May 13, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
In the Toronto Blue Jays’ first spring training camp in March 1977, much of the buzz was about a hard-throwing 21-year-old the club had selected from the Texas Rangers with their third pick in the expansion draft.
“That kid is throwing pure smoke,” veteran Ron Fairly enthused to reporters after facing the young flamethrower in batting practice. “He’s one of the fastest I’ve ever seen.”
“That kid” was Jim Clancy, whose heater was being clocked at 95 mph.
And making the 6-foot-4 right-hander even more intimidating was that he sometimes had little idea where that fastball was going.
“That boy could throw a ripe strawberry through a locomotive,” Blue Jays pitching coach Bob Miller told reporters that spring. “He’s one of the fastest in pro ball. If he can only get his control down, he’ll be unstoppable.”
Wildness reason Rangers left him unprotected
But Clancy’s control issues were the only reason he was available in the expansion draft. The young righty had walked 98 batters in 125 innings in double-A San Antonio in 1976, leading to an ugly 6.41 ERA. But Miller had managed the Amarillo Gold Sox in the same circuit and he pushed for the Blue Jays to select the raw righty.
“We rated Clancy as the best young right-hander available from a standpoint of having an excellent arm,” Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield told reporters after the draft. “We’ll be able to build with him.”
And build with him they did.
Cornerstone of Jays’ rotation
Clancy blossomed into a cornerstone of the Blue Jays’ starting rotation for more than a decade.
Born in Chicago on December 18, 1955, Clancy grew up a Chicago Cubs fan. He was a multisport star at St. Rita High School, but he played mostly catcher, first base and outfield until his coaches discovered how hard he could throw.
He was chosen in the fourth round of the 1974 MLB draft by the Rangers and proceeded to post a 2.72 ERA and toss two shutouts in nine starts for their Rookie Ball Gulf Coast League affiliate that year.
He followed that up by recording a 3.83 ERA in 23 starts and hurling 11 complete games for Class-A Anderson of the Western Carolinas League in 1975, but he also walked 91 batters in 148 innings.
Control issues got worse
His control issues worsened in double-A San Antonio the ensuing campaign when he went 6-8 and walked close to a batter an inning. His wildness convinced the Rangers to leave him exposed in the MLB expansion draft for the two new American League clubs, the Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, that would take place on November 5, 1976. After selecting infielder Bob Bailor and left-hander Jerry Garvin with their first two picks, the Blue Jays chose Clancy.
“I hear Canada is beautiful, but I’ve never been there,” Clancy told the Canadian Press shortly after being selected by the Blue Jays.
After dazzling with his velocity in Dunedin in their first spring training, Clancy was assigned to Cleveland’s double-A affiliate in Jersey City because the Blue Jays didn’t have a double-A team yet.
Blue Jays call him up
Clancy wasn’t particularly effective with Jersey City, going 5-13 with a 4.88 ERA in 20 starts, but the last-place Blue Jays called him up anyway in late July.
The Rangers, his former organization, gave him a rude welcome in his big league debut on July 26, 1977 at Exhibition Stadium. Clancy started and allowed five runs in two innings and the Rangers won 14-0.
The young righty would redeem himself in his next start when he threw a complete game against the Milwaukee Brewers in a Blue Jays’ 3-2 victory.
“I was more ready tonight,” Clancy told the Canadian Press after the game. “I was throwing strikes with my fastball, although I didn’t have anything on it. My biggest problem was getting used to the people here and the surroundings. I wasn’t used to the crowd.”
Unfortunately, things didn’t get easier for Clancy in that first season. He finished 4-9 with a 5.05 ERA in 13 starts. But he became a regular member of the rotation in 1978, topping the team with 10 wins, before being hampered by a foot injury in 1979.
Breakout year in 1980
He re-established himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter in 1980 when he went 13-16 with a 3.30 ERA and threw a career-best 15 complete games. He also tossed 250 2/3 innings and was voted the Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher of the Year.
Over the next eight seasons, Clancy became a staple in the Blue Jays’ rotation, a quiet workhorse who was a calming influence on the team. The low-key Clancy could often be found strumming his guitar in the clubhouse.
“Any pitcher wondering how to stay on an even keel could do worse than to look at Jim Clancy,” Ernie Whitt wrote in his 1989 book, Catch: A Major League Life. “He keeps everything inside. He’s the type of pitcher I don’t have to go out and pump up or calm down. He’s on an even keel, whether he’s getting ripped or he’s in control. He never lets anything bother him, at least he doesn’t show it.”
Whitt shares in his book that though Clancy was quiet, the big righty was often involved in clubhouse pranks.
In his excellent 1987 book, Ballpark Figures: The Blue Jays and the Business of Baseball, Larry Millson writes that Clancy was “quiet and unassuming.”
“He smiles generously, but almost shyly with a tilt of his head,” writes Millson. “In his early years as a Blue Jay, he was awkward with the press. Ten years later he is still quiet and unpretentious, but after a game he will sit at his locker with a beer and a cigarette and discuss the finer points of his game with the baseball writers – win or lose.”
No one, however, should confuse his laidback attitude for a lack of desire to win. Clancy was a workhorse.
“He had supreme confidence and was a guy you always wanted on your side in a battle,” former Toronto Blue Jays CEO Paul Beeston told Sportsnet about Clancy in March 2017. “He would take the ball and pitch until his arm fell off.”
And the numbers certainly back up Beeston. Clancy had six 200-inning seasons for the Blue Jays and two others where he hurled at least 193 innings.
Forty starts in 1982
In 1982, he topped the American League with 40 starts and set career highs with 16 wins and 266 2/3 innings pitched. For his efforts, he was named the Blue Jays’ representative in the All-Star Game played at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Clancy led the American League in starts again in 1984, but unfortunately was hampered by injuries in their first division-winning season the next year. Clancy was sidelined for the season’s first month by appendicitis and then later by tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He still managed to go 9-6 with a 3.78 ERA in 23 starts, but skipper Bobby Cox opted to go with a three-man rotation – Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and Doyle Alexander – in the American League Championship Series. Clancy pitched just one inning in relief in that series and was the losing pitcher in Game 3.
After another solid year in 1986, Clancy went 15-11 with a 3.54 ERA in 37 starts in 1987 and helped propel the club to 96 wins.
Signs with Astros
In 1988, his final season with the Blue Jays, he went 11-13 with a 4.49 ERA in 36 games (31 starts). Following that campaign, he was signed to a three-year, $3.45-million deal by the Houston Astros.
Clancy struggled in his first two seasons with the Astros and was converted into a full-time reliever in 1991. He had posted a 2.78 ERA and had five saves in 30 games when he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves on July 31.
Clancy was a versatile reliever down the stretch for the Braves and he was on the club’s postseason roster. He earned the win in relief in Game 3 of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins and then registered a hold in Game 5 in what turned out to be his final major league appearance.
The workhorse right-hander retired with a 140-167 record and a 4.23 ERA in 472 games (381 starts) over parts of 15 major league seasons.
He still ranks near the top of most of the Blue Jays’ all-time pitching categories, including second in starts (345), innings pitched (2,204 2/3) and complete games (73) and third in wins (128), strikeouts (1,237) and shutouts (11).
Where have you gone, Jim Clancy?
For all his accomplishments, Clancy has all but vanished from the major league baseball scene. He maintains a Dunedin, Fla., address, but no one I’ve talked to can recall seeing him at any spring training games or at the club’s minor league complex since he hung up his playing spikes. And I can’t remember him returning to Toronto for any alumni functions.
Nevertheless, Clancy remains one of the best and most underrated players in Blue Jays’ history.
10 things about Jim Clancy
Here are 10 things you might not know about Clancy:
- He grew up in Chicago a Cubs fan and according to the Blue Jays 1988 Official Media Guide, he patterned his pitching style after Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.)
- At St. Rita High School, he was initially best known for his prowess on the gridiron as the school’s starting quarterback.
- Millson shares in his great book that Clancy turned a corner as a professional pitcher when Blue Jays pitching coach Al Widmar taught him a changeup in the Florida Instructional League after the 1979 season. “That was the pitch I needed,” Clancy told Millson. “That’s when I started to become a pitcher.”
- He was the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter in 1981 and 1984.
- He made an American League-leading 40 starts for the Blue Jays in 1982. Not only is that a franchise record, but no non-knuckleballer has made 40 starts in a major league season since. Charlie Hough made 40 starts for the Rangers in 1987.
- On May 2, 1983, he threw five innings in a start against the Rangers to become the first Blue Jays pitcher to log 1,000 innings for the club.
- On July 28, 1986, he started and threw a complete-game, four-hit shutout against the Kansas City Royals to register his 100th win as a Blue Jay to become the first Blue Jays pitcher to reach that milestone. Stieb would win his 100th just over a month later, on September 3, 1986.
- In May 1987, he was named the American League Pitcher of the Month after he went 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA in six starts.
- He is the only Blue Jays player to have played at least one major league game for the club in each of their first 12 seasons (1977 to 1988). For those thinking that Whitt did it, Whitt did not play in the majors in 1979.
- Clancy finished his career in the Cubs organization. He signed a minor league deal with them on January 30, 1992, but retired during spring training that year.
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