Thursday, November 7, 2013

Clarence "Ace" Parker, 1912-2013

The trouble with being an athlete who lives to be 100 or more years old is that even the number of people who saw you play gets very small.

Yesterday, the oldest living member of any sport's Hall of Fame -- any of the four major North American sports, that is -- passed away.

Clarence McKay Parker was born on May 17, 1912, in Portsmouth, Virginia, outside Norfolk.  He starred in 5 sports at Woodrow Wilson High School in his hometown, and went to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina on a scholarship.  This was at a time when Duke was much better known for football than for basketball, as it's been since the 1960s and especially since the 1980s.

Parker, by this point nicknamed "Ace," was an All-American in 1935 and 1936, playing tailback in the dominant offensive formation of the time, the single wing.  Although his position was not called "quarterback," in effect, that's what he was: He took the snap from the center, as if he were in the shotgun (a formation that didn't come along until the 1950s and didn't become especially popular until the 1970s), and directed the offense.  Sometimes he'd run with the ball, sometimes he'd hand it off, sometimes he'd pass it, sometimes he'd hand off and then run out for a pass.

The trouble with the single wing is that passing didn't happen often.  It was boring.  But Parker, along with Sammy Baugh of Texas Christian University, was one of the few college players who showed both the willingness to, and the proficiency at, throwing the football.  At the time, it was anathema and sacrilegious -- the kind of words that, at the time, you needed a degree from a fine school like Duke to know how to properly use.  Parker led Duke to a 9-1 record and a Southern Conference title.  (The Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC, wouldn't be founded until 1953.)

Parker and Baugh reached the NFL in 1937.  With the Washington Redskins, "Slingin' Sammy" practically invented the position of quarterback was we understand it today, and became football's first truly great passer.

Parker was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Yes, there was a football team with that name, and, like the baseball team for whom they were named, they played their home games at Ebbets Field.  In fact, a lot of teams in other sports were named, or originally named, after baseball teams in their city.  The New York Giants are the most obvious example.  The Pittsburgh Steelers were originally named the Pirates.  There were early NFL teams called the Cincinnati Reds, the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Senators.  The Chicago Bears were sort of named after the Cubs, and the Redskins, who started out in Boston, were sort of named after the Boston Braves.  Even the Toronto Maple Leafs were named after their city's minor-league baseball team, which went out of business in 1968.

The football Dodgers weren't very good -- hence, their high draft pick -- and the NFL was not a glamour sport at the time.  Parker wanted to play baseball instead, and was signed by Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics.

On April 24, 1937, he made his major league debut at Griffith Stadium in Washington, pinch-hitting for A's catcher Earle Brucker, off Washington Senators pitcher Bobo Newsom.  Oddly, the box score shows that he scored a run, but was not charged with an official at-bat.  There's no explanation: No out, no hit, no walk, no hit-by-pitch.  He reached on a fielder's choice, perhaps? Anyway, the A's won, 6-4.

On April 30, he had his first official at-bat, against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.  The A's got clobbered, 15-5, but, pinch-hitting for pitcher Lynn Nelson against Wes Ferrell, Ace Parker hit a home run in his first official major league at-bat.

Interestingly enough, one of his teammates who played in both games, 3rd baseman Billy Werber -- who turned out to be the last surviving teammate of Babe Ruth -- also lived to be 100 years old.

On May 9, Parker became a regular in the A's lineup, playing shortstop, 2nd base and 3rd base.  But he couldn't seem to hit.  After the home run, he went into such a slump that he was trusted with only 100 plate appearances all season, collecting just 11 hits in 94 at-bats.  That's a .117 batting average.

So when, in September, Parker asked Mack to allow him to head off to Brooklyn, which owned his NFL rights, to play football, the Grand Old Man of Baseball had no problem with it.  Parker did play 1 more year for the A's, 1938, and improved his hitting: He batted .230.  Let's be charitable and say that he got further in baseball that most of us ever will, and then found his true calling.

Parker was listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds.  Today, a man that size, trying to play in the NFL, wouldn't even get a look from scouts.  He'd be told, "You'd get killed." Sadly, that may not be an exaggeration.

Players who were 300 pounds, with hardly an ounce of fat, and fast? They didn't exist in those days, so a man like Parker could not only play, but excel.  He played for the Dodgers from 1937 to 1941.  In 1938, he led the NFL in total yards -- with 865 yards passing and 253 yards running.  That's the kind of game it was then.  In 1940, he was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

Jock Sutherland, the Scottish-born dentist who coached the Dodgers in the 1940s, and previously coached the powerful University of Pittsburgh teams of the 1930s, and saw many great players in his time (including Chicago Cardinals star Marshall "Biggie" Goldberg), called Ace Parker the greatest competitor he had ever seen.  The aforementioned Slingin' Sammy Baugh called Parker "the best I ever saw."

Parker enlisted in the U.S. Navy in World War II, missing the 1942, '43 and '44 seasons.  Discharged in time to play in 1945, he signed with the Boston Yanks.  Yes, "Boston Yanks" -- not "Yankees," "Yanks." In 1946, he moved over to the All-America Football Conference, and played for a team called the New York Yankees, leading them to the Eastern Division title.  But that league was so dominated by the Cleveland Browns that they won all 4 titles before the league folded, and the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts joined the NFL.

After 1946, Parker returned to Duke, and coached the baseball team and was an assistant coach on the football team.  He also managed the minor-league Durham Bulls for a time.  He continued to coach until 1966.

So in order to have seen Ace Parker play Major League Baseball, and remember it, you would have to be over 80 years old.  To have seen him play in the National Football League, you'd have to be over 70.

In 1972, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  He was already 60 years old, and said, “I never expected to be selected for this, but since I have been selected, I’m sure glad it happened when I’m still around.” He had no idea that he had over 40 more years of life.  He was also a member of the College Football, Virginia Sports, North Carolina Sports, and Duke University Sports Halls of Fame.

Parker died yesterday, age 101 years and 6 months.  He was the first member of any of the four major sports' Halls of Fame to live to age 100.  (Amos Alonzo Stagg, a football pioneer and one of three men in the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, lived to be 103, but never worked in pro ball.)


Parker wasn't quite the oldest living former MLB player.  That remains Connie Marrero, a pitcher who played in the Negro Leagues before being brought up to the Washington Senators, playing from 1950 to 1954, and is now 102.  Bobby Doerr, the Red Sox 2nd baseman of the 1940s, is the oldest living Baseball Hall-of-Famer, age 95.  The oldest living ex-Yankee is Rugger Ardizoia, a pitcher who appeared in one game in 1947, about to turn 94.

Bill Glassford, who played for the original Cincinnati Bengals in 1937, a team in one of those earlier American Football Leagues, is now the oldest living former pro football player.  If he makes it to next year's March 8, he will be 100.  Don Looney of the 1940s Philadelphia Eagles, 97, is the oldest living former NFL player.  NFL Films founder Ed Sabol is the oldest living Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, also 97.  Nick Drahos, who played for Cornell University and the New York Americans in the 1940-41 version of the AFL, is the oldest living former player for a New York pro football team, 94.  He is also the oldest living member of the College Football Hall of Fame.  Ed Lechner, 93, is the oldest living ex-New York Giant.  And Charlie Trippi, the 1940s Chicago Cardinals star who's about to turn 91, is the oldest living player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Al Suomi, who played briefly for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1937, just became (we think) the first former NHL player to live to be 100.  Edgar Laparade, a former Ranger who recently turned 94, is the oldest living member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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