What he did: Anyone who reads this site regularly may know that Will the Thrill is my all-time favorite player. I grew up in Sacramento, and Clark was it for my San Francisco Giants when I was about six. Clark’s star began to fade a few years later, and the sweet-swinging first baseman left San Francisco following the 1993 season, but I still get nostalgic thinking of him. I think of one of the best hitters of the late 1980s and early ’90s, likened to Roy Hobbs when he came up. I think of a fierce competitor who wore the black under his eyes like war paint. Detractors have dubbed Clark a “cackling douche” and racist, though I think I could have done worse in the hero department. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s an eventual Veterans Committee selection to the Hall of Fame, though in an earlier era, this might have come sooner.
Era he might have thrived in: Clark was a career .303 hitter playing from 1986 to 2000. Had he played in the 1930s, a Golden Age for first basemen in the American League, I suspect Clark might have hit .325 lifetime and earned his spot in Cooperstown decades ago.
Why: Hall of Fame and other awards selection has become a sophisticated art in baseball in recent years with the evolution of sabrmetrics. In the early days of Cooperstown, though, it was all about simple statistics and positive image. Clark would have offered this in abundance in the 1930s. If he wouldn’t have been a writers pick for the Hall of Fame, that would only have been because the ballot was glutted with future honorees in the early years after Cooperstown opened in 1939. Even Hank Greenberg needed nine tries with voters to earn his plaque.
Having his career peak in the greatest time for hitters in baseball history, there’s no telling what Clark might have done. Seeing as he inspired comparisons to Ted Williams as a young player for that left-handed swing, I’d be curious to see if he could hit .400 in a season. In real life, Clark peaked at .333 in 1989 when he and Kevin Mitchell led the Giants to the World Series. Running those stats through the Baseball-Reference converter for the 1936 Boston Red Sox, Clark would hit .400 batting average with 29 home runs, 165 RBI, and an OPS of 1.136. Throw in a few more years even close to that, and there’s no way Clark would miss Cooperstown. At worst, he’d be Chuck Klein who had astonishing numbers in the Baker Bowl of the ’20s and ’30s and hit maybe .270 elsewhere, needing until 1980 for the Veterans Committee to sort it out.
It’s worth noting, too, that the things that may have diminished Clark’s star in his day would be non-factors in an earlier era. There’d be no Deadspin for the Jeff Pearlmans of sports media to unload. And Clark’s racial views, while perhaps unenlightened, wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in the 1930s, particularly for him being a Louisiana native. All this and more suggests Clark may have been a man born about 60 years too late.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies,Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson,Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe,Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson,Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson,Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker,Willie Mays