Edward Clark — known as "Pops" to Baltimore softball enthusiasts — could often be found along the sidelines watching a game from his red folding chair. Nearly anyone who played in adult leagues saw the 81-year-old on the fields this summer, as they have for years.
But on Wednesday players were mourning the city sporting patriarch, who died after his Northwest Baltimore home burned. Officials said late Wednesday that Clark died of smoke inhalation. His death is the 14th confirmed fire death this year — up from last year's all-time low of 12.
"He was more than just a city employee. To a lot of people, he was a father. He used the position he had to help individuals learn the game of softball, as well as walk with integrity and character," said Carolyn Bethea, a former commissioner of the Christian Coed Softball League, a group of teams that use the city's fields.
Clark worked for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks well past retirement age, outlasting several directors over more than two decades. He served as an umpire, a scheduler and a field leader — turning on the lights, checking equipment and setting up the bases. He had gone part-time in recent years.
"He was the perfect guy you needed on the field. He was fair. He was stern. He knew how to handle every situation," said Bob Wall, acting chief of the agency. "He knew how to manage a ball team and make sure they behaved themselves."
Clark had retired from the U.S. Army and the Postal Service, according to Wall. Clark's daughter declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
Clark's brick rowhouse appeared nearly untouched Wednesday morning, but the lawn was strewn with charred furniture, rugs and other belongings soaked in the morning rain. Through the front bay window, the living room showed black from the blaze and a heavy smell of smoke lingered.
A neighbor, Joseph Brown, tried to help after smelling smoke and seeing flames through the living room window of Clark's home. But Brown couldn't get inside because the outside storm door was locked. He told his wife to call 911.
"I'm so sorry about it. He was a good guy," Brown said of Clark, with whom he often chatted on his porch. Brown said that Clark had been married but that his wife died several years ago.
Clark was taken to Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:25 a.m., according to Fire Department spokesman Ian Brennan. No other injuries were reported. Brennan said fire investigators are still working to determine the cause of the blaze.
From his days as an umpire to his later years as a scheduler and spectator, Bethea said, Clark's love of the game meant it would be played in Baltimore to exacting standards.
"He wasn't afraid to stand toe to toe with some of the toughest guys. He wasn't afraid to step up to people when he saw things that were unacceptable," she said.
Milton Garnes, the current commissioner of the Christian Coed Softball League, said Clark "dedicated a lot of time. I could call him at any time."
"He definitely will be missed," Garnes said.
Garnes said the league named Clark the first recipient of its Deanna Green award — named after the 14-year-old Randallstown girl who was electrocuted in 2006 while stretching during a church softball game in Druid Hill Park.
"He was instrumental in helping us stay together," Garnes said of the fallout after Green's death. "At that point, we were wondering what should we do? Should we move, should we go somewhere else?"
He said Clark was an enduring character over decades of play. "The directors of rec and parks have changed several times, but he's been that direct link," Garnes said.
Phillip Blackwell, who worked with Clark at the recreation and parks department, said he was a role model to many in the league.
"He was a gentlemen up in age. Had a long marriage. All the things that are really rare in today's society," he said. "He was a great mentor. Like another father."
Even though he was no longer full-time, Blackwell said, Clark would get up each day, put on his baseball cap and glasses, and "did whatever it was to pass time until it was it time to go out to the fields."
He liked to talk sports. In the winter, he had worked at gyms overseeing basketball leagues. The night before his death, Blackwell said, Clark had been planning to watch opening night of the NBA season on television.