My newest custom card in the 1952 Topps format depicts Buzz Clarkson, a long in the tooth, short-term member of the Boston Braves.
It's generally acknowledged that Clarkson came to the Braves as a 37-year-old rookie in April, 1952.
Clarkson’s major league debut was as a pinch-hitter on April 30 at Pittsburgh. He came to the plate for Bert Thiel in the top of eighth, with the Braves behind 11-1. He singled off Murry Dickson and scored on a single by the next batter, Roy Hartsfield, that featured an error by Pirates right fielder Bill Howerton. Clarkson stayed in at SS for Jack Cusick. While the Braves rallied for four runs in the eighth, Clarkson ended the game 11-5 with a fly out in top of 9th.
Clarkson's call-up to Boston in the midst of a long road trip was a long-shot gamble by manager Tommy Holmes. The Braves were in seventh place in the NL, five games out. Fourteen games into the season, starting shortstop Jack Cusick was hitting just .175.
In the May 7, 1952, issue of The Sporting News, Al Hirshberg, of the Boston Post, summed up the roster move thus:
Clarkson had figured in an article in TSN during spring training. Titled "Brewers Shun Clubhouse Barred to Negro Teammate," it was reported that when the Brewers arrived in
Holmes gave Clarkson only a fair chance at making a contribution, starting him in four games in May and bringing him in as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement in two more.
Clarkson was batting a respectable .267 when Charlie Grimm replaced Holmes as Boston manager on June 1. One of Grimm's first roster moves was the demote Clarkson to AAA Milwaukee, calling up Johnny Logan.
Logan was hitting just .194 after a week, when Clarkson was recalled to Boston, where he was used as a pinch-hitter and filled in a couple of games for Eddie Mathews at third base. When Clarkson's average dropped to .200 after two weeks, he was sent back to Milwaukee, his big-league career over.
In his Baseball: Past and Present blog on June 11, 2012, Nick Diunte presented a great baseball biography of Clarkson . . .
Beyond the barriers broken by Jackie Robinson lie the truncated major league careers of Negro League veterans. Past their prime, these baseball lifers persisted well into their late 30′s and early 40′s, playing out their careers before teammates and crowds that never had the opportunity to see them at their peaks. The well-documented exploits of Satchel Paige reaching the majors in his 40s and Sam Jethroe winning Rookie of the Year at 33 are more prominent stories from this group. There were other less-celebrated and now forgotten Negro League vets who took whatever time they could get in the majors, thirty-somethings like Ray Noble, Pat Scantlebury, Quincy Trouppe, Bob Thurman, and Artie Wilson. This is the story of one overlooked fence buster, James “Bus” Clarkson.
Years before his 1952 debut in the majors at 37, Clarkson was a power-hitting shortstop and third baseman in the Negro Leagues. Debuting in 1937, Clarkson terrorized pitching wherever he went, whether it was in the
United States or the Caribbean,
finishing second to Josh Gibson in home runs in the 1941 Mexican League.
Overshadowed by younger prospects coming out of the Negro Leagues, Clarkson
headed north to Canada in
1948, where he blasted 31 homers while batting .408 for of the Provincial League. Despite
his monstrous numbers and Robinson having broken baseball’s color barrier the
year prior, Clarkson returned to the Negro Leagues with no offers from major
league organizations. St. Jean
By 1950, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore Clarkson’s talents. He signed with the Boston Braves and was immediately assigned to their AAA team in
Clarkson lived up to his reputation as a dangerous hitter, batting .302 while
playing third base. Holding down the left side of the infield with Clarkson was
a young Johnny Logan, who would later become a fixture in the Braves infield.
“He happened to be an outstanding hitter,” Milwaukee said of Clarkson. “When you can hit,
you play someplace. He was a tremendous guy. As a young ballplayer, we looked
up to him.” Logan
Logan spending most of the 1951 season in , Clarkson at age 36 took the bulk of
the shortstop duties, batting .343 while leading the Brewers to the 1951 Junior
World Series championship over the Montreal Royals. Among his teammates was
Charlie Gorin, a 22-year-old rookie pitcher fresh from the Boston .
Speaking with Gorin in 2008, his memories of Clarkson willing his throws across
the diamond from shortstop were crystal clear. “I could remember pitching, and
when they hit a groundball to Bus, he’d field it and just throw it,” Gorin
said. “He didn’t have a burning arm because he was up in age. His arm wasn’t
that good, and it would tail off, or go in the dirt. He’d make the throw to
George Crowe and he’d say, ‘Do something with it George!’” University of Texas
While Clarkson proved to be a capable fielder, his superior abilities at the plate afforded him a chance with the Boston Braves in 1952. Batting .385 during the first month of 1952 in
faltering in the National League, . Clarkson saw action in four of the first six games that he was
with Boston . He
went 2-for-11 with zero extra base hits and was quickly relegated to
pinch-hitting duties for the next month-and-a-half. Clarkson would end his
campaign at the end of June with a batting average of .200, with five hits in
25 total at-bats. Boston
It didn’t help that
had young Eddie Mathews stationed at third base and also had stock in upstarts
Logan and Jack Cusick at shortstop. When Charlie Grimm took the managerial
reigns from Tommy Holmes in June, 1952, one of his first moves was to option
Clarkson to the minor leagues and recall Boston .
Even though Clarkson was recalled a few days after being sent down, he sat the
bench for the rest of June except for a few pinch-hitting opportunities along
the way. He last played June 22, whereupon Logan Boston
sent him back once more to . Milwaukee
Clarkson’s career however didn’t end after the Braves sent him down for the last time. Clarkson signed with the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1953 and terrorized Texas League pitching for the next two years. At 39 in 1954, Clarkson led the league with 42 home runs while batting .324. Ed Mickelson, who was playing with the Shreveport Oilers, remembered a blast by Clarkson. “He hit a line drive at our shortstop at Joe Koppe,” Mickelson said in 2009. “Joe wasn’t very big, he was 5’8” or 5’9”. He went up and jumped for the ball, and I don’t think he put a glove on it; it was only a few inches above his glove. The ball kept rising and went out of the ballpark in left-center field. Still rising, it went out of the field, a line drive out of the park.”
Clarkson carried his tremendous 1954 season into the winter when he played with the Santurce Crabbers in
Puerto Rico. His team,
which has been dubbed the greatest winter league team ever assembled, featured
an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the aforementioned Bob
Thurman. Clarkson anchored the infield at third base, while Don Zimmer was at
short stop, Ron Samford at second base and George Crowe at first base. Valmy
Thomas and Harry Chiti held down the catching duties while Ruben Gomez, Sam
“Toothpick” Jones and Bill Greason handled the majority of the pitching. They
easily captured the Caribbean Series.
Greason spent many years facing Clarkson in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Texas League and
Puerto Rico. He said the majors
missed out on an extremely talented ballplayer. “Clarkson would have made it no
doubt in the majors if he was younger,” Greason said in 2009. “He could hit and
field. He was like Raymond Dandridge. People would have seen something that
they don’t see too much now. The fielding, throwing, and hitting in one player
like Clarkson and Dandridge. Those guys were tremendous … ‘phenoms’ as we
There are a number of other good articles about Clarkson to be found around the internet.
Understandably, Clarkson had no Topps or Bowman baseball cards in his brief major league career. His years of service in the winter Puerto Rico League in the 1950s, however, led to his appearance in several of the better-known Caribbean issues.
|1972 Puerto Rico League sticker|
A thorough study of the 1950-51 Denia and Toleteros "In Action" sets would probably find Clarkson pictured, if not named, in those sets.
Clarkson managed the Santurce Crabbers to the PR League championship 1952-53, but by then card issues had virtually ceased in that part of the baseball world.
Piecing together a creditable 1952-style card front for my Buzz Clarkson card was not an easy task.
There are very few photos extant of him in a Braves uniform, and none in color. I did find a picture that fit the "look" of 1952 Topps, though, and was able to colorize it.
The facsimile autograph was another challenge. (Note that he signed as "Bus".) Fortunately, I had the signature on a souvenir cardboard visor issued by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1951 and was able to work that into my card.
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