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Baseball's Forgotten Star

Matt Schudel

The great Mickey Vernon, one of the most stylish first basemen in the history of baseball, died this week. He was the best player on some terrible Washington Senators teams in the 1940s and '50s, and his obituary appears in the Post today (Friday, Sept. 26).

As I mentioned in the obituary, Vernon led the American League in hitting two times -- besting Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, among others, in 1946. He came out of nowhere that season to record a batting average of .353 after never having hit higher than .299 before. In 1953, he hit .337 for the Nationals-- the team's official name in those
years, even though everyone called them the Senators -- to beat the Cleveland Indians' Al Rosen by a single point for the batting title.

Vernon wasn't much of a power hitter and never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, but Griffith Stadium, where the Nats played their home games, was the most spacious park in the American League -- especially to right field, where a lefthanded hitter's home runs typically go. In fact, only 55 of Vernon's 172 career home runs were hit in Washington. He hit 31 in Yankee Stadium, which will forever rank as the second highest total of any visiting player ever. (First place, surprisingly, goes to another ex-Senator, Goose Goslin, a hitting star of the 1920s. Third and fourth place belong to Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez.)

Mickey Vernon was the same age as Ted Williams -- pictured in today's obit with Vernon and Dom DiMaggio -- and had a career of exactly the same length. Both began their careers in 1939 and retired in 1960, playing in four separate decades. They were teammates in 1956 and 1957, when Vernon hit cleanup for the Red Sox, right behind Williams.

Vernon had one of the most inconsistent careers in baseball history, which has hampered his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame. After his .353 season in 1946, he trailed off to dismal averages of .265 and .242 the next two years. Before winning the batting title in 1953, he batted a mediocre .251. He could never really explain his up-and-down career, saying he hit the ball just as hard when he recorded low batting averages. But after he retired at age 42, it was learned that he had chronic back problems that sometimes affected his play.

Before the 1949 season, Nats' team owner Clark Griffith traded Vernon (and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn) to the Cleveland Indians for a gang of nobodies. Vernon thought he had gone to baseball heaven. The Nats were a seventh-place team, and the Indians had just won the World Series with such stars as Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby -- a black player Vernon had discovered in the Navy. But, of course, baseball was segregated before 1947, so the Senators wouldn't sign Doby, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Indians and White Sox.

Early in 1950, Vernon was traded back to the Senators and performed well for lousy teams.

Vernon was a kind of prototype player of the era -- long and lanky, at 6-feet-2 and 180 pounds, with a real elegance on the field. He was Senators' best hitter, best bunter and best baserunner. At first base, he was the finest fielder in the league, especially when the other Nats infielders were, in the words of Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, "the worst-throwing infield the major leagues have ever seen." The two modern-day players he most closely resembles are Keith Hernandez and Mark Grace.

With the exception of the great Walter Johnson, who pitched the Senators to their only world championship in 1924, Vernon was the most popular baseball player Washington had ever known -- at least until slugger Frank Howard, who played with the second-generation Senators in the 1960s and early '70s.

As a postscript, Vernon was named the first manager of the expansion Senators in 1961. He had no previous experience in the job, not that it would have mattered with a team of has-beens and never-would-bes. After two losing seasons, Vernon was fired in May 1963. He always wanted to manage again in the major leagues, but he never did. He coached with several teams, including the Yankees, and managed in the minor leagues before ending his baseball career in the 1980s as a scout. He retired to his native Pennsylvania but remained involved in baseball. I spoke to a friend of his, a former high school coach, who said Vernon would talk to his teams and loved to tell stories about his long and distinguished career.

By Matt Schudel  |  September 26, 2008; 12:07 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

Mr. Schudel: Many thanks for the detailed article on Mickey Vernon! For a 1st-hand perspective on Mickey from six decades back, check out my article on the web journal below, the result of many trips on the U Street trolley to Griffith Stadium: http://www.thecolumnists.com/hertelendy/paul156.html

Vernon was an admirable, durable and yet puzzling figure who made a tough world tolerable, even exciting. And he set those records when baseball seasons were eight games shorter!

Posted by: Paul Hertelendy | October 1, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

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