1885 Chicago White Stockings team photo

John Clarkson: One of the Best Pitchers in the 19th Century

John Clarkson was one of the best pitchers in 19th century professional baseball and if you go by the opinions of Cap Anson, one of the great managers and players of the era, he was the best player of that era as Anson stated that he was the best pitcher ever. Anson died in 1922, so obviously there were a lot of pitcher’s he hasn’t seen as there’s been 100 years of baseball after his death.

Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly also lists Clarkson as one of the best pitchers in his biography Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Field (the first sports autobiography in American history) And he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963 so it’s pretty clear that he was one of the games greats in it’s early days.

John Clarkson posing with a baseball
Credit: Library of Congress

Clarkson, one the first to win 300 games had a career record of 328 and 178 accumulating ridiculous singles season numbers like 53 wins in 1885 and 49 in 1889. With the understanding that the game was way different then and pitchers were able to pitch nearly every game, he was still doing stuff that other players weren’t at the time.

He also pitched (drunk) in the deciding game of the weird 1885 World Series (a championship series attempted before 1903) that featured a lack of seriousness by the players, a forfeit and a series ending in a tie (essentially so both teams could split the purse) because the forfeit wasn’t actually counted for some reason. He lost the deciding game in which he pitched drunk.

His life came to a tragic end as he died in a mental institution possibly spurned on when his friend and teammate Charlie Bennant was hit by a train in front of him. Bennett survived but broke both his legs but considering it was traumatic experience for Clarkson, it definitely effected him.

The fact that Clarkson was such an important figure and maybe the best of his time, a Hall of Famer from an different era than this one and the fact he died in such a sad way is fascinating especially when it really shows me how forgotten players from this era truly are. I’ve been a fan of King Kelly for years and while I think he’s probably the most famous of this time period I wouldn’t have heard of him initially if it weren’t for Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary.

In the 1800’s there were contentious rivalries between players and owners and between teams and they could get very heated and emotional and players like Clarkson were center to it.

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