Against All Odds
Crutches didn’t slow down pro baseball player Dave Clark ’74. By Doug McInnis
When Dave Clark joined Little League in 1960, he brought along everything he needed to play with — his ball, his glove, and his crutches. In 1971, when he began his pro baseball career, he brought along the same equipment.
Dave contracted polio in 1953, two years before mass vaccination programs began to end a scourge that crippled or killed thousands of Americans each year. His parents got a grim prognosis for their 10-month-old son. “The doctors told them there was not a lot of hope for me being able to control my arms or legs, or even to fend for myself,” says Dave. “But 20 years later, I was leaving Ithaca College with a degree in physical education.” By that time, he had already played several seasons in minor league baseball and was running five miles a day on crutches to stay in shape.
Dave succeeded by applying his intellect to a physical problem. He chose to become a pitcher because the position required the least mobility. Since he lacked the physical abilities to overpower batters — his fastball was a tepid 79 miles per hour — he befuddled them with a knuckleball, a pitch that dips and darts as it crosses the plate. He also mastered pinpoint accuracy, allowing him to throw reliably over parts of the plate that batters found hardest to hit.
In a fluid motion almost too quick to see, Dave would maneuver his crutches so that they didn’t impede his pitching motion. Just before throwing, he shifted his right crutch to his left hand, then threw with his right arm. His follow-through took his throwing arm over to his left side, where he grabbed his right crutch and swung it back under his right armpit. Now, he was ready to field. (See his technique at daveclarkbaseball.com.)
Playing with crutches might seem awkward, but to Dave they were just another part of his body. “I grew up on crutches,” he says. “I didn’t know any other way.”
Gym teachers, however, routinely sidelined Dave in the first and second grades. That changed in the third grade, when rope climbing was on the agenda one day. Dave headed for a seat. But Bill Schnetzler, his new physical education teacher, shouted after him, “Where do you think you’re going?” and sent him to a rope. Dave began to climb. He was the only student to reach the top. A lifetime on crutches had given him extraordinary upper body strength. “Up until that point, my teachers assumed I couldn’t do anything, and I assumed that, too,” said Dave. “Coach Schnetzler taught me differently.”
Dave’s parents, Bernie and Lillian, always treated their children equally. “They made no concessions because I had polio,” says Dave. “They let me play even though I might get hurt.” His parents managed to convince Little League to accept him, although they had to appeal all the way to the national office.
Dave continued with amateur baseball through high school and into his first year in college. In 1971, he decided to turn pro and was picked up by the fourth minor league team he tried out for. His best season came in 1975, when he recorded four wins, no losses, and 20 saves as a relief pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns.
Dave played 10 years in the minors before moving to Sweden’s Elite League — Europe’s equivalent of the major league. There, he played one season and served 10 more years as a pitching coach and manager. His teams won three elite league titles.
Today, he scouts for the Baltimore Orioles and serves as color commentator for minor league hockey’s Florida Everblades. He also helps his wife, Camilla, with their children: daughter Elicia,11, and son, Trey, seven months. And, he’s completed an autobiography, Diamond in the Rough: The Dave Clark Story, with sportswriter Roger Neumann.
Clark credits his success to his attitude. “The most important muscle in your body is between your ears,” he says. “Your brain is what allows you to do what you want. There were literally hundreds of guys who had a lot more talent than I did, but they were gone a lot quicker than me. I kept pushing until I got a shot, and it led to a wonderful career. It’s been tough at times, sure. But all in all, it’s been a great ride.”