and the Deacon of Pittsburgh

Vern Law

Vern Law

One of the more improbable World Series winners was the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. Today almost the only thing anyone knows about them is that Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in game seven to give the Pirates a championship. A few people know Roberto Clemente played for Pittsburgh. Almost no one remembers Vern “Deacon” Law, the staff ace.

Vernon Law was born in Idaho in 1930. His family was of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) faith and he was ordained a church Deacon at age 12. His nickname derived from that fact. He was good at baseball and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1948. He spent ’48, 1949, and part of 1950 in the minors. His numbers weren’t bad, but they weren’t outstanding either. In 1950 he got his first taste of Major League ball going 7-9 in 27 games (17 starts). He was 6-9 in 1951, then went off to the military for the Korean War.

Back in 1954 he started 18 games then settled in as a combination starter and long man. Over the next three years he pitched in 113 games, starting 81. You don’t see modern pitchers doing that much anymore. By 1959 he was truly a starter going 18-9 with and ERA under three. His great year was 1960. He went 20-9, had a career high 120 strikeouts, and won the Cy Young Award. Back in 1960, there was only one Cy Young, not one for each league, so Law was being touted as the best pitcher in the Major Leagues.

The 1960 Pirates were a one time wonder. They were a solid team, but few really expected them to win (they’d finished second in 1958, but fallen back to fourth in 1959). But Law, Bob Friend, Harvey Haddix, Wilmer Mizell (later a US Congressman), and Elroy Face gave them a solid staff. Roberto Clemente was great in right field while Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat provided good work around second (Groat won the NL batting title and was chosen MVP in 1960).

With Pittsburgh going to their first World Series since a 1927 shelling by the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, Law was hurt. He’d injured an ankle celebrating the Pirates’ clinching the National League pennant. Despite that, he started three games in the Series. winning game one, game four, and starting the famous game seven (the one with Mazeroski’s home run). He managed a 3.44 ERA, struck out eight Yanks, and gave up seven runs, all earned.

He never really recovered from the injury (he changed his motion to stop foot pain, and screwed up his shoulder doing so). He got into 11 games in 1961, had a decent year in ’62, then another fine year in 1965, a year that saw him win the Lou Gehrig Award for his contributions to baseball and his community. He had one last decent year in 1966, then was 2-6 mostly as a reliever in 1967. He was 37 and it was the end of the road.

For his career Law was 162-147 (all with Pittsburgh) with an ERA of 3.77 (ERA+ of 101). In 2672 innings he gave up 2833 hits, 1274 runs, had 28 shutouts, struck out 1092, and walked 597.  All in all not a bad career. Personally, Law considered the Gehrig Award the highlight of his career.

In retirement he coached two years with Pittsburgh, then spent 10 years coaching at Brigham Young University. After that he spent two years coaching in Japan and in Denver (when it was still a minor league town). Following those assignments, he became an assistant under his son, Vance, as the pitching coach at a Provo, Utah high school. Following in his father’s footsteps, Vance Law played infield for 11 years in the Major Leagues. He played with five different teams, including Pittsburgh. He also coached at Brigham Young University. Vern Law finally retired from baseball at all levels in 2008.

Law had a solid career with one great and several good seasons. He was never the best pitcher in the Majors (except maybe in 1960, although a case could be made for Warren Spahn as 1960’s best pitcher) but was a solid rotation man. He helped his team win one World Series and his post Major League career is as impressive as his big league years.

 

 

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3 Responses to “and the Deacon of Pittsburgh”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Nice write-up of a virtually forgotten player. Nice career. Much to be proud of (except maybe for getting hurt while celebrating.)
    -Bill

  2. wkkortas Says:

    “No one expected them to win”…well, not true; that’s something that has developed after the fact. Sports Illustrated, for one, picked the Pirates to win in six. The notiuon that the Pirates beating the Yankees in ’60 (and I could go on for several hundred words here) was a massive upset is simply wrong. As far as Law goes…fine pitcher, had three really good seasons, and has always been known as a hell of a human being, even though he is totally to blame for Vance Law.

  3. steve Says:

    Still got an ash tray with the 1960 pirates and yankees roster printed on the glass. My mom wet to that game 7. No memories from 1960 for me, but plenty in the ashtray with all the ashes from what we were smoking. and of course, I can’t remember any of them.

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