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The Senator who gave up Willie Mays’ first Major League home run

Rediscovering Webbo Clarke

World Series - Kansas City Royals v San Francisco Giants - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With the recent decision by Major League Baseball to include Negro League stats as MLB stats, there are lots of new developments. One of them, as Mike Petriello details, is that Willie Mays should be credited for 661, not 660 home runs. While this, in-and-of itself, is interesting, a detail in his report caught my eye—that home run was given up by future Washington Senator Webbo Clarke.

Clarke, born in 1928, was a 20-year old lefthander for the Cleveland Buckeyes. He was shelled for 11 hits in a loss to Mays’ Birmingham Barons, which included Mays’ second inning dinger, according to the contemporary news story that Petriello links to. He further quotes Larry Lester, who claims that, while it is not yet compiled, they do have the box score from that game available, and therefore the home run will eventually be counted as official.

But what of Clarke, the man who will eventually give up 17-year old Willie Mays’ first home run? As a Panamanian, he would have been forced to pitch in the Negro Leagues before integration. However, the bulk of his professional career occurred post-1947. He spent a total of four seasons pitching in the Negro American League, 1946-1948 for the Cleveland Buckeyes, and 1950 for the Memphis Red Sox. In 1953, he was a part of an independent Mexican League team. He resurfaced in 1955 with the Senators. Clark Griffith was notable for employing Latin-American talent, and Webbo Clarke would clearly fall into this category. Unfortunately, biographical information is scarce for Clarke, and therefore what he spent 1949 1951-1952, and 1954 doing are as-yet a mystery in need of further research. In all likelyhood, Baseball-reference simply doesn’t have the stats for whatever league(s) he played in during those years.

Clarke pitched for Class-A Charlotte during the bulk of 1955, throwing a now-massive 262 innings in 33 games (32 starts.) He made seven September appearances, including two starts, for the big-league club that season though. It would be his only other Major League action. In 21.1 innings, he notched a 4.64 ERA, with two home runs, 14 walks, and nine strikeouts on his record. Clarke also spent 1956 and 1957 in affiliated baseball, although he never again made it past Triple-A. He split 1956 between Charlotte and Triple-A Louisville, in the Senators organization. In 1957 he moved to the Giants organization and threw 80 innings for the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers in the old American Association. He resurfaced again in 1959 in the Mexican league, before falling off the map again until his untimely death in 1970 at the age 42.

One oddity, Baseball Reference does credit Clarke as playing for the 1926 Memphis Red Sox and the 1935 New York Black Yankees. These are clearly in error, and I’m sure will be corrected in the future. While there is a lot of research left to be done, the recognition and acceptance of these stats as “major league” is a great start, and we’ll be sure to see more fascinating stories discovered in the future.