The simple brilliance of Clyde Sukeforth
Ninety-three-year-old Clyde Sukeforth, donning a plaid blazer and a red baseball cap, slowly walked past an exhibit in Gibbs Library. A 2,500 square foot brick building, Gibbs serves as the focal point of its small but passionate community, bringing authors, performers and others of “local interest” to the coastal town of Washington, Maine.
After 48 years in the big leagues, Sukeforth undoubtedly fell into the “local interest” category. As he gazed up at dozens of black-and-white photographs of himself adorning the walls, he incredulously posited a question: “Why are you bothering with a second-string catcher?”
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For anyone who knew Sukeforth, or has listened to his interviews, this reaction shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The former backstop was self-effacing to his core, dodging compliments like they were wild pitches. But whether he thought he deserved an exhibit at Gibbs Library or not, one fact remains indisputable: Clyde Sukeforth was much more than a backup catcher.
If you need further proof, just ask Jackie Robinson. In 1972, the year of his passing, the baseball pioneer wrote to the man who first scouted him:
“Please understand that I do not have any reservations in praise for the role that Clyde Sukeforth played in the growth and development of my beginnings in baseball. I have been very appreciative of the fact that whenever there were problems in the earlier days, I could always go to you, talk with you, and receive the warm and friendly advise that I always did.
“While there has not been enough said of your significant contribution in the Rickey-Robinson experiment, I consider your role, next to Mr. Rickey’s and my wife’s – yes, bigger than any other persons with whom I came in contact. I have always considered you to be one of the true giants in this initial endeavor in baseball, for which I am truly appreciative.”
That letter is now preserved in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, along with Sukeforth’s response to it, years later, in a note to a friend:
“I sincerely appreciate your thoughts about the Robinson letter, but I have no ambitions in that direction. The letter was written (the year of) his death, to thank me again for the part I played in the early days of integration when the going was rough. Actually, I did nothing that anyone in my position, free of prejudice, couldn’t or wouldn’t have done. No big deal.”
“The Royals had this baby-faced Negro in right field,” he told Sports Collectors Digest. “They were having their infield and outfield practice and here was this kid out there – with a real great arm. You couldn’t help noticing that. He wasn’t playing, though. Max Macon was the manager, and Max had played for me in Montreal. In the seventh inning the Royals are behind and who should go up to pinch hit? This boy in right field. I didn’t even know what his name was then; I didn’t have any batting order. He hit a routine ground ball to shortstop and the play at first base was bang-bang. I mean, they just got him. So he’s showed me he could throw and run, right then. The next four nights I was out there watching him in batting practice. His form was a little bit unorthodox but he had a pretty good power stroke. So I wrote Mr. Rickey and I said, ‘Joe Black hasn’t pitched, but I have you a draft choice.’”
The Pirates finished last by a big margin the season before, so Pittsburgh had the first choice in that winter’s Rule 5 Draft. Sukeforth knew who his first choice would be. But when he got back to Pittsburgh, he received some pushback from fellow scouts.
“One of the scouts had a candidate—an infielder in the Southern League – and another one had a pitcher someplace else,” Sukeforth said. “Mr. Rickey asked, ‘Do you have a candidate, Clyde?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, Clemente with Montreal.’
‘Any of the rest of you fellows seen Clemente?’
“One fellow said, ‘I did. I didn’t like him.’”
“’What didn’t you like?’”
“’Well,’” he said, “’He wasn’t playing for one thing and I didn’t like his arm.’”
“I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to embarrass the guy, but I knew very well he didn’t get a look at the arm. The boy may have been pouting or something because he wasn’t playing. I told him afterwards, ‘You didn’t see his arm. He probably just didn’t feel like throwing, but don’t think he can’t throw.’”
“Well, you’ve got one guy that says he’s got a great arm, another guy who doesn’t like it. First choice is very important to us, so he sent George Sisler and Holly Hague to Montreal to see him. Naturally, we drafted him. For $4,000, it wasn’t bad deal.”
Finding two Hall of Famers in a 10-year span is akin to winning the lottery twice in a lifetime. But years after Clemente and Robinson earned their bronze plaques, Sukeforth maintained his assessment of himself as the middleman – and nothing else.
“I don’t know. I am not a good scout,” he told the Hall of Fame. “I can just pick out the Hall of Famers. The guys that I picked out, anyone would have picked out. The good scouts can see something in attitude, movement. I have missed major leaguers without even reporting on them.”
Sukeforth remained with the Pirates for a couple more years, making more influential decisions along the way – among them, recommending Danny Murtaugh as skipper of the Bucs in 1957 (“Rickey thought that Murtaugh couldn’t handle players. I talked him out of that.”) He retired in 1966 and moved to Waldoboro, Maine, where he picked up life right where he left off: Chopping wood, hunting and fishing, and following the Red Sox.
Sukey was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, and the Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. Three years later, Prescott Memorial School opened Clyde Sukeforth Field, which continues to host Little League teams to this day.
On Sept. 3, 2000, Clyde Sukeforth’s 98-year journey ended only 13.1 miles from where it began, on Old Broad Bay. No services were held, per his request. The “second-string catcher” wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t ask for a lot out of life, but I do want contentment,” Sukeforth said. “I could never find it as a manager. I have a happy home life, own a farm in Waldoboro, Maine, and among other things I grow up there are Christmas trees. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum