Remembering Donn Clendenon

By Tony McClean
Updated: September 18, 2005

Donn Clendenon

Donn Clendenon

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — As a child, one of my earliest and most fondest sports memories are of the Amazin’ Mets of 1969. I became a fan of the team out of spite as my dad was a longtime fan of that other baseball team that plays in New York.

One of the most talented and revered members of that team was a long, tall power-hitting first baseman. Sadly, Donn Clendenon, who was the most valuable player in the Mets’ 1969 World Series victory, died after a long fight with leukemia. He was 70.

When the Missouri native was acquired by New York in June of that season, little did anyone know that he would be one of the major catalysts for a World Series title team.

On a team that already featured future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan on the mound along with outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, Clendenon proved to be the missing piece that New York needed.

Platooned at first base with Ed Kranepool by the late Gil Hodges, Clendenon provided power that was critical to the team’s surprising surge to the pennant. In 72 games that season, he batted .252 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs.

“When we got him, we became a different team,” said Bud Harrelson, former Mets manager and shortstop for the ’69 Amazins. “We never had a three-run homer type of guy.

He homered off Steve Carlton on the night of September 24 as the Mets clinched the NL Eastern Division. But his most memorable moments would come during New York’s Cinderella postseason run.

After not playing New York’s three-game sweep of the Braves in the National League Championship Series, Clendenon made up for it in the Fall Classic. His home runs in Games 2, 4, and 5 meant the difference in each contest.

His .357 average, 3 homers, and 4 RBIs led all starters and earned him the Series MVP award. At the time, his 15 total bases set records for a five-game World Series.

Clendenon hit .274 with 159 home runs and 682 RBI in 12 seasons in the major leagues with Pittsburgh, Montreal, the Mets and St. Louis. A standout for Morehouse College, he was a three-time All-NAIA peformer for the Maroon Tigers.

Clendenon’s father, Nish Williams, was also a standout for Morehouse before toiling for several Negro League squads including the Nashville Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Atlanta Black Crackers.

Clendenon recounted the 1969 season in his book, ” Miracle In New York” , in which he also talked about growing up in Atlanta, earning his law degree and battling drug addiction as he neared his 50s.

After retiring from baseball in 1972, Clendenon earned a law degree and moved to Sioux Falls in the summer of 1987. He said in a 1987 interview that he worked at law firms in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before “getting tired of the big cities.”

Clendenon, born in Neosho, Mo., told The Associated Press in 1989 that he has used his varied experiences to help young people.

“I like working with kids,” Clendenon said. “I’ve played major league baseball, I’m a lawyer, I’ve had an education, I’m an addict, so I can relate to them.”

While Clendenon had his own personal demons, he was able to overcome them and have a fairly successful career outside of the playing field. For all Met fans, he will always have a special place in their hearts.

“He was a true gentleman and an integral part of the 1969 team. We knew he had been sick a long time, and on behalf of the Wilpons and the entire Mets organization we send our condolences to his entire family,” Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz said.

NOTE: The Associated Press contributed to this story.