Clyde King pitched in exactly 200 games in his big league career, started in 21, posted a 32-25 record and spent all but one season with the Dodgers.
Clyde King pitched in exactly 200 games in his big league career, started in 21, posted a 32-25 record and spent all but one season with the Dodgers.
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”– Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963)

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s always been a pleasure interviewing professional athletes, but by far and away, my favorites have been the times I had the opportunity to chat with those whose playing days ended long ago, getting a chance to listen to them reminisce about the old days – and imagining what it would be like to have walked in their shoes just one time.

How great would it have been to have stood on the pitcher’s mound, ball in hand, or in the batter’s box in Crosley Field, or Ebbets Field, or Forbes Field, or the Polo Grounds, or Sportsman’s Park in the 1940s and 1950s?

Clyde King got to see all of those places – and many more – during his six-plus decades in baseball.

When we paused last week, Mr. King (1924-2010) was just a youngster in Goldsboro, N.C., playing baseball until dark with his friends and only stopping when they couldn’t see the ball anymore.

As the years passed, Clyde King became a star pitcher with the Goldsboro High Earthquakes and the local American Legion team before playing baseball and basketball at the University of North Carolina.

In Chapel Hill, King met his wife of 60-plus years, Norma. “On our first date, we went to a ballgame,” Norma laughed when I chatted with the Kings more than a decade ago. “And we’ve been going to ballgames ever since.”

After Clyde King’s sophomore season with the Tar Heels, his life as he knew it was about to change forever.

The United States was in World War II, and many of the top baseball players — Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Ted Williams, just to name a few — were serving in the military.

King was about to get his big break.

He hopped a train to meet future Hall of Famer Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Mr. Rickey gave me a quick workout at Ebbets Field with (Dodgers manager) Leo Durocher and Clyde Sukeforth, their bullpen coach,” he recalls. “I worked out in my clothes, and they got me a pair of spikes and a glove.”

Mr. Rickey asked King to come to his office. He wanted to make sure the would-be rookie could handle the pressure of the big leagues.

“He asked me if I wanted to play professional ball,” King said. “I told him I didn’t think I was good enough, but he told me he thought I was. He asked me to sign a contract and he asked what kind of bonus I wanted. I had no idea, I just turned 20, never been out of the state (of North Carolina) before, never seen a 50 dollar bill, so I told him $5,000. I thought he was going to say, ‘Son, get on the train and go back to Goldsboro.’ He told his secretary, ‘Bring in a check for $5,000.’”

The year was 1944, and King had his start in professional baseball.

“I asked him where he wanted me to start,” King recalled. He assumed he would be heading to the minors. “‘Right here in Brooklyn,’” was the answer, King says. “I couldn’t believe that.”

It was June 21, 1944. The New York Giants were in town, and Clyde King was about to get his first call from the bullpen.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says with a smile. “I can’t remember being nervous, but I probably was. It was at Ebbets Field and I came in with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning. We were seven or eight runs behind, or else I wouldn’t have been in, you know, with me being a rookie.”

King said he got off to a good start — until he ran up against a future Hall of Famer. After getting two quick outs, slugger Mel Ott smashed a King fastball off the scoreboard for a three-run double.

“I was standing between third and home watching the runners score one right after another,” King says.

The next morning, King got a note from Mr. Rickey.

“It said for me to come by his office at 10 a.m., he wanted to speak to me,” King recalls. “So I did. He said to me, ‘You had a pretty rough night, but don’t let that bother you.’”

Mr. Rickey had a few questions for his new pitcher, specifically how many curveballs and change-ups he threw.

The answer to both was none.

“’Why not? Your curveball is your best pitch.’” Mr. Rickey replied.

The rookie pitcher had taken his cues from star catcher Mickey Owen.

“He had never seen me before — a young college kid — and he probably thought I couldn’t throw a strike,” King says. “He came out and said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to the fingers I put down — just throw all fastballs.’”

Mr. Rickey had a piece of advice.

“Mr. Rickey said, ‘Don’t you think Mel Ott was sitting in that on-deck circle and realized you were throwing all fastballs? He knew he was going to get a fastball. You’re in charge as a pitcher. If you don’t like what the catcher puts down, you shake your head.’

“That was my first lesson.”

Clyde King pitched in exactly 200 games in his big league career, started in 21, posted a 32-25 record and spent all but one season with the Dodgers.

In 1951, his best season, he had a 14-7 record and was fifth in the National League with six saves. That same year, he pulled off a rare feat — he notched two wins in relief in one day against the Cardinals.

“I loved relief, I loved coming in when the game was on the line,” he says.

In an era where starting pitchers saw it as a weakness not to finish ballgames, King was one of the relief pitchers who began to revolutionize the game.

King did not see himself as a trend-setter. He was just a guy trying to get outs.

“If you look at my record, you could tell (all outs) were all tough for me,” King laughs. “My toughest hitter was Stan Musial. In fact, when he found out I was going to pitch, he’d send a cab to make sure I got to the park…”

Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next week with the life and times of Clyde King, followed by other boys of summers past…

Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.