Oh, What a Thrill! Will Clark: Career Overview (Part 1)
Part 1: Career Overview
This piece serves as an introduction to a series of nine articles that detail the career of native New Orleanian Will ‘The Thrill” Clark, who had an all-star career in Major League Baseball. His entire career, from his amateur days in New Orleans through his entire major-league playing days, will be covered in the series. Watch for the additional weekly posts on Crescent City Sports.
When you think of professional baseball players from New Orleans, you immediately think of legends Mel Ott, Rusty Staub and Will Clark, depending on the eras you followed or studied the national pastime. They represent an elite group of local ballplayers who excelled at the major-league level during their extensive careers.
With regard to number of hits, home runs, and runs batted in, Clark didn’t put up as many career stats as Ott and Staub, partially due to having a shorter overall major-league career; nevertheless he made as dramatic an impact in the big leagues early in his pro career as they did.
He was born and raised in New Orleans as part of a tight-knit family whose life largely revolved around his baseball games. He would continue to rely on his family relationships even as his professional career advanced.
Clark was an outstanding player at every level of organized baseball. His journey took him on a circuitous route from Digby Playground in New Orleans, to Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, to the Astrodome in Houston, and to Candlestick Park in San Francisco. All along the way, he demonstrated a flair for heroic performances.
His 14 and 15-year-old team finished third in the Babe Ruth World Series. As a sophomore in 1980, his Jesuit High School baseball team won the Louisiana state championship, and the Jesuit-based American Legion team also took third in the World Series that year. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he was the leading hitter on the USA team that won the silver medal.
In his junior year at Mississippi State University in 1985, Clark led the powerful team to the College World Series. Named the Golden Spikes Award winner as the best college player in the nation in 1985, he was the Number 2 overall pick by San Francisco in the 1985 MLB Draft.
Clark’s amateur exploits were followed by several dramatic moments in his inaugural pro seasons. The left-handed hitter smacked a home run in his first pro baseball at-bat in 1985 with Fresno, the San Francisco Giants minor-league affiliate. In his Giants major-league debut on April 8, 1986, in the Astrodome, he homered off fire-baller Nolan Ryan in his first major-league at-bat. He hit a home run in his first home game at Candlestick Park on April 15.
Clark arrived on the pro scene with a smooth, natural swing that a Sports Illustrated article described as “the sweetest swing anyone had ever seen, an uppercut with a long, loopy follow-through that made it seem as if he was wielding a buggy whip instead of a 32-ounce bat.”
His classic hitting style and approach conjured up recollections of legendary hitters Ted Williams and Stan Musial by some of the former big-league players who were around during their careers.
Clark developed a persona on and off the diamond that was described by adjectives such as dramatic, cocky, brash, loud, flamboyant, intense, gamer, aggressive, and temperamental. It was in those early games that he got tagged with popular nicknames like “The Thrill” and “The Natural” by his teammates. He even became well-known for his facial expression that was characterized by a competitive scowl and big swaths of eye-black on his cheeks.
Playing first base, Clark had gained significant experience at a high level of competition during his college and Olympic days. Thus, he entered the pros with a confidence level few rookies had. He had come into the majors practically skipping the minors and with a lot of notoriety and fanfare. He made the game look easy, which some players resented.
His swagger turned off some teammates. Plus, he wore his emotions on his sleeve. When he had poor at-bats, he would often toss batting helmets and slam his bats on anything close to him.
At first, his teammates didn’t know how to take him. But eventually they came to learn that Clark expected more of himself than others did. His intensity and temperament were what propelled him to excellence. At the end of the day, when Clark produced, they overlooked any interpersonal shortcomings he may have demonstrated.
Within his first four seasons, Clark had established himself as a bona fide star in the big leagues. In 1987 he helped propel the Giants to their first division championship in 16 seasons. He became an all-star selection and led the National League in RBI in 1988. In 1989 he was runner-up for NL MVP and was instrumental in the Giants winning their first pennant since 1962. He energized the Bay Area fans who had experienced only four winning teams (each barely over .500) since 1971. For example, Clark was the subject of a Bay Area poster brandishing the slogan “I’ve Got a Giant Attitude.”
However, Clark was eventually beset with injuries that began to curtail the number of games he played each season and therefore cut down on his overall production. After the Giants decided not to re-sign him after the 1993 season, he entered the free-agent market and eventually inked a five-year deal with the Texas Rangers. His signing created an uncomfortable situation with his former Mississippi State teammate Rafael Palmeiro, who publicly blasted Clark for taking his roster spot with the Rangers when they declined to meet his own salary demand at the end of his Rangers contract that same year. It would take nearly twenty years for the two players to reconcile the ill feelings.
Clark’s power numbers dropped significantly with the Rangers as he continued to struggle with injuries. He often played through his health problems, which earned him the respect of his manager and teammates. Nevertheless, the Rangers released him into free agency again after the 1998 season, and he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Clark was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals toward the end of the 2000 season, when he returned to his old form and was instrumental in helping them advance to the playoffs.
At age 36, Clark retired after the 2000 season. At the time, he had a young son with autism, and he decided he needed to spend more time helping his wife take care of him. The couple would eventually become national spokespersons and supporters for autism awareness. He maintained his connections with baseball as a special consultant for several major-league teams.
Clark received numerous post-career honors and accolades, but he missed out on perhaps the most important one, the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Because he hadn’t played more seasons at the same high level as he had during his best years of 1986 to 1991, he failed to receive the minimum number of votes from baseball writers in his first year of Hall eligibility in 2006 and consequently fell off the ballot.
But the fact remains, when Clark was fully healthy, there was no one else who could be hotter at the plate. For a short period of time in 1990, he achieved the status of highest paid player in the major leagues. His fame and popularity were evidenced through his many appearances on the covers of national sports magazines such as The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, SPORT, Baseball America, and Baseball Digest. He took his place among the stars of the game in the 1980s and 1990s.
Clark now rightly takes his place among the all-time greats from New Orleans.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.