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My Favorite Player: Mickey Vernon

By Dick Heller, January 2, 2014

This one required more than a little thought. Favorite player — well, let’s see. How about Pete Rose, whose ferocious style of play I greatly admired before he turned from Charlie Hustle into Charlie Hustler? What about Teddy Ballgame, by far the greatest hitter I ever saw? And how could I possibly overlook Cal Ripken Jr., the guy who showed up for work every single day and redefined the notion of what a shortstop should be?

Close but no cigar. They say you never forget your first love, or first hero, so I’ve gotta go with a guy who survived and mostly thrived with the sad sack Washington Senators of the 1930s,’40s and ’50s. I don’t remember why James Barton Vernon, the skinny first baseman from eastern Pennsylvania, was nicknamed Mickey. But for me in both my childhood and adult years as a baseball fan, he was the baseball Mickey — not that blond latecomer in Noo Yawk.

A few shortcomings like weak eyesight, poor reflexes and worse hand-eye coordination effectively prevented me from becoming a ballplayer, but a lively imagination can work wonders. My mother’s seamstress sewed me a gray baseball uniform with a navy block “W” on the front and my man’s No. 3 on the back and, presto chango, I was Mickey Vernon. If you didn’t look too closely anyway.

Though many of his other fans and friends continue to lobby for his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Vernon has been ignored by the expanded Veterans Committee. For shame. Better than anyone else, his contemporaries should appreciate what kind of player he was in the days when you made maybe $35,000 if you were a really big star. 

Vernon whacked 2,495 hits, was one of the few to play in four decades (1939-60) and never uttered a mean or malicious word against anybody. He won two American League batting titles (.353 in 1946, .337 in 1953) and hit .286 lifetime, but his 20-year career included downer years when he pecked away at .242, .241 and .251. Also, thanks partly to that 40-foot-high right-field in Washington’s Griffith Stadium, he never hit more than 20 home runs in a season.

Yet grace, rather than numbers, defined Vernon best. His smooth, level left-handed swing was the envy of many opponents, and no other first baseman maneuvered so adroitly around the bag. Said one rival: “He played like he was wearing a tuxedo.”

It’s easy to pinpoint Mickey’s two biggest days in baseball. On the last day of the 1953 season, he beat out Cleveland’s Al Rosen by one point for the batting crown, depriving Rosen of the Triple Crown. Said Mickey typically: “I didn’t really beat Al — he just ran out of time to catch up.”

Mickey Vernon played a majority of his 14-year career with the Washington Senators. With the team in 1954, he led the league in double plays and earned the fourth of seven All Star selections.

And on the first day of the ’54 campaign, Vernon whacked a 10th-inning home run far over Griffith Stadium’s towering right-field barrier to beat Allie Reynolds of the Yankees and earn a handshake and big grin from President Dwight Eisenhower. It was their second meeting of the afternoon; earlier Ike had presented Mick with the Hillerich & Bradsby silver bat as 1953 batting champ.

“I was coming off the field when some guy in a suit grabbed my arm,” Vernon recalled. “I was trying to get away from him when he told me the president wanted to see me again. I think Mr. Eisenhower was happier than I was about that home run.”

With the Senators usually out of the pennant race by Mother’s Day, Vernon never reached the World Series until 1960, when he made it as a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates under his pal Danny Murtaugh. The following year, he was a popular choice to become the first manager of the expansion Senators, a hapless outfit that included players named Coot Veal, Bud Zipfel and John Kennedy (no, not that one). 

In 1961, Mickey Vernon became the first manager of the expansion Washington Senators.  Despite having the talent of Jim Piersall and Gene Woodling in 1962, Vernon’s team again finished the season in last place.

The general opinion in baseball circles was that the easygoing Vernon was too much of a “nice guy” to be a successful manager, and that might have been right. He was fired after going 135-227 — .373 over 2 1/2 seasons, but a hybrid reincarnation of Casey Stengel, John McGraw and Connie Mack couldn’t have won with the talent on those clubs.

I first got to know Mickey as a kid reporter covering the Senators in 1961 for the Northern Virginia Sun.  One day veteran outfielder Gene Woodling, an aging refugee from Stengel’s awesome Yankees of the ’50s, was trying to convince me that the distance from home plate to the left field wall was erroneously listed as 350 feet.

“Go ahead and check it out,” Woodling said deadpan. “You’ll see I’m right, and you’ll have a big story.”

I was starting to awkwardly pace my way down the third-base line when Vernon’s angry voice broke in: “Hey, Woodling, quit teasing the kid. Go shag some fly balls or something.”

Vernon couldn’t play favorites among the writers, but he did what he could to help me keep up. Once I asked why, after catching a ball at first base for the third out, he always used to study it intently as he ran toward the dugout.

The answer must have been obvious to more experienced writers, but Mickey explained patiently: “With our guys coming up, I wanted to make sure the ball wasn’t defaced in any way.”

Hey, thanks, Mick.

Although we were together several times over the years, I didn’t get to know Vernon well until 2003, when the good folks in his little home town of Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania (who refer to themselves, seriously, as “Hookers”) decided to erect a statue of him in the town park. Mickey hadn’t lived there for more than 50 years, but that didn’t stop anybody.

Before unveiling the handsome statue, which showed Mickey swinging a bat in his smooth style, the town fathers held a luncheon for more than 200 guests. And that’s when I got my biggest thrill in sports: They asked me unexpectedly to speak.   

I don’t think I said anything memorable — just how much it meant to me that I was able to help honor somebody I had admired for so long. U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, himself a loyal “Hooker,” put it much better.

“Mickey proves you can be anything you want to be,” the congressman said. “He represents not just the best in Marcus Hook but the best in America. He has fulfilled the American dream of doing your job well with dignity and pride.”

Mickey Vernon died five years later, at 90, in Media, Pennsylvania. Regardless of whether he ever makes it to Cooperstown, he is a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word. I’m proud that he was my friend as well as my favorite player, but I’ll have to share that distinction with an awful lot of other people.

 

 

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