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Who's your favorite alltime Red Sox player? Carl Yastrzemski? Ted Williams? Jimmie Foxx? Joe Cronin? Lefty Grove? Tris Speaker? Babe Ruth? Smokey Joe Wood? Cy Young? None of the above, says Ellery H. Clark Jr. His choice: the immortal Harry Hooper.
Clark deserves to be taken seriously. The official Red Sox historian for the past five years, he has written three books on the team and collected more than 1,000 cards, pictures, paintings, letters and other Sox memorabilia. As a retired professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, he is equipped to judge events of the past, be they martial or sporting. As a race walker who was asked to try out for the Olympics and as a "junk" pitcher who was offered a scholarship at Dartmouth (he turned down both to study at Harvard), he understands the nature of competition. And as the most successful coach in Navy history—one of his charges was a plebe cross-country runner named Jimmy Carter—he has insight into managing as well.
Understandably, Clark is a popular figure in baseball-crazy New England, but he merits national attention, too. After all, the Red Sox could be called baseball's version of America's Team. They engaged our attention with their "impossible dream" pennant in 1967, won our affection in the wondrous 1975 World Series and broke hearts from Burlington to Bakersfield in 1978's Game of the Decade, when they were felled by the mighty bat of Bucky Dent.
Now, a few words about the late Mr. Hooper. A close friend and correspondent of Clark's, Hooper played outfield for the Sox from 1909 through 1920. It was his catch of Larry Doyle's certain home run that saved the final game of the 1912 World Series.
"Hooper was simply my kind of player, a leadoff hitter who could get on base and was swift afoot both on base and in the field," says Clark, who has suffered with Boston's tragically flawed, power-conscious teams of recent vintage. Stung by a variety of heart-breakers—the seven-game losses in the 1946, 1967 and 1975 Series, the playoff defeats of 1948 and 1978, and numerous pennant and divisional drives that fell short—many Boston fans have affected what The New Yorker's Roger Angell calls an air of "Calvinist self-doubt." These pessimists, insists Clark, "are prejudiced people, not fans." In defense of his theory that most Boston fans are optimists, Clark has a file of 836 pro-Sox letters from men and women of all ages. Granting that modern Boston teams have been frequent disappointments, Clark notes that the Red Sox were the best clutch team in baseball during the first two decades of the century. Despite the skills of those earlier Bostonians, Clark prefers the 1967 pennant winners, calling them "my favorite team ever." But Clark is neither hopeful nor despairing—a product, he says, of his half-Yankee, half-Italian heritage.
When asked to compare modern and old-time players, most baseball historians recall the '20s, '30s or '40s. Clark can look all the way back to the teens. "The Red Sox then were like a family," he says. "There was no Sunday baseball, and the entire team would go to Revere Beach on days off."
Clark speaks of his own endurance, a classic Navy trait, as seeing him through the down years. He has known six generations of players and at the first game he attended, in 1918, Babe Ruth was pitching, so he feels adequately compensated for his longtime devotion.
His books—Boston Red Sox 75th Anniversary Edition: 1901-1975, Red Sox Forever and Red Sox Fever—are sentimental, formally written and admittedly uncritical. But as a fan, Clark feels free to explore arcane subjects that wouldn't interest "professional" writers. He delves into scorecard advertisements, creates numerous statistical charts, makes up trivia quizzes, exchanges correspondence with players and scouts and examines the phenomenon of long-lived players. "I researched the lifespan of the players on the first 11 Red Sox teams, and they averaged 70.4 years," he says. "I attribute their longevity to several factors, including heredity, diet, exercise and luck. But there's another important reason. A lot of Red Sox went on to become successful college coaches and lived long, happy lives. I coached and taught for the same reason. Every 12 months you get one year older, but the athletes stay in the same general age group. It's good to be around young people—it keeps you young."
Cases in point are the white-haired Clark, 71, and his wife, Grace, a British-trained choreographer and ballet instructor. The Clarks divide their time between their Victorian house in Annapolis, Md., and their summer home in Cohasset, south of Boston. They are avid collectors—duck decoys, Falkland Island stamps, English figurines, family portraits (Clark's father, Ellery Sr., was a double winner, in the high and broad jumps, at the 1896 Olympics, and his ancestor William Ellery was a signer of the Declaration of Independence)—but the Red Sox are never far from mind. A Clark dog is named Teddy after Ted Williams, a Clark cat is called Mr. Boston, and Ellery drives a red car with RED SOX on the license plate. To the ultimate authority and fan, something Pitcher Lee Stange said to him in 1967 has the highest priority. "Mr. Clark," said Stange, "We've got to win."