Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mickey Vernon, baseball player (1918-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 27, 2008

They called Mickey Vernon the Gentleman First Baseman. The productive baseball player won two American League batting titles in a career straddling the Second World War. He was a seven-time all-star and one of the most popular players of his era.

Polite, kindly, and graceful on and off the field, Mr. Vernon's enviable reputation only grew after he retired as a coach and manager. He was a frequent guest at banquets, old-timer's games and other charitable events where fans got to meet their childhood heroes.

“Mickey Vernon is as silent as a night watchman, as conservative as a banker and as well-behaved as a vicar,” a baseball writer once said.

With a face as lean as his frame, accentuating a large nose and jug ears, Mr. Vernon's constant half-smile seemed to express delight that he was fortunate to earn a living playing a child's game. The placid demeanour contrasted with that of the mercurial Ted Williams, the great batter he bettered to win his first batting crown.

While resident in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower pronounced Mr. Vernon his favourite ballplayer, the selection receiving bipartisan support. The sure-handed first baseman provided the Washington Senators with a panache they otherwise lacked in the field and at the plate.

Five years ago, Mr. Vernon's hometown erected a life-sized statue of a favourite son on the site where his career began as a sandlot player. A plaque hails him as a “role model, mentor, great guy” and “a gentleman's gentleman.”

After 20 major-league seasons and a long career as a coach and manager, including a stint with the Montreal Expos, Mr. Vernon returned to the county of his Pennsylvania birth, where he lived with the high-school sweetheart who became his wife. Mr. Vernon attended the opening game of the local Little League each spring without fail, taking it as a duty after they named the league for him.

It was while closing out a losing season as manager of the minor-league Vancouver Mounties that Mr. Vernon got talked into a wacky stunt. The clubhouse attendant, a teenaged university student, begged for a chance to pitch. Something of a soft touch, the avuncular manager pencilled the lad in as the starting hurler for the final game of the 1968 season. What happened that day has become part of the city's baseball lore.

Mr. Vernon was born in a working-class town along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. His grandfather, Samuel Vernon, a Civil War veteran, was elected the first burgess, or mayor, of the borough of Marcus Hook, Pa., in 1893. His father, Clarence Vernon, worked at the Sun Oil Co. (Sunoco) refinery. Pinker, as he was known, also starred as a first baseman, part-time pitcher and slugger for the company's semiprofessional baseball team.

An aunt took to calling her nephew Mickey and the name stuck. A tall and skinny boy, he first won attention in the Chester Times newspaper at 15 as a star hitter in a local sandlot circuit. That October, he hitchhiked with three classmates to Washington, where they took in two games of the 1933 World Series. Six seasons later, Mr. Vernon, by then a lean, 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, would be patrolling first base at Griffith Stadium himself.

While attending Eddystone High School, Mr. Vernon won a regional championship with an American Legion team before leading his school to a title of its own. He also earned a spot on the roster with the much older men on his father's old industrial-league team. A sports writer described the “lanky sensation” as a “sure shot for the big time.”

After graduating, he accepted a scholarship at Villanova College, ending feverish competition among scouts. As it turned out, the coach also managed the minor-league Easton (Md.) Browns and he inked the freshman to a professional contract.

Mr. Vernon played for the Greenville (S.C.) Spinners the following season, then earned a promotion to the Springfield (Mass.) Nationals in 1939. He was leading the league in hitting when the parent Senators called him up to the major leagues. Mr. Vernon made his debut in Philadelphia against the Athletics, the team for which he had cheered as a boy. He went 1-for-4.

In 1941, Mr. Vernon married Lib Firth, whom he had met in high school several years earlier. He had been too shy at the time to ask her for a date and their courtship did not begin until he was playing baseball out of town.

Mr. Vernon enjoyed three full seasons as the regular first baseman for the Senators before joining the U.S. Navy at the end of the 1943 season. After basic training, he spent much of the war playing baseball for service teams.

Competition for positions was fierce in 1946, as returning servicemen jostled with the players who held roster spots during the war. Mr. Vernon beat out veteran Joe Kuhel to regain his Senators job. Mr. Kuhel had been the first baseman in the World Series he had seen as a schoolboy. “He was a very good first baseman,” Mr. Vernon told Baseball Digest magazine, “but he was getting near the end of his career.”

At his physical peak and still retaining the speed of youth at 28, Mr. Vernon responded with the greatest season of his career. He hit 51 doubles, eight triples and eight home runs while registering a .353 average for his first American League batting title.

He failed to maintain those numbers in the following two seasons, as his batting average fell precipitously. The Senators traded him to the Cleveland Indians, although Washington got him back just 18 months later.

The Senators struggled to win as many games as they lost in the following seasons, badly trailing the Yankees in the standings. (The musical comedy Damn Yankees, in which a Washington fan makes a pact with the devil, debuted on Broadway in 1955; many years later, a Pennsylvania production was dedicated to Mr. Vernon.) A rare victory celebrated by Senators fans came in 1953 when Mr. Vernon won his second batting title, this time with a .337 average.

Back in Pennsylvania, a newspaper publisher arranged for the batter to receive a state licence plate with his initials and average: MV 337.

With Mr. Eisenhower on hand to throw out the opening pitch of the 1954 season, Mr. Vernon smacked a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th inning off Allie Reynolds to defeat the Yankees, 5-3. As he crossed home plate, he was accosted by a man in a suit who identified himself as a member of the Secret Service. He took Mr. Vernon to the grandstand to meet the president.

A month later, Mr. Eisenhower presented a silver bat to his favourite player in honour of his 1953 batting title. Mr. Vernon failed to get a hit that game, but the Senators once again defeated the hated Yankees.

Washington traded him to the Boston Red Sox, where he spent two seasons before being claimed on waivers by the Indians, who in turn traded him to the Milwaukee Braves. Mr. Vernon closed out his playing career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who signed him as a playing coach for the final month of the 1960 season. He got one single in eight pinch-hit appearances.

The Pirates faced the powerhouse Yankees in the World Series that fall. Ineligible to play in the series, Mr. Vernon assisted manager Danny Murtaugh, who had been a teammate when they were teenagers. Mr. Vernon never did play in a World Series game, but he counted Bill Mazeroski's dramatic series-winning home run as one of his greatest thrills.

He concluded his playing days with several records. He took part in 2,044 double plays at first base, including 10 in a doubleheader played on Aug. 18, 1943. He also set American League marks for first baseman in games (2,227), putouts (19,754) and assists (1,444), according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Mickey was so smooth around the bag that he could have played first base wearing a tuxedo,” a minor-league manager once said.

The Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. Mr. Vernon was hired to manage an expansion team playing in the U.S. capital under the old Senators name, but was fired midway through his third season.

In 1968, the minor-league Vancouver Mounties were suffering on the field and at the turnstile. Ernest (Kit) Krieger, the attendant for the visitors' clubhouse, convinced Mr. Vernon to allow him to take to the mound. After observing him in batting practice, the skipper agreed to the stunt. The teenager fared surprisingly well, surrendering a lone run to Hawaii before being pulled after three innings. He even recorded one strikeout. After the game, a Vancouver victory lasting just 64 minutes, the starting pitcher returned to his usual duties, including handling the soiled laundry of the players he had just faced. Mr. Krieger went on to become a high-school teacher and, eventually, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation.

Mr. Vernon's legion of fans have long insisted he deserved a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. The 12-man Veterans Committee composed of seven Hall of Famers and five historians considered Mr. Vernon and nine other players whose careers began before 1943. He got five votes, falling short of the nine needed for induction, the hall announced on Dec. 8.

James Barton (Mickey) Vernon was born April 22, 1918, at Marcus Hook, Pa. He died Sept. 24, 2008, a week after suffering a stroke, at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, Pa. He was 90. He leaves a daughter, Gay Vernon, of Sharon, Mass. He was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, the former Anne Elizabeth Firth, known as Lib, who died in 2004.

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