On the eve of the fourth of July, Jack Clark of the St. Louis Cardinals came to the plate in one of his favorite National League parks—one of those with an outfield fence and a pitcher on the mound. Clark settled into his closed stance, waggled his bat like a car antenna, then whipped it through the sultry Georgia air, hitting a Charlie Puleo fastball into the leftfield seats at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. St. Louis went on to win 9-1.
No eyebrows were raised, no studies commissioned, no experts consulted, no comparisons made. No one laughed in derision. Clark's power numbers in this season of the long ball have nothing to do with the ball's diameter or density, Haitian voodoo or lackluster pitching. Clark says it most simply: "When I hit 'em right, they go."
Approaching this week's All-Star break, the 31-year-old Clark had already gone for 26 home runs, 85 RBIs, 68 runs scored and a .641 slugging percentage, all of which had helped drive the Cardinals to a 9½-game lead in the NL East. Clark has never hit 30 home runs in a season during his 11-year career, and only once has he driven in as many as 100 runs. But the thunder in his bat comes as a shock to almost nobody in baseball.
One recent evening, Mike Schmidt sat back in the home dugout at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Fresh in Schmidt's mind was the Cards' 12-8 win over the Phillies the night before, when Clark had homered and doubled. "Jack is in the hot spot now," said Schmidt. "In the four hole on that club, there's no telling what Jack can do if he stays healthy."
"Jack provides us with intangibles that aren't reflected in his raw statistics," says teammate Tom Herr. "He's the one real intimidator we have in our lineup. When you have a bee in the middle of the lineup with a big stinger like he has, teams are so worried about stopping him that they forget about some of our other weapons. Then all the little bees with little stingers can do some damage."
Two years ago, the Cards and Clark, who was in his first season with St. Louis after eight full years with San Francisco, won the pennant and led the NL in runs scored with 747. Clark missed 96 games last year with torn ligaments in his right thumb, and St. Louis finished 79-82—28½ games behind the Mets—and last in the league in runs. Now, with Clark producing at an MVP pace, the Cards lead the league with 5.7 runs per game, and own baseball's best record.
"I don't know if the balls are juiced," Clark says. "Me, I'm just hitting. And I'm gonna keep on hitting. I'm not so worried about living up to what people think about me or say about me anymore. I don't care. I just think about the next at bat."
Truth to tell, Clark has been the National League's best-kept secret for 10 years. Controversy, humor and original thoughts are not his style. He doesn't rip teammates in the media or put shaving cream in their caps. He doesn't chew champagne glasses or inhale beer through his nose. He doesn't endorse anything special. Yet if there were a category for cold sweat induced, he would lead the league. With the bat in his hands, Clark is a pitcher's nightmare.
But while the opposing teams always respected his ability, they took comfort in knowing that Clark seemed incapable of playing an entire season. Pitchers could usually count on Clark's sidelining himself mentally or physically by falling into a mood, stepping into a hole, sliding into a base the wrong way or overswinging. He missed an average of 79 games in each of the past three seasons. A surgical knee benched him for 105 games with the Giants in '84, a pulled muscle under his rib cage cost him 36 with the Cardinals in '85, and thumb surgery put him out for those 96 games in '86.
As a result, until this season the three-run, ninth-inning home run he hit off Tom Niedenfuer at Dodger Stadium to give the Cardinals the '85 pennant was Clark's main claim to fame. Niedenfuer had struck out Clark with a fastball on his previous trip to the plate in that game, and he was feeling cocky. "I can understand it," said Schmidt. "Maybe Tommy Lasorda tells Niedenfuer to pitch around Jack, not give him anything good to hit. But pitchers can feel they are better, too, just like hitters can. So he tries to throw it by Jack and...." And Niedenfuer—now pitching for Baltimore—hasn't been the same since.
"Get Jack out and nothing's ever said about it," said Schmidt. "But pitch to him with first base open and get burned, and a manager gets second-guessed to his grave."
Niedenfuer may have underestimated Clark, but few others have since he came up to the Giants to stay in 1976. Chuck Tanner, then managing Oakland, said, "He reminds me of DiMaggio." By 1978, Giants pitcher Vida Blue was calling Clark "Jack the Ripper." And it caught on. In 1981, Jim Lefebvre, then the Giants' hitting coach, said, "Jack Clark is the most impressive hitter I've ever been associated with, and I'm including Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith."
St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog says he has never seen Clark take a bad swing. Clark's elegant stroke has always drawn admiration; it was the rest of him that people weren't so sure about.
Clark had 65 game-winning RBIs with the Giants, but he was traded to St. Louis in 1985 for Dave LaPoint, Jose Gonzalez, David Green and Gary Rajsich, asterisks all. Clark had worn out his welcome with the Giants, and the feeling was mutual. "Some people expected Jack to be a 40-home run, 120-RBI man," said Giants general manager Tom Haller after the trade. "We had to accept 20 and 80."
Clark also disappointed the Giants in other ways. Manager Frank Robinson wanted him to be a leader in his own image—fiery, a bit of a hell-raiser in the clubhouse. But that wasn't Jack. The Giants also felt that Clark should have come back after a knee injury he suffered on June 26, 1984, instead of sitting out the rest of the year. "It seemed like Jack just didn't care anymore," said a Giants official.
For their part, the Cardinals felt they had pulled off the biggest steal since they had hoodwinked those same Giants into swapping another first baseman, Orlando Cepeda, for a mediocre lefthander named Ray Sadecki nearly 20 years before. "I asked [St. Louis owner] Mr. Busch to send along a couple of Clydesdales to cinch the deal," said a beaming Herzog. And history repeated itself. Clark helped St. Louis win a pennant, as Cepeda had in 1967.
Clark is a hitter's hitter. At one point in 1985, Atlanta's Dale Murphy, a modest sort, said, "Without being modest, I think the most dangerous hitter in the league is Jack Clark." On other occasions, however, especially early in his career, Clark was called everything from a loudmouth to a temperamental airhead to an out-and-out malingerer.
No one has ever confused Jack Clark with Henry Kissinger, but St. Louis is not paying Clark $1.3 million a year to be smooth and diplomatic. He fields interviews with the same bored distraction that he applies to playing first base. He refused to pursue endorsements after his pennant-winning home run in '85. He has something else on his mind. With Clark, you don't get the dog-and-pony show. You just get the swing.
"When I opened up before, I got credit for being a bad guy," says Clark. "I was never in a position to build myself up, like some other players do. I didn't always do or say the right things. Man, I never even knew what the right things were. So now I'm just going to hit."
For Jack Clark in 1987, the preceding amounts to the Gettysburg Address. As a self-promoter, he is an unmitigated failure. But as a son and a father and a hitter, he has been a considerable success. While he more resembles his mother, the former Jenny Tooch, he is his father's son. Ralph Clark is a blond, blue-eyed Irish American with only one tie to baseball: his birthplace. In 1923 he was born in Carnegie, Pa., next door to the house where Honus Wagner lived. Jenny, a brunette Italian American, was one of 11 children. Ralph, a blue-collar worker all his life, moved his wife and baby son to Southern California soon after Jack was born in New Brighton, Pa., on Nov. 10, 1955.
Ralph is a taciturn man who didn't have the time, strength or inclination to be Mr. Sensitivity when Jack was a boy. After a long workday down at Trail Chemical in El Monte, there wasn't much to talk about. "He'd come home from work and eat and go to sleep on the floor, he'd be so tired," says Jack. "He was hard on me. He hurt me."
"He grew up so fast," says Ralph. "I'd come home and be half gaga from the fumes of toluol and hexone—paint-making chemicals. I'd eat and go to sleep. And I was always a somber man. I put my family first by working."
"There was nothing we could talk about, because if I couldn't talk to him man-to-man, on his level, there was nothing to say," says Jack. So he did his talking on the street, and learned his hitting at Gladstone High in Azusa. As a senior at Gladstone, Jack had been a pitcher (11-3, 1.25 ERA) and a slugger so prodigious (.517 batting average) that Bobby Bonds, then an outfielder with the Giants, drove all the way down the coast just to watch him hit.
Jack signed with the Giants in 1973 for $10,000—"They offered $7,500 at first; I knew better than that," says Ralph—and proceeded to win Pacific Coast League MVP honors in his first year of Triple A ball. Phoenix manager Rocky Bridges called him "the hitter of my time in the PCL." One year later, Jack was playing rightfield for the Giants.
The hitting came easy; handling a major league life-style took some trial and error. Clark put his faith in anyone who promised to take care of his money, and like a lot of athletes with that same approach to finance, he found himself in court. "I can never mention who we sued," says Clark. "A guy I trusted turned out to be a crook."
Clark was one of several ballplayers involved in a 1985-86 legal action against a certain unnamed "investor." "I was lucky," says Jack. "We were among the first to sue. We got some of our money back. Now I only trust a few people. Like my father. He keeps the bills up, stays on top of things so I don't get behind. I just concentrate on playing. There's just my tax man, and my agent to do my contract. We're not doing any investing for a while."
"There was a time when you could have sold him the Brooklyn Bridge," says Ralph. "Jack's blown money. Me, I'm just an ordinary workingman. But I guarantee my boy won't end up turning the bus around in A ball."
Jack and his father made their peace long ago. "As I got older, I began to understand my father," says Clark. The small house in Covina that he had grown up in was sold, and Clark moved his parents first to Foster City, then to Danville, in the Bay Area. "Jack moved us out; he never forgot us," says Ralph. "He's a fine son. Come a long way. There's no substitute for age."
In 1979 Jack married Tammy Kohl, whom he had met in a pharmacy in San Mateo. Born in Holland, she had no clue about baseball then, but she does now, for sure. She and Jack have three children: Danika, 7; Rebekah, 6; and Anthony David, 2. The girls can remember when their father was booed at Candlestick.
"My daughter would ask me, 'Mommy, why are they saying those things about my daddy?' " says Tammy. "Oh, no. I did not like Candlestick Park. I cried when I heard we were going to St. Louis, tears of joy and relief. The first thing Jack did when he got here was find the toy stores. Jack always finds the toy stores first. He is always so giving. He's more than a great father. He revolves around his children."
Ralph agrees: "Yeah, Jack spoils his kids unbelievable."
Clark will be a free agent at the end of the year. He recently put his house in Town and Country, Mo., up for sale. This was taken in some quarters as an ominous sign. But Clark had always had his doubts about the house. The master bedroom and the children's bedrooms are not on the same floor.
"People have said I want to leave St. Louis, that's why I'm selling," says Clark. "Well, it's nobody's business why I'm selling the house. I do miss California, but why would I want to leave this ball club? Good team. Great manager. Lots of rabbits."
Tony Pena, the Cards' catcher, who used to be with Pittsburgh, was asked how Pirate pitchers threw to Clark. "Pitch to Jack?" said Pena, as if confused. Then he began to laugh like Oscar Homolka playing Igor in a B movie. "Pitch to Jack? Ha-ha-ha-hee-hee. Yes. Go on. Go right ahead. Pitch to Jack."
Jack Clark is in his prime, and the Cardinals are in first. This is not a coincidence. It is the average pitcher's nightmare.