Skip to main content
Original Issue

This is the life that Jack Built

Red Sox slugger Jack Clark looks back in anger

This is the house that Jack Built. This is the 6,000 square feet of games and toys and affection that Jack Clark made for his four kids, not at all like the house he grew up in, not at all like the silent one his own father made. In this house in Danville, Calif., he is so much more like his mother, soft and flowing like whipped cream. Out there, playing baseball, he is so much like his father. Swings angry. Talks angry. Leaves angry. Next city.

This is the career that Jack built. The most vicious swing in the majors. Jack the Ripper. Three hundred and eighteen home runs in 16 seasons. Maybe the best clutch fastball hitter in the past 20 years. Ask Tommy Lasorda about that. Only Willie Mays (22) has hit more extra-inning home ins than Clark (17) has.

This is the rap that Jack built. The most vicious quote in the majors, gain, Jack the Ripper. Telling the front office in San Francisco to "go die," calling former St. Louis cardinals teammate Ozzie Smith a "speck," blasting Yankee manager Lou Piniella over making him change positions in the field without notice, labeling Tony Gwynn "selfish" in San Diego, calling Padres manager Greg Riddoch "a s-s-s-snake." Nobody wears out a front-office welcome faster than the continually furious Jack Clark, baseball's alltime league leader in boats rocked.

So how come so many people hate to see him go? How come he counseled Padres catcher Benito Santiago so well that Santiago has called Clark "a great man"? Impressed ex-teammate Andy Van Slyke so much that Van Slyke said he would follow him through a wall. Leveled with Los Angeles Times baseball writer Bill Plaschke so often that Plaschke calls him "the most honest man I ever met."

Too honest, maybe? Loved by workaday teammates, he is often hated by the stars. Adored by rookies, he is often detested by managers. Admired by beat writers, he gets excoriated by columnists. This is a very good player, only a few hundred no comments from being great.

This is the chance that Jack has, maybe the last chance, in Boston now as the Red Sox's designated hitter, with that lovely wall to his left and real fans in the seats, not the beach boys and their Day-Glo girlfriends that he ripped in San Diego. "It's an honor to be booed by Boston fans," says Clark. "In San Diego, you'd ground into a double play, the winning run would score, and they'd boo. 'Oh, what, you mean we're ahead? Oh. Yea!' "

Clark has been honored in Boston like you wouldn't believe. He has gone through a couple of monstrous slumps that have allowed the fans to honor him deeply and truly. He was struggling along at the end of last week with a .220 batting average and only 38 RBIs after starting off with a grand slam on Opening Day, and then going about 0 for May. Along the way, he won a TKO over a clubhouse toilet in Kansas City after an 0 for 4, and allegedly told a sportswriter from San Francisco that he wanted out of Boston. He followed that by getting fined for tossing his batting helmet toward one umpire, then got in a yelling match with another ump. He also hit a burst of homers, threatened to knock a Boston writer "on his ass" and to "wring the neck" of the San Francisco reporter, started out at cleanup, got benched, got reinstated and was shipped down to seventh in the lineup. In other words, Boston has been just another stop on the Jack Clark Scorched Earth Tour.

Seven years ago Whitey Herzog, who adores him, said, "If Jack Clark played in Fenway, he'd make them forget about Jim Rice." Well, here, at 35, is Jack Clark in Fenway. Here is Clark, telling you to forget how things look, forget the first few get-acquainted months, telling you that he's ready to do something in a baseball uniform that he hasn't done in a long, long time: Enjoy himself.

This is the grandfather that Jack had, John Clark, a drinker and a womanizer, a construction foreman who blew his son's college tuition on wine and women and died on a rainy day under the slick wheel of a giant truck. And when he died, his son, Ralph, only muttered about getting stuck with the funeral bill.

Ralph Clark refused to have an autopsy done that day. Why should he be curious about his father in death when he wasn't in life? Was his father ever curious about him? John was gone on construction jobs for four to six months at a time. And when he did come home he would stay only long enough to pay the tab at the grocery store and bolt again.

Cry for his father? What would he miss? What had John given him? Nothing but a run-down apartment in a Pittsburgh tenement that was too hot to sleep in during the summer. He had been left to stand on his own two feet since he was 13, working odd jobs to help his mother pay the bills. Usually it wasn't enough. When the landlord came, mother and child would hide in the coal cellar until he left. That kind of soot stains long after you wash it off. You grow up hard that way, hard and alone.

Ralph Clark read. He loved books. He dreamed of going to college, but by his sophomore year in high school, he realized his father had drunk up all the money. Are you kidding? When the guy died, he still owed $10 on his wristwatch. Ralph made the final payment.

This is the father that Jack had, an angry man who befriended few and trusted fewer. Ralph Clark won't go to see doctors. "Don't trust 'em," he says. He and his wife, Jennie, left Pittsburgh in 1957 and moved the family to Covina, Calif., in a station wagon. The two kids slept on a mattress pad in the wagon, with newspapers taped on the window to keep out the morning sun, until Ralph sold the wagon to make a down payment on a house. For six months neighbors kept the family's milk because the Clarks had no refrigerator. Ralph took a job at a paint factory and for the next 22 years spent his days mixing chemicals and his nights grouchy and tired from the fumes. Usually, he would fall asleep watching TV on the living room floor.

If a bill came, Ralph couldn't concentrate unless he paid it right then, right now. No wonder he has had a triple-A credit rating his whole life. When the family car broke down at the Sav-on drugstore one day, he turned and started walking home, 12 miles away, with the children in tow. No calls for rides or help or a cab. What could Jack do but follow behind? The whole way home, nobody said a word.

This is the childhood that fear built. You grow up afraid of your father, so you learn to depend on nobody but yourself. You grow up hard and alone. Ralph never taught Jack baseball. Jack never asked. The neighbor across the street taught him. Jack wandered over to the Little League tryouts by himself one day when he was 11. "I remember being so alone," says Clark, "totally lost."

And though Jack was wonderfully graceful on a diamond, his father rarely came to his games. And when he did, he would only criticize. "I think Jack's dad put incredible pressure on Jack to be perfect," says Stu Reeder, Clark's varsity coach at Gladstone High in Azusa, Calif. "Jack would tell me he'd say, 'You're never going to amount to anything.' "

One day Jack pitched a great game, a few-hitter, and won, only to have his father curse him out. "It really hurt me," Jack remembers. "I thought I'd done pretty well. And he made me feel like crawling under a chair."

So instead of being perfect, Jack tried to be just the opposite. The idea was to do anything that would make the old man angry. And not just his old man, any old man, anybody in authority who had the potential to make him feel like crawling under a chair. He quit the freshman team at Gladstone because he didn't like the coach's telling him what to do. He quit his first job because the boss came in drunk one night and cursed him. Clark's friends were the low-riders, the gang members, the greasers with their customized rods and tiny front wheels.

If you think Jack's father didn't like them, you should have seen what he thought of the boy's Mexican-American girlfriend. She and Jack dated for two years. She was so poor he often bought her clothes. They were inseparable. "I did my best to break it up, because a Pennsylvanian is different," Ralph says. "I don't believe I ever saw a Mexican until I came to California. I had some in the company I worked for, and I didn't have too great a dealing with some of them."

Eventually the relationship with the girlfriend ended, but the resentment didn't. You could never tell when father and son might fight. One time Jack stole some fishing stuff from Sears and got caught. When the police brought him home, his dad did nothing. But when Jack forgot to cut the lawn one day, Ralph chased him out the door and down the block.

Who says success breeds best in affection? Clark was all-city in basketball and hit .517 playing baseball his senior year in high school. He longed to turn pro, but his father wanted him to go to college on scholarship. How could Jack not take the dream, the very thing Ralph's own father had stolen from him?

Easy. Jack Clark didn't care about school, didn't want to care about it. "They acted like nobody could be anything else in life except what somebody in school tells you you have to be," he remembers. "They didn't know what I wanted to be or could be."

Whatever it was he would become, he wanted to show them. To show him.

These are the rules that Jack lives by. Shove back at authority. Reject conformity. Play baseball, but don't be baseball.

Take, for instance, bad press. Everybody hates it. Not Clark. "Press is press," he says. "It's your name in the paper...It keeps your name alive, keeps them wondering about you: 'Is that the guy they say is like that?' "

Take strikeouts. He thinks of them as positives. "They say, 'You failed. You struck out.' I don't. I look at it as a positive. I struck out, but the next guy up still has a chance. I'd rather strike out than hit into a double play." So far in his career, Jack Clark has achieved 1,308 positives in 6,355 at bats.

Take God. Clark is religious as hell. But, "I don't need a whole room full of people to have church," he says. "That's cool with some people; others think I'm an ass. I can't please everyone. "

Take his teammates and winning as a team, and stack that above everything. When Clark took the Dodgers' Tom Niedenfuer deep in 1985 with a three-run homer to win the pennant for the Cardinals in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, he never went looking for endorsement deals. What? And act like you're a bigger deal than other guys in the same unit?

Then consider this: It's the fourth inning at Fenway in a game against Toronto early this season. Clark is on first with a single. Ellis Burks hits a weed-eater to Clark's old Padres friend and protègè, Roberto Alomar, the Blue Jay second baseman. Clark had guided the young Alomar in the San Diego clubhouse, and their families had become close. But now Alomar was trying to double the Red Sox up, and Clark would have none of it.

Alomar steps on the bag, hip-hops past it and then turns to throw. But Clark, nearly running out of the baseline, flips him hard. Alomar lies on the dirt for a while, then gets to his knees. Clark stays to make sure he's all right, but Alomar glares at him.

"Jack, I thought we were friends," he says.

"Hey, we're on different teams now," says Clark.

Tom Brunansky then steps up and hits a two-run homer, Boston wins 6-4, and Fenway ends up thinking it could get to like this Jack Clark way of baseball. But could they ever get to like Jack Clark?

"I'm a lot like my mother," Jack says of Jennie Clark, one of 11 kids, and the one who had to quit school to baby-sit her brothers and sisters. "I can be laid-back, relaxed, can handle anything. But I'm a lot like my father, too. Bad-tempered, intense. When I set out to get something done, I do it, no matter what."

So much like his mother, with her dark Italian face and velvet touch with people. Everywhere he goes, he becomes the sage in the corner. If Clark is not sitting at his locker, talking quietly with his six-year-old son, Anthony, then the game must still be going on. During his first spring training with the Red Sox this year, he worked with Boston's rookie slugger Mo Vaughn every morning.

"That surprised me," says Vaughn. Why? Clark, 6'3" and 210 pounds, loves the little people. When an old high school teammate named Greg Johnston appeared out of the dark in a Florida parking lot one night and hit him up for $500, Clark gave it to him. "Hey, I had the money," he says.

Then again, he's so much like his father, with that square jaw and shock of curly hair combed straight south. Former Padres teammate Mark Parent calls Clark "the most intense guy about winning I've ever met." When Clark went through a 6-for-50 slump in San Diego in 1989, he rarely ate or slept. He got so down about his hitting at one point that he sought the help of the Oakland A's Harvey Dorfman, a sports psychologist specializing in the mental aspects of performance. Former Padres trainer Dick Dent says losses "really eat at [Clark's] stomach. He'll come in and say he sucked and he cost them the game."

Born without a thimbleful of diplomacy, Clark freaks when he thinks he sees disloyalty. He lashed out at Gwynn during a team meeting in May 1990. Yeah, it bothered him that he thought Gwynn wasn't much for moving runners along, and yeah, it wasn't cool that Gwynn was overweight and never stole bases much anymore and that Gwynn would bunt for singles instead of trying to hit a double. But what really bugged Clark was his feeling that Gwynn was putting himself above the others.

"He had this pregame radio show," says Clark. "And the guys, including the captain of the team, didn't like hearing somebody talking for all of us when he didn't talk to us in the clubhouse one-on-one. He wouldn't talk to me about baseball, so I didn't want to hear him on the radio saying we as a team feel this way because I didn't feel that way.... We brought that up, and he didn't like it."

(Clark's wife, Tammy, says that when Clark gets riled up, his eyebrows get darker. These are very dark eyebrows right now.)

Gwynn ripped back by saying that Clark walked too much for a No. 4 hitter (Clark led the National League in walks in 1987, '89 and '90 and through Sunday was sixth in the American League this year) and didn't take team flights. It's true, sometimes Clark didn't take team flights. Like the time the team had a day off in Cincinnati last year. Clark flew across country to San Francisco to spend eight hours with his family in Blackhawk, Calif., outside Oakland, and then flew back in time for the next night's game. That's typical Clark, the man who used to make the three-hour drive from Yuma, Ariz., to his home in San Diego after a spring training game just to see his family.

"Ballplayers make a tremendous amount of money, but we miss out on the little things that don't come back," he says. "Like your kid taking his first steps, saying his first words. My girl [Danika] is 10, and I can't remember how she got to be 10, you know? So, yeah, I fly all across the country just for one off-day and then get ripped in the paper by a guy like Tony Gwynn."

You grow up as hard and alone as Jack Clark, you take togetherness any way you can get it.

This is the life that Jack chose. He went pro out of high school, drafted in the 13th round by the Giants in 1973, signed for $10,000. And when he got up to the majors for good in 1977, he was not your basic shine-your-cleats rookie.

"One thing about Jack, he didn't like anybody telling him anything," ex-Giants pitcher Bob Knepper once said. Clark was a born star, but he didn't care about the birthright. He cared about winning. Only in winning could he really show people, could he really show him. When the Giants fired manager Joe Altobelli in 1979 and hired Dave Bristol, Clark ripped the front office for continually starting over. And when they fired Bristol after the 1980 season and brought in Frank Robinson, he barbecued them again. "This organization is a loser," Clark said in 1982.

And when Robinson made the mistake of trying to push Clark around, Clark pushed back. "He [Robinson] resented me making $1.3 million, supposedly because of the caliber of player I was compared to what he was," Clark says. "He did everything in his power to make it uncomfortable for me, constantly comparing me in the paper: I'm not as good as this guy or that guy, comparing me to guys even on our team. How's that supposed to make you feel?"

The last shoe dropped during a game in Houston in 1984 when Robinson played Clark even though Clark's right knee was killing him, even though Astro Turf is to knees what boxing gloves are to noses, even though the Astros were winning 7-2. Clark felt screwed, and Jack Clark does not forget a screwing.

So he had knee surgery but refused to come back and play the last month of the season. His attitude? "You want to try to hurt me for the rest of my life?——you.
Go die. I'll never play for you again."

Hello, St. Louis, where Clark was traded in February 1985 and where life was good and Clark was happy, leading the Cardinals to two World Series appearances in three years. But when he tore ligaments in his right ankle three weeks before the '87 playoffs, he was forced to sit out the Cards" World Series loss to Minnesota. That didn't sit well with St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, who said that Clark was "selfish" because he didn't take "a shot" in order to keep playing. Boy, that's hitting a guy in the zipper. Nobody accuses Jack Clark of not trying to pull his load.

"This guy was just getting brownie points for his contract with [Cardinals chairman of the board] Augie Busch coming up," says Clark. The truth is, says Clark, the St. Louis team doctor told him a shot wouldn't have helped and the injury was severe enough that, even by the next spring training, Clark still couldn't run on it. But by then he had signed with the Yankees as a free agent. Has anybody noticed the Cards haven't been within a toll call of the fall classic since he left?

So, hello, New York and the American League, not exactly Clark's Camelot. After he left it a year later, he announced that he "hated that damn league," where the games "all last three and a half to four hours" and the umpires "don't have a clue."

Hello, San Diego. "This is my last stop, period," he said when the Yankees traded him there soon after the '88 season ended. But two years later he was a free agent again. Not only was Clark not re-signed, but 31 employees either were fired or left under pressure. "Not a mass murder," says one person who lost his job, "more of a serial killing." Clark blamed "our little friend, the psychologist"—meaning Riddoch.

What burned Clark up about Riddoch, with whom he used to go fishing, was that he believed the manager helped fire his favorite "little" guy—Dent, the trainer. "That's when he decided he wanted out," says Tammy. "His eyebrows went totally black." Only Clark would leave a town because the trainer got fired.

Hello, Boston, Clark's fifth town in eight years. "It's just a business," he says. "It'd be nice to play a whole season in every city." At this rate, he might pull it off.

And so it became the Hub's turn to try to get a handle on this dark package of talent and temper. Summer has barely begun, and already Boston fans have sampled plenty from Clark's menu: an 0-for-22 slump and later an 0-for-19 one, a string of seven strikeouts in seven at bats (on the eighth, he hit into a double play), a willingness to talk about his poor hitting, a bust-out streak in mid-June that included four home runs in five games, periodic outbursts like a seven-RBI day on July 5, and the irascible, unbendable Jack Clark Way of Justice.

For instance, when a reporter wrote about the wife of one of the players having problems with her pregnancy, Clark was so incensed about "getting into somebody's family life" that he organized five or six stars—including Roger Clemens—to boycott the press that night. When one writer approached, Clark promised to deposit him "on his ass." The irony was that up to that point, Clark and the beat writers were getting along famously. During a slump Clark would take extra batting practice, and the beat writers would shag the balls back for him.

Then there was the game-ending called third strike he took on May 25 against the Tigers, after which he threw a helmet in the general direction of home plate umpire Ted Hendry. He was fined $100. "It was a bad call," says Clark. "Cecil Fielder the next day told me it wasn't a good pitch.... It was like, here, since [the umpire] just wants to walk away, I'm going to leave him with something. That's a bad call, and he deserves to know about it."

Then came his second dance with an American League umpire. One night against the Angels in Anaheim, umpire Rick Reed called Boston's Jody Reed out on strikes, and Clark was personally offended. He got on the ump, who pulled off his mask, came over to the dugout, and according to Clark, pointed at him and said, "Get used to it."

Could it be that some of the American League umpires are ganging up on him for that "the umpires don't have a clue" line? "When a guy tells you, 'Get used to it,' that tells me that they must all have gotten together," Clark says. "The umpires must have made up their minds from the league office and [umpires association general counsel] Richie Phillips saying, "Clark bad-mouthed us when he left.' It's like, 'The word's out on you; we're gonna get you.' "

And then came the topper, a column written by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn Dickey on June 12, in the depths of Clark's 0-for-22 slump. Dickey quoted Clark, a former first baseman, as saying that he didn't think he could be effective if he wasn't playing in the field, that the Red Sox had promised he would rotate into the field ("I don't know why I even have a glove," Clark was quoted as saying), that Red Sox manager Joe Morgan was too concerned about his image with the media to risk trouble if Clark botched his time in the field ("In Boston, the media really runs the team") and that he didn't see any reason why the Red Sox would keep him around. In other words, your typical column on Jack Clark.

Usually, Clark stands behind everything he says, but this time he wouldn't touch it with a foul pole. He denied all and called Dickey tricky. He says he thought Dickey was just talking to him about possibly writing a book with him, and, indeed, no tape recorder or notebook was used. "I didn't say it," says Clark. "He's lying.... Why would I say that? The team is in first place. There are a hundred games left. I've had slow starts before." So hacked off was Clark that he considered using his day off to go back to San Francisco and "grab this guy around the neck."

Still, the dialect and some of the Clarkian philosophy sounded deadly accurate. Dickey stands by his story: "He said those things.... He hits two home runs in two days, and, suddenly. Boston is great again."

For right now, Clark says Boston is great. When he signed, he told Boston general manager Lou Gorman that the day he wore a Red Sox uniform would be "my proudest day in baseball." And, believe it or not, he still feels that way. "I'm in the place I want to be the most to finish my career," he said last week. "This is the best peace of mind I've ever had playing baseball."

Uh-oh. Not a good sign.

These are the toys that Jack owns: A $770,000 red Ferrari F-40, 15 classic collectible cars in perfectly restored condition (he wants to start a car museum), and, of course, a top-fuel dragster with a five-man crew, two support vans and a customized semi and trailer and a world-class driver (Tom McEwen), all of which has cost Clark nearly $2 million since January. Total prize money won so far: About $65,000. But there is hope the investment might yet pay dividends. Last week McEwen drove the car to victory at the Summernationals at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., one of the most prestigious titles on the summer drag-racing circuit.

"It reflects my personality," Clark says about drag racing. "The thing could go 300 miles an hour or it could have a giant explosion. There's no telling."

But it's not the money spent or the money won, is it? It's the statement it makes: Yeah, I was a rebel. Yeah, I was a low-rider. But I made it big. I made it here without your help, I made it here without your approval, and if you don't like it, you can go die.

But the weird thing about the cars and the dragster and all the money and all the success is that instead of it being the ultimate slap at his father, the ultimate answer to "Weren't you the one who said I wouldn't amount to anything?"—instead, it brought father and son together.

A few years ago, a financial adviser allegedly swindled Clark out of $700,000 in a real estate deal. That set Clark back a ways, and not just in his passbook. Who could a loner trust now? Who knew the meaning of a buck? Who was the most self-sufficient, independent, cantankerous boil of a man he knew? His own father. Mr. Triple A Credit Rating himself. He bought his parents a house in Blackhawk, and Jack put his father to work managing his finances. They began talking to each other again.

"I knew they'd get together someday," says Jennie.

Which one grew up the most seems to be up for grabs. Tammy says, "All of a sudden [ Ralph] had a son who was a man who had a wife, two kids and a life."

Says Ralph, "I think he just matured."

It's crazy how things work out. Jack saved Ralph from the fumes. Ralph saved Jack from the phonies. They can both go to your head.

The years have covered their grudges in dust. "I think I rode him too much," says Ralph. "I guess I wanted him to be outstanding. But [the criticism] didn't help anybody."

Jack has forgiven him, too. "He was just working, just trying to put a roof over our heads," he says.

Oh, yeah, they still argue plenty. His father thinks Jack is crazy to spend money the way he does. "But he's 21, he can do what he wants," says Ralph. And he still thinks Jack needs to move up in the box. But who knows what the rest of the season will bring? Clark could go 300 miles an hour or he could have a gigantic explosion, right?

They're getting along so well now that Jack can even nag him. It drives him crazy that Ralph, 68, won't go to the doctor. "I've seen him let broken fingers heal crooked," says the son. "He can be dyin' and he won't go to the doctor."

The last doctor Ralph went to said he had a diabetic condition and gave him a prescription for it. But when the prescription ran out, Ralph didn't get it renewed. "These doctors, they always want you to come in before they'll renew your prescription. [In a mocking voice] 'No, you have to come in.' Well, forget that. Do you know how far a drive that is?"

Bring the subject up with Jack and the eyebrows get positively cobalt. Which means, of course, that underneath it all, he does care for his father.

It is not easy to break a cycle of anger. A man grows up angry at his father, he gets angry at his son. But Jack Clark broke the cycle. He loves Anthony and Anthony loves him. But does Jack love Ralph?

"I love him," he says.

And you, Ralph, are you proud of your son?

"Always have been," says Ralph.

Have you ever said it to him?


These are the walls that fathers and sons build. But once in a while, if you reach a little, you can talk over them.





Clark first made his mark swinging a big bat for the Giants (above).



Clark's abrasiveness has kept him on the move: to the Cards, Yankees and Padres.



[See caption above.]



Ralph (above) still casts a disapproving eye on some of Jack's toys, like his Ferrari.



Family Day in '87: Jack with (from left) Tammy, Danika, Rebekah and Anthony



Clark's vicious rips have not made much of a ripple in Fenway.



Clark says he'll stay in Boston; others see that old faraway look.

'Nobody wears out a welcome with the front office faster than the continually furious Jack Clark.'

'Ballplayers make a lot of money, but we miss out on the little things.'