A BOY'S IDOL PASSES
as seen in
a vintage baseball card
He was the poor man's
Stan Musial in his day
By PAUL HERTELENDY
Mickey Vernon, an all-time champion at battling Father Time, died this week at the youngish age of only 90. Frankly, I thought hed go on for a couple of centuries, starting double plays in my fields of dreams and also hitting a stylish 3-for-3.
Mickey was my boyhood hero growing up in Washington, D.C. I think of him as a poor-mans Stan Musial. A leftie, he had a sweet batting stroke, played a smooth first base for the team he outlived by many decades--the Washington Senators--and he
had a special relationship with that high right-field wall in Griffith Stadium.
Mickey played with miserable teams that were often the leagues doormats; I think the American presidents summoned to throw out the first ball of the season were a mite embarrassed to be seen there. But Mickey still won the A.L. batting title in 1946. He was shipped off to the Cleveland Indians in a wretched deal, exchanged for a long-forgotten fireballing pitcher who couldnt find home plate with a telescope or
In 1953, seven years after his great year, he won the batting title once again---something of a miracle, given the intervening gap and his age (35).
In a later burst of brilliance, the hoary owner of the Senators, Clark Griffith, managed to get him back after a few seasons.
I watched him play many a day, even when the Indians came to town, always sitting in the upper deck above first base, munching peanuts while disdaining crackerjacks, faithfully noting down on my score-sheet every play, every at-bat. And after the night games, Id walk home through some of the toughest parts of town without incident. After all, everybody else had been tuned in to the Senators on the radio, werent they? What baddies there were were clearly neutralized.
But then there was that right-field wall--a perfect counterpart for the famed Green Monster wall in Fenway Park, Boston. Because the wall was fairly close to home plate--not much over 300 feet--the stadium had a wall some 30 feet high to knock down those fly balls, turning potential home runs into doubles. The wall had the stadiums only ads, metal display ads screwed in for the season. And whenever a wall smacked the wall, it gave off a metallic thwunk that confirmed an extra-base hit for our guys.
And did Mickey ever pummel that wall! At the end of the season I think you could count all the dents left there by his soaring rainbow drives. Other players made headlines hitting or vaulting other walls--Joe DiMaggio getting drives into the left-field bleachers, more than 400 feet away, or, much later, Mickey Mantle, hitting one more than 500 feet over the centerfield wall.
But none of these had the allure of Vernons drives hit out my way, with a team long since gone, in a stadium long since reduced to rubble.
He still holds the record for most double-plays by a first-baseman (2,044). He led the league in fielding four times, in doubles clattering off the walls three times. He was a seven-time all-star.
All those Mickeys are gone now--Mantle, Vernon. But the memories live on, vividly.
©2008 by Paul Hertelendy. This column was first posted Sept. 29, 2008.
Paul Hertelendy is critic and webmaster for the arts-review web site www.artssf.com, and is also the Piedmont (CA) Centennial poet laureate. To visit his website, click here: PAUL
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