Sunday, August 03, 2008

Immaculate Inning: John Clarkson

From the very beginning, this blog has been dedicated to the collection of knowledge associated with a very specific baseball feat. I'm speaking of course of the Immaculate Inning, that frame of domination achieved just 41 times in major league history. Since the inception of the blog, there have been three Immaculate Innings in the major leagues (and one chronicled in the minor leagues). It is also important to understand the achievement's history. With that in mind, I am starting a new series here at Immaculate Inning that chronicles the 38 men with this distinctive honor. First up: John Clarkson.

John Clarkson threw what is recorded as the first Immaculate Inning in major league history on June 4, 1889. Given the relative obscurity of nineteenth century baseball, it's amazing that we not only know it happened, but know a great deal about the man who twirled the historic inning for the Boston Beaneaters. On the other hand, it may be that the only reason we know about the immaculate inning is because John Clarkson tossed it. To many baseball historians, Clarkson was the first transcendent pitcher in baseball history, in a time when the position was still in its infancy.

Clarkson's wikipedia page is stocked with a ton of information about the man who retired with a record of 332-178, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963. Clarkson was born in Cambridge, MA into a wealthy, educated, baseball family. Two of Clarkson's brothers, Arthur (who played as "Dad Clarkson") and Walter played in the National League; in addition, two cousins of Clarkson (brothers Mert and Walter Hackett) also spent time in the majors. But none was so accomplished as John.

John Clarkson started his career with the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1882 (at the age of 20), then spent a year in the minors before coming back with the Chicago Cubs. Clarkson pitched in Chicago for four years, tossing over 1700 innings. In the meantime, the rules for pitchers were in constant flux. As this profile of Clarkson notes, the number of balls that issued a walk changed four times during Clarkson's career- from seven in 1882 to six in 1884 to five in 1886 and four in 1889. In 1887, a strikeout took four strikes (the only season this rule was in effect). The pitching mound also evolved during this time, from a 4'x6' box 50 feet from home to a slightly raised 4'x7' box. Pitchers were required to pitch with one foot on the back line of the box from 1887-1893, when the rubber was finally introduced and the distance of 60 feet, 6 inches stayed put.

Most significantly, Clarkson was forbidden from throwing overhand until 1885; pitchers were required to throw underhand. Still, Clarkson adjusted well to the change, throwing 623 innings in 1885. In 1888, Clarkson was sold (for a then-outrageous sum of $10,000) to the Boston Beaneaters, and returned home to play for the next five and a half seasons. It was during Clarkson's most dominant season that his historic inning took place.

In 1889, Clarkson was the main pitcher for Boston, in a time where each team had a primary pitcher and a few backups. He would finish with 49 wins, a 2.73 ERA, and 284 strikeouts, winning the pitching Triple Crown- he also led the league in various other categories (including walks, as it was the first year of the four-balls-walk rule). On June 4, the Beaneaters took on the Philadelphia Quakers. The Baseball Almanac records that the immaculate inning occured in the fourth, but does not note which batters Clarkson faced that inning. One might imagine that Jim Fogarty was involved, as he finished tied for fourth in strikeouts in the National League that year.

UPDATE: A sudden obsession with peeling away the truth about immaculate innings led me to purchase this article from the June 5, 1889 edition of the Boston Globe. I was not disappointed. A few excerpts:

Clarkson and Sanders both did good work, the Boston boy getting most of the glory. He struck out Fogarty, Thompson, Mulvey, Farrarr, and Irwin in succession, and seemed to have little trouble in keeping the visitors from tracking the ball.... Clarkson was on to pitch in this [sixth] inning. Thompson and Fogarty struck out on six pitched balls, and Farrar followed them in fauning the atmosphere... Clarkson had a full head of steam. In the sixth inning he struck out the first two men on six balls. The third man in the same inning was also made to knock three big holes in the air.

The article has a substantial play-by play of the game, and a detailed box score. The men referenced in the article are Jim Fogarty (mentioned above), Sam Thompson, and Sid Farrar. The obsession with Immaculate Innings began when I found the Baseball Almanac page about it- notice that this site does not have available Clarkson's immaculate victims. Well, we present them to you for the first time!

The immaculate inning that Clarkson threw is perhaps the least-chronicled part of his life. We don't fault history for this, no one could have known in 1889 how rare the feat would be. The rest of the 1889 season was eventful for Clarkson and the Beaneaters, involved in one of the first great pennant races, which was chronicled in a recent book, Tale of Four Cities. The Beaneaters lost the championship by one game. The next season, Clarkson particpated in a player's rebellion that saw the formation of the Players League, but eventually relented and returned to Boston. Clarkson finished his career with the Cleveland Spiders before retiring to Michigan to open a cigar store, and developed mental problems. He died in a psychiatric ward, from pneumonia in 1909.

It is clear that John Clarkson is a worthy man to have acheived the first immaculate inning. One of the National League's first true greats, a pioneer on the mound during a turbulent time for the sport, and a handsome looking chap. A fitting way to begin the journey of the Immaculate Inning.

Photo: 19th Century Baseball

1 comment:

johngilbreth said...

your blog is awesome...don't stop!