While serving as co-author of his forthcoming biography for the past year, I learned more about baseball from Al Clark than I had known in the previous half-century.
For one thing, I learned that every baseball game involves three teams: the home team, the visitors, and the umpires.
Like the players, they signal each other, move when the ball is hit, and always seem to be on the road.
Al Clark certainly was; he spent 30 years as an arbiter, 26 of them in the majors, and ranked No. 9 on the lifetime list of games umpired at the time he left the game in 2001.
He’s been a golfer and a motivational speaker since — an odd avocation for a man who spent four months in a federal prison camp following a conviction for mail fraud. Not surprisingly, it involved baseball memorabilia.
Clark’s problem is he’s too nice to say no — and a man he thought was a friend turned out to be a swindler. The affable arbiter took the fall, even paying a $50,000 fine and serving a four-month sentence under house arrest after his release from the federal facility in Petersburg, Va.
His book is called Nothing to Hide: My Journey from the Big Leagues to the Big House and will be published later this year by the University of Nebraska Press.
The first chapter is called “Jailhouse Rock” but plenty of baseball follows.
Clark has much to tell. The first umpire to wear glasses on a regular basis, he also was the only one to wear his name on his hat (when American League umps wore caps that said AL). Clark was also the only Jewish umpire in American League history before the Commissioner’s office combined the league staffs.
He knew Moe Berg, the catcher-turned-spy, and witnessed both the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and the destruction that occurred during the Earthquake World Series nine years later.
Clark called balls and strikes during Nolan Ryan’s 300th win and Randy Johnson’s American League no-hitter while also working the Bucky Dent playoff game and the games in which Cal Ripken, Jr. tied and broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.
He also was the last of the three umpires to throw Ripken out of a game. But that paled when compared to the time he tossed Frank Robinson during the national anthem!
The son of Trenton sportswriter Herb Clark even threw his father out of a post-game news conference at Yankee Stadium — forgetting that he had driven to that game with his dad and was not the one holding the keys.
He survived an Oklahoma City tornado and a vicious anti-Semitic tirade from a former MVP but was widely considered a good guy and a good umpire. And a fair one.
He befriended George W. Bush when the future president owned the Texas Rangers and even gave him the lineup card of the first game won by the team in The Ballpark at Arlington.
As a ghostwriter who previously worked with Ron Blomberg and Milo Hamilton on their autobiographies, I must say that Al Clark was fun to interview. His memories are extensive and his stories, like MasterCard commercials, are priceless.
Discovering the photo of Clark signaling the last out of the ’89 World Series was a great additional to the photo section, which also includes the Ripken ejection, a tete-a-tete with combative Billy Martin, and even umpire baseball cards produced before the Major League Umpires Association disbanded.
His story is a roller-coaster ride. Determined that following in his father’s footsteps would force him to eat hamburger rather than steak, Clark parlayed a schoolboy interest in officiating into a formidable big-league career. He made some major mistakes but paid his debt to society.
If Nothing to Hide comes out before the winter holidays, as it might, it will be a great gift for anyone looking to turn lemons into lemonade. If a little Jewish kid from Ewing Township, New Jersey can do it, anyone can.