Although never considered the premier pitcher of his day, Clarkson was highly regarded by teammates and opponents alike. He is still among the all-time leaders in wins, winning percentage, complete games, innings pitched, and several fielding categories.
Starting in an era of two-man rotations, Clarkson led the NL in wins, appearances, starts, complete games, innings, and strikeouts in 1885, 1887, and 1889; in shutouts in 1885 and 1889; and in strikeouts and ERA in 1889. As a result, the teams he pitched for during this period, the Chicago White Sox (later the Cubs) and the Boston Beaneaters (later the Braves), were consistently in contention, winning two pennants each. He accounted for 53 of the White Sox 87 wins in 1885, and 49 of Boston’s 83 victories in 1889. His win totals in those two years rank second and fourth on the all-time season list. On July 27, 1885, Clarkson hurled a no-hit, no-run game against the Providence Grays.
Manager Cap Anson proclaimed Clarkson “one of the greatest of pitchers,” but complained about his ace’s perpetual psychological demands, chiding that “he won’t pitch if scolded.” Clarkson was intelligent, sensitive, handsome, and generally subdued, but was not above certain acts of indiscretion on the field. In one game, he pitched a lemon instead of a ball to prove to the umpire that it was too dark to continue play. His contemporaries considered him a calculating, scientific pitcher who carefully analyzed every hitter’s weaknesses. Peering out from deep-set dark eyes, his long, lean fingers cradling the ball, he had a slow, assured pace to his delivery, and he may well have dominated some hitters by intimidation alone.
The deal which sent Clarkson to Boston in 1888 rocked the baseball world, as he and teammate Mike “King” Kelly were sold outright to the Beaneaters for $10,000 apiece – an incredible sum at the time. After four years in Boston, a new manager, Frank Selee, traded Clarkson to also-ran Cleveland, where his talents faded. Along with pitching siblings Dad and Walter, John Clarkson shares third place in most career wins by brothers, behind the Niekros and Perrys (John and Dad both pitched for Boston in 1892). A business student before turning to pro ball, Clarkson purchased a cigar store in Cambridge upon retirement and ran it until his death at age 47. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 54 years later.