#CardCorner: 1980 Topps David Clyde

Part of the CARD CORNER series
Written by: Bruce Markusen

Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.

David Clyde no longer looks like a clean-cut, baby-faced rookie on his 1980 Topps card. He has grown out his hair, lengthened his sideburns, and sprouted a mustache, all significant changes from his first days in the major leagues back in 1973. His face is also starting to show a little bit of aging, as it does for all ballplayers, even those who are still in their mid-twenties.

Still, there’s more to the Clyde card than physical observations. Clyde’s expression might be described as a mix of being pensive and worried. Perhaps he’s thinking of what might have been, of what exactly happened to his career. He was never supposed to wear the warmup jacket of the Cleveland Indians. He was supposed to be a Texas Ranger for life, pitching in the same state in which he was born and had once become a household name.

Unfortunately, Clyde’s career did not progress as most thought it would. Bob Short, the man who moved the Washington Senators to Texas and formed the Rangers, devised a plan to bring left-hander David Clyde from high school ball directly to the major leagues. Short wanted Clyde to be a drawing card for his struggling Rangers franchise. In fact, Clyde’s debut season did help attendance at Arlington Stadium, but it may have altered Clyde’s career, which had once seemed so promising.

1980 David Clyde Topps card. (Milo Stewart, Jr / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

At one time a household name, Clyde has become a footnote in baseball annals. That’s unfortunate, because of the talent that once made Clyde a bigger name than even Steven Strasburg or Ben McDonald, two other similarly hyped pitchers of more recent vintage. As a senior at Westchester High School in Texas, Clyde had dominated the opposition to the tune of nine no-hitters. That’s nine no-hitters in a single season. It’s no wonder that the Rangers drafted Clyde first overall in June of 1973 and gave him a bonus of $125,000. What did raise eyebrows was the Rangers’ decision to have Clyde completely bypass the minor leagues. Instead, the Rangers fitted him for a uniform that he sported just a few days later.

Clyde was only 18 years old at the time. Why did the Rangers bring him to Texas so quickly? That was the brainchild of Short, who had angered some within the baseball establishment by moving the Senators out of Washington less than two years earlier. Short now needed a drawing card in Arlington, the home of the Rangers. So he brought Clyde to Texas immediately, in direct conflict with the advice of his future Hall of Fame manager. Whitey Herzog, an expert evaluator and handler of young talent, correctly believed that Clyde needed schooling in the minor leagues.

As the owner of the team, Short’s opinion won out. Equipped with both Short’s blessings and a mechanically sound delivery that some scouts had compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Clyde made his highly publicized debut against the Minnesota Twins on June 27, 1973. It came exactly 20 days after Clyde’s final high school appearance.

That night’s game at Arlington Stadium became such a focal point of local attention that the first pitch was delayed by 15 minutes, allowing more fans to free themselves from the massive logjam of traffic outside of the ballpark. A capacity crowd of 35,698 eventually made its way into the ballpark. Perhaps rattled by the late start of the game and frazzled by his own nervousness, the teenaged Clyde walked the first two batters he faced—infielder Jerry Terrell and future Hall of Famer Rod Carew—before settling down to strike out the side. Clyde went on to pitch a respectable five innings, walking a total of seven Twins, but struck out eight batters while allowing two earned runs and only one hit.

All in all, it was a good debut for the high school rookie. Still, some believed that the Rangers would start Clyde only one or two more times and then send him to the minor leagues to learn the craft of pitching. But Short had other plans. He insisted that Clyde remain with the Rangers for the balance of the season. Unfortunately, Clyde struggled to match his celebrated debut performance, posting an ERA of 5.01 and winning only four of 12 decisions with the lowly Rangers.

Clyde’s problems only worsened when Herzog was fired and replaced by Billy Martin late that season. Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t care much for rookie pitchers, most of whom he simply didn’t trust.

In 1974, Martin didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde would lose nine straight decisions after starting the season at 3-and-0. Having lost confidence in his would-be ace, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde for 17 consecutive days that September.

The late Art Fowler, a coach for Martin at virtually every one of his managerial stops, became Clyde’s second pitching coach in Texas. A number of years ago, Fowler appeared on ESPN’s Outside The Lines program to discuss Clyde’s saga. Fowler supported Martin’s general evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than in the mid-eighties. Fowler also questioned the quality of Clyde’s competition in high school, kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.”

Fowler’s recollections of Clyde differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve, who was Clyde’s Texas teammate from 1973-75 and later became the general manager of the Rangers. According to Grieve, who today is an analyst on Rangers TV broadcasts, Fowler sang the praises of Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Many of Clyde’s Ranger teammates also raved about both his fastball and curve, rating them both as well above major league average.

Here’s what Fowler had to say about Clyde after one of his starts in 1974: “When his fastball is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Rangers beat writer Randy Galloway, “and with the velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.”

While Clyde struggled with Fowler and Martin, along with the on-the-field demands of pitching against big league hitters, he also gave in to the temptations of a fast-lane lifestyle practiced by several of the Rangers’ veteran players. The hard-living group laid out the welcome mat for Clyde, including him in their post-game visits to local establishments.

In 1975, the Rangers finally sent Clyde to the minor leagues, demoting him to Double-A El Paso. He pitched well in 22 starts, enough to earn a late-season recall to Texas. He pitched well in one start, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in Texas in 1976 or ’77. Instead, Clyde went back to the minor leagues, this time to Triple-A Sacramento.

By now, arm problems had started to set in. Clyde missed most of the 1976 season with a bad shoulder. He returned in 1977, but was ineffective. The Rangers had seen enough. During Spring Training in 1978, the Rangers trade Clyde and veteran slugger Willie Horton to the Indians for outfielder John Lowenstein and pitcher Tom Buskey. Only five years after being the most sought after young talent in the land, Clyde was now an ex-Ranger.

The Indians made Clyde one of their starters and watched him pitch credibly, but without the dominating fastball of his Rangers days. He struck out only 83 batters in 153 games. He was effective at times, but no longer impressive or intimidating.

By the time that his 1980 Topps card hit the stores, Clyde’s major league career had ended. In January of 1980, the Indians had already traded him back to Texas, but he failed to make the Opening Day roster and was released. The Houston Astros signed him in April and sent him out to Triple-A ball, but he never made it back to the big leagues. Clyde finished out his career in 1981, done at the age of 26.

All these years later, Clyde does his best to avoid bitterness about his handling. Buoyed by his deeply held religious beliefs, he has found some success as a coach and manager for a select baseball team in the Houston area, where he has resided ever since leaving Organized Baseball. He also takes care of his father, whose health has suffered in recent years.

Clyde tries not to dwell what might have been. But as baseball fans, that is the question that we naturally ponder when we think of a young left-handed phenom named David Clyde.

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
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Part of the CARD CORNER series