Tony Clark Made His Mark on the Tigers, But Has Made Even Greater Impact Off the Field

During the Detroit Tigers’ dismal decade of the 1990’s which saw them post just two winning seasons (barely above .500) one of the few bright spots was Tony Clark, a 6-7 switch hitting first baseman with power who from 1996 through 1999 smacked 124 home runs while knocking in 391 runs. From 1997 through 1999 he hit at least 31 homers and 99 RBIs each season.

Nicknamed “Tony the Tiger”, Clark was the second overall pick of the first round of the 1990 amateur draft by the Tigers behind Chipper Jones who was chosen by Atlanta.

As a two-sport prep star, in his Senior year as a basketball player for Christian High in El Cajan, California Clark averaged 43.1 points per game and in baseball he hit 11 homers in 38 at bats while compiling a .553 batting average.

On July 10, 1990 Clark signed with the Tigers for $500,000 and according to GM Bill Lajoie it was the largest bonus ever given to a high school player. Clark however signed under the condition that he be able to honor his basketball scholarship at the University of Arizona.

Clark once said: “Basketball was the sport I loved and it was what I did year-round. Baseball was just something I did because I could hit the ball far and loved watching it go.”

Clark ended up hurting his back during basketball practice as a freshman and transferred to San Diego State where he led the team in scoring in 1991-92 at 11.5 points per game, but consistent back pain forced him to concentrate on baseball.

After progressing through the Tigers’ minor league system for five years, on September 3, 1995 he was promoted to Detroit from Toledo where the 23 year old compiled a .242 average with 14 homers and 63 RBI’s over 110 games.

In his major league debut that day at Tiger Stadium, Clark batting 5th behind Cecil Field went 2 for 5, struck out twice, but slapped two singles in the 9-8 loss to the Indians. He finished the season with the Tigers playing in 27 games with a .238 average, 3 homers and 11 RBIs.

For his sophomore season, Clark in only 376 at bats after being called up from Toledo on June 7th swatted 27 homers and knocked in 72 runs while compiling a .250 average. He was the third runner up for rookie of the year honors won that season by Derek Jeter.

In 1997, Clark belted 32 homers along with a career-high 117 RBI, while becoming the  13th switch-hitter in big league history to hit at least 30 home runs in a season. He also became the fifth-fastest player in major league history to amass 50 career home runs, collecting his milestone round-tripper in his 202nd game.

The next year Clark became the first Detroit player since Rudy York in 1938 to hit at least 30 homers and 100 RBI in his first two full seasons and then in 1999, with his 31 home runs, he became the fifth player in franchise history to hit at least 30 homers in three straight seasons.

Clark meanwhile first became active in the players’ union when he became the Tigers’ player representative in 1999. He would soon take on greater roles with the union and was heavily involved in negotiations with the owners while finishing out his playing career.

After an injury-plagued 2000 season, Clark came back the following campaign with a .287 batting average, 16 homers and a team-high 75 RBI, and named to his lone All-Star team, but was selected off waivers by the Boston Red Sox from the Tigers in November 2001 despite the numbers he put up that season. Clark had made $4.7 million in the last year of a four-year contract and because he would have made more than $5 million in arbitration the Tigers who were struggling decided it was too much to pay.

In seven seasons with Detroit Clark finished with a .276, average, 156 home runs and 514 RBIs.

Clark ended up playing 8 more seasons in the majors with Boston, the Mets, the Yankees, Arizona, and the Padres before staying in the game first as a studio analyst for the MLB Network before joining the Major League Baseball Players Association as director of player relations in March 2010.

Promoted to deputy executive director of the MLBPA in 2013, Clark was named executive director in 2014 following the untimely death of his predecessor Michael Weiner. With his hiring, Clark became the first former major league player and the first black to become head of the baseball players’ union.

Clark, now sporting a long gray beard, has truly made his mark in baseball as the union’s leader.

He helped broker the players’ current labor deal with MLB after several months of tough negations that saved a full 162 season, guided the players during the shortened COVID-19 season of 2020 and the  most recent rules changes, and spearheaded the successful effort to have the minor league players join the union while raising their minimum salaries.

Last November Clark received a five-year extension to lead the union.

But we will always remember him as “Tony the Tiger” who gave Detroit fans something to cheer about.