The letter written in response to SI's March 23, 1998, baseball
preview issue defied time. "I haven't been to a big league
baseball game since 1917, at Fenway Park in Boston (no, he
didn't hit one out), but I follow baseball," wrote Mal Clarke of
Harpswell, Maine. "Your scouting reports were over the plate."
Could it be true? Even if this Mal Clarke character had been
plucked straight from the womb and taken to see Babe Ruth--the
aforementioned he--and the Red Sox play in 1917, he would be 81
years old. Could there be a citizen of Red Sox Nation still
living who had been a Fenway no-show for an even longer stretch
than the world championship banner?
I phoned. "Mr. Clarke?"
"Call me Mal," he said. "Only my students call me Mr. Clarke, and
I've been retired from teaching since 1963."
"Mal," I tried again, "would you like to go back to Fenway Park?"
"I suppose that would be interesting," he replied
matter-of-factly. "O.K., I'll go."
When Mal had most recently visited Fenway, one year before the
Sox last won the World Series, the Green Monster hadn't been
erected. Leftfield yielded to a grass embankment known as Duffy's
Cliff (after Boston outfielder Duffy Lewis) upon which fans
picnicked under the feet of fielders chasing well-struck balls.
Nor were there the rightfield bullpens that would later be dubbed
Williamsburg in honor of Ted Williams, who was not yet born.
Mal's memory of his Fenway excursion is sketchy. He's 96 now. How
many memories can one mind hold? Even an agile one of a man who
taught high school French, Latin and Spanish for 43 years. He
does recall being "the worst football player to ever earn a
letter at Dartmouth" and losing his spot at left end to Hooky
Hackenbuckle in 1921.
He recalls introducing himself to Frances Hudson, the woman to
whom he would be married for 63 years (she died in 1994), by
asking while they were attending a summer French program
together, "Voulez-vous nager avec moi [Do you want to swim with
me]?" But a baseball game in 1917, a sporting event that that
very summer was eclipsed by--at least in Mal's memory--his winning
the New England Juniors Lawn Tennis Championship? The details of
that afternoon in Fenway are sketchy.
"I don't remember Ruth hitting one out," says Mal (who wears a
rope for a belt) as we take our seats for a Sunday game--another
wrinkle, inaugurated at Fenway in 1932--against the New York
Yankees. "I don't even recall whom the Red Sox played."
It's a shame. Not to recall if Boston was hosting the Detroit
Tigers and Ty Cobb, who led the American League in hitting that
year with a .383 average. Or the Yankees and slugger Wally Pipp,
who would finish with a league-high nine home runs in 1917. Or
the Chicago White Sox, who with Shoeless Joe Jackson would win
the World Series that year.
Mal is almost surely correct regarding Ruth's failure to hit a
homer. The Babe hit only two home runs in 1917, though he did
pitch a league-best 35 complete games.
Mal has brought "a youngster" with him from Maine, 70-year-old
Bernie Johnson. Johnson, who briefly pitched in the minors for
the Red Sox, is something of a legend where Mal lives. In 1946
Johnson, pitching for the University of Maine, no-hit Bowdoin
College. The next year Johnson transferred to Bowdoin, for which
he no-hit Maine. "Bernie Johnson is the best athlete I've ever
seen," says Mal, as he peels one of two bananas he has brought
for today's outing. "Even better than Hooky Hackenbuckle."
The first-place Yankees score seven runs in the third inning to
take a 7-2 lead. For a person who has ingested all his baseball
for eight decades by radio or TV, Mal has a keen eye for diamond
minutiae. "Look at how they're giving [Derek] Jeter all of left
center," he says, as Boston centerfielder Darren Lewis drifts
In the fifth inning New York bombards the Red Sox for six more
runs. The score is 13-2. For second-place Boston, which will
finish this day five games behind the Yankees, it's beginning to
look as if another year will be added to the World Series
Until early this summer Mal played tennis and bridge twice a
week, in addition to his daily routine, which included cribbage,
gardening and martinis. The more I find out about Mal, the more I
understand what kept him away from Fenway. "It's not about
baseball," Mal says. "I just have had so many other things to
keep me busy."
At the end of the fifth inning he taps me on the leg and signals
that we should depart. Maineward, homeward we head. "I'm glad we
came," he says, "and I'm glad we're leaving."
COLOR PHOTO: MAUREEN GRISE When Mal last went to Fenway, the Green Monster had not been erected. [Mal Clarke at Fenway Park]