Mickey Vernon was the premier first baseman in the American League during the 1940s, and well into the mid '50s. Two batting titles, a sweet swing, and top-notch fielding skills made him one of the top first baseman of the Golden Era.
Join Baseball Almanac as we fondly Remember Yesterday's Heroes through the moving writing of Jim Sargent. Included in that journey are never heard before quotes about Mickey Vernon from his peers, several insightful quotes by Vernon himself, and stories never before published.
Remembering the Top First Baseman of the Golden Era | Yesterday's Heroes
Mickey Vernon's standout career offers a classic example of fading baseball memories. Mickey was a career .286 hitter, but he twice won American League batting titles . He won the first batting championship by averaging .353 in 1946 for the fourth-place Washington Senators (76-78). That season saw many of baseball's veteran players return from wartime service, so both major leagues were highly competitive again. Mickey won the second title eight years later in 1953, when hit .337 for the fifth-place Senators (76-76).
A modest gentleman who always played the game with class, Vernon never claimed to be a .330-plus hitter. However, during nine of his twenty seasons (he made only 9 plate appearances for the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960), Mickey batted .290, or more.
Talking with a writer for Sport in mid-1953, Mickey said he figured to hit around .295 or .300 every year. A quiet athlete, he attributed his two great seasons partly to luck: "Sure, I was hitting the ball sharply back in '46 and again this year, but you can hit it hard all season and not do a thing if you're unlucky enough to be hitting it right at somebody.
"When you see the ball dropping just inside the foul lines instead of just outside them, or when you see fielders just missing balls instead of just catching them, then you know that it's luck that helps your average."
But Vernon's consistently stellar play for twenty seasons spread over four decades illustrates that he was much more than lucky. The easy-going 6'2" 185-pound southpaw from Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, was one of the best — if not the best — first baseman during what many writers call the Golden Age of baseball. A durable player who avoided major injuries, the lefty averaged 147 games in 154-game seasons from 1941 to 1955 (except for 1944 and 1945, when he was serving with the Navy.)
James Barton Vernon was better known as " Mickey ," the nickname his Aunt Helen gave him by the time he was three. As his career illustrates, he was a first-class major leaguer who performed mainly for second-division Washington teams, which helps explain why he was never considered a superstar. Mickey did win over 1,100,000 votes as the All-Star first baseman in 1955. His vote total that summer was exceeded only by a more famous Mickey, the New York Yankees' famed slugger Mickey Mantle .
A seven-time All-Star, Vernon racked up impressive career fielding marks. For example, he led first basemen in putouts three times, assists once, and fielding four times. He took part in 10 double plays in a game on August 18, 1943 . He made two unassisted twin killings on May 29, 1946 . And he led AL first basemen in double plays in 1941, 1953, and 1954.
Jack Dunn, Jr., manager of the International League's Baltimore Orioles, once observed, " Mickey was so smooth around the bag that he could have played first base wearing a tuxedo!"
In addition, Vernon batted .286 lifetime and compiled a slugging average of .428 while playing 13 seasons in spacious Griffith Stadium. As of the year 2000, Vernon ranked third on the all-time major league list for games played at first base (2,237), sixth in assists with 1,448, seventh in putouts (19,808), and first in double plays (2,044).
Mickey could hit the horsehide with the best of them. He led the league in doubles three times, slugging 51 in 1946, 43 in 1953, and 33 in 1954. In 2,409 games he produced 2,495 hits, 1,196 runs scored, 490 doubles, 120 triples, 172 home runs, and 1,311 RBI.
Vernon's career lacked only two major credits. He did not play in a World Series, although he did coach in the fall classic with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. Also, he was never inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — even though many players of his era believe that he deserves induction.
" Mickey Vernon deserves to be in the Hall of Fame," former star outfielder Gene Woodling stated in a 1996 interview. "He was a first-class guy all the way. Defensively, he was the best first baseman in the league, and he was an outstanding baserunner. Mickey was one of the best all-around at first base that ever played the game."
As part of my research on his career, I was able to talk with Vernon in 1996 and 1997. I also met him and we talked baseball at the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame in St. Petersburg, Florida, in February 1997 (Ted's HOF was established in 1994 and closed in 2006).
A gracious gentleman, Mickey explained that he tried to hit to all fields: "Well, I was a skinny kid, and when I'd go for a long ball, they were just nice, easy long fly balls," Vernon recalled, laughing. "I learned quick that I had to hit the ball on a line and try and hit it all over."
His life as well as his baseball odyssey began in Marcus Hook, a small industrial town south of Philadelphia. He was born at home on April 22, 1918, to Clarence and Catherine Vernon. Young Mickey liked sports. Often he watched his father, a first baseman, play semipro ball. In junior high school an uncle, James McAbee (after whom he was named), taught Mickey the finer points of baseball.
By high school he was playing American Legion ball as well as industrial ball for the team at Sun Oil Refinery, where his father worked. Eddystone High didn't have a baseball team. But as a senior in 1935-36, Mickey starred in basketball, helping his team win second place in the regional Kiwanis Tournament.
After graduation he was awarded a baseball scholarship at Villanova College , in nearby Philadelphia. He attended Villanova as a freshman, and he played one season. But his dream was to play major league baseball, not to graduate from college. Villanova coach "Doc" Jacobs also managed the Easton, Maryland, franchise in the class D Eastern Shore League. Easton had a working agreement with the St. Louis Browns, and Jacobs arranged for Vernon to try out with the Browns.
Riding back to Villanova after the tryout, Jacobs persuaded Mickey to sign with Easton. Promised a $400 bonus after the season, Mickey played 83 games for Easton. He hit .287 with 10 home runs and 64 RBI. But St. Louis decided not to pick up any player options, and Vernon never got the bonus.
Instead, Jacobs sold the first baseman's contract to Joe Cambria, who scouted for the Washington Nationals, commonly called the Senators. Cambria owned the Salisbury, Maryland, Indians. After Vernon worked out for a week with Washington, the club sent the 20-year-old to Greenville, South Carolina, of the class B South Atlantic League. Playing for the Spinners, Mickey proved he had big league potential by averaging .328 with 31 doubles, 12 triples, one home run, and 72 RBI.
Washington sent Vernon to Springfield, Massachusetts, in the class A Eastern League for 1939. He batted a stellar .343 with three round-trippers and 41 RBI in 69 games. The Senators called him up in early July. As a rookie, he soon started at first base. He averaged a solid .257 in 76 games, including 15 doubles, four triples, one home run, and 30 RBI.
Later, Vernon observed that putting on the big league uniform for the first time was one of his greatest thrills. In the age of two eight-team major leagues, that made him one of 200 on American League ball clubs. In his debut game against the Philadelphia Athletics, the first game of a twin bill on Saturday, July 8 , the left-handed hitter entered the contest in the ninth inning as a pinch-runner for first baseman Sam West , normally an outfielder. Mickey scored, but the Nats lost, 6-5.
Mickey started the nightcap at first base [ Box Score ], and he batted second in the order. He went 1-for-5, rapping a single off right-hander Cotton Pippen in the fifth. Later in the inning, he scored his second run of the day on a double by Cecil Travis . Washington won, 6-3.
"I think I was leading the league in hitting at Springfield when they took me up," Vernon recollected in 1996. "I joined the club in Philadelphia when they were playing the A's, which was my team when I was growing up. If I'd have joined the club four days earlier, they were playing a double-header in New York. And Lou Gehrig made that famous speech, so I missed it by four days."
In 1940 Vernon went to spring training with Washington. The day before the club broke camp, he was optioned to Jersey City, a New York Yankees farm club in the International League. Mickey spent the summer in New Jersey, hitting .283 with 22 doubles, nine triples, nine home runs, and 65 RBI. Recalled to Washington for the last two weeks, he was in the majors to stay.
"At Washington Bucky Harris looked at me and said, "We shouldn't have recalled you. We should be sending you to the mountains."
"I played every inning of every game at Jersey City. I usually weighed around 180, but I guess I had lost a lot of weight.
"Even though I was leading the Eastern League in hitting in 1939, and I hated to go back to the minors, that was class-A ball. Looking back on it, Jersey City was the best thing that could have happened to me.
"In 1940 I played in the International League where there were guys on the way down [from the majors] and guys on the way up. I played with fellows like Dusty Cooke and Woody Jensen and Wayne Ambler on the Jersey City club. They were good guys on the way down. So it was a good experience for me, and that's what I needed at the time."
Vernon enjoyed three good prewar seasons as Washington's first sacker. In 1941 he batted .291 with nine homers and 93 RBI. Of his teammates, only Cecil Travis had more RBI (101), and only Jake Early had more homers, 10.
In 1942 Vernon hit .270 with nine homers and 86 RBI, leading the club in both departments. When he slipped to .268 with seven home runs and 70 RBI in 1943, Stan Spence, who batted .267, topped the second-place Nats with 12 home runs and 88 RBI.
By 1943 the United States was deeply involved in World War II. The draft was taking players from the major leagues and the minor leagues. Vernon proved no exception. He was drafted into the Navy in October 1943.
"I went to Sampson, New York, for boot camp, and from there to Bainbridge, Maryland, where they had the Gene Tunney program for physical fitness. I went through that, moved to the Norfolk Naval Air Station, and from there to Pearl Harbor in the fall of 1944.
"In 1944 we played a season of baseball in Norfolk, and Herman Franks was our manager. Most of the players were minor leaguers. When the season was over, they shipped us out.
"We got to Pearl, and the next morning they were assigning us to duty. Merrill May and Gene Woodling and I were assigned to this recreation area. Max Patkin was the chief. We didn't know Max. We told him we were reporting for duty.
"He knew who we were. He picked up a basketball and threw it to us, and said, "Go shoot baskets!"
"From then on, every time I'd see Max, which was quite often during the season, he would say that he was my commanding officer.
"We worked on the ball field for a while, putting that in shape for the Navy personnel. Mostly we gave them exercises and created recreation programs."
But in the spring of 1945, Vernon participated in a morale-boosting island tour of the Western Pacific by two Navy all-star teams. Big leaguers on the 29-player tour included Johnny Mize , Virgil Trucks , Gene Woodling , Mace Brown , Hal White , Johnny Vander Meer , and Elbie Fletcher , among others. Vernon played the outfield, because Mize was the first baseman on his team.
Mickey recalled that one of the best hitters on the Navy tour was 19-year-old Del Ennis , who later starred for the Philadelphia Phillies. After the tour, Vernon was assigned to the island of Ulithi. There he supervised recreation programs until the war ended.
In 1946 Vernon and most other big leaguers returned to the majors. In spring training he beat out long-time first sacker Joe Kuhel , a lifetime .277 hitter. Kuhel had been a regular first baseman for Washington starting in 1931. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1938. The left-handed hitter was traded back to Washington in 1944, after Vernon left for the Navy.
Vernon recalled, "He was a very good first baseman, but he was getting near the end of his career. In fact, I hitchhiked to Washington with three other kids when I was in high school to see the 1933 World Series. Kuhel was playing first base for the Senators at that time. I saw two games in Washington, and six years later I was playing for them!"
Leading the eight-team league in 1946 with a torrid .353 mark, Vernon paced the AL in doubles with 51, and he stroked a career-high 207 hits. As Vernon later said, " Beating out Ted Williams for the batting title was a thrill. " Indeed, Ted batted .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBI while leading the Red Sox to the pennant in 1946.
But Vernon had a weapon that Ted lacked: speed. He hustled out several infield hits and a few bunts as well, all of which boosted his average. The first baseman's performance at the plate performance at the plate was always very good, if not always great. He was a durable player who averaged 139 games with a .291 mark at the plate from 1946 through 1958 (he played part-time for Boston in 1957). In fact, few non-Hall of Famers produced more hits, doubles, runs, RBI, and .300-plus seasons during the postwar era.
But in 1947 Vernon's average fell from .353 to .265, an 88-point decline. "In 1946 balls were falling in all over the place for me," he reminisced. "Then the following I was hitting the same balls and they were catching them.
"They were playing me different. There's a certain amount of luck, and a certain amount of talent. If you put it all together, you can have a big year like I had in '46.
"I always had the on-deck hitter watching me, and I wasn't doing anything differently at the plate in 1947 or 1948."
In 1948 Vernon played well enough to be selected for the AL All-Star team (he was selected for the first time in 1946). Al Kozar, Washington's regular second baseman in 1948 and 1949, recalled in We Played the Game (Hyperion, 1994), "Our first baseman, Mickey Vernon , our only polished regular, had led the league with a .353 average just two years before, but he hit only .242 [in 1948] because he got nothing good to hit."
Was he surprised when he was traded to Cleveland in 1949, after playing for his second American League All-Star team in 1948?
"Not really, because I had a bad year in '48. Early Wynn was just coming along then, and he didn't have too good a year. We were in the same deal. I was kind of surprised when Cleveland traded me in 1950. I wished I could have stayed there."
Vernon , who batted a solid .281 with nine round-trippers and 75 RBI in 417 at-bats between the Indians and the Senators in 1950, proceeded to come through with eight straight good seasons, topped by his excellent year in 1953.
To compare his two batting championship seasons, I asked if he was swinging the bat the same way as he did in 1946 but seeing more balls fall in for hits in 1953.
"Right," Mickey replied, and he laughed. "I'm laughing," he remarked, "because those questions were always asked when I was playing. "Seven years later you lead the league again. How?"
"I don't have any better answer than the one I gave you."
Mickey hit more homers with Cleveland (18) in 1949 than in all but one season (20 in 1955). I asked if the ballpark helped.
He replied with a question: "Were you ever in Griffith Stadium?
"They had a 30-foot fence in right field. It was 328 feet down the line, which isn't far, but the fence went out at an angle. Some of my line drives and fly balls that would have been home runs in other ballparks were against the fence for doubles in Washington. If you look at my stats, I had a lot of doubles.
"If you look back at the history of the old Washington ball club, Goose Goslin hit 20 home runs for the highest of any Washington player. I tied it in 1955.
"Washington wasn't a home run ballpark. It was an extra-base-hit ballpark. In left field they had bleachers, but it was 406 down the left field line."
Vernon's career slugging marks illustrate what he said about Griffith Stadium. During the three seasons in which he led the league in doubles (1946, 1953, and 1954), he was wearing the Senators' uniform. His career totals show a similar trend. He belted 490 doubles and 120 triples while pounding out 172 home runs in 20 big league seasons.
When he won his second batting crown in 1953, he beat out Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen on the last day of the season. In his last at-bat, Rosen grounded out, finishing with an average of .336. Vernon , on the other hand, went 2-for-4 against Philadelphia and finished with a mark of .337. In his second great season, both with Washington, the Pennsylvania man had collected 205 hits. He led the league in doubles with 43. And he drove in a career-best 105 runners.
But Mickey said Washington had other attractions: "In the spring of 1954, President Eisenhower came out to the ballpark to present the silver bat to me, which Mr. Hillerich brought from the bat company in Louisville. President Eisenhower made the presentation, and I think that's the only time a President made that presentation to a batting champion."
Mickey recalled, "That was really a thrill."
In that Opening Day game, Vernon sparked Washington to a ten-inning 5-3 victory over the visiting Yankees by slugging a two-run home run in the tenth. But to indicate how he didn't spark enough interest among sportswriters, despite his .337 average, a league high 43 doubles, and a career-high 105 RBI, Mickey finished third in Most Valuable Player voting behind Yogi Berra and Al Rosen .
Vernon produced two more stellar seasons with the Senators. Ironically, after he hit .301 with 14 homers and 74 RBI in 1955, he was traded to Boston along with hurlers Bob Porterfield and Johnny Schmitz . Most likely Clark Griffith traded his star's salary, which had reached the $30,000-plus range. By comparison, Stan Musial earned baseball's highest salary in 1955 at $80,000.
Mickey enjoyed playing in Boston: He recalled, "The weather was good, even though they have a little rain in the spring. But Washington was always so stinking hot. Boston was all right. You could stay stronger longer.
"I liked it up there, and Mr. Yawkey was a great guy to play for. But it was too late in my career to get sent up there. I wished I had gone up there ten years earlier. I was like thirty-eight when I was traded."
Asked about his .310 season at age 38 with the Red Sox in 1956, Mickey pointed out that he and Williams were the same age. The veteran first sacker said, "The first year I was there, Ted hit .345. The next year he led the league with .388!"
But after two seasons the Red Sox waived Vernon . He told me, "In '58 Cleveland picked me up on waivers from the Red Sox. I was supposed to be backup to Vic Wertz and pinch-hit a little bit during the year. We went to spring training, and Wertz broke his leg flying into second base. That's why I played so many games.
"The following year I opened the season for the Cleveland club, and I had 3-for-7 in the first two games we played against Kansas City.
" Joe Gordon was managing the club, and he told me I was traded to Milwaukee [on April 11, 1959].
"But they lost the pennant in a playoff with the Dodgers. Brooklyn and Milwaukee finished in a tie. They had a three-game playoff, and the Dodgers won the first two."
Vernon was released after the season, and he was signed to coach with Pittsburgh. He went to spring training as a coach, and he ended up in the World Series of 1960.
"I was a coach all year for Pittsburgh, and they activated me for the last month of the season. I did some pinch-hitting [he went 1-for-8], but I wasn't eligible for the World Series."
But one of Vernon's biggest baseball thrills was being part of the Pirates' club that won the fall classic over the Yankees on Bill Mazeroski's famous home run in the ninth inning of game seven, 10-9.
The following season Mickey signed to manage the expansion Washington Senators, after Washington's franchise became the new Minnesota Twins. His club finished ninth in 1961 (61-100) and tenth in 1962 (60-101).
In May 1963 the Senators were in last place with a 14-26 record when former Dodger Gil Hodges replaced Vernon . The firing remains one of Mickey's few disappointments in an otherwise gratifying big league career.
Afterward, Vernon spent several years managing in the minors, with Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League (1966-68), with Richmond of the International League (1969-70), and with Manchester of the Eastern League (1971). He also coached for Pittsburgh (1964), the St. Louis Cardinals (1965), and the Montreal Expos (1977-78). In between, he served as minor league hitting instructor for the Kansas City Royals (1973-74) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (1975-76).
In 1979 Vernon joined the Yankees as minor league hitting instructor, serving in that position six years. For the last two years, before retiring in 1987, he worked as a Yankee scout.
Overall, Mickey spent 51 years in baseball. Reflecting on those experiences, he recounted some of his favorite memories: "The batting titles were great, but the most exciting thing was Mazeroski hitting that home run in the 1960 World Series.
"In 1954 I hit a home run in extra innings to beat the Yankees on opening day. A secret service man grabbed me at home plate, took me over to the President's box so he could congratulate me, and they took some pictures. That was a big thrill!"
Former players thought highly of him. For example, pitcher Walt Masterson recalled, " Mick was not only a great player on an off the field, he is my friend. A great hitter, a great baserunner, and a great fielder " the best on a ball thrown into the runner."
Mickey was always modest: "Baseball was something I always wanted to do. I was very fortunate to be able to do something which I really liked to do. I always had the dream."
Not only did the seven-time All-Star live his baseball dream, but he lived it with talent and dedication. A few others compiled better hitting stats, but none played first base with more skill or grace. Mickey proved to be the kind of classy athlete on the diamond and gentleman in everyday life that most fathers hope their sons will grow up to become.
Memories of Mickey Vernon may have faded over the years. Cooperstown's Veterans Committee has selected more recent first sackers such as Tony Perez , Orlando Cepeda , and Willie McCovey , all known as sluggers. But for baseball fans and writers who followed Vernon's career in the second half of the 1940s and in the 1950s, Mickey was equal of any first baseman who played in the era.
In "The Forgotten Man — Mickey Vernon" for the Charles Street Times on March 14, 2018, Cavan McCabe pointed out that Vernon was the most liked players of his time. He didn't fight with the press, he wasn't outspoken but instead mild mannered, and he helped his teammates by getting along with everyone. McCabe concluded, "The baseball writers should have a more open mind when including players into the Hall of Fame and fans should learn to appreciate a player's accomplishments and not just the players who are in the eye of the media."
I enjoyed researching the life of Mickey Vernon as well as talking with him and meeting him (see photo of us below). He was friendly, down-to-earth, and upbeat about his years in baseball. A man who spent fifty-one seasons in the game, his first-rate career illustrates that he was a quiet hero in the Big Show.
Satchel Paige himself once said, "If I was pitching and it was the ninth inning and we had a two-run lead with the bases loaded and Mickey Vernon was up, I'd walk him and pitch to the next man." Source: Philadelphia's Top Fifty Baseball Players (Rich Westcott, University of Nebraska Press, 05/01/2013, Page 159)
NOTE: This is an expanded version of an article, "Lost in the Crowd: First Baseman Mickey Vernon Ranked among Best First Basemen during Golden Era," which originally appeared in Baseball Digest , August 2001, Pages 70-77.