Monday, June 11, 2012

James 'Bus' Clarkson | A Negro League superstar's unheralded major league journey

Beyond the barriers Jackie Robinson tore down; lay the truncated major league careers of Negro League veterans. They fought for the opportunity to prove their great league's talents that fans missed during the segregation era. Past their prime, these baseball lifers persisted well into their late 30s and early 40s, playing out the string of their careers before teammates and crowds that never had the opportunity to see them play in their true glory.

Satchel Paige's well-documented exploits of finally reaching the majors in his 40s and Sam Jethroe winning Rookie of the Year at 33 are the more prominent stories from this group. There were other less-heralded Negro League vets who had smaller major league cups of coffee, thirty-somethings like Ray Noble, Pat Scantlebury, Quincy Trouppe, Bob Thurman, Artie Wilson, and one overlooked fence buster, James "Bus" Clarkson.

Long before he reached the majors, Clarkson was a power-hitting shortstop and third baseman in the Negro Leagues. Debuting in 1937, Clarkson terrorized pitching wherever he went, whether it was in the United States or the Caribbean, finishing second to Josh Gibson in home runs in the 1941 Mexican League. As Major League Baseball turned to younger Negro League prospects, Clarkson headed north to Canada in 1948. There he blasted 31 homers while batting .408 for St. Jean of the Provincial League. Despite his monstrous numbers, Clarkson returned to the Negro Leagues with no offers from major league organizations.

Clarkson refuses to be ignored

By 1950, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore Clarkson's talents. He signed with the Boston Braves and they assigned him to their Triple-A team in Milwaukee. Immediately, Clarkson lived up to his reputation as a dangerous hitter, batting .302 while playing third base. Holding down the left side of the infield with Clarkson was a young Johnny Logan, who would later become a fixture with the Braves.

“He happened to be an outstanding hitter," Logan said of Clarkson. "When you can hit, you play someplace. He was a tremendous guy. As a young ballplayer, we looked up to him.”

With Logan spending most of the 1951 season in Boston, a 36-year-old Clarkson handled the bulk of the shortstop duties, batting .343 while leading the Brewers to the 1951 Junior World Series championship over the Montreal Royals. Among his teammates was Charlie Gorin, a 22-year-old rookie pitcher fresh from the University of Texas. Speaking with Gorin in 2008, his memories of Clarkson willing his throws across the diamond from shortstop were clear.

“I could remember pitching, and when they hit a groundball to Bus, he'd field it and just throw it," Gorin said. "He didn't have a burning arm because he was up in age. His arm wasn't that good, and it would tail off, or go in the dirt. He'd make the throw to George Crowe and he'd say, 'Do something with it George!'”

A 37-year-old major league rookie

While Clarkson proved to be a capable fielder, his superior hitting abilities gave him a chance with the Boston Braves in 1952. With Boston faltering in the National League and Clarkson batting .385 at Milwaukee, the Braves made Clarkson a 37-year-old rookie. Clarkson played immediately, entering four of the first six games that he was with Boston. He went 2-for-11 with zero extra-base hits and the Braves quickly relegated him to pinch-hitting duties for the next month-and-a-half. Clarkson finished his campaign at the end of June with a batting average of .200, with five hits in 25 total at-bats.

Boston teammate Virgil Jester, who also played with Clarkson in Milwaukee, felt that Clarkson did not have a fair chance during his time in the majors.

“I thought he was a great, great player," Jester said. "He was one of the strongest hitters that I ever saw. I don't think the Braves gave Clarkson a good break to play there.”

George Crowe, when interviewed in 2008, echoed Jester's sentiments, saying that Clarkson had difficulty going from playing full-time his entire career, to coming off the bench every few games.

“He didn't play that much in Boston as I recall, like I didn't play that much when I was there either," Crowe said. "It's hard for a guy that's used to playing every day that gets in there once every one-to-two weeks.”

It did not help that Boston had young Eddie Mathews stationed at third base and had stock in upstarts Logan and Jack Cusick at shortstop. When Charlie Grimm took the managerial reigns from Tommy Holmes in June 1952, one of his first moves was to option Clarkson to the minor leagues and bring up Logan. Even though Clarkson was recalled a few days after being sent down, he sat the bench for the rest of June except for a few pinch-hitting opportunities along the way. He last played June 22 before the Braves ended their foray with Clarkson.

Building a minor league legend

His career, however, did not end after the Braves sent him down for the last time. Clarkson signed with the Texas League's Dallas Eagles in 1953 and terrorized the circuit's pitching for the next two years. At 39 in 1954, Clarkson led the league with 42 home runs while batting .324. Ed Mickelson, who was playing with the Shreveport Oilers, remembered one of Clarkson's legendary home run blasts.

“He hit a line drive at our shortstop at Joe Koppe," Mickelson said in 2009. "Joe wasn't very big; he was 5'8” or 5'9”. He went up and jumped for the ball; I don't think he put a glove on it — it was only a few inches above his glove. The ball kept rising and went out of the ballpark in left-center field. Still rising, it went out of the field, a line drive out of the park.”

Leading the Santurce Crabbers to winter league immortality

Clarkson carried his tremendous 1954 season into the winter when he played with the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. His team, which has been dubbed the greatest winter league team ever assembled, featured an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the aforementioned Bob Thurman. Clarkson anchored the infield at third base, while Don Zimmer was at shortstop, Ron Samford at second base and George Crowe at first base. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti held down the catching duties while Ruben Gomez, Sam “Toothpick” Jones, and Bill Greason handled the majority of the pitching. They easily captured the Caribbean Series.

Greason spent many years facing Clarkson in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Texas League and Puerto Rico. He said the majors missed an extremely talented ballplayer.

“Clarkson would have made it no doubt in the majors if he was younger," Greason said in 2009. "He could hit and field. He was like Raymond Dandridge. People would have seen something that they don't see too much now. The fielding, throwing and hitting in one player like Clarkson and Dandridge. Those guys were tremendous … 'phenoms' as we called them.”

* Ed Note. - This was originally published at Baseball Past and Present - "A long ride to the majors: The story of James 'Bus' Clarkson."


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