Oh, What a Thrill! Will Clark: Career Overview (Part 2)
Part 2: Amateur Successes Hone Skills
This piece is the second in a series of articles that detail the career of native New Orleanian Will “The Thrill” Clark. Watch for additional weekly posts on the Crescent City Sports website. Click here for the full series.
Clark’s passion for the game had developed by the time he was 15 years old. His travels in amateur baseball through Babe Ruth, high school, and American Legion leagues, and then later for college and Olympic teams, took him all over the United States. He was an accomplished player at every level and emerged well-prepared to continue his passion at the professional level.
Will Clark grew up in the Gentilly area of New Orleans and lived near Digby Playground, where he first played baseball at eight years old. Initially, baseball was just something that he played for about two months during summers. His first love of sports came through his father, Bill’s, interests as an avid hunter and fisherman, and Clark similarly developed a devotion to outdoor sports, an activity he would continue to enjoy later during his major-league off-seasons.
At age fourteen he had an opportunity to try out for the New Orleans Recreational Department (NORD) Babe Ruth all-star team, but was the final player cut by legendary NORD coach Firmin Simms. But the hook was set for Clark’s passion for baseball. He battled back the next year to make the 1979 NORD Burger King-Lakeshore all-star team, which finished third in the Babe Ruth World Series in Arizona. Years later, Simms told the Times-Picayune about Clark, “We won a lot of close games that year. And Will got a lot of key hits.”
Clark attended Jesuit High School and played baseball during the 1980-1982 seasons. He won the starting job at first base as a sophomore in 1980. Jesuit captured the Louisiana state championship that season, defeating district rival Rummel in the finals. That summer, the Jesuit-based ODECO Drillers finished third in the American Legion World Series.
As a junior, Clark surpassed Rusty Staub’s season home run record for Jesuit by smacking 10 homers in 14 games. In his senior season, he compiled a .560 batting average, but didn’t qualify for the district batting title because opposing pitchers walked him more than three times a game. At his graduation from Jesuit, Clark was awarded the Coach Lou “Rulebook” Brownson Memorial Award for the most outstanding player of the season in a major sport.
In an interview with Baseball America years later, Clark commented about surpassing Staub’s Jesuit marks, “I don’t think Staub’s records meant as much to me at the time as they do now. I wasn’t really that aware of who he was back then. Now, I realize what a great hitter he is, and the records mean a lot more to me.”
As a gangly 5-foot-10, 150-pounder in 1982, Clark was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft. Believing he had not matured enough physically for pro baseball, he spurned a $35,000 bonus to sign with the Royals and committed to play baseball at Mississippi State University instead.
Not used to sitting on the bench, Clark was humbled when he had to ride the bench for most of his freshman year at Mississippi State. However, when State’s senior first baseman, Chris Maloney, came down with an injury later in the season, he lost his job to Clark in classic “Wally Pipp” style (referring to the historical scenario when Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp lost his job permanently to future Hall of Famer first baseman Lou Gehrig due to an injury).
Clark stepped in for Mahoney and didn’t relinquish the job for the balance of the 1983 season. He finished the season with a .337 batting average, nine home runs, and 29 RBI in just 95 at-bats. That summer, he continued his torrid hitting while playing for Cotuit in the Cape Cod League for college players. He finished third in the league’s batting race with a .387 average and belted 10 home runs.
In his sophomore season Clark picked up where left off the previous year. Teamed with Rafael Palmeiro, they formed one of the best one-two punches in the Southeastern Conference. Clark hit 15 home runs in his first 22 games, and he wound up chasing Palmeiro for the team lead in home runs and RBI all season. He finished with 28 home runs and 98 RBI, second to Palmeiro in both categories. After batting .400 for most of the season, he finished with a .386 batting average and was named to the 1984 All-SEC team.
Clark was picked for the 1984 United States Olympics team for baseball, which was treated as a demonstration sport after a 20-year hiatus. He was part of an elite group of college players brought together for the squad, including Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, B. J. Surhoff, Chris Gwynn, Cory Snyder, Scott Bankhead, and Billy Swift. With 15 first-round Major League draft picks on the roster, it was then called the best USA team ever assembled for international competition.
To prepare for the actual Olympic competition at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the USA squad took on an arduous country-wide barnstorming tour that ended in Los Angeles. Clark emerged as a marquee player on the team, overshadowing many of the first-round picks. In the 37 games in which the USA competed in pre-Olympic competition over the summer, Clark led the team with a .397 batting average, 16 home runs and 43 RBI.
Favored to capture the gold medal, the USA team wound up suffering a surprising loss to Japan in the final championship game and claimed the silver medal instead. In his five Olympic games, Clark hit three home runs and drove in eight runs, while batting .429. In an interview with Baseball America in 1991, Clark said of his Olympic experiences, “It was so loud at Dodger Stadium. That was unbelievable. It was a big-time goose bump feeling. That was the most goosebumps I’ve ever had when I’ve been on a field. More than winning a division or going to the World Series, definitely.” The Olympics experience, with high visibility and game pressure before packed stadiums, served to prepare Clark for his rapid rise to the major leagues two years later.
Clark returned to Mississippi State for his junior season in 1985 as a pre-season All-American selection by major-league scouting directors on behalf of Baseball America. He and Palmeiro were hyped as “Thunder and Lightning” for the Bulldog team expected to win the SEC title. The team also featured pitcher Jeff Brantley and outfielder/pitcher Bobby Thigpen, all of whom would become outstanding major-league players.
The Bulldogs swept their opponents for the SEC Tournament championship and then proceeded to win the NCAA South Regional to advance to the university’s third College World Series. They finished third behind powerful Miami and Texas teams. During the regular season, Clark hit 25 home runs and 77 RBI while batting .420 on his way to being voted a consensus All-American. He was named the 1985 SEC Male Athlete of the Year, the only time a baseball player had won the award at that time. He finished ahead of Auburn’s football star Bo Jackson.
Clark’s outstanding season was rewarded by winning the Golden Spikes Award, annually presented to the country’s best college player. He won over eight other finalists that included future major-leaguers B. J Surhoff (North Carolina), Barry Larkin (Michigan), Pete Incaviglia (Oklahoma State), and Greg Swindell (Texas).
In the Major League Baseball draft in June, Clark was selected by the San Francisco Giants as the overall Number 2 pick. All-American catcher B. J. Surhoff was selected ahead of Clark by the Milwaukee Brewers.
In an October 1989 interview with the Times-Picayune, Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk commented about Clark’s time at the university, “Will came to Mississippi State a highly motivated, confident kid, and he never changed. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone harder on himself. He played just as hard in intrasquad games as he played in games that counted. And when crunch time came, he always wanted the bat in his hands.”
Polk’s sentiment pretty much defined the type of player Clark would also become as a major-leaguer. Like his Olympic experience, college baseball gave Clark a chance to again play at a high level of competition. There probably has never been a more prepared player for Major League Baseball than Clark.
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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.