- 1B, LF, OF, RF
- April 22, 1918
- 6' 2"
- 170 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 7-08-1939 with WS1
One of a handful of players whose career spanned parts of four decades, Mickey Vernon spent most of his 20 years in the major leagues playing for non-contending teams. A 14-year member of the lowly Washington Senators, Vernon failed to receive as much national exposure as he undoubtedly would have had he played for a stronger club. Nevertheless, the left-handed hitting and throwing first baseman gained widespread recognition over the course of his career as one of the finest all-around players at his position, earning seven All-Star nominations and three top 10 finishes in the American League MVP voting. By the time Vernon retired in 1960, he had appeared in more games at first base (2,237) than any other player in baseball history, except for Jake Beckley (2,377). Vernon also held the major league record for career double plays at first base (2,044), as well as American League records for career putouts (19,754), assists (1,444), and total chances (21,408). An outstanding hitter as well, Vernon won two batting titles, led the American League in doubles on three separate occasions, and compiled 2,495 hits during his time in the major leagues.
Born in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania on April 22, 1918, James Barton Vernon spent his formative years as a baseball fan going to nearby Philadelphia’s Shibe Park to watch Connie Mack’s outstanding Philadelphia Athletics teams of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nicknamed “Mickey” as a youngster, Vernon briefly attended Villanova University, before signing with the Washington Senators as an amateur free agent in 1937. He spent the next two years playing in the minors, before breaking into the big leagues in July 1939 as baseball’s youngest player. The 21-year-old first baseman appeared in 76 games for the Senators the remainder of the year, batting .257, driving in 30 runs, and hitting his first major league home run.
The Senators returned Vernon to the minor leagues for more seasoning in 1940, limiting the youngster to only five games with the parent club. However, he returned to Washington the following year, establishing himself as the team’s starting first baseman by batting .299 and knocking in 93 runs.
Vernon had solid seasons for the Senators in 1942 and 1943, placing among the A.L. leaders with 34 doubles and 86 RBIs in the first of those campaigns, while finishing near the top of the league rankings with 89 runs scored the following year. Possessing outstanding speed for a first baseman, the 6’2”, 185 pound Vernon also finished among the league leaders in stolen bases both years, with 25 and 24 thefts, respectively.
Vernon put his baseball career on hold for two years in 1944, when he enlisted in the United States Navy to serve his country during World War II. After missing what should have been two of his peak seasons, the 26-year-old first baseman showed no signs of rust when he returned to the game in 1946. Vernon led the American League with a career-high .353 batting average and 51 doubles, en route to earning his first All-Star selection and a fifth place finish in the league MVP voting. He also finished among the league leaders with 85 runs batted in, 88 runs scored, 207 hits, a .403 on-base percentage, and a .508 slugging percentage.
Vernon wasn’t nearly as prolific at the plate in either of the next two seasons, prompting the Senators to trade him and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn to the Cleveland Indians for a package of players that included slugging first baseman Eddie Robinson at the conclusion of the 1948 campaign. Vernon posted solid numbers for the Indians in 1949, batting .291, driving in 83 runs, and establishing a new career high with 18 home runs. He started off the following season slowly, though, and, with Washington fans expressing their dissatisfaction over the earlier departure of their team’s most popular player, the Senators reacquired Vernon some two months into the 1950 season. His bat rejuvenated by his return to Washington, Vernon finished the year with 75 runs batted in and a .281 batting average.
Vernon’s popularity with the fans of Washington could be attributed largely to his gentlemanly manner both on and off the field. Often referred to as The Gentleman First Baseman, Vernon carried himself in a polite, respectful, and graceful manner at all times, earning a reputation in the process as one of the game’s most well-liked players. Even Dwight Eisenhower referred to Vernon as his favorite ballplayer during his stay in the White House. One baseball writer once wrote, “Mickey Vernon is as silent as a night watchman, as conservative as a banker, and as well-behaved as a vicar.”
Vernon’s playing ability further endeared him to Washington fans, who often found themselves with little to root for. Blessed with a keen batting eye and excellent bat control, Vernon rarely swung at bad pitches and frequently placed among the league leaders in base hits. Although he didn’t hit a lot of home runs, the first baseman had good extra-base power, finishing in double-digits in triples four times and compiling more than 30 doubles on six separate occasions. And, even though he wasn’t a true slugger, Vernon likely would have hit many more home runs than he did had he not spent much of his career playing in spacious Griffith Stadium, which reduced his career total to 172 long balls. Vernon hit only 55 of those homers playing at home, while he hit the other 117 playing on the road.
As solid as Vernon was at the bat, he was generally considered to be even stronger in the field. In addition to his outstanding career totals, Vernon led all American League first basemen in putouts three times, while also topping the circuit in assists and fielding percentage once each. One minor league manager said of him, “Mickey was so smooth around the bag that he could have played first base wearing a tuxedo.”
Vernon put together solid seasons for the Senators in 1951 and 1952, before winning his second batting title in 1953. In addition to leading the league with a batting average of .337, the first baseman topped the circuit with 43 doubles, hit 15 home runs, compiled 205 hits, and established career highs with 115 runs batted in and 101 runs scored. Vernon’s .337 batting average enabled him to edge out Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen by a point in the batting race, thereby preventing the league’s Most Valuable Player from capturing the Triple Crown. Vernon’s outstanding campaign earned him a third place finish in the league MVP balloting. Vernon placed in the top 10 in the voting again the following year, when he batted .290, drove in 97 runs, scored 90 others, led the league with 33 doubles, and hit a career-high 20 homers and 14 triples.
Vernon spent one more year in Washington, batting .301 and knocking in 85 runs for the Senators in 1955, before being included as part of a nine-player deal with the Red Sox at season’s end. He remained in Boston for two years, batting .310 and driving in 84 runs in his first year with his new club. From Boston, Vernon moved on to Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, where he spent his final season serving as the Pirates first base coach, before being activated for a brief period of time when major league rosters expanded in early September. The 42-year-old Vernon closed out his playing career with one hit in eight pinch-hit appearances for the eventual world champions. He officially retired at the end of the year with 2,495 hits, 1,311 runs batted in, 1,196 runs scored, a .286 career batting average, and a solid .359 on-base percentage. Vernon batted over .300 five times and topped the .290-mark on five other occasions.
After retiring from the game as an active player, Vernon returned to Washington the very next season to manage the American League’s expansion Washington Senators (the original Senators relocated to Minnesota the previous season, re-naming themselves the Twins in the process). Vernon continued to manage the Senators until the beginning of 1963, when he was relieved of his duties after compiling a record of only 135-227 as the team’s skipper. He subsequently served as a coach at the major league level for the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos, and New York Yankees, managed at the AAA and AA levels of the minor leagues, and also served as a minor league batting instructor for numerous teams, before finally retiring from baseball at the end of 1982. Vernon spent his last years residing in Media, Pennsylvania, eventually dying from a stroke on September 24, 2008 at the age of 90.
Shortly before his passing, Vernon displayed the modesty and unpretentiousness that made him one of the game’s most popular players throughout his career when he said, “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.”
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- All Star, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Griffith Stadium, Mickey Vernon, Washington Senators