Ballplayer Profiles: Grey Clarke
Born: September 26, 1912, Fulton, Alabama
Died: November 23, 1993, Kannapolis, North Carolina
Grey Clarke was the third baseman for the Kannapolis Towelers in 1936, the first year of the Carolina League. Clarke, born in 1912 in Fulton, AL, was 24 years of age at the time and had already played several years of professional baseball. This interview with Grey Clarke was conducted July 12, 1991, as Mr. Clarke was approaching his 79th birthday.
His baseball career began in 1934 with a season spent in the Mid-Atlantic League with Huntington. Clarke spent 1935 with Houston in the Texas League, a farm club for the Cardinals organization. That year he established himself as a productive hitter, batting .279 and driving in 53 runs. Clarke began the following year in the Piedmont League with the Asheville Tourists. He was hitting well at the beginning of the season with 11 RBIs and a .352 average. When he developed a sore arm which forced him to throw with an underhanded motion from third, he was released by the club. Regarding his release, Clarke noted that during the Great Depression there were so many good ball players looking for work that the professional teams in organized ball would release you if you could not perform at your peak level.
Bobby Hipps, the manager of the Concord Weavers in 1936 and former Kannapolis Towelers manager, told Kannapolis management about Clarke after the Kannapolis third baseman, Bob White broke his leg early in the 1936 season. Such was the spirit of the outlaw Carolina League; teams would often help other teams secure players that they did not need themselves.
Clarke signed with Kannapolis for $25 a week. He had been earning $150 a month at Asheville. His Kannapolis contract did, however, offer a $100 bonus at the end of the season if he was still with the team. Clarke said that the bonus helped him average about $35 per week for the season and his arm did eventually recuperate so that he could perform satisfactorily in the field.
Unfortunately only midseason statistics are available for that season, but they show that Clarke was having no trouble with the Carolina League pitching. In 198 at-bats he managed to get 64 hits including 11 home runs and drove in 56 runs.
After the 1936 season, Clarke signed with Macon in the South Atlantic League. During the winter of 1936-37, there was a great deal of discussion about the National Association taking over the Carolina League and making it a Class D league. Clarke had played at higher classifications in Houston and Asheville and didn´t want to get stuck in Class D ball. For this reason he signed with the Class B franchise in Macon for the 1937 season.
Like many of the Kannapolis Toweler players, Clarke was given a winter job at the Cannon Mills plant. During the 36-37 winter, he met his future wife while working there. She was Miss Nell Mauldin, sister of Dr. Mauldin, and he met her at Christmas of 1936.
Except for the winter of 1937-38, Clarke returned to Cannon Mills and worked for Ray Propst each off-season. Clarke noted that a Mr. Payne of Cannon Mills was upset with him for signing to play with Macon earlier in the year. But Mr. Propst knew he had only gone there to avoid dropping down to Class D play. After all, he had the opportunity to sign with Martinsville in the Bi-State League when his arm recuperated in 1936 but chose to stick with the Kannapolis club.
While Clarke was with the Cardinals organization in Houston in the Texas League, he recalled that the Cardinals had signed so many minor league players in Branch Rickey´s infamous St. Louis Cardinal "chain gang," that the Cardinals had four or five of their farm hands on several other clubs in the Texas League. He said it was like the entire Texas League was a St. Louis Cardinals League. Of course, this was against the rules of organized baseball and eventually in March of 1938 Judge K. M. Landis, the Major League Commissioner freed 80 to 90 St. Louis minor league players who were then eligible to sign with any organized baseball team in the country.
At this time, St. Louis controlled over 500 minor league players, enough to field 25 or thirty teams. Obviously, they could not afford to maintain that many teams, so Branch Rickey made gentlemen´s agreements with various independent ball clubs, including some textile league teams. The agreements allowed the Cardinals to "lend" players out and have them returned when they decided that they needed them back. When Landis voided all those minor league contracts, he freed up several future major league players including Pete Reiser who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and led the National League in hitting three years later, in 1941, with a .343 average.
Clarke had an excellent year in 1937 in Macon where he batted .335 and knocked in 79 runs. He spent the next four seasons back in the Texas League, this time playing for Dallas. His final year there, he batted a career high .361 and led the league with 96 RBIs. He spent the following two seasons with the triple A Milwaukee club of the American Association. In 1943 he batted an exceptional .346 and again led his league with 96 RBIs. Finally, in 1944, at the age of 31, Clarke realized his dream and made it to the Big Show. He spent that season in Chicago with the White Sox where he batted .260 and drove in 27 runs. This is where his professional baseball career ended.
When Richard Grey Clarke, Sr. died on November 23, 1993, his brief obituary made no mention of his baseball career. The man who had it made it all the way from Kannapolis and the outlaw league to Chicago and the major league was only listed as "retired from Cannon Mills."