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This is the life that Jack Built
Rick Reilly
July 22, 1991
Red Sox slugger Jack Clark looks back in anger
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July 22, 1991

This Is The Life That Jack Built

Red Sox slugger Jack Clark looks back in anger

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Cry for his father? What would he miss? What had John given him? Nothing but a run-down apartment in a Pittsburgh tenement that was too hot to sleep in during the summer. He had been left to stand on his own two feet since he was 13, working odd jobs to help his mother pay the bills. Usually it wasn't enough. When the landlord came, mother and child would hide in the coal cellar until he left. That kind of soot stains long after you wash it off. You grow up hard that way, hard and alone.

Ralph Clark read. He loved books. He dreamed of going to college, but by his sophomore year in high school, he realized his father had drunk up all the money. Are you kidding? When the guy died, he still owed $10 on his wristwatch. Ralph made the final payment.

This is the father that Jack had, an angry man who befriended few and trusted fewer. Ralph Clark won't go to see doctors. "Don't trust 'em," he says. He and his wife, Jennie, left Pittsburgh in 1957 and moved the family to Covina, Calif., in a station wagon. The two kids slept on a mattress pad in the wagon, with newspapers taped on the window to keep out the morning sun, until Ralph sold the wagon to make a down payment on a house. For six months neighbors kept the family's milk because the Clarks had no refrigerator. Ralph took a job at a paint factory and for the next 22 years spent his days mixing chemicals and his nights grouchy and tired from the fumes. Usually, he would fall asleep watching TV on the living room floor.

If a bill came, Ralph couldn't concentrate unless he paid it right then, right now. No wonder he has had a triple-A credit rating his whole life. When the family car broke down at the Sav-on drugstore one day, he turned and started walking home, 12 miles away, with the children in tow. No calls for rides or help or a cab. What could Jack do but follow behind? The whole way home, nobody said a word.

This is the childhood that fear built. You grow up afraid of your father, so you learn to depend on nobody but yourself. You grow up hard and alone. Ralph never taught Jack baseball. Jack never asked. The neighbor across the street taught him. Jack wandered over to the Little League tryouts by himself one day when he was 11. "I remember being so alone," says Clark, "totally lost."

And though Jack was wonderfully graceful on a diamond, his father rarely came to his games. And when he did, he would only criticize. "I think Jack's dad put incredible pressure on Jack to be perfect," says Stu Reeder, Clark's varsity coach at Gladstone High in Azusa, Calif. "Jack would tell me he'd say, 'You're never going to amount to anything.' "

One day Jack pitched a great game, a few-hitter, and won, only to have his father curse him out. "It really hurt me," Jack remembers. "I thought I'd done pretty well. And he made me feel like crawling under a chair."

So instead of being perfect, Jack tried to be just the opposite. The idea was to do anything that would make the old man angry. And not just his old man, any old man, anybody in authority who had the potential to make him feel like crawling under a chair. He quit the freshman team at Gladstone because he didn't like the coach's telling him what to do. He quit his first job because the boss came in drunk one night and cursed him. Clark's friends were the low-riders, the gang members, the greasers with their customized rods and tiny front wheels.

If you think Jack's father didn't like them, you should have seen what he thought of the boy's Mexican-American girlfriend. She and Jack dated for two years. She was so poor he often bought her clothes. They were inseparable. "I did my best to break it up, because a Pennsylvanian is different," Ralph says. "I don't believe I ever saw a Mexican until I came to California. I had some in the company I worked for, and I didn't have too great a dealing with some of them."

Eventually the relationship with the girlfriend ended, but the resentment didn't. You could never tell when father and son might fight. One time Jack stole some fishing stuff from Sears and got caught. When the police brought him home, his dad did nothing. But when Jack forgot to cut the lawn one day, Ralph chased him out the door and down the block.

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