In a League of His OwnJul 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By Steve McCloskey
The Twin Tiers region has produced more than its share of professional baseball players. Dave Clark was never supposed to be one of them.
Since the first professional baseball league played its inaugural game in 1871, scores of young men from our region have played pro baseball, including dozens of players who made it to the Major Leagues. Caton’s James “Deacon” White recorded the first-ever hit and first-ever catch in the world’s first professional baseball league game in 1871. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2013. His younger brother William “Hoopa-La” White played ten years in the Major Leagues and still holds the MLB record for starting and completing all seventy-five games he pitched during the 1879 season. He threw an unbroken record of 680 innings that year. “Hoopa-La” is also credited as the first player to wear eyeglasses on the field. Liberty native Jimmy Sebring hit the first home run in World Series history in 1903, while Arnot’s Red Murray led the National League in home runs in 1909. Al Todd played his high school baseball in Mansfield before moving to Elmira. He broke into the Major Leagues as a thirty-year-old rookie where his many milestones included being the starting catcher in the first Major League night baseball game on May 24, 1935. Six days later, Todd was the opposing catcher who called the pitch that got Babe Ruth out in the Bambino’s last Major League at-bat.
But none of those local legends have had a more unusual and extraordinary career, have overcome greater adversity, or have inspired as many people as has Corning native Dave Clark, a man who played his entire professional baseball career on crutches. And as remarkable as it may sound, playing professional baseball with polio might not be the most amazing accomplishment of his life.
Dave Clark has become an All-Star in overcoming adversity and making a difference in the lives of others. Dave, now seventy, lives with his wife and their children in Cape Coral, Florida. He was born in 1952, during the nation’s worst polio outbreak, and contracted the virus at ten months old. There were 58,000 polio cases recorded that year, resulting in 3,145 deaths. He was one of the 21,269 who were paralyzed as a result. Against the odds, Dave survived those early years. He was fitted with braces and crutches by the time he was two, developing a system of locomotion that allowed him to enter elementary school. Two events occurred during his elementary years that freed him from fear and would give birth to a life-long search for opportunity.
The first lesson was that helping someone in need creates memories that last a lifetime. Early in the school year as a first-grader, his teacher announced that the class would soon be making a field trip to tour a nearby firehouse. While the rest of the class buzzed with excitement, Dave was consumed with fear and trepidation. He had mastered walking with the aid of his braces and crutches, but it was laborious. He had never walked as far as the firehouse was from the school. He feared, at best, he would fall behind the group on the walk or, even worse, fall and not be able to finish. When the field trip day arrived, Dave was stunned and relieved when one of his classmates showed up with his red Radio wagon in tow. His sole purpose was to pull Dave on the field trip. The crisis was resolved, and other classmates also asked if they could help pull the wagon. Dave never forgot how life-changing a simple gesture could be or how good a helping hand felt.
A year later, a gym teacher provided a lesson that would change the direction of Dave’s life forever. The exercise for class that day was to climb a rope suspended from the ceiling. All the boys in the class were intimidated by just the thought of having to go up the rope. Dave started to move toward the sideline, thinking there was no way anyone would ask him to climb up that rope without legs to shimmy. But the teacher instructed Dave to get in line. He told Dave that he didn’t have to climb the rope, but he did have to try. The teacher also told Dave he had to try to engage in every activity in gym class that year. Otherwise, he would never know what he could do. To the astonishment of everyone, including himself, Dave was the only person in the class to climb the rope to the top. Years of using crutches had given him a well-developed upper body. The feat changed the way his classmates thought of him and how he thought about himself. Dave used that confidence to start engaging in sports with a passion.
Ignoring the physical limitations, he played baseball with the neighborhood gang during the summer and ice hockey during the winter. He loved the feeling of belonging and fed off the competition. He also started to become pretty good. Dave developed a batting stance propped up on his crutches and could field with the best of them. He loved to pitch, overcoming a shortage of velocity by developing pinpoint accuracy. He later perfected a knuckleball that would serve him well during his professional career.
Dave finished high school, attended Corning Community College, then graduated from Ithaca College. He dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and searched for the seemingly impossible opportunity to do so. Persistence led to a roster spot with a semi-pro team in Hunnewell, Missouri. This led to stops with minor league teams from Texas to Connecticut and places in between. He played for the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last barnstorming teams in the country. He later became part-owner of that historic franchise. His minor league career led to an opportunity to play professionally in Sweden, where he met his wife.
When injuries and illness forced him to end his playing career, he managed championship teams in Sweden. Later he took a scouting assignment for Major League Baseball as well as a support position with Team USA in the 1996 Olympics. Adversity invaded his life again with the onset of post-polio, a newly defined condition that weakens the muscles of polio victims who were physically active. It, like polio, has no known cure. He traded in his crutches for a three-wheel scooter to move about as his strength and stamina deteriorated. When the post-polio effectively ended his baseball career twenty years ago, Dave again saw opportunity elsewhere. He moved into motivational speaking roles, talking to groups across the country. He also had an idea of putting together sports camps pairing professional athletes with handicapped individuals.
As always, putting a dream into reality, Dave organized a camp in 2006 with the appropriately named Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League. That free event featured campers going through stations manned by professional players. It was a big hit with both players and participants, and remains free to this day.
“When you see the laughter and pure joy on the faces of the participants, parents, and pro players...well, there’s no better feeling in the world than that,” Dave says. “All problems dissolve, at least for a brief period of time, and pure enjoyment ensues. Isn’t that what life should be all about? I think so!”
For the past thirteen years, Dave has partnered with Doug Cornfield, a former NCAA Division I runner at Georgia and the father of a son born with no arms, to form Disability Dream & Do Day (D3Day). Dave Stephens, who was born without legs and both wrestled and played collegiate football, joined the team in 2016. By 2019, the organization was producing twenty events per year, supporting itself and its mission with corporate sponsorships, speaking fees, and sales from books. Diamond in the Rough: The Dave Clark Story was published in 2008. It is an enjoyable, easy to read, and inspiring account of Dave’s saga that’s filled with wonderful life lessons. Doug wrote A Pound of Kindness in 2019—it’s a children’s book that captures the story and lessons of the classmate’s kindness with his little red wagon.
The effects of the covid pandemic proved to be almost as crippling as the bouts of polio and post-polio syndrome. Minor league baseball cancelled the 2020 season and with it the opportunity to partner with D3Day camps and promotions. Corporations and organizations stopped meeting in person, wiping out any speaking opportunities and putting D3Day in peril.
“Covid was and is a concerning situation for all of us,” explains Dave. “I knew it was going to impact what we do in a big way, but I also knew we'd find a way to keep doing this. Perseverance is the difference between failing and achieving and I was blessed with an overabundance of perseverance.” D3Day survived. It hosted an ice hockey camp with the Elmira Junior Enforcers in February and baseball camps at Corning, Rochester, and Hudson Valley this past spring. Another Corning event is scheduled for September 10.
Dave Clark will always be a baseball guy, and he is truly in a league of his own. For more information check out D3Day.com.