1921 Orioles: Rufe Clarke

Yesterday we talked about Wade Lefler – the ultimate utilityman. With the 1921 Orioles suffering more than the usual number of injuries to their regulars, it was up to versatile guys like Lefler to step in an fill in the holes wherever he was needed. Another valuable utilityman on the team that summer was a pitcher, Rufe Clarke. With a starting rotation of Ogden-Grove-Thomas-Bentley and Harry Frank in the bullpen, there was not much use for a rookie right-hander. However, Clarke just so happened to have been a former first baseman and an all-around talented ballplayer – an attribute that came in handy in the summer of ’21.

Rufus Rivers Clarke hailed from Estill, South Carolina. He grew up on the family farm and was the second of six kids. Like most boys, Rufus grew up emulating his older brother Sumpter, taking up baseball and the first baseman’s spot just like him. The Clarke boys played ball throughout grammar and high school, each exhibiting talent that set them apart from others their age. Two years older than Rufus, Sumpter enrolled in The Citadel in 1914, then transferred to South Carolina University where he continued to play baseball and football.

Rufus, now known as “Rufe,” enrolled at Davidson College two years later. He earned two letters in baseball before the war took him away from his studies. Rufe trained as an infantry officer and was discharged as a lieutenant. He returned to Davidson where he was converted to a pitcher. By this time Rufe was just over 6 foot and his service in the army had him pushing 200 pounds. As the hardest thrower on the team, his coach put him on the mound. His record the first year was 5-9, then 4-10 in 1920. While the wins column wasn’t anything to brag about, looking inside the number we see that he posted a 15-inning, 13 strikeout game against North Carolina and tossed a pair of shutouts against Virginia and North Carolina.

In 1918, Sumpter had left South Carolina University and signed with Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles as an outfielder. When Rufe graduated in the spring of ’19, the Orioles proffered a contract, but he declined, preferring to put his degree to use as a banker. This new profession may not have agreed with Clarke, because in December 1920 it was announced that he would be joining the Orioles in spring training.

Jack Dunn was high on the college grad, but he would have to wait a bit longer to see him in an Orioles uniform – an appendectomy sidelined him until the second week in May. From that point on, Dunn used Rufe as a spot starter and reliever. The 1921 Orioles had one of the finest starting rotations in minor league history, with 31 game winner Jack Ogden, future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, 24 game winner Tommy Thomas and Jack Bentley who went 12-1 on the slab when he wasn’t playing first base. While there wasn’t much of a chance for the rookie to crack that rotation, his being a former first baseman meant that he could fill in for Bentley when he pitched. With all the injuries that plagued the Orioles that summer, Rufe’s first base experience allowed Dunn to move Wade Lefler, normally Bentley’s replacement, into the outfield when Jacobson and Holden went down. The right-hander posted a boastful .287 to go with his 9-4 pitching record as the Birds won their third consecutive pennant.

Earlier in the season the team almost lost the services of Clarke as well as ace Jack Ogden and catcher Ducky Davis. Baltimore sporting goods salesman Harvey Slade had accompanied the team on a road trip to Syracuse. After an exhibition game in Auburn, Clarke, Ogden and Davis piled into Slades’ car, described as a “high-powered one” and the quartet sped off towards Syracuse. Along the way, Slade accelerated to an unsafe speed, prompting Clarke and Ogden to protest loudly. Slade sped on, passing car after car until he sideswiped one vehicle careening into the opposite lane and causing an on-coming car to crash in a ditch. Slade continued at break-neck speed. Somehow the frightened Orioles trio was able to escape on the outskirts of Syracuse, hiring a taxi to take them back to the team hotel, presumably at the speed limit.

The Orioles won a record 119 games and finish 20 games up on second place Rochester. In the Junior World Series against Louisville, the injury ridden Birds lost the best of nine series, 5 games to 3. Clarke got into the first game, a Baltimore loss, surrendering  seven runs and seven hits in two innings.. Dunn gave him the ball again in Game 3, this time in the bottom of the 8th with Louisville up 8-7. Clarke came apart at the seams, giving up 6 runs on six hits.

Despite his poor showing in the Junior World Series, Clarke was expected to play a big part in the 1922 rotation, as well as spelling Bentley when he pitched. However Clarke never really got hot during the spring, and in May he was optioned to the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. When he failed to master control over his pitches, the Crackers sent him to the Augusta Tygers of the South Atlantic League. He ended the season at 9-13. Returning in 1923, Rufe was rejuvenated, winning 17 games along with a no-hitter against Columbia. In July the Detroit Tigers bought his contract with a late-season delivery date.

In the meantime, Rufe’s brother Sumpter, who had played 1918 and part of 1919 with Baltimore, had  single game cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1920. At the same time his kid brother was preparing to join Detroit, Sumpter was on his way back to the majors with Cleveland. Rufe made his debut first, getting a win in a relief appearance on September 3 against the White Sox. Rufe would get into five games before the season ended, recording a 1-1 record with a 4.50 ERA. He was back with Detroit in ’24, but was sent down to Birmingham after just 2 appearances. It seems like a knee injury sealed his fate with Detroit, and surgery on his tonsils and then his adenoids stymied his professional career. With so many healthy pitchers to choose in the minors, not many teams were willing to risk taking a chance on an injury and illness-prone right-hander. Rufe bounced from Birmingham in ’24 to Atlanta to Asheville in ’25. Another injury, this time to his hip, ended his playing days.

Rupe retired to Columbia, South Carolina and put his degree back to use, working as a banker. By the early 1930s he was vice president of the Federal Land Bank and a popular member of Columbia society. His 1935 marriage to Alice Childs Urquhart was considered the social event of the year. The couple had two daughters before Rufe retired in 1978. He spent the years up to his death in 1983 dedicated to various charities around Columbia.

Rufe Clarke wasn’t one of the big starters of the ’21 Orioles, but his record of 9 victories for the team shows he had what it takes to win in the International League. It’s a sure bet that the time he logged playing alongside the likes of Jack Ogden, Lefty Groves and Tommy Thomas gave him the experience that took him to the major leagues two years later, one of the thirteen 1921 Birds that made it to The Show.

Thursday brings us to the last of the twenty 1921 Orioles profiles – another hometown boy and future big leaguer, Lefty Matthews.

You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.

The set of 20 art cards are available for pre-order HERE IN MY STORE