Horace Clarke, a dependable though light-hitting second baseman for the Yankees who became indelibly and ingloriously associated with the team’s lean years in the 1960s and ’70s — what some sardonically labeled “the Horace Clarke era” — died on Wednesday.
His death was confirmed by the office of his cousin, Stacey E. Plaskett, the Democratic delegate who represents the Virgin Islands in Congress. The cause and place of death were not specified.
At the time of his debut, in 1965, Clarke, an undersized middle infielder, was one of just four players born in the U.S. Virgin Islands to make it to the major leagues. He played 12 seasons in the majors, all but part of the last season for the Yankees.
What he lacked in power as a hitter — he had only 27 career home runs — he made up for with a sure-handed glove and excellent speed. His stolen-base totals were in double digits in seven seasons, and he was among the American League’s top 10 base stealers four times.
But he had the misfortune of joining the Yankees just as the team was about to tumble from the heights of greatness. Preceding his rookie season of 1965, the Yankees, led by the likes of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, had won the American League pennant five straight seasons.
During Clarke’s 10-year tenure, however, New York failed to make the postseason once. The team wouldn’t get there again until 1976, two years after Clarke retired. In between came that so-called Horace Clarke era.
Speaking to a reporter for The Daily News in 2010, Clarke admitted that it was frustrating to be labeled a scapegoat for those underachieving Yankee teams. But he added: “I know — New York is New York. You don’t win, you’re going to hear about it. I was in the middle.”
Horace Meredith Clarke was born on June 2 in 1939 or 1940 — sources differ about the year — in Frederiksted, St. Croix, to Dennis and Vivian (Woods) Clarke. He was the youngest of six children.
He attended a baseball tryout camp in 1957 but went unsigned. The next January, Clarke, then 17, was signed by the Yankee scout Jose Seda out of Christiansted High School.
From 1958 to 1965, Clarke showcased his speed and his ability to get on base in the minor leagues. He made his major league debut on May 13, 1965, against the Boston Red Sox. In his first at-bat, he pinch-hit for the pitcher Hal Reniff in the seventh inning and hit an infield single.
Clarke began his big-league career as a reserve, appearing mostly at third base and as a pinch-hitter. He was made the full-time second baseman in 1967, succeeding the Yankee stalwart Bobby Richardson, who had retired after the 1966 season. Playing alongside teammates like Ruben Amaro, Joe Pepitone, Roy White and Tom Tresh, Clarke proceeded to lead the club in at-bats, hits, runs, stolen bases and batting average in 1967, playing in more games than any teammate except Mantle.
From 1965 to 1974, Clarke was one of just 10 players who posted 150 or more stolen bases and 1,200 or more hits — a list that also includes the Hall of Fame players Joe Morgan and Lou Brock.
His best overall season was in 1969, when he appeared in 156 games, posting a career-high .285 batting average and .339 on-base percentage. His 183 hits were second among American League hitters that year.
A pesky switch-hitter, Clarke broke up three potential no-hitters during the 1970 season, all in the ninth inning, with singles off Jim Rooker, Sonny Siebert and the knuckleballer Joe Niekro — and all, remarkably, within one month.
In Niekro’s no-hit bid, a road game in Detroit on July 2, Clarke was at bat with one out in the ninth and the count at one ball and no strikes when he pulled a ground ball between first and second. The Tiger second baseman Dick McAuliffe corralled the baseball on the outfield grass and tossed it Niekro, covering first base. But the throw was low and pulled Niekro off the bag, enabling the hustling Clarke to reach base safely and end the no-hitter.
Since 1961 only one other player has broken up three potential no-hitters in the ninth inning, the Minnesota Twins All-Star Joe Mauer, though only Clarke did it in one season.
After playing in more than 1,200 games in his 10 seasons with the Yankees, Clarke was dealt to the San Diego Padres in May 1974. He appeared in just 42 games with the Padres, batting below .200 before retiring at the end of that season.
Among players born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a relatively small roster, Clarke is the leader in games played, hits, runs, R.B.I.s and stolen bases.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
While his tenure with the Yankees came during a low point in team history, Clarke recalled his time in the Bronx fondly, relishing in particular the fact that he had played for the same storied organization as his boyhood hero.
“Walking onto the field at the stadium that first time was one of the biggest things for me,” he told The Daily News in 2010. “I grew up listening to the Yankees on the radio, and Phil Rizzuto was my idol. I associated with him, because he was small and I was small, and I played shortstop then, too.”
Johnny Diaz contributed reporting.