Thursday, March 15, 2018

Vintage Brew: “Playing it Forward… James Buster Clarkson”

James "Buster" Clarkson was known mostly as a Negro League ball player, he played with his fellow soldiers during World War 2 and his minor league career included the 1950-1952 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a short cup of Joe in the majors with the Boston Braves, but the well-traveled Clarkson was much more to those who really knew him and caught the "Bus."

"Playing it Forward…James Buster Clarkson"
by Paul Tenpenny
Copyright 2018 Tencentzports
Printed with permission of the Author

In the summer of 2016 I was invited to attend a ballgame at Miller Park by my good friend and author Bob Buege. Seated with us was the family of the newly inducted member of the Milwaukee Braves Wall of Fame, Bill Bruton. I had met the late Bruton at a signing years ago and had the privilege to talk at length with him during a break. He was a great player and a very friendly man. To get a chance to sit with his daughter and grandsons was an honor. It allowed me the time to get to know them and also afforded me an opportunity to return a "lost" passport to his family that I had acquired. It was an emotional experience for myself and the family. I was able to share with them a photo of him as a Milwaukee Brewer that they apparently had never seen.

Bill Bruton as a Milwaukee Brewer in 1952 (Author's Collection)

Our conversation led to his early experiences in baseball and the overwhelming impact that another player had on his career and life. That player was James Clarkson. "Bus, Buzz" or "Buster" Clarkson was a veteran Negro League star and a Milwaukee Brewer from 1950-1952. He was a solid hitter for the Brews during that time hitting over .300 in the three years with the team. Here are a couple of comments from teammates I had contact with for a previous article.

Teammate Charlie Gorin:
"I remember Clarkson on fielding a ground ball would make the throw and holler 'Do something with it George.' Bus was older, and his arm was a little weak, but Crowe (1st) would dig it out of the dirt. Bus made up for his arm with a strong bat."
Teammate Bert Thiel:
"Nobody knew his age but he could swing the bat with power."
Buster Clarkson as a Milwaukee Brewer in 1951 (Author's Collection)

His stats can be found on Baseball and some very good research has been done and is available online, particularly "A Long Ride to the Majors: The Story of James 'Bus' Clarkson" by Nick Diunte. This is a must read and gives us a window to the times as to how many great players were overlooked. For most, it was too late for them by the time Jackie Robinson broke down the barrier. He was undeniably a great ballplayer, but we will never get a chance to really know how great. Like longtime Brewer trainer Harry "Doc" Buckner, we can only think of the "What If"s.

By the time he arrived in Milwaukee, James Clarkson was older than most of his teammates and he became a coach and a mentor to players like Bill Bruton who were new to the game.

John Stahl in his SABR bio on Bruton tells us:
On May 31 the Braves fired manager Tommy Holmes and hired Grimm. He quickly made several roster moves, including optioning outfielder Jim "Buster" Clarkson to the Brewers. Bruton became friends with Clarkson, a veteran Braves minor-league player who had also played in the Negro Leagues. A college graduate in physical education, Clarkson began schooling Bruton on how to improve his game.

Bruton quickly turned his disastrous season around. He ended up playing in all 154 games and hit .325 for the season. His 211 hits led the American Association. In the last six weeks of the season, he stole 20 bases.

Bruton gave all the credit to Clarkson. "All I know about baseball, I owe to Bus Clarkson," he said. "He taught me a lot." After the season, Clarkson invited Bruton to play winter ball for a team he managed in the Puerto Rico League. Again, Clarkson provided Bruton with more baseball insight. This time they focused on his bunting."
Clarkson also helped players navigate life as a person of color during the 1950's as he was a "veteran" of these times too.

Milwaukee Brewers Buster Clarkson, Bill Bruton and Luis Marquez outside of Borchert Field in 1952 (Author's Collection)

Clarkson never lost sight of the future, he reached out to those younger than himself, seen here, sharing baseball with the eager children of Milwaukee. Just look at the face of the little boy being held by two of the local heroes. I wonder if Matthew Huff of Milwaukee saved this baseball? I'd love to hear from you. You'd be 71 years young today.

From May 30, 1951:
"Autograph seekers had a field day at Lapham Park playground the other day when George Crowe and Jim Clarkson of the Brewers visited the field…"
George Crowe and James Clarkson visit Milwaukee's Lapham Park playground in 1951 (Author's Collection)

James Clarkson went on to live a quiet life after his career in baseball ended in 1956.

This signature as a 1952 Brewer from a young fan's autograph book is one of my most treasured possessions.

He played his heart out, lived life well and unselfishly gave back to those younger than him in so many ways.

He paid it and played it forward.

Thanks, Bus.

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