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 and his family as well.
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 Stuart. Stuart was a slugger but a terrible fielder.
Clendenon hit seven 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.
|Clendenon with Pirates Manager Danny Murtaugh|
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 in Houston he announced his retirement.
Quotes: “I decided I didn't want to play with the Astros, so I retired. 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, the Expos, had promoted Rusty Staub as the face of their new organization.
In the end, 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, he 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. Nancy Seaver said; "I know who you are". "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 also told him that at first 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.