get any better after an incident in the winter of 1893-94. After the 1893 season, he went on a hunting trip with his friend and former teammate Charlie Bennett. On January 9, 1894 the two were on their way from Kansas City to Williamsburg. Bennett hopped off the train to talk with someone in Wellsville, Kansas. Reboarding, Bennett slipped and fell under the wheels. He lost both legs.

    Friends said Clarkson was never the same after the incident. And, it certainly didn’t help his penchant for drinking.

    On July 13, 1894 Clarkson was traded by Cleveland to the Baltimore Orioles for Tony Mullane. Clarkson didn’t report to Baltimore until August and never appeared in a game with the club, ending his major league career. Mullane was also ending thing; after four starts with Cleveland, his career ended as well.

    Clarkson’s brother Arthur, known by the baseball community as ‘Dad,’ continued his major league career through 1896 (it had started in 1891). Walter’s career, much younger, ran from 1904-09.


    At the end of his major league career, John and Ella Clarkson moved to Bay City, Michigan. They moved to 813 North Birney Street. IN September Clarkson purchased a cigar store from the estate of William Southworth at 103 Center Avenue (Southworth had been killed riding his wheel?, being struck by a horse and rider).

    Clarkson would later open another business (wholesale) on Fifth Avenue and a retail establishment in the Phoenix area. The latter two businesses were not as successful as the cigar store, adding to Clarkson’s woes and drinking binges.

    On the baseball end, Clarkson established, organized, managed and occasionally pitched for an independent, amateur Bay City club. The club played occasional games, some with a Detroit club called the Yales. Bay City didn’t have a ballpark; the club used makeshift fields and lots.

    After leaving the majors, Clarkson’s brother Arthur moved to Bay City. He initially worked as a clerk in the cigar store and took over operations at the Phoenix location. Later, he opened a clothing store on Center Avenue, a few doors down from the cigar store. At various times he would list his occupation as a clothing salesman or a tailor, the same I guess. Arthur would also open a cigar story.

    In 1905 John Clarkson started exhibiting some alarming characteristics. (Al Spalding would later claim that he recognized strange behavior from Clarkson as far back as the 1880s.) In short, he suffered a mental breakdown brought on by depression, alcoholism and possibly paranoia.

    In May 13, 1905 he entered a sanitarium in Flint, Michigan. By the end of the year, Clarkson was moved to a hospital for the insane in Pontiac. In March 1906 Clarkson’s father came and got him and brought him back to Massachusetts. Clarkson was placed at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Waverly, near the family home in Cambridge.

    Clarkson remained, for the most part, at McLean except for occasional furloughs during holidays and such. As the years wore on, he also lived with his parents for stretches at a time.

    Supposedly, things were going well. Ella Clarkson visited towards the end of 1908 and told reporters that her husband was doing well and perhaps may leave McLean. That was perhaps wishful thinking. The truth is that the doctors saw no hope for Clarkson. Ella took him to his parents’ home. (He did attend a ball game in October 1908)

    In January 1909 Clarkson was living with his parents at their home on Wave Way Avenue in Winthrop. He became ill with pneumonia and was readmitted to McLean. He lapsed into a coma and died at McLean on February 4, 1909.

    The death certificated listed the cause of death as lobar pneumonia which he suffered from for six days. It also noted that Clarkson suffered from a general paralysis for the past several years.

    Clarkson was buried in the family plot at Cambridge Cemetery on Lawn Avenue, Lot 828. He rests not too far from fellow Hall of Famer Tim Keefe.

    Ella continued to live in Bay City; in fact, the 1910 Census shows both Ella and her brother-in-law Arthur living at the same boardinghouse at 1200 Sixth Street. In 1911 Ella was living at another boardinghouse at 814 Center Avenue. Arthur, said to be erratic himself, died in February 1911. Some reports suggest he also died at McLean.

    For those who believe the urban legend that Clarkson mutilated his wife: from the Bay Journal from Clarkson's hometown of Bay City, Michigan:

    On May 15, 1909, baseball fans from around the Bay City area eagerly gathered at their new ballpark just south of Center avenue east of Livingston street. It promised to be a special day at the new Clarkson Park, which was the home field of the newly formed Bay City Cardinals professional team.

    The only shadow caste over the occasion was John Clarkson wouldn't be there for the honor being bestowed upon him. He passed on only three months earlier from pneumonia. However, his wife Ella along with his father and brother, were present to accept the gratitude being extended to John for his achievements as a major league ballplayer.
    Last edited by Brian McKenna; 05-16-2008, 11:17 AM.

  • #2
    One of the early Greats of the Game.
    Buck O'Neil: The Monarch of Baseball


    • #3
      good stuff. His life outside of baseball is fascinating.
      "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
      "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."


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