Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Baseball's Most Superbly Forgotten Man"

The debate over who is the greatest shortstop in baseball history begins at second place.  Honus Wagner has held an unimpeachable grip on the title for nearly a century.  Over that time, it seems the appreciation for The Flying Dutchman's playing career has only grown.

However, in many ways the shortstop Wagner mentored during his years as a coach on the Pirates staff was his equal.  In others, he was superior.  But despite his brilliant play, there is no statue erected in his honor.  There is no baseball card that has become an icon in the world of sports memorabilia.  There are only the statistics from a remarkable baseball career, the anecdotes of a quiet man not interested in personal fame and the tragedy that he had such little time to reflect on what he accomplished.

In 1999, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, invited baseball fans to vote for their Pirates Team of the Century.  Over 14,000 fan ballots were received.  Honus Wagner was the clear choice at shortstop with 11,106 votes.  Trailing far behind were Dick Groat and Jay Bell, with 951 and 937 votes respectively.  Out of more than 14,000 ballots sent in by Pittsburgh sports fans, Arky Vaughan received a meager 264 votes.

But why would anyone expect any other result?  The New York sports columnist Red Smith, at one time the most popular in the country, once described Vaughan as "baseball's most superbly forgotten man."

Arky Vaughan was a baseball prodigy. He entered the major leagues at the age of 20.  By the time he was 23, he was a National League batting champion, but that's just part of the story of one of the best seasons for a hitter in baseball history.

Arky Vaughan's batting average in 1935 was .385, the highest ever by a National League shortstop. His on-base percentage (.491) and OPS (1.098) still stand as single season records for a shortstop in Major League Baseball.  Vaughan's adjusted OPS+ of 190 in 1935 is one of the top 100 in baseball history, on par with the best seasons of Albert Pujols' career.  The Sporting News recognized the greatness of Vaughan's season, naming him National League Most Valuable Player.

Vaughan was an All-Star in 9 consecutive seasons (1934-1942), and he excelled against the best the game had to offer.  In 1941, he became the first player to hit 2 home runs in a single All-Star Game, and he hit them when it mattered the most.  His first was a two-run homer in the 7th inning that lifted the National League to a 3-2 lead.  He extended the lead with another two-run home run with 2 outs in the top of the 8th.  Not many people remember Vaughan's brilliant day.  It was overshadowed for all time when Ted Williams hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the 9th to win the game for the American League, 7-5.

Despite his individual success, Arky Vaughan never reached the postseason while playing for the Pirates, although it appeared the stars had aligned in 1938.  The Pirates led the Chicago Cubs by seven games on September 4.  By the end of the month, the Cubs were within half a game of the Pirates.  On September 28, 1938, the most famous home run in Cubs history struck down the Pirates' postseason dreams.  With the game tied 5-5 with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth, Gabby Hartnett hit his "Homer In The Gloamin'", a blast into the Wrigley Field night.  Three days later, Chicago had won the National League by two games.  The Pirates' September collapse is considered one of the worst in baseball history.

1941 was Arky Vaughan's last season with the Pirates. He was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers that offseason.  There, he clashed with manager Leo Durocher while standing up for a teammate.  The dispute nearly resulted in the Dodgers team sitting out a game in 1942.  The following season, Vaughan led the National League in stolen bases for the first time in his career.  He was also the league leader in runs scored.  He played one more season and then retired at the unthinkably young age of 31.

Vaughan only came out of retirement for the Dodgers after Durocher was suspended.  His play in his final two major league seasons didn't meet the lofty standards he had set before his retirement, but it did pay off in one way.  Vaughan reached his first and only World Series with the Dodgers in 1947. He was used as a pinch-hitter in 3 games.  The Dodgers fell to the New York Yankees.  Vaughan played in the Pacific Coast League in 1949.  Then, he retired for good.

Three years later, Arky Vaughan was dead.  He was fishing with a friend on Lost Lake, near a ranch he owned in Eagleville, California.  It was nowhere near the bustle of the West Coast, tucked away along the Nevada border.  Vaughan's friend stood up to cast his line.  The boat capsized.  Both men drowned.  Arky Vaughan, by almost every measure the greatest shortstop the game of baseball had seen since Honus Wagner, was suddenly, tragically dead at the age of 40.

The Fullerton Daily News Tribune published Arky Vaughan's obituary the following day, and seemed to capture perfectly the essence of who he was, and why his career has been underappreciated for decades.

"He lacked only one thing--a colorful personality. Those who knew him best believe he would have been one of the game's greatest heroes had he been endowed with the sparkling personality that made lesser players great."