Mickey Vernon Had a Long, Quirky Career in the Majors

Updated on July 4, 2018
Mickey Vernon with the Washington Senators in 1953.
Mickey Vernon with the Washington Senators in 1953.

There have been 83 position players whose careers started since 1900 who played in the Major Leagues for 20 or more years (there have been many pitchers as well, but for this discussion, I’m focusing on position players).

Of those, many are the Hall of Fame superstars like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter and others. A few of those may have been less than stellar in the final few years, but for the vast majority of their careers they were superstars.

A number of others were players who had a string of great years, not good enough for the Hall of Fame but strong enough to keep them hanging on longer than normal – players like Joe Judge, Doc Cramer, Rusty Staub, Darrell Evans, Dwight Evans, Jason Giambi and others.

Others in the 20-plus club played positions that contained some value, like catcher, and hung on even when their actual playing value had decreased, guys like Sandy Alomar Jr. and Tim McCarver.

And a few were just professional backup players, like Jay Johnstone and Ron Fairly.

But whatever they were, they were pretty consistent at being that. In other words, a .250 hitter didn’t suddenly become a .350 hitter, or a guy who was a home run hitter didn’t suddenly become a singles puncher. There might be a few odd years, but nothing too far out of the norm – a guy who hits around .320 every year having a season where he hits .348 or a guy who hits 30 homers belting 36 homers one year.

A strange Inconsistency

But one guy on that list who played 20 years stands out for his wild inconsistency from year to year – Mickey Vernon. Looking at his stats, he had superstar years sandwiched between barely average years and there seemed no logical explanation for either his great or poor performances, or even why he hung around for 20 years.

Vernon was a gangly (6-2, 170 pounds) left-handed hitting first baseman who played from 1939 to 1960 (he missed two years while he served in the Navy in World War II). Of his 2,237 games in the field all but four were at first base. He played 14 seasons with the Washington Senators, three with Cleveland, two with Boston and one each with Pittsburgh and the Milwaukee Braves.

In his 20 years he posted a .287 batting average with 172 homers, 490 doubles, 120 triples and 1,311 RBIs. However, how he got to those final numbers is hard to understand and probably left mangers and general managers scratching their heads at the time.

A So-So Beginning

In Vernon’s rookie year, he came up in the second half of the season and posted a reasonable .257 average with a homer and 30 RBIs. For some reason, he was relegated to the minors the next year and played only five games at the end of the 1940 season. Then in 1941 he was back up in the big leagues for good and hit .299 with nine homers, a promising year for a 23-year-old. But he slipped after that to .271 with nine homers despite playing 13 more games, then dropped further to .268 with seven homers in a full season in 1943. And then he went off to war for the next two years.

Up, Down and Up Again

When Vernon returned in 1946, it looked like he had arrived as a potential superstar. His .353 batting average led the American League, as did his 51 doubles (he managed only eight homers) and he had 207 hits, only one fewer than leader Johnny Pesky. He was an All Star and finished fifth in the MVP voting.

But the next year, playing in all 154 games, six more games than in ’46, he managed just 159 hits, 29 doubles and seven homers (although 12 triples), finishing with a .265 average, a drop of 88 points.

Things got even worse in 1948 when his average plummeted to .242, with three homers and 27 doubles. His OPS was an anemic .641, especially bad for a first baseman.

At the end of 1948, the Senators traded him, along with Early Wynn, to the Indians where he could play with his Navy buddy, Larry Doby. The change seemed to do him good. He knocked out 170 hits, the second highest total of his career to that point, and posted a career-high 18 homers (he’d hit 44 combined in his previous eight seasons).

Mickey Vernon Career Stats

Year
Team
G
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BA
1939
Was
76
276
23
71
15
4
1
30
.257
1940
Was
5
19
0
3
0
0
0
0
.158
1941
Was
138
531
73
159
27
11
9
93
.299
1942
Was
151
621
76
168
34
6
9
86
.271
1943
Was
145
553
89
148
29
8
7
70
.268
1944-45*
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
1946
Was
148
587
88
207
51
8
8
85
.353
1947
Was
154
600
77
159
29
12
7
85
.265
1948
Was
150
558
78
135
27
7
3
48
.242
1949
Cle
153
584
72
170
27
4
18
83
.291
1950
Cle-Was
118
417
55
117
17
3
9
75
.281
1951
Was
141
546
69
160
30
7
9
87
.293
1952
Was
154
569
71
143
33
9
10
80
.251
1953
Was
152
608
101
205
43
11
15
115
.337
1954
Was
151
597
90
173
33
14
20
97
.290
1955
Was
150
538
74
162
23
8
14
85
.301
1956
Bos
119
403
67
125
28
4
15
84
.310
1957
Bos
102
270
36
65
18
1
7
38
.241
1958
Cle
119
355
49
104
22
3
8
55
.293
1959
Mil
74
91
8
20
4
0
3
14
.220
1960
Pit
9
8
0
1
0
0
0
1
.125
Totals
 
2409
8731
1196
2495
490
120
172
1311
.286
*Served in the Navy during World War II

Going Down

But the Cleveland nirvana ended quickly. The next season he started off with a .189 average and no extra-base hits in his first 28 games. So the Indians shipped him back to the Senators. Back in the nation’s capital, he hit .306 the remainder of the year with nine homers in 90 games.

In 1951 he finished at .293 with nine homers (the fourth time he’d hit nine). It still fell far below his .353 high mark but at least it was a move in the right direction. But that reversed sharply in 1952 when he again, inexplicably, couldn’t hit. He finished at .251 with only 143 hits in 154 games, but at least he showed a bit more power with 33 doubles and 10 homers.

A Career Year

Then came 1953 when Vernon again seemed to channel Ty Cobb. He led the league with a .337 batting average with 205 hits (four behind leader Harvey Kuenn) in 152 games – he had 62 more hits in two fewer games than the previous year. He also showed tremendous power, with a league-leading 43 doubles, adding 11 triples and 15 homers. He drove in 115 runs, 22 more than he ever had before and scored 101 runs, his only time over 100. Not only was he an All-Star, but he finished third in MVP voting behind Al Rosen and Yogi Berra.

Had he finally arrived at his peak as a 35-year-old?

1953 did start Vernon’s best four-year stretch of his career. In 1954 he hit .290 with a career-high 20 homers and a league-leading 33 doubles. He followed that with a .301 average and 14 homers in 1955.

The Red Sox were impressed enough to trade for him and he rewarded them with a .310 average and 15 long balls in 119 games, his second-lowest number of games played. But then he fell off the cliff again, dropping to .241 in 1957 and seven homers. At age 40 in 1958, he returned to Cleveland, hitting .293 in 119 games. He went to the National League for the first time in 1959 as a member of the Braves, posting a .220 average as a part-time player. He finished off his career in 1960 with nine games with the Pirates, with only one hit in eight at bats.

A Lot of Inconsistency

So here is a list of his batting averages – .257, .158, .299, .271, .268, .353, .265, .242, .291, .281, .293, .251, .337, .290, .301, .310, .241, .293, .220, .125.

His doubles – 15, 0, 27, 34, 29, 51, 29, 27, 27, 17, 30, 33, 43, 33, 23, 28, 18, 22, 4, 0.

His homers – 1, 0, 9, 9, 7, 8, 7, 3, 18, 9, 9, 10, 15, 20, 14, 15, 7, 8, 3, 0

His RBIs – 30, 0, 93, 86, 70, 85, 85, 48, 83, 75, 87, 80, 115, 97, 85, 84, 38, 55, 14, 1.

Just looking at the stats, there doesn’t seem to be any logical explanation for his up-and-down numbers. He played full seasons almost every year, 141 or more games (out of 154 total games) in 11 years, including seven times at 150 or more. He played in the same league for all but his last two seasons, and most of his career on the same team.

Take away his two great seasons and Vernon was a .264 hitter, making his .353 and .337 averages seem especially bizarre. Besides those two seasons, he finished in the top 10 in average only two other times, in 1955 and ’56.

Despite his inconsistencies, several pitchers spoke highly of him as a clutch hitter they wouldn’t want to face with the game on the line, although that would be hard to prove looking only at his stats.

A Defensive Liability?

So how did he hang around so long? Was it because of his great defensive work at first base?

A biographical sketch about him on Baseball Reference indicates he was highly praised for his abilities as a fielder (one observer said he could play first base in a tuxedo) but, again, this seems to defy what the statistics tell us. Vernon led AL first basemen in errors four times and was second three times. In 1942 he committed 26 errors, a total surpassed only twice in the years since – 29 by Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart in 1963 and 28 by Donn Clendenon, no threat to a Gold Glove, in 1965.

In fact, since 1942, only 19 first basemen in either league have committed 20 or more errors in a season (four times by Stuart, twice by McCovey) and only two first basemen, Kevin Young in 1999 and Pedro Alvarez in 2015, have topped 20 errors in the past 20 years.

Mickey Vernon Error Totals

Year
Team
G*
E
1939
Was
75
11²
1940
Was
4
0
1941
Was
132
10
1942
Was
151
26¹
1943
Was
143
14
1944-45*
 
 
 
1946
Was
147
15¹
1947
Was
154
19¹
1948
Was
150
15²
1949
Cle
153
14
1950
Cle-Was
110
9
1951
Was
137
8
1952
Was
153
10
1953
Was
152
12
1954
Was
148
11³
1955
Was
144
8
1956
Bos
108
11¹
1957
Bos
70
6
1958
Cle
96
11²
1959
Mil
10
1
Total
 
2233
210
*-Counts only games played in field at first base; 1-Led League; 2-2nd in League; 3-3rd in League Note - Vernon did not play in the field in 1960 Vernon committed one error as an outfielder in 1959, for a total of 211. His total of 210 at first base

Vernon almost reached that total a second time, 19 in 1947, and his 211 career errors ranks 26th all-time among first basemen. Only McCovey, with 233, has made more among first basemen whose careers started since 1939. It makes me very curious why people remember him as an outstanding fielder.

Baseball Reference compares Vernon to Mark Grace, Bill Buckner and Keith Hernandez, yet Grace made 110 errors in 16 seasons, Buckner had 128 in 20 years and Hernandez 115 in 17 seasons. And all three of them were much more consistent hitters.

Vernon's Career a Head Scratcher

Part of Vernon’s longevity may be explained by all the years with the Senators, who were often little better than a minor league team in the ‘40s and ‘50s. During his 14 years with Washington, they only finished better than fifth twice, most of the time languishing near last place. The one year when they finished in second, 1943, was one of his mediocre years. The only other time he played on any kind of contender, with the 1959 Milwaukee Braves, he also was an anemic hitter. In his two great seasons, the Senators finished fourth and fifth.

After his playing career ended, he managed the expansion Washington Senators (after the original Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins) but he had little success, finishing ninth of 10 teams in ’61 and 10th in ’62, and then was let go after starting with a 14-26 record in 1963 (replaced by a much better former first baseman, Gil Hodges).

Vernon’s career is a head scratcher, definitely one of the quirkiest careers ever for anyone who maintained such longevity.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, howtheyplay.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://howtheyplay.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)