December 18, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Arky Vaughan

Arky Vaughn was a consistent .300 hitting, .400 OBP shortstop with doubles and triples power, steady in the field and smart on the basepaths. In his worst years he was the best shortstop in the league; his best years rank among the best by any shortstop ever. Bill James ranked Vaughan as the second greatest shortstop of all time.

Early Stardom
Vaughan was born in Clifty, Arkansas, the source of his unusual nickname. The town, today consisting of a "General Store" and an "Antique Mall," apparently didn't offer much athletic opportunity... so Vaughan didn't start playing baseball until his mid-teens. The Pirates somehow discovered him and sent him to single A Wichita for his first professional season in 1931. Vaughan proceeded to hit .338 with 21 doubles, 16 triples, and 21 home runs.

Meanwhile back in Pittsburgh, an offense laden with three Hall of Famers could not muster four runs a game in 1931 thanks in part to shortstop Tommy Thevenow, whose offensive numbers would make Ronny Cedeno blush. Thevenow hit .213 and hadn't hit a home run in five years.

Invited to spring training on a minor league contract, Vaughan took advantage of an injury to Thevenow and impressed enough people to make the jump to the big leagues. At 20 he was the youngest player in the league. He sat on the bench for 13 games, batting twice, but made the most of his first start:

"Vaughan appears to have a punch, as two resounding triples to the empty zone betwixt Babe Herman in right and the fleet Taylor Douthit will attest," reported the Pittsburgh Press. "He has a fine throwing arm, as the three double plays in which he participated, can prove. He has the willingness to go from here to Hoboken after a drive...Too fulsome praise of this latest Bucco may be unseemly, for a thimbleful of Bourbon doesn't make a highball and one game doesn't make a season, but coming on top of laudatory reports from the training camp and on the exhibition jaunt, it looks like Floyd, after the initial hubbub subsides, may develop into a mighty fine shortfielder."

Intrepid reporting, considering Prohibition wouldn't end for another eleven months. It's like writing today, "A pinch of Marijuana doesn't make a blunt." Anyway, Vaughan was batting third two weeks later and never stopped hitting for the next ten seasons. He finished his rookie year at .318 with 10 triples and 71 runs scored, good enough to rank as the most valuable shortstop in the league in MVP voting. The Pirates improved from 75-79 to 86-68.

In his sophomore season, Vaughan hit in the bottom half of the order but amassed a team leading 97 RBI while hitting .314. He improved in every offensive statistic, led the league with 19 triples, and began to show his famed plate discipline with 64 walks and only 23 strikeouts. His .388 on base percentage was third in the league. He led the league in errors, but it was said that he made errors on balls no other shortstop would get to. The Pirates finished in second place at 87-67.

In 1934, the Pittsburgh newspapers started calling Floyd Vaughan "Arky." The Pirates installed Arky as their cleanup hitter. The name change apparently worked. Vaughan had his finest year yet as he hit .333, scored 115 runs, and drove in another 94. His game was tailor made for cavernous Forbes Field, which at the time measured a cool 457 feet between home plate and the center field fence. He stroked 41 doubles, 11 triples, and 12 home runs. Stolen bases were not a big part of 1930s baseball but he led the team with 10. He led the NL with 94 walks and a .431 on base percentage. Vaughan made the first of nine consecutive All-Star teams. Yet the team slipped to a losing record, 74-76.

In 1935 Vaughan put together what is arguably the greatest offensive season ever by a shortstop. He hit .385, slugged .607 and got on base at an incredible .491 clip. All were league leading numbers. Vaughan was hitting .400 as late as September 10. Despite missing 17 games with injuries, he scored 108 runs, drove in 99, and led the league with 97 walks. He had more home runs (19) than strikeouts (18). Vaughan was easily the best player in the league but the Pirates, rebounding to 86 wins, only finished fourth and Vaughan lost the MVP to Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett. Since 1900, only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Rogers Hornsby had a better on base percentage in a season.

No one releases Exile on Main St. twice, but Arky Vaughan came pretty damn close in 1936 as he hit .335 and led the league in on base percentage (.453) for a third straight year. He led the league with 118 walks and 122 runs scored. The Pirates now featured the league's best offense but again finished fourth.

Overall from 1934-36, Vaughan hit .350, slugged .527 and got on base at a .457 rate. In 442 games he scored 345 runs, drove in 271 and had 568 hits. He walked 309 times and struck out 77, and had 177 extra base hits. Throughout the 1930s, scoring was much lower in the National League than in the American, and Forbes Field was the NL's largest park. These numbers are every bit as impressive as Lou Gehrig's or anyone else's of that era.

­Mere Greatness
In the offseason of 1936-37, the Pirates attempted to trade for St. Louis ace Dizzy Dean. The Cardinals demanded $175,000 and seven players including Vaughan. The Pirates wisely refused to include their star shortstop in any deal. Dean would win only 29 more games in his career.

Back in Pittsburgh, no one can put up otherworldly numbers every year, so Vaughan settled for being one of the best and most consistent players in the league for the next five seasons. His on base percentages from 1937-1942 were .394, .433, .385, .393, and .399. His slugging percentages were .463, .444, .424, .453 and .455. He led the league in triples in 1937 (17) and 1940 (15), in runs in 1940 (113), and had another 100 walk season in 1938 (104).

United Press ran a wire story one July entitled, "Arky Vaughan Unable to Explain Batting Slump." He was hitting .298 at the time with a .424 on base percentage.

Yet while Vaughn was consistently great, his Pirate teams had the curse of respectability. Six times from 1932 to 1938 they had winning percentages between .545 and .573. Those would be borderline playoff performances now, but back then everyone but the league's top team went home.

Fielding one of the weakest teams Arky had played for, the 1938 Pirates staged the last pennant race of the Vaughan years. After over two months in first place, Pittsburgh traveled to Wrigley Field with a week left in the season, leading the second place Cubs by 1.5 games. Dizzy Dean beat the Bucs 2-1 in the first game. The next day, the Pirates blew a 5-3 lead in the final two innings to fall a half game behind. Thurday was a 10-1 blowout, and the pennant race was all but over. Vaughan got on base eight times in the series.

The Pirates finished in their familiar fourth place in 1941, but Vaughan missed 48 games that year. Manager Frankie Frisch inexplicably began shopping his still 29-year-old shortstop around the league. In one of the worst trades in Pirate history, Pittsburgh shipped Vaughan to the Dodgers for four unimpressive players. He had a few more good years in Brooklyn and was done.

Overall, Arky Vaughan hit an unbelievable .324/.414/.472 for the Pirates while capably manning one of the most important defensive positions on the diamond. He never won an MVP but easily deserved three. Arky Vaughan was the best all-around Pirate other than Honus Wagner, and one of the best of all time at his position. Though he is the most underrated player in the Hall of Fame, Arky Vaughan clearly is a great Pirate in history.

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