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WINFIELD, Kansas – Only one of every 100 people good enough to play in a major league game are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the history of baseball and of the thousands who have played on the highest level, only 208 players are in the Hall of Fame.
Only three have Kansas connections: Walter Johnson, Joe Tinker and Fred Clarke.
Johnson was one of the game’s greatest pitchers, Tinker was immortalized in a famous poem “Tinker to Evers to Chance”, but Clarke has been mostly forgotten and he shouldn’t be. He was a true star in his time.
The Winfield, Kansas man played 22 years in the major leagues, most of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was also the player-manager.
Tim Wiles, a historian at the Hall of Fame, makes a point about Clarke and his lack of fame today.
“Imagine a player today with a .312 lifetime batting average and eleven seasons of hitting above .300 who was also excellent defensively in the outfield and a good manager. If that guy were around today, we’d all known his name.”
Clarke got five hits in his very first major league game and went on to get nearly 2,700 more. He was probably the best of the player-managers, winning over 1,600 games and probably would have made the Hall of Fame as a manager had he not been such a great player.
In 1903 Clarke batted .351 and his playing and managing helped put the Pirates in the very first World Series. Pittsburgh lost to Boston that year, but in nine years Clarke and the Pirates won four league titles and won the 1909 World Series over the Detroit Tigers. His career, by any measure, was among the best in baseball history.
Robert Hartley is a Winfield native whose book is titled “Winfield’s Golden Age of Sports.” He devotes a chapter to Fred Clarke and says this:
“He was no ordinary ballplayer, but he was never one to toot his own horn. And if you didn’t have that going for you and didn’t feel like you had to keep reminding everybody of what a great person you were, then people forget.”
After his great career, Clarke retired to the place he always called home: Winfield.
Bill Taylor is 94-years-old, former managing editor of the Winfield paper. He knew Clarke as a younger man and talked with me at the Winfield County Club, a club in which Clarke was the driving force.
“He saw the need for a country club and was the first President”, said Taylor. He wanted to keep the dues low so the average guy could belong and for years that was possible.”
Clarke’s ranch of over thirteen hundred acres north of Winfield was called “Little Pirate Ranch.” The house, started in 1898, still stands and is lived in today. Over the years, it hosted many of baseball’s biggest names.
Clarke was wealthy, but became a millionaire after oil was discovered on the property and he became one of the richest athletes or ex-athletes of his time.
But he didn’t just count his money. He gave back to Winfield.
In addition to the country club, he helped found a hunting club, various amateur baseball leagues, was a charter member of the Rotary club and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He gave generously to charity.
The story is told in Winfield of a small, rural church burning down in the 1920′s near Clarke’s home. He attended the Catholic church in town, but paid to have the smaller church rebuilt. It was, say many, an example of the kind of man he was.
There is a large plaque at the recreation complex in Winfield which tells of Clarke’s career and his service to Winfield.
He died in 1960 at the age of 87 and rests with his wife Annette at the St. Mary’s Cemetery in Winfield, a town that can claim one of baseball’s best players and a place where he is not forgotten.
“He always liked Winfield and Kansas” says Taylor. “And that brought him back here. He’s legendary in Winfield, certainly.
When Clarke was named to the Hall of Fame in 1945, he and the other nine men named at the same time never had a formal induction ceremony because of World War Two. This Sunday in Cooperstown, New York at this year’s induction ceremony, Clark and the others will be honored with the official ceremony they never had.