Earlier today in our This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History article, I noted that we would have something extra on Fred Clarke later. I had a bio written up for him, which would have made the morning article a task to read in one sitting. I decided to give just a brief summary and save the bio for a separate article. Clarke was born on this date in 1872 and had a Hall of Fame career as a player, but also could have been inducted into the Hall as a manager as well. He’s one of the most important people in team history, with his influence on the team extending past his tenure as a manager. Here’s his bio:
When the Pittsburgh Pirates completed their one-sided deal with the Louisville Colonels in 1899, they not only brought over the best player in franchise history, Honus Wagner. They also brought over their everyday left fielder for the next 12 years and their manager for the next 16 years. Both of those roles were filled by Fred Clarke. If he didn’t make the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player in 1945, he most certainly would have made it as a manager at some point.
Clarke began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1894 and wasn’t exactly a star right away. His stats look fine for a rookie, hitting .274 with 48 RBIs, 55 runs scored and 26 stolen bases in 74 games, but that 1894 season was a huge year for offense in baseball, so his stats were below average compared to the rest of the league.
In 1895, he broke out, batting .347 in 132 games. He scored 96 times, drove in 82 runs and stole 40 bases. That RBI total was his career high, but he topped all of those other numbers during his career. In 1896, Clarke scored 96 runs again and hit .325 while finishing in the top five in the NL in both home runs and triples.
While those two seasons were big years for Clarke, his best career year may have been the 1897 season. That year he flirted with a .400 average, finishing at .390 and he put up a career-best .992 OPS. He also scored a career-high 122 runs, a mark he would equal two years later. Clarke set a career high with 59 stolen bases and his 205 hits were just one below his best effort in that category. The 1897 season also marked the first time he became a manager, a job he would hold for the next 19 seasons.
In 1898, Clarke batted .307 with 116 runs scored and led his team to a disappointing ninth place finish, ending up with a 70-81 record. His younger brother Josh Clarke got to play six games that year for Louisville, two of them in left field in place of Fred. The younger Clarke played parts of five seasons in the majors. One of the pitchers on their team was Chick Fraser, who also became Fred’s brother-in-law, when they married a pair of sisters.
Clarke put up big numbers in his last season in Louisville, hitting .340 with a career-high 206 hits and tying his best mark with 122 runs scored. He stole 49 bases and struck out just 18 times in 681 plate appearances. His first season in Pittsburgh was a disappointing one as far as stats are concerned, but as the manager he led them from their seventh place finish in 1899, to a second place finish in 1900 and the best was soon to come.
Before the World Series started in 1903, the best team was considered to be the National League team with the best record. The American League was considered a major league by 1901, but the NL was considered by most to be the superior league at the time. The 1901 Pirates were at the head of the senior circuit. Led by Clarke’s .324 average and 118 runs scored, Pittsburgh won their first NL title, finishing with a 90-49 record. It was their best season to that point, but they were far from their peak.
The 1902 Pirates are considered by many to be the best team in franchise history and they may have been better if not for a rash of late-season injuries that decimated the team and caused them to throw many inexperienced players into the fire, including pitchers playing outfield regularly. The Pirates ended with a 103-36 record that season. Clarke was one of the injured players that missed time on the field, getting into 113 games of 142 games (there were three ties), though he was healthy enough to hit .316 with 103 runs scored.
In 1903, the idea of the modern day World Series was formed and the Pirates were the first NL team to take part in the postseason classic. Finishing first for the third straight time, they took on the Boston Americans and lost the best-of-nine series, five games to three. The Pirates finished the season 91-49 and Clarke hit .351, finishing four points behind Honus Wagner, who led the league in batting. While he didn’t win the batting crown, Clarke led the league in slugging percentage with a career best .532, and he also led the league with a .946 OPS.
The 1904 season was a tough one for Clarke. He played just 72 games and missed the end of the season due to a severe leg injury that happened while making a great catch in the outfield. While this era is known as the deadball era in baseball and batting averages dropped around the sport, this injury also cost Clarke the chance at some better career stats. He never approached that 1903 season on offense and seemed to have lost a step in the following years. He was still one of the better players in the game, and due to his managing skills he was considered one of the most valuable players in baseball.
In 1906, Clarke hit .309, which was good enough for the seventh best average in the NL. He dropped down to .289 in 1907, though that still placed him eighth overall in the league when offense was at a near all-time low. Clarke scored 97 runs in 1907, fourth best total in the league. In 1908, at the age of thirty-five, he set a career-high with 151 games played. The next season, he topped that total by one and helped the Pirates to their first World Series title.
Clarke hit .287 in 1909 and led the league with 80 walks. He scored 97 runs and had 68 RBIs. The Pirates finished with a 110-42 record, setting a franchise high for wins in a season. In the World Series, the Pirates knocked off the Detroit Tigers in seven games. Clarke belted two homers, drove in seven runs and scored seven times.
He would go on to play two more full seasons, retiring as a player after hitting .324 in 1911 at the age of thirty-eight. Clarke did see the field a handful of times between 1913 and 1915, getting into 12 games total over that stretch. During that time, the Pirates were falling back in the standings and he eventually moved on from managing after the 1915 season. Clarke came back to the Pirates in 1925, taking on tasks such as working in the front office, helping with scouting and even went to the bench as a coach during the year. That season, they won their second of five World Series titles.
With the Pirates, Clarke batted .299 over 1,479 games. On the team’s all-time batting lists, he ranks tenth in games played and at-bats. He is eighth with 1,015 runs scored, tenth with 1,638 hits, fifth with 156 triples, eighth with 630 walks, fifth with 261 stolen bases. Among managers in team history, his 1,422 wins are over 300 more than the second highest total in team history, 1,115 by Danny Murtaugh. His .595 winning percentage is also the best in team history, higher than Bill McKechnie, who led the Pirates to their 1925 World Series title, and he is in the Hall of Fame as a manager.
Including his stats with Louisville, Clarke was a .312 career hitter, with 1,622 runs scored, 1,015 RBIs, 509 stolen bases, 2,678 hits and 220 triples. Only two other players in baseball history have reached those numbers in each of those six categories, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.