Donn Alvin Clendenon was born July 15, 1935 in Neosho, Missouri. His father died when he was six months old, and his mother remarried former Negro League catcher-Nish Williams. They then moved to the Atlanta Georgia area where he spent most of his time growing up. Donn Clendenon was a star athlete growing up not only in baseball but basketball & football as well. He actually preferred playing the other sports over baseball.
His step father, Nish Williams influenced young Donn to play baseball, and coached most of the early teams he played on. Clendenon would get the chance to meet & get pointers from some of his step dads famous baseball friends. This included MLB Players like Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson & Negro League stars like Sad Sam Jones & the legendary Satchel Paige among the many. Later in 1970 he received a congratulatory phone call from an aging Cool Papa Bell who tearfully apologized for missing Nish Williams funeral two years prior.
In high school he finished second in his class & was set to attend UCLA in California. Instead he chose to go to Morehouse College which was closer to his home. There he earned 12 letters in sports & graduated with good grades. On top of that in the schools tradition of having Big Brother mentors, Clendenon had his own, non other than Martin Luther King Jr. King was a huge influence to Clendenon as one would imagine. He formed a close relationship with King, a Morehouse graduate as well and became close with the King family.
Clendenon started out working as a fourth grade school teacher in Atlanta, but soon the offers came rolling in. He received invitations from the NFL Cleveland Browns, the NBA New York Knicks and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. In 1957 he ended up accepting a contract for less money with the legendary Branch Rickey to play baseball in Pittsburgh with the Pirates.
The six foot four Clendenon put up some big hitting numbers in the minors by 1959 batting .356 with 30 HRs. In 1960 he hit .335 at A ball Savannah then .290 at AAA Columbus the next season.
Clendenon made his MLB debut with Pittsburgh on September 22nd 1961, playing left field in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He got his first career hit the next day & went 11-35 in nine games that September. He would play in 80 games the next year, eventually taking over the first base job held by future Met "Dr. Strange Glove" Dick Stuar. Stuart was a slugger but a terrible fielder. Donn hit 7 HRs with 8 doubles 5 triples a .376 on base % 38 RBIs & a .302 average, coming in runner up to Ken Hubbs for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
He proved he could hit & remained in Pittsburgh for eight seasons as a good RBI man but was overshadowed by All Stars Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. In 1963 he hit .275 with 15 HRs leading the NL in strikeouts (136). Clendenon would strike out over 100 times six times & lead the league again in that category in 1968.
Clendenon took a job in the off season as many player did in those days. The educated Clendenon worked for Pittsburgh's giant Mellon Bank, which also led to jobs at the District Attorney's Office & US Steel. He went off to get a law degree as he was accepted at both Harvard & Boston University. He attempted to commute to Boston but it didn't work out & he enrolled at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University.
Clendenon had heard Jackie Robinson tell him stories of how good at fielding & disipline his former team mate in Brooklyn Gil Hodges was. In Spring Training of 1964, Clendenon sought out Hodges who was managing the Washington Senators, when their paths crossed in Florida for some pointers. Defensively Donn eventually posted good fielding percentages, and led the league three times in put outs, assists & errors at first base.
By 1965 he was becoming one of the leagues better hitters, batting .301 (10th in the league) with 32 doubles, 14 triples (2nd in the NL) & 96 RBIs (9th in the NL). In 1966 he hit .299 with 28 HRs, 10 triples (4th in the league) & 98 RBIs (8th in the league). The Pirates had 90 or more wins three times in his stay there but never made the post season. They earned the nickname "The Lumber Company" but lacked any depth in pitching.
His numbers dropped a bit as he missed some thirty games in 1967, he fell to a .249 average.
1968 was a stressful year for Clendenon, first he lost his step father to colon cancer, then later in the year his mentor Martin Luther King was shot & killed. Clendenon dropped out of law school to be with his family in Atlanta. He had gotten married & had children as well. The Pirates were also in turmoil , as the players threatened an all out mutiny with their manager Harry the Hat Walker. He was fired at the end of August & replaced with Danny Murtaugh.
Clendenon also served as the teams Player Rep. & was very involved with other team reps. as a work stoppage was threatened for 1969. As for Clendenon, he led the NL in strikeouts for the second time, but drove in 87 runs with 17 HRs 20 doubles 6 triples & a .257 average. The Pirates had a young star in Al Oliver waiting in the wings & as Clendenon's hitting fell off he was left unprotected, & got selected by the Montreal Expos in 1968 Expansion Draft.
He was very quickly traded to the Houston Astros along with Jesus Alou in exchange for Rusty Staub. But Clendenon wasn't happy about going to Houston, mainly because the new Astros manager was Harry Walker, whom he had not got along with in their Pittsburgh days. Instead of going to play inHouston he announced his retirement. “I decided I didn't want to play with the Astros, so I retired,'' said Clendenon, ``I didn't like their management. I had very little respect for them. The trade was to stand & then all hell broke loose.''
New Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and told the teams to work something out. Mostly due to the fact, that the new MLB franchise in Montreal had promoted Rusty Staub as the face of their new organization. The Expos sent Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn to Houston and Clendenon would indeed play for the Expos.
He arrived almost two weeks into the season, & after missing Spring Training was out of shape. In 38 games in Montreal he hit .240, with 4 HRs & 14 RBIs. On the June 15th trade dead line, Clendenon was traded to the New York Mets for Kevin Collins, Steve Renko & two minor leaguers.
Tom Seaver remembers his wife spotted Clendenon in the hotel lobby when he joined the team."I know who you are," Nancy said. "Donn was wearing an island shirt and a vest, he turned to her and suavely kissed her hand. Nancy thought he was charming; he knew she was my wife and put on a little show. "It's great to be a Met" he said.”
Manager Gil Hodges told Clendenon that he & the team had tried to get him in the off season. He told him that he was to platoon at first base with Ed Kranepool but that his role would be expanded. Donn knew as a 34 year old on a young team he was to lead by example. He also knew he had to lighten the mood when the pressure was on, he became one of the teams biggest practical jokers as well.
As soon as he arrived in New York he made a difference, getting a hit in his first game debuting in Philadelphia against the Phillies on June 17th. A week later he drive in a run in his first game at Shea Stadium, it came in the first of a twin bill against the Cardinals. Clendenon gave the Mets power against lefties and more strength off the bench. On June 29th against his old Pirates team mates he drove in three runs helping Tom Seaver to a 7-3 victory.
At the start of July he went on a tear in the first week with ten hits & 11 RBIs including five straight games of driving in at least one run. He hit his first Mets HR on July 6th, a three run shot in Pittsburgh against his old Pirates team mates. He drove in two runs or more in four games that week as the Mets went on a six game win streak.
At the end of August through the first week of September, he hit five HRs driving in nine runs over a seven game stretch. On August 30th he hit a top of the tenth inning HR off the Giants Gaylord Perry, helping the Mets beat the Giants 3-2. By this point the Mets were closing in on the Chicago Cubs five games back of first place. On that same road trip in Los Angeles he hit two HRs at Dodger Stadium on September 2nd, leading the Mets to a 5-4 win.
The next day he hit a two run HR off Claude Osteen as well. On September 9th Tom Seaver pitched a five hitter against Fergie Jenkins & the Chicago Cubs to bring the Mets within a half game of first place. Clendenon lead the offense with a two run HR off Jenkins in the third inning.
On September 24th Clendenon's three run HR off Steve Carlton in the first inning of a wild capacity crowd at Shea Stadium, helped Gary Gentry & the Mets clinch the NL East title against the reigning NL champion St. Louis Cardinals. In the 5th inning Clendenon added a solo HR off pitcher Dave Giusti leading to the 6-0 classic victory. Two days later he hit another HR driving in two more runs leading the first place Mets to a 5-0 win over the Phillies.
Overall for the 1969 Amazing Mets, Clendenon would hit .252 with 12 HRs, 5 doubles a .321 on base % 31 runs scored & 37 RBIs in 72 games (202 at bats) platooning at first base. Defensively he posted a .985 fielding %.
Post Season: Clendenon saved his best hitting for the 1969 postseason. Amazingly enough, Donn did not play in the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves because of Gil Hodges strict platoon system. Hodges went with the left handed hitting Ed Kranepool against the Braves right handed hitting.
Clendenon started out the World Series with two hits in the Game #1 loss to the Orioles in Baltimore, a double & a single. In Game #2 he hit a solo HR off Dave McNally, for the Mets first Series run helping them & Jerry Koosman to the 2-1 victory. He did not play in the third game at Shea Stadium. In Game #4 at Shea Stadium, he hit a HR leading off the bottom of the 2nd inning off Mike Cueller. That was the only run the Mets scored until the tenth inning, when they won it on J.C. Martins bunt single. Tom Seaver pitched ten innings allowing just one run, earning his only World Series victory.
In the 6th inning of Game #5, the Mets were down 3-0. Manager Gil Hodges argued that Cleon Jones was hit by a pitch showing the umpire shoe polish on the baseball. After Jones was awarded first base, the Mets rally began. Clendenon blasted a HR off pitcher Dave McNally, once again. This time the HR brought the Mets right back in the game & got the sell out crowd going wild as they began to feel the Miracle was in reach.
The Mets tied the game in the next inning as Al Weis hit a HR, then went ahead on a Ron Swoboda double in the 8th, as well as an Orioles error leading to another run. The Mets won the game & made history for all underdogs winning the World Series.
Donn Clendenon was voted the Series MVP, Setting a record with three HRs in a five game series. Overall he hit .357 with 3 HRs, a double, two walks, and four RBIs.
Looking back, his professional veteran presence on the club, made a huge impression on his team mates.
Tug McGraw said "Don was probably the key to our whole season.” Wayne Garrett said he was the last ingredient the team needed, & Art Shamsky called him the catalyst.
Bud Harrelson said "When we got him, we became a different team. We never had a three-run homer type of guy. He was always humble, never cocky. We were still young kids in that era. He was a veteran that came in and made us better. When you threw him into the mix with the rest of us, we became a dangerous force. He was the MVP, a very dangerous player."
Quotes: After winning the Series MVP, Clendenon's quote was: "there is no most valuable player on this team - we've got lots of them." It was just spectacular to see these young kids mold themselves into winning combinations, those kids did not believe they could lose.''
On Opening Day 1970, Clendenon came to bat as a pinch hitter in the top of the 11th inning at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. He singled driving home Ron Swoboda & Mike Jorgenson for the two winning runs. On April 19th he had a big day, driving in four runs including hitting a three run HR in big 10-2 Mets win over the Phillies at Shea Stadium. In 14 games in the month of April he drove in eleven runs & hit three HRs.
On May 1st he drove in both runs in a 2-0 Mets win in San Diego helping Tom Seaver to get to 5-0. On June 22nd he hit a three run HR in the top of the 8th inning off the Cubs Hank Aguirre leading the Mets to an 8-5 win at Wrigley Field. Later that week he hit another three run Hr in Montreal.
Starting July 2nd he drove in at least one run for seven straight games, with a total of nine overall in that week.
On July 3rd he came to bat in the top of the 9th inning with two men on in a 2-2 tie in Philadelphia. He singled to left field driving in Ken Boswell & Ken Singleton with what would be the game winning runs. He closed out the series with a 7th inning RBI sac fly to help Jerry Koosman to a 5-4 win.
On July 18th his single in the top of the 9th inning, tied up a game in Los Angles & put the eventual winning run on third base. Cleon Jones drove in that run as the Mets went on to a 4-3 win.
On July 28th he set a Mets record that stood for 38 years, driving in seven runs in a single game. In that game in front of 50,000 fans, against the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium, he hit a pair of three run HRs off pitcher Rich Robertson. He also had had a first inning sac fly driving in another run in the Mets 12-2 win.
The next day he hit a two run HR in a Mets losing effort. That July he had 19 RBIs and was batting .320 by the end of the month. As the Mets were in another tight pennant race, Clendenon was the teams main run producer in the months of August & September.
In August he had ten multiple RBI games in the month & from August 23rd to the end of the month, he drove in 16 runs. In a game against Atlanta on August 25th he drove in five runs, gathering three hits along with a two run HR. He went into September with RBIs in five straight games, four multi RBI games. In September Clendenon had another big month, driving in 22 runs on the month. He drove in runs in 15 of 28 games. On September 23rd he hit a two run HR off former Met Dick Selma in the top of the 8th inning in Philadephia leading to the 5-4 Met win. The Mets had a good follow up season to their World Championship but fell short, finishing in third place six games in back of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
That season he set a Mets record for RBIs driving in 97 runs, a record which stood until 1975 when Rusty Staub drove in 105 runs. Overall in 1970 he hit .288 with 22 HRs 18 doubles 65 runs scored & three triples posting a .348 on base percentage. His seven sac flies were 5th most in the league & he even received votes for the MVP Award.
In 1971 Donn was 36 years old & his production began to drop off. On Opening Day he had two hits & drove in the Mets first run of the season in the 1st inning, leading to a 4-2 win. In his next two games he had three hits in each game then on April 16th he drove in the only run of the game with a solo HR to beat the Pirates at Shea Stadium. On May 16th he hit two HRs in a game against the Atlanta Braves . On June 19th he hit a walk off HR against Bill Wilson in the 15th inning of a game against the Phillies.
On August 28th he had a four RBI day in a 9-2 Mets win, in the first of a twin bill at Shea against the Los Angeles Dodgers. On September 23rd he hit his last career Mets HR, it came off veteran Juan Pizzaro in a 5-4 Nolan Ryan Mets win at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
On the 1971 season the Mets finished third again, 14 games behind the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Clendenon only batted .247 with 11 HRs 10 doubles and 37 RBIs playing in just 88 games. The Mets had Ed Kranepool having a great year, there was another young first baseman named Mike Jorgenson & a young outfielder/ first baseman slugger named John Milner also waiting in the wings. The 1969 World Series MVP Clendenon was released that October.
He played his final season for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972 but hit just .191 in 136 at-bats.
In his 12-season career, Clendenon played in 1362 games, with 1273 hits, batting .274 with 159 HRs, 192 doubles 57 triples, 574 runs scored, a .328 on base % & 682 RBIs. In 1200 games at first base he posted a .988 fielding % , turning 1136 double plays while making just 146 errors in 11878 chances.
Retirement: After baseball Clendenon earned a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University in 1975. He became a business man, serving five years as CEO of Western International Contractors, and several stints as an attorney with law firms. In the mid-1980s he was enjoying his wealth but became addicted to cocaine. "I was 49 turning 50; and doing cocaine was kind of like a birthday present for me," he said "I was hooked immediately." He was arrested for possession in 1988 & forced to resign from the law firm.
He sought treatment in Utah, and was diagnosed with leukemia, the same disease that killed his father. He kicked his drug habit and moved away from the big city, "I had to go to a place where I could change my environment, and everything else." He said. In 1987 he moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city that he grew to love. "It is a spiritual community. People are friendly. It had a low crime rate and has a great school system for my daughter. I can be left alone to pursue my vocation outside of athletics."
Clendenon soon became a certified drug counselor and returned to law in the firm of Clendenon, Henney & Hoy. He also supported numerous local charities and was known for bringing some of his baseball friends to promote events in little Sioux Falls. Clendenon faced his leukemia bravely, "I will die from it or a side effect of it. It's going to eventually take me, I know. But I keep fighting." Clendenon's fight ended on September 17, 2005, at age 70.
He will live forever in the hearts of Mets fans & go down as a 1969 World Series hero.