For 26 years, Al Clark developed a reputation as a colorful but outspoken umpire whose decisions were fair but whose attitudes annoyed the baseball establishment.
Given a chance to reprimand him for misuse of an MLB credit card, it used the incident as an excuse to fire him.
Three years later, Clark agreed to sign letters of authenticity for baseballs purportedly used in Nolan Ryan’s 300th win, which he umpired. There weren’t enough genuine balls to cover all the letters Clark signed, leading to a mail fraud charge that sent him to federal prison for four months. A hefty fine, four months of house arrest, and two years of probation followed.
Although Clark’s legacy was tarnished, it was not forgotten. Now it’s recaptured in a hard-hitting, 192-page hardcover [Called Out But Safe: a Baseball Umpire’s Journey] published May 1 by the University of Nebraska Press. I am honored to be his co-author.
After working with Al for nearly three years, I can verify that he’s turned his life around. He gave up drinking and smoking, patched up a long-standing feud with one of his two brothers, and became living proof that redemption is possible for almost any offense.
The son of the late Trenton sportswriter Herb Clark, Al didn’t hurt or kill anybody — except for audiences who have signed up for his cruises, booksignings, or public appearances.
With journalism genes in his blood, he speaks well, freely offering his opinions on everything from video replay to divisional play and the designated hitter.
After 30 years of making snap decisions, Al Clark pulls no punches. He once ejected a Hall of Famer (Frank Robinson) during the National Anthem, had a Cy Young Award winner (Denny McLain) suspended for an anti-Semitic tirade, and even banished his father from the umpire’s dressing room at Yankee Stadium.
He umpired some of the most significant games in baseball history: Cal Ripken’s record-breaker, Randy Johnson’s first no-hitter, the “Bucky Dent” playoff game, the Earthquake World Series, and many more between 1976, when he broke in after four years in the minors, and 2001.
In his book, he reveals that Richard Nixon was the arbitrator who gave umpires their first major benefits package, tells why he pressed charges against a Baltimore fan who doused him with beer, and admits that he curtailed some spring training games so that he wouldn’t miss tee time on the golf course.
A resident of what he invariably calls “beautiful Colonial Williamsburg,” Clark can be found on the links when he isn’t out signing books.
Much of his time before Father’s Day will be divided between interviews and signings. He’s booked for Foley’s New York on May 16 (5-7p), Bookends of Ridgewood, NJ on May 17 (11a-1p), the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, NJ on May 18 (2-4p), and the Trenton Thunder ballpark on May 19 (530-7p). He says the Trenton venue should attract friends and family who grew up with him in suburban Ewing Township.
The Somerset Patriots have him booked for the first two nights of Memorial Day Weekend (May 23-24) while the Unionville Winery in Flemington will mix baseball and booze when Clark comes there on May 25. He’ll also visit Book Expo at New York’s Javits Center May 30-31; he’ll be at the University of Nebraska’s booth.
Clark spent last weekend signing in Annapolis, Baltimore, and other Maryland locations. He’s also visited many Virginia revenues, including the ballpark in Tidewater, with plans for many more.
In the two-and-a-half years we worked together on this project, I learned more about baseball than I had in the previous half-century. Clark taught me, for example, that every game has THREE teams on the field: the home team, the visiting team, and the umpires. He writes that umpires flash signs and move around the field, just as players do. They also get to pick their own numbers — 24 for Clark because he idolized one-time Yankee Al Downing, who wore those digits as a Trenton schoolboy star.
From a Latino Sports perspective, Clark sowed his oats in the Venezuelan Winter League. According to him, when the fans there yell “Kill the umpire,” they really mean it.
The first umpire to wear glasses on a regular basis, Clark was the only one to wear his name (AL) on his hat. He was also the first Jewish umpire in the history of the American League, though he says he was more nervous blowing the shofar in synagogue than he ever was in a packed ballpark.
Called Out But Safe costs $25 but is worth much more. Not just another baseball book, it is a work of nonfiction, with the longest chapter devoted to Clark’s incarceration. He holds nothing back — especially when talking about argumentative managers Dick Williams, Don Zimmer, Billy Martin, and Earl Weaver.
Ironically, Clark never ejected Bobby Cox, even though the newly-minted Hall of Fame pilot was ejected more often than any manager in baseball history. Clark says he and Cox shared a mutual respect for each other.
He isn’t as kind to Bud Selig, however, and explains what the current comissioner did to earn his enmity.
Called Out But Safe is available from amazon.com, where it sold out three times already, and from major bookstores. With Father’s Day and graduation coming up quickly, it makes for a perfect present.