Donn Clendenon Biography
Combined Brains and Athletic Talent, Found Baseball Success, Developed Interests Outside Baseball, Joined Miracle Mets
Professional baseball player, businessman, lawyer, writer
On March 1, 1969, Donn Clendenon retired from professional baseball. Seven months later, he was playing again and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1969 World Series as a member of the world champion New York Mets. All of this occurred due to trades, contracts and other concerns that are part of the business of baseball. However, it also has to do with the personality of Clendenon and how he worked to bounce back from seemingly adverse situations. A gifted student and athlete, he consistently worked other jobs while playing professional baseball and received his law degree six years after retiring from the sport for good in 1972. A ten-month addiction to cocaine and a 1987 arrest for possession nearly put an end to his law practice. But Clendenon bounced back, moving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he worked as a drug counselor and practiced law before succumbing, like his father and his grandfather before him, to chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2005.
Combined Brains and Athletic Talent
Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1935 to Claude and Helen Clendenon, Donn was only six months old when his father died from leukemia. At the time of his death, Claude Clendenon was a professor of psychology and mathematics and chairman of the mathematics department at Langston University, an all-black university in Langston, Oklahoma. Clendenon's mother demanded high academic achievement from her son in deference to his father's accomplishments. At the age of 15, Clendenon was second in his class at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. Two years later, he graduated as a letterman in nine sports and received a host of scholarship offers.
When he was only six years old, Clendenon's mother married a man named Nish Williams. In addition to academic excellence, Clendenon's new stepfather also made other demands. As a former standout baseball player in the Negro Leagues during the 1930s, Williams decided he was going to make his stepson into a professional baseball player. "I knew that if I didn't play baseball," Clendenon recalled in his book, Miracle in New York, "that I just might not get my allowance—and no allowance meant no money for gas and no spending money." Williams served as a coach on virtually every baseball team that Clendenon played on, including his college team at Atlanta's Morehouse College.
Clendenon also received pointers from some of the players Williams knew from the Negro Leagues, including such legendary names as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. Following his excellent athletic performance in high school, Clendenon was prepared to attend UCLA on a scholarship. However, some coaches from nearby Morehouse College visited his mother, and convinced her that he should attend college closer to home. Clendenon attended Morehouse, and became a 12-sport letterman in football, basketball, and baseball.
Morehouse College was the premier academic institution for young African-American men. Just before Clendenon arrived in 1952, the freshman class were assigned big brothers to help the students acclimate themselves to Morehouse and college life. Although the policy had ended when he arrived, a Morehouse graduate volunteered to be Clendenon's big brother. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
Found Baseball Success
During summers off from Morehouse, Clendenon played semi-pro baseball for Atlanta's Black Crackers, a team coached and managed by Nish Williams. Although his mother wanted him to be a doctor, Clendenon decided that he wanted to teach. After graduating from Morehouse, Clendenon taught fourth grade for a while, and then went to the Pittsburgh Pirates try-out camp in Florida. "Nish convinced me that I could, in effect, have my cake and eat it too if I went into professional sports," Clendenon wrote. "I could have a dozen good years as a professional athlete; make some money; develop a name for myself; and use the off-season to pursue my future plans."
Beginning in September of 1956, Clendenon began a five-year stint with a team in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. In September of 1961, the Pirates called him up to join the major league club. For the next seven seasons Clendenon became known as a power hitter. Led by Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, the Pirates became known as "the Lumber Company" because of their ability to score many runs. However, Clendenon also became known as a batter who'd swing at just about anything. In 1963 and again in 1968 he led the National League in strike-outs.
As a member of the Pirates, Clendenon averaged 17 home runs per season along with 76 RBIs and an overall .278 batting average. Following the 1968 season, the Pirates did not put Clendenon on their protected player list, and he was drafted by the expansion Montreal Expos. A few months later, he was traded to the Houston Astros. The Astros had just hired Harry Walker as their manager. Walker had been the Pirates manager from 1965 to 1967, and Clendenon did not want to play for him again. "Our personalities definitely clashed," Clendenon recalled in Miracle in New York, "and it took me too long to learn to just ignore him."
Developed Interests Outside Baseball
Although he was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clendenon always worked during the off-season. He worked initially as a management trainee at the Mellon Bank and Trust Company. Beginning in 1962, he held a job as an Allegheny County detective for the district attorney's office, where he worked with underprivileged juveniles. In 1964 Clendenon went to work at U.S. Steel as a management trainee. While working at U.S. Steel, he decided to attend law school and enrolled at Duquesne University School of Law in 1965. Job pressures, the demands of baseball, and his step-father's illness forced him to drop out of law school in 1967, but he eventually returned to school and graduated in 1978.
Because he was earning a steady income from his non-baseball jobs, Clendenon decided that he no longer needed to play professional sports. On March 1, 1969, he announced his retirement from baseball. The Astros were upset with Clendenon because they had lost a player that they had traded for. With the assistance of baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the Astros and Expos hammered out a deal. Montreal sent two pitchers and $100,000 to Houston and the Expos eventually signed Clendenon to a three-year deal.
Joined Miracle Mets
Clendenon played only one month for the Expos. On June 15, 1969, he was traded to the New York Mets, a move favored by both Clendenon and the Mets. The Mets felt that, with the addition of Clendenon, they finally had a championship caliber team. "He [Clendenon] was the catalyst on the team," outfielder Art Shamsky recalled to Stanley Cohen, author of A Magic Summer. "You can talk about our pitching, which was great, and whatever else, but until June we were just a potentially good team. When Clendenon joined us, he gave us the right-handed power we needed, some more experience, and we became a really good team from that point on." Third baseman Wayne Garrett agreed, telling Cohen, "Clendenon was probably the key to our whole season, because when he came over we really came alive."
The 1969 New York Mets are part of baseball lore. When Clendenon joined the team, they were 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. By the All-Star break, the Mets had closed the gap to 4 1/2 games. With a pitching staff that included Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, and Jerry Koosman, the Mets eventually won the National League pennant and met the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. After losing the first game of the series, the Mets won the next four to capture the world championship. Clendenon hit three home runs and was named the World Series Most Valuable Player.
After playing a final season for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, Clendenon retired from baseball for good. He may have been retired from baseball, but his career in business and law was just beginning. Clendenon served in a variety of positions in the business world, including five years as president and CEO of Western International Contractors, and several stints as an attorney or partner with law firms. It was during the mid-1980s, while working at the law firm of Anderson, Carlson, Carter & Hay, that Clendenon's life took an unexpected turn for the worse. Enjoying his wealth but feeling his age, Clendenon became addicted to cocaine. "I was 49 turning 50; that [taking cocaine] was kind of like a birthday present for me," he reminisced to William C. Rhoden of the New York Times. "I was hooked immediately." After an arrest for cocaine possession in 1988, Clendenon was forced to resign from the law firm and to admit his addiction.
Clendenon sought treatment for drug abuse at a facility in Utah, and it was there that he was diagnosed with leukemia, the same disease that killed his father. But Clendenon had no intention of giving up. He kicked his drug habit and moved away from the big city, telling Rhoden "I had to go to a place where I could change my environment, my associates and everything else."
In 1987 he moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city that he grew to love, he told a reporter for the Argus Leader: "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 valuable member of his community: he was a certified drug counselor at the Keystone-Carroll Treatment Center and in 1992 he returned to law in the firm of Clendenon, Henney & Hoy, where he practiced for a number of years. He also supported numerous local charities and was known for bringing some of his friends—the best known names in baseball—to promote events in sleepy Sioux Falls. Clendenon faced his leukemia with real bravery, telling Rhoden in 1999: "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, and he is remembered fondly by Mets fans and the citizens of Sioux Falls.
Miracle in New York, Penmarch Publishing, 1999.
Bock, Duncan, and John Jordan, The Complete Year-By-Year N.Y. Mets Fan's Almanac, Crown Publishers, 1992.
Clendenon, Donn, Miracle in New York, Penmarch Publishing, 1999.
Cohen, Stanley, A Magic Summer: The '69 Mets, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, SD), September 20, 2005, p. 1B.
Jet, October 17, 2005, p. 48.
New York Times, February 26, 2000, p. B-15; September 18, 2005.
Newsday (New York), May 21, 1989, p. S-7.
Sport, November 1992, p.18.
Sports Illustrated, September 26, 2005, p. 32.
USA Today, October 13, 1989.
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