Posts Tagged ‘Dick Groat’

and the Deacon of Pittsburgh

June 12, 2014
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.

 

 

Arky

April 28, 2014
Arky Vaughan

Arky Vaughan

Joseph “Arky” Vaughan was the premier National League shortstop in the 1930s. He is one of only three NL shortstops to lead the league in hitting in the entire 20th Century (depending on what you do with Jack Glasscock, who played 32 games as short and a lot of other games at other positions and won a batting title in 1890, Vaughan is the second shortstop to lead the NL in hitting). There have been a handful in the 21st Century, but in the 20th there were only Honus Wagner (who did it multiple times), Vaughan, and Dick Groat. Know what else they have in common? They all were at Pittsburgh when they won their batting title.

Vaughan’s rookie season was 1932. He became the Pirates’ everyday shortstop immediately. Three years later he won a batting title, the first NL shortstop to do so since 1911. It would be 25 years before another shortstop duplicated the feat (although Luke Appling won a batting title in the American League the next season). He remained a stalwart of the Pittsburgh offense through 1941. Then he was traded to Brooklyn.

Having problems at third base (they had PeeWee Reese at short) the Dodgers moved Vaughan to third. He did pretty well, but his hitting suffered. In 1942 he split time between the two positions and his batting average went back up. In 1943, he had a run-in with manager Leo Durocher (who didn’t have a run-in with “Leo the Lip”?) and retired following the season.

He spent 1944 and 1945 doing war work and was enticed back to the Major Leagues in 1947 (after Durocher was banned). He had a good  season as a part-time player for the Dodgers. That season brought him is only postseason play. He pinch hit three times in the Brooklyn loss to New York, going .500 with a walk and a double. He had an off-year in 1948 and retired for good. He died a tragic death (he drowned in a boating accident) in 1952. It wasn’t until 1985 that he got into the Hall of Fame.

I had a lot of trouble discovering Vaughan’s attitude toward integrating baseball. As a Southerner he should have been opposed to playing with Jackie Robinson in 1947, but I find no evidence that he signed the petition asking for Brooklyn to drop Robinson. As a part-time player whose status with the team was in doubt in 1947, it’s possible he wasn’t even asked. I did find an article on  Vaughan’s induction into Cooperstown in which Robinson is quoted as saying Vaughan went out of his way to be nice to him (Robinson).

As a player Vaughan showed little power but had a good eye and a knack for getting on base. He led the NL three times in runs and scored over 100 runs on five occasions. He averaged 29 doubles prior to World War II and led the NL three times in triples. Although not a speedster by modern standards, he led the league in stolen bases in 1943 with all of 20. Through his career he averaged almost ten stolen bases a year. That’s not actually too bad in an era noted for its lack of stolen bases.

If you look at his walk to strikeout ratio, it’s excellent. Three times he led his league in walks, twice had 100 walks. His highest strikeout total is 38. For a career he averaged 3.4 walks per strikeout. In 1940 he scored 113 runs and had 95 RBIs while hitting only seven home runs. He produced 201 runs that season (R + RBI-HR). Pittsburgh finished fourth with a league leading 809 runs scored. Vaughan had a hand in 25% of his team’s runs. That doesn’t count things like singles that move a runner to third and the subsequent scoring of that runner. I checked the same statistic for each year Vaughan scored 100 runs or had 90 RBIs (1933-36, 1940, 1943). In those seasons Vaughan produced, in order, 26%, 27%, 25%, 24%, 25%, and 24% of his team’s runs. Even Babe Ruth in 1920 and 1921 only had 29% and 30% of his team’s runs. So Vaughan isn’t Ruthian, but it’s still a major contribution to his team.

I like Arky Vaughan a lot. Without question he is the great NL shortstop of the 1930s. Only Joe Cronin and Luke Appling in the AL are his rivals for the era. Bill James once placed him second on the all-time shortstop list (behind Wagner). I’m not sure I’d want to go that high, but he’s surely in the list of top half-dozen or so shortstops ever (along with, alphabetically, Banks, Jeter, Ripken, Yount) for the two spot.

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