Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 544

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 544


This is the grave of John Clarkson.

Born in 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Clarkson rose to become one of the pitching beasts of the early baseball era. He grew up in a pretty wealthy family. His father was a very successful jeweler. But the whole family loved baseball. Clarkson and two of his brothers played in the major leagues. Clarkson did attend business school, but was more interested in baseball and signed with the Worcester Ruby Legs of the National League in 1882. That team folded at the end of the season and Clarkson had to pitch in the minors in 1883.

Clarkson came up to the majors for good in 1884 with the modern Cubs, which at this time were called the White Stockings, in case that’s not confusing enough. Clarkson was pitching for a team in Saginaw. Cap Anson saw him play and offered him a contract. He became very good, very fast. In 1885, he won a record 53 games of the 70 he started, a mere 623 innings. Surprisingly, he was able to keep this up for quite a few years. He pitched at least 383 innings every year through 1892 and remained quite consistent and effective through these years. It wasn’t until the very end of his career, in 1893, that anything began to slip and his ERA rose to above 4. He retired in 1894 after injuries and ineffectiveness began to slip. He led the league in wins 3 times and won 30 games 6 times. He finished with 328 wins and 178 losses with a 2.81 ERA. At least according to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, his best year was 1889, when he managed an 11.5 WAR. He was with the Boston Beaneaters at this time. That was partly because Clarkson was an extremely difficult person to get along with, something that began manifesting itself in clear mental illness as he aged. So he moved around more than a great player normally would in this era. Always sensitive to any criticism, he only got more difficult as he got older.

My favorite Clarkson anecdote is that it was getting dark out and he wanted the game called. The umpire tried to keep it going. So at the start of one inning, Clarkson brought a lemon to the mound and threw it. The ump called a strike The catcher then showed him that he couldn’t tell the difference between the ball and a lemon. The ump then decided it was too dark.

After Clarkson retired, he moved to Bay City, Michigan and ran a cigar shop. But his mental illness grew and there were not good ways to treat this then, even less than today. He started suffering nervous breakdowns in about 1905 and spent his last few years in and out of asylums. He died in one of them, in 1909. In 1963, he was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

John Clarkson is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to cover more pitchers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR, Clarkson ranks as the 11th greatest pitcher of all time. Other pitchers near him on that list include Christy Mathewson, 7th all time and buried in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and Warren Spahn, 13th all time and buried in Hartshone, Oklahoma. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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