Posts Tagged ‘Wilmer Mizell’

The Rep

December 22, 2016
"Vinegar Bend" Mizell

“Vinegar Bend” Mizell

One of the great sage pieces of advice my grandfather gave me when I was growing up stuck with me into my adulthood and probably will stay with me through my dotage. It’s simply that people never talk politics, religion, or sports. They argue them, so stay away from them. And putting any two together is down right crazy. Well, the very act of doing this blog violates the sport part, but now I’m going to put two of them together. It’s up to you to decided just how crazy that is.

Baseball is full of people who mixed the sport with politics. Way back the first President of the National League became a US Senator. Later on John Tener was Senator, Governor, and President of the National League. The Britton brothers who ran the Cleveland Spiders and later the St. Louis Cardinals dabbled in politics. Those are all owners and executives, but players have also been involved. Walter Johnson ran, unsuccessfully, for office, Mickey Owen was sheriff (an elective office where he lived) in his home county. One of the more prominent was a pitcher who made it to the US House of Representatives.

Wilmer Mizell was born in Alabama in 1930. The nearest town was Vinegar Bend and it served as his nickname, surely one of the great baseball nicknames, through his career. He grew up in Mississippi and was good enough at baseball that he made the low minors in 1949. He stayed there until 1952 when he went to St. Louis as a southpaw pitcher. Other than a stint in the Army during the 1950s, he remained in the big leagues through 1961. In 1962 he split time between the minors and the big leagues.

For the Cards he was mostly a starter (185 starts out of 199 games pitched) who was one game under .500 (69-70) with an ERA in the mid-threes with more innings pitched than hits allowed and more strikeouts than walks (WHIP of 1.377). In 1959 he made the National League All Star team.

In 1960 the Cardinals sent him to Pittsburgh. The Pirates were assembling a pennant winning team that year and Mizell was one of the pitching parts. He went 13-5 with a 3.12 ERA, a 1.201 WHIP, and 2.5 WAR. He pitched in two World Series games, starting and losing game three and going a couple of innings in the game six blowout loss. It was his only ring.

In 1961 he had a losing record and an ERA over five. His last year was 1962. He was done at 31. For his career he was 90-88 with an ERA of 3.85 (ERA+ of 104) with 680 walks, 918 strikeouts, a 1.383 WHIP, and 17.7 WAR. Not a bad career, but not a great one either. He did have the one World Series championship to his credit.

So what do you do after a life in baseball? Mizell went to work for Pepsi going into sales and later public relations. In 1966 he moved into politics, running for and winning a seat on the Davidson County, North Carolina board of commissioners. He held the job two years then ran for Congress from the Fifth District of North Carolina. He was a Republican, it was 1968, and the South was changing. He won the seat with just under 53% of the vote. He remained in Congress through the 1974 election when he, like many Republicans in the wake of Watergate, lost his seat. In partial compensation he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development and held the job until Jimmy Carter became President. With the arrival of Ronald Reagan, Mizell was appointed Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Governmental and Public Affairs and later moved to the Assistant Secretary slot at the Intergovernmental Affairs branch of the Department of Agriculture. President George H.W. Bush made him head of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

He retired after Bill Clinton took office and died in February 1999. Today he’s probably most remembered as the primary Republican pitcher in the Congressional baseball game. He’s got a ring. He served his country for twenty years. All in all, that’s not a bad legacy.

Mizell's grave from Find a Grave

Mizell’s grave from Find a Grave

 

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.