No. 73: Arky Vaughan
Somewhere in my files, I have this dead project I once worked on. The idea was to break up the players in the Hall of Fame into different ranks. That’s not original, I realize, except that these levels had almost nothing to do with how good the player was, how many home runs he hit, how many strikeouts he had. These levels were based entirely on recognition.
That is to say:
1 star Hall of Famer: A complete non-baseball fan would have heard of him.
2 star Hall of Famer: A nominal baseball fan would have heard of him.
3 star Hall of Famer: A moderate baseball fan would have heard of him.
4 star Hall of Famer: An intense baseball fan would have heard of him.
5 star Hall of Famer: Only Keith Olbermann has heard of him.
I have different people in mind to determine each level. At level one, for instance, was my late grandfather who every morning would proudly get the newspaper, carefully remove the sports section and then stuff it into a garbage can. I cannot be sure, but I suspect my grandfather had heard of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig (mostly because of the disease). It is not entirely out of the question, though, that even these three eluded his sphere of knowledge. My grandfather was a brilliant man who read constantly and in five languages. He worked relentlessly to know as little as he could about sports.
At Level 2, I had my wife, Margo, who likes baseball — she actually took a history of baseball class in college one year and got a solid B — but does not particularly follow the details. She would not know, for instance, that Houston is now in the American League or who that young baseball player is in the Subway commercials (“Mike Trout? Is he good?”). But she will surprise you now and again with something picked up along the way about Walter Johnson or Rod Carew and she has a working knowledge of most of the big players. She could probably name 30 or 40 Hall of Famers if pressed, maybe even a few more. She has already made her opinion known that I rated Tony Gwynn way too low.
At Level 3, I used my buddy Pop Warner who is a baseball fan and can speak with some authority about pretty much ever great players of our lifetimes, which would encompass the past 40 or so years. Before that, he would have certain knowledge of some of the bigger names — Feller, Williams, DiMaggio, Mantle, Foxx, Greenberg, Cobb, Paige, Walter Johnson etc. — but might not know some great players like Paul Waner or Harry Heilmann or Eddie Plank. I don’t have those files anywhere nearby, but I think I figured that there were 60 some players Pop would be able to say something about, another 25 or 30 he might be able to recognize as baseball players, and the rest, well, no chance.
For the record:
There are 165 everyday players in the Hall of Fame.
There are 72 pitchers.
There are 27 executives.
There are 21 managers, four pioneers and 10 umpires.
So even my buddy Pops would not come close to knowing HALF the people in the Hall of Fame. If you took out the executives, pioneers, managers, Negro Leaguers and the pre-1900 guys he probably STILL wouldn’t know half.
Level 4 would be my buddy Vac, who has written a couple of fantastic historical sports books, heavy on the baseball, and he has a great sense of baseball history. He would have a working knowledge of 150-plus people in the Hall and at least a passing knowledge on two or three dozen more. I still think i could stump him on 30 or 40 Hall of Famers though.
Anyway, this was the fun way I was going to break down the Hall of Fame. And, there WAS some logic to the way the players sorted out. Sure, there were a few players who were probably more famous than they were excellent, and a few players who were more excellent than they were famous. But mostly it made sense.
Except for one. One player really broke the experiment. That was Arky Vaughan. Obviously my grandfather never heard of him. My wife certainly never heard of him. I’d say here’s a pretty good chance Pop Warner never heard of him either. I’d say you would have to be at least a Level 4 fan to be able to say anything of substance about Vaughan, and there’s even a chance some Level 4 fans would only shrug if asked about him.
And that’s amazing. Because Arky Vaughan was a truly great player who lived a fascinating life with a tragic end. He should be one of the most famous men to ever play baseball — there could be a movie about his life. But the story just didn’t go that way for Arky Vaughan. From what anyone can tell, he didn’t mind.
* * *
Joseph Floyd Vaughan was born in Arkansas — earning him the Arky nickname that stayed with him all his life — but his family moved to California when he was just seven months old. His father Robert farmed and then found a job working for Standard Oil; it seems Robert took this job so that his children could go to a good school in Fullerton. Unlike so many of the fathers of players listed in the Top 100, Robert Vaughan was neither a strict disciplinarian who did not want a son to play baseball nor an authoritarian figure who made sure the son practiced for nine hours every day. He was a doting father who loved baseball and wanted Arky and his two brothers to play sports and enjoy life.
Vaughan was an athletic phenom — he, like so many other great baseball players also earned a football scholarship — but baseball was his love. He was a player you only needed to see once to appreciate. This trait played into his future. Pittsburgh scout Art Griggs, who owned and managed the Wichita minor league team, was vacationing in Los Angeles, like usual, when he got a tip about a Fullerton baseball star with a hugely promising future. That player was not Vaughan. It was a catcher named Willard Hershberger, who would also play in the Major Leagues and his end is one of baseball’s most tragic stories.*
*Another classmate of Vaughan’s as a freshman and sophomore was an unathletic but enthusiastic baseball fan named Richard Nixon. Years later, when he was President, Nixon would put together all-time baseball teams for the American and National Leagues, and Vaughan was his all-time National League shortstop from 1925-1945. He recalled then playing Pee Wee football with Vaughan.
Griggs had no idea who Arky Vaughan even was. Meanwhile a Yankees scout, Vinegar Bill Essick (the scout who convinced the Yankees to sign DiMaggio), already knew all about Vaughan and was heading to Fullerton to sign him for New York. He seemed destined to become a Yankee — where he unquestionably would have become infinitely more famous.
Then, fate stepped in. Vinegar Bill stopped somewhere to see another player, and Griggs went straight to Fullerton. Griggs was immediately so taken with Vaughan that he forgot all about Hershberger and signed Vaughan to play for his Wichita team. Essick showed up a day or two later, furious to find he was beaten to his man. He signed Hershberger as a consolation prize. A year later, based on Essick’s pleading, the Yankees Pittsburgh offered $40,000 for Vaughan. The Pirates, who may or may not have known what they had, turned down the deal figuring that if the Yankees wanted him that badly, he might be pretty good.
Vaughan spent one year in Wichita. He hit .338 with 16 triples and 21 homers. One year later, at age 20, he was the Pirates every day shortstop.
He hit right away in the big leagues, batting .318 as a rookie. His defense, however, was another story. He committed 46 errors his rookie year and 46 more his second season. In those days, counting errors was pretty much the only way anyone judged a players defense, and Vaughan would always be error-prone (topping out with 52 errors as a 28-year-old). This led people to believe he was a dreadful shortstop, a reputation that unquestionably marred the way people judged his career.
This is a shame because other numbers suggest he was actually not dreadful. His first year, the Pirates brought back all-time great Honus Wagner to teach Vaughan how to play shortstop — which leads to a great baseball story. Wagner worked with Vaughan, and after a while someone asked Arky how it was going. “I’m not sure,” Vaughan said. “When I asked Mr. Wagner what to do, he said, ‘You just run in fast, grab the ball and throw to first base ahead of the runner. But he didn’t tell me how.”
Vaughan figured it out. He was a marvelous athlete who had good range, a strong arm and he turned the double play aggressively. He would lead the national league in assists, putouts and double plays at different times in his career. Defensive WAR rates him an above-average shortstop over his career. Bill James rates him about average or perhaps a tick above.
As a hitter, by any standard, he was magnificent. Vaughan’s second year, he hit .314 and led the league in triples. The next three years were otherworldly. He led the league in on-base percentage all three seasons. He scored at least 108 runs each year, The stretch included his amazing 1935 season, one the best seasons ever for any shortstop, when he hit .385/.491/.607. He was the first shortstop to slug .600 in a full season. He had 63 extra base hits. He certainly should have been MVP. But the Pirates were not a pennant factor, and the award went to Chicago catcher Gabby Hartnett.
Vaughan was very difficult to strike out. He walked more than anyone in the league. He had only one year where he hit less than .300. He was astonishingly fast, which is easy to miss because nobody stole bases in the National League in the 1930s (Vaughan actually led the league in steals with 20 when he was 31 years old). He led the league in triples three times and in runs scored three times.
“He could fly around the bases,” Rip Sewell said of him, and teammate Paul Waner said he never saw a player faster from first to home than Vaughan. Through age 29, Vaughan was hitting .324 with a .414 on-base percentage and more than 1,700 hits. That’s more hits, in case you are wondering, than Pete Rose, Derek Jeter or Stan Musial had through their age 29 seasons. He was the best hitting shortstop since Wagner. And then his story took some odd turns.
After the 1941 seasons, the Pirates rather suddenly traded Vaughan to Brooklyn for four non-entities that included a 37-year-old pitcher nicknamed Hot Potato and a a 34-year-old backup catcher named Babe Phelps, who people called Blimp. It’s never great when you already have a strong baseball nickname like “Babe” and people still insist on calling you “Blimp”* The trade was apparently the work of Pittsburgh manager Frankie Frisch, who was already annoying all his players with his “In my day, we had real ballplayers” style. He and the quiet Vaughan did not get along and it seems Frisch engineered the deal.
*To be fair, Blimp had been a very good player. He hit .310 and made three All-Star teams in his career. He was done when the trade was made, though. He played one year in Pittsburgh and retired.
As it turns out, though, the Frisch-Vaughan relationship was practically a Bogie-Bacall love affair compared to how Vaughan and Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher would get along. Those two loathed each other more or less from the start. To be fair, almost nobody liked Durocher. Billy Herman would say the turning point was in 1943 when Durocher suspended pitcher Bobo Newsom and ripped him in the paper. Vaughan read the interview and was outraged. He stormed into Durocher’s office and asked Leo the Lip if he had given the interview. Durocher said that he had.
“Take this uniform,” Herman quotes Vaughan saying, as he threw his uniform into Durocher’s face, “and shove it up your ass. … If you would lie about Bobo, you would lie about me and everybody else. I’m not playing for you.” And with that, Vaughan stormed out. The whole team admired Vaughan so much (and hated Durocher so much) that they actually went on strike briefly. Dodgers GM Branch Rickey had to plead with them to come back and play. The others did return for the game. Vaughan did not.
It seems likely that a lot of animosity had already built up between Vaughan and Durocher — Leo tended to do that to people. Vaughan had a good 1943 season. He hit .305, led the league in stolen bases and runs, but he’d had enough. The next year, he simply stayed home in California and took care of the family ranch while World War II raged on. He never did give his reasons — Vaughan was a famously quiet man — but people always assumed he left the game because of Durocher. His son, Bob, thought otherwise. He believed there were personal reasons that went beyond baseball. Bob once asked his father who was the best manager he ever played for. “Durocher,” Arky said quietly.
In any case, Vaughan did not return to baseball until 1947 (noticeably AFTER Durocher had been suspended from baseball for associating with gamblers) and, of course, that was the year Jackie Robinson crossed the color line. And while other teammates like Pee Wee Reese have been celebrated for their role in supporting Robinson, Vaughan played his usual quiet and unnoticed role.
“He was one fellow who went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a rookie,” Robinson would say. “I needed it.”
Vaughan hit .325 in a part-time role that season and got one double and a walk in three plate appearances in his first and only World Series. The next year he hit .244 in a part-time role and he left the game for the final time and headed home to his ranch and his family. He was just 36 years old when he retired. Well, he played one year for the San Francisco Seals — and hit .288 in 97 games. There were occasional efforts to lure him back to the Majors in a part-time role, but he never returned.
Four years later, Vaughan and a friend were fishing on a lake with an ill-fated name — Lost Lake — when a storm swept in and the boat capsized. The water was ice cold and the one eye-witness said that Vaughan went back to help his friend. About 10 yards from shore, both men submerged and never returned to the surface. Arky Vaughan was 40 years old.
He was a taciturn man, not unfriendly but silent. He certainly did not crave attention, and he was not someone who offered interesting quotes to reporters. He played on mostly mediocre Pirates teams, his errors overshadowed his defensive strengths, his relatively short career blunted his magnificent offensive numbers. He also did not have any interest in promoting himself. He just wanted to raise his family, go fishing and work on the ranch. Red Smith once called him “Baseball’s most superbly forgotten man.”
When Arky Vaughan finally was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1985 — about 30 years too late — there was talk swirling around of another baseball strike so the mood was dampened. Vaughan went into the Hall of Fame with all-time stolen base leader Lou Brock, knuckleball wizard Hoyt Wilhelm and the gritty Enos Slaughter. Vaughan was probably a better player than any of them, but he was the fourth person mentioned in every story, if he was mentioned at all.
The Hall of Fame did put out commemorative envelopes, though, to honor Arky Vaughan. On there, they had his photograph and some of his marvelous statistics. It would have been perfect, really. Only thing: They misspelled his name.