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Mickey Vernon Had a Long, Quirky Career in the Majors

Following a successful career as a journalist, graphic designer, and marketer, Gary Kauffman is now a freelance writer.

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

*Served in the Navy during World War II

YearTeamGABRH2B3BHRRBIBA

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

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

  • Batting averages: .257, .158, .299, .271, .268, .353, .265, .242, .291, .281, .293, .251, .337, .290, .301, .310, .241, .293, .220, .125.
  • Doubles: 15, 0, 27, 34, 29, 51, 29, 27, 27, 17, 30, 33, 43, 33, 23, 28, 18, 22, 4, 0.
  • Homers: 1, 0, 9, 9, 7, 8, 7, 3, 18, 9, 9, 10, 15, 20, 14, 15, 7, 8, 3, 0
  • 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

*-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

YearTeamG*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

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.