Texas Leaguer hit eight home runs in one game - or did he?

By Kevin Sherrington / The Dallas Morning News

More than a quarter-century after his curious baseball career ended, Jay Justin "Nig" Clarke received a nosy visitor at his home in River Rouge, Mich.

The reporter could have covered a lot of topics. He could have asked how he got his insensitive nickname, which was fairly common for athletes of dark complexion at the turn of the century, although in this case Clarke was a Canadian of Indian descent. He could have asked Clarke if he was, indeed, the catcher who popularized the use of shin guards, or if it was true that Ty Cobb called him one of the two best catchers he ever saw.

Justin "Nig" Clarke is believed to have hit eight home runs in a minor league game in 1902.

Better yet, he could have asked about the time someone actually stole first base off him.

None of those topics came up, though. The reporter was hunting bigger legend in the fall of 1947.

What he wanted to know was whether Clarke really hit eight home runs in a game in Ennis, Texas.

Eight official at-bats.

Eight home runs.

A modest man at 63, Clarke still worked five nights a week as a welder's helper. He didn't seem eager to talk about one of the most famous performances in minor league history, a Texas League game in which Corsicana beat Texarkana, 51-3, the score itself an unfathomable number.

Couldn't he talk about catching Addie Joss' no-hitter instead? Or what about 1906, when he hit .358 for Cleveland?

Still, the visitor persisted until Clarke gave in, ultimately conjuring an evocative scene from June 15, 1902, just outside the little town south of Dallas.

In remarkable detail, Clarke recalled the weather, the actions of the Texarkana pitcher, the proximity of the wooden fence in right field, the $185 he collected after fans passed the hat.

One by one, the eight epic home runs soared again, tracing a path in his memory as brilliant as falling stars might against a black velvet night until disappearing once more.

"I remember it," Clarke told the reporter, "as though it were yesterday."

Hardly anyone else would, unfortunately. Once voted the second most famous feat in minor league history, Clarke's record-setting day nevertheless came under question almost immediately, and has been debated ever since. Even sworn affidavits from three witnesses would not dispel doubts.

A couple of weeks after Clarke's story appeared in The Sporting News , a letter questioned its veracity. Arthur O. Schott of New Orleans based his doubts on box scores and an account by a prominent baseball historian.

"Surely there is a gross error somewhere," Schott wrote the editors of The Sporting News, "and I am one follower of baseball who would like to know just how many home runs Clarke really did obtain ..."

Nearly a century after the game, some are still asking.

In the summer of 1902, the best hope for officials of the new Class D Texas League was that it would last longer than it had in previous incarnations. Organized loosely in the previous fall at the Blue Front cafe, a Dallas landmark, it opened with six teams: Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, Corsicana, Paris and Sherman-Denison.

From the start, it was clear that officials hadn't thought everything all the way through. Official umpires weren't hired until the season was well under way, and game accounts routinely criticized scorers for failing to know the rules.

Owners were flighty, too. The Sherman-Denison team lost 10 games in its first 11 days before owner and manager Cy Mulkey, citing a lack of fan support, moved it to Texarkana.

On the other hand, Corsicana never had fielded a professional baseball team in any league, but J. Doak Roberts assembled a juggernaut. Besides Clarke, the Oil City team had three other players who would go on to play in the big leagues: shortstops J. Walter Morris and Hunter Hill and pitcher Lucky Wright.

Sponsored by Oil City Iron Works, Corsicana played a brand of ball unheard of in the area, before or since.

Corsicana Daily Sun
Pictured are the Corsicana Oilers, 1902 Texas League champions and winners of a record 27 straight games. Standing second from left is Justin "Nig" Clarke.

By the end of June, Corsicana was in first place, a staggering 22 games ahead of second-place Dallas. At one point, Oil City won 27 consecutive games, a professional baseball record that would hold until the Salt Lake City Trappers broke it in 1987.

A week into its record run, Corsicana faced Texarkana. All that Texarkana had on its side going into its June 15 game against the league leaders were Corsicana's blue laws, which forbade Sunday baseball in Oil City Park on the south side of town.

Officials moved the game to a ballpark outside nearby Ennis, which would prove to be even more hospitable to the home team.

One look around indicated problems. A section of bleachers along the first-base foul line cut sharply across the outfield. Clarke later would estimate that the right-field foul pole was 210 feet from home plate. But Morris, in an interview with a Fort Worth writer in 1940, said it couldn't have been more than 140.

By the time the shelling of those bleachers was over, Corsicana had piled up 51 runs on 53 hits, five errors, three walks and three men hit by pitches.

The entire Corsicana barrage was officially loaded onto the pitching record of an unfortunate chap named C.B. DeWitt, a first baseman and outfielder making his second pitching appearance in what would be his only season in the Texas League.

Over the years, historians have speculated about just who DeWitt was, and why any manager would have subjected him to such humiliation. Most references call DeWitt an owner or part-owner of the Texarkana team who insisted on pitching. In some accounts, he is made out to be the son of the owner, who browbeat Mulkey into starting his boy until the manager relented.

A couple of problems arise in these versions: The 1901 Texarkana city directory lists a Charles B. DeWitt as a "proprietor" and a Charles J. DeWitt at the same home address. The latter's occupation is designated as a cashier. No C.J. DeWitt is listed in Texas League records.

Also, the June 20 edition of The Dallas Morning News reported that Mulkey sold his team, last in the Texas League with a 14-34 record, to C.B. DeWitt and F.M. Ball on June 19.

Unless a deal already was in the works, DeWitt didn't own the team on June 15. And, even if he did, why would anyone on an owner's ego trip remain on the mound to absorb the worst beating any pitcher ever received?

Perhaps the wrong DeWitt took the blame. In his 1940 interview, Morris said that minutes before the game in Ennis, a young man introduced himself to Mulkey as the owner's son and told him that his daddy wanted him to pitch.

The manager lived by the letter of the order. "After each inning," Morris recalled, "Mulkey would walk by me and whisper, 'So his old man sent him down to pitch today. Well, he's damn sure pitchin'."

Whether it was C.B. or C.J. DeWitt, no one knows for sure. No one considered the question at the time. In fact, not much was made of the game at all.

In initial accounts, The News incorrectly reported the score as 50-3, a result it attempted to resolve with a followup story the next day.

Under the headline "Ennis game unique," the story begins: "Yesterday's game of baseball at Ennis, in which the Oil City team defeated Texarkana by a score of 51 to 3, was in some respects, the most remarkable game ever played."

The story went on to note that "Clark [sic] of Corsicana broke the world's record in batting, making eight runs, three of them home-runs, and eighteen bases out of eight times at the bat."

Three home runs. Not eight. The story also reported that Corsicana had 16 home runs in all, another record. However, The Dallas Daily Times Herald and the Waco Times-Herald both reported that Corsicana hit 20 home runs, a figure closer to the later-revised total of 21.

So what happened? Early reports blame a teletype operator or disbelieving copy editors, who figured the "8" must have been a "3" and merely corrected it.

Or was the official scorer to blame? In the Waco paper's account, the scoring was "impossible to figure out," although the report noted that "Corsicana could have made more [runs] but the players became too tired to run bases."

The Times Herald added the following cryptic note:

Corsicana "made so many runs that the official scorer went up in the air and darkness interfered before the end of the ninth inning."

Whatever "went up in the air" might have meant in 1902, if anything, the scorer's faculties were a source of concern. In another newspaper account, repeated in a column by The News' Frank X. Tolbert in 1965, Corsicana manager and first baseman Mike O'Connor is alleged to have inflated the totals.

"The official scorer lost his head," the account reads, "but the foxy manager of the Oil City boys has discovered a tabulated record which goes as the official figures. He realizes the benefits in swelling batting averages ..."

More cynicism was to follow. In his book Balldom, former American League statistician George Moreland spent two pages arguing that it was impossible for Clarke to have hit eight home runs in the game, using box scores as evidence.

In the face of increasing doubts, the Texas League battled back. In 1916, league historian William Ruggles reportedly elicited a sworn affidavit from the official scorer in Ennis, an account which was published in The News and later reported in one of Ruggles' Texas League anthologies.

Ruggles also would cite sworn statements from Roberts, the Corsicana owner, and Morris, both of whom later became presidents of the Texas League.

Still, the doubts persisted. None of the several versions of the box score for the game "proves out," referring to the mathematical formula that scorers use to make sure the box is accurate.

And even some of the generally accepted facts have been questioned. In a followup column in '65, Tolbert reported a letter that he received from Jim Perry of Dallas. Perry noted that his uncle, Bob White of Uvalde, questioned several aspects of the box score, including a stolen base attributed to Clarke.

A walk might have precipitated that stolen base and still left Clarke with a perfect 8-for-8, or even 8-for-10, as it is reported in some accounts. However, White and Perry also took exception to the game's reported running time.

"Do you think a game that had 101 times at bat, plus 7 unlisted at bats in walks and hit batsmen, 54 runs and 62 base hits could have been completed in two hours and 10 minutes?" Perry wrote.

OK, so it sounds unlikely. But who was Jim Perry or Bob White to question what happened on June 15, 1902?

Well, White might have some credibility. He was one of Corsicana's pitchers.

"That's one game," he told his nephew, "that no one really knows what happened."

Corsicana's rout of Texarkana probably set in motion a number of developments in the Texas League. C.B. DeWitt, or his son, never pitched again. And, three weeks later, the league voted to drop Texarkana and Waco from the league for the second half. Corsicana won that, too, bringing its overall record to 88-23, one of the best in minor league history.

Corsicana, however, lasted only three more years in the Texas League. By 1905, his old club's last season, Clarke was making his major league debut with the Cleveland Naps.

His career took several odd turns. In his rookie season, after playing most of the year with Cleveland, he was traded to Detroit. Three games and 10 days later, he went back to Cleveland, where he remained through 1910. After spending the 1911 season with the St. Louis Browns, he didn't make it back to the major leagues again until 1919, when he played a few games for the Phillies, and '20, in Pittsburgh. A fulltime catcher only one season, the 5-8, 165-pound Clarke hit only six home runs in 506 big-league games. Though Ty Cobb spoke glowingly of him as a defensive catcher, Clarke made 102 errors in nine seasons, including 29 in 1911.

By then, his arm shot, baserunners took advantage of him. In 1908, catching for Cleveland, he held the ball as Detroit's Germany Schaefer took off for second with a runner at third. Figuring he could draw a throw, Schaefer ran back to first, which was legal at the time, then ran back to second.

Humiliated or rattled, Clarke threw to second, and the runner scored. And even that may not have been his low point. The New York Highlanders once stole eight bases with him behind the plate.

But none of those embarrassing moments came up when a reporter for The Sporting News came to visit Clarke in the fall of '47. All the stranger wanted to talk about was the game in 1902.

He didn't get many facts. The longer Clarke talked in the little house he shared with his 85-year-old mother, the more he filled the reporter's pad with bad information: the number of runs scored the first three innings, Texarkana's starting pitcher and subsequent relievers, the length of the game, his line in the box score, the reason they played that day in Ennis.

All of the above Clarke got wrong, at least according to accepted records. The rest is hard to say, but it makes for a good story.

After his fourth home run, Clarke said, a wealthy cattleman stepped out of the stands and pressed a $50 bill into his hands.

The next time up, after a hot prairie breeze lifted his fifth fly ball out of the park, another man came forward, another $50 in his fist.

"He was the rival cattle baron," Clarke said, smiling.

By then, Clarke recalled, fans clamored loudly for more of the same. Let the kid hit it, they yelled.

"They fed the ball to me all right," said Clarke, a left-handed hitter. "High and on the inside. I got the sixth and seventh up in the air and wind carried them right over the fence. The last one just got over."

In Morris' recollection, Clarke "just pulled eight short flies around and over that wall ... that's the way he hit eight homers that day. Didn't have to send the ball more than 140 feet at the most."

Still, fans were impressed. No one else hit more than three home runs, and Texarkana didn't record any. Fans passed the hat, as is still the custom in minor league games. Besides the pair of 50s, Clarke said, he collected an additional $85, the one-day total more than a month's salary.

"Besides, when I got back to Corsicana, I was all set," he said. "I got enough hats and shoes and shirts to last me for years."

The record has outlasted even those rewards, despite its doubters. The National Association of Professional Baseball once listed it second among the minor leagues' 50 most famous records, between Ron Neccia's 27 strikeouts in one game in 1952 and outfielder Walter Carlisle's unassisted triple play in 1911, completed by the former circus acrobat while executing a somersault.

Clarke's feat was cited as a prime factor when he was inducted posthumously into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, and eight home runs in one game remains the official standard for minor league baseball.

Not that it mattered in perception. In his last known interview, two years before he died of a heart attack at 66, Clarke said strangers invariably greeted him with raised eyebrows.

The general reaction was evident even in one of the headlines over The Sporting News story on Oct. 22, 1947: "Hard to Believe - But Box Score Says It's True."

No, it doesn't, actually. Arthur O. Schott, now 83 and still living in New Orleans, still hasn't received a definitive letter questioning Clarke's feat, either.

So do you think he hit eight home runs or not? "Sometimes," Schott said, "I have my suspicions that he didn't."

The truth of what happened on June 15, 1902 is hard to come by, and always was. Clarke didn't help matters. He even got the date wrong when telling the story, though the right one would take on added significance. He would die on the 47th anniversary.