By Glen Sparks
What do you know about Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughn?
The story of his splendid career and tragically short life has grown foggy. That probably isn’t a great surprise. Invariably, the precise statistics and highlights of most players—even some of the very best–get forgotten over time, even by the most avid fans.
And, to be fair, Vaughn did not put up stats so glorious as “714” or “755.” He did not collect 3,630 career hits like Stan Musial did (1,850 on the road, 1,850 at home, to boot), or do anything quite so outrageous as bat .406 in one season or enjoy a 56-game hitting streak.
Still, he is enshrined—rightly so–among the immortals, finally put there decades after his untimely death. His plaque hangs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., not far from legendary players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Walter Johnson.
What should you know about “Arky” Vaughn? (They called him “Arky”, by the way, because he was born March 9, 1912, in little Clifty, Ark. He and his family left the state for California when young Joe was just a few months old. “Oh, you were born in Arkansas?” Arky. The name stuck.)
- Batted .318 over a 14-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers (1932-43, 47-48), with a .406 on-base percentage.
- Made nine straight National League All-Star teams (1934-42) and finished third in the MVP voting in 1935 and 1938.
- Led the league in bases on balls three straight years (1934-36) and in on-base percentage those same three seasons.
- Led the N.L. in triples in 1933, ’37 and 1940 and smacked 128 three-base hits over his career. He topped out at 19 in ’33.
- Led the league in runs scored three times (1936, ’40 and ’43) and came home more than 100 times in five seasons.
- Enjoyed his best season in 1935. That year, he led the senior circuit in bases on balls (97), batting average (.385), on-base percentage (.491), slugging percentage (.607), OPS (1.098) and OPS+ (190).
Vaughn grew up in Mendocino, Calif., near San Francisco, and, later, in Orange County, Calif. He graduated from Fullerton Union High School (the same high school that produced Kansas native Walter Johnson, probably the greatest pitcher in baseball history) and made his major league debut as a 20-year-old Pirates shortstop in 1932.
The 5-foot-10-inch Vaughn played shortstop (1,485 games) for most of his career. He also saw some action at third base (197) and in the outfield (120 games). He even played a lone game at second base in 1942 for Brooklyn.
Vaughn established himself as an All-Star by 1934, his third year in the league. His 1935 season looks even better today than it did at the time. Vaughn finished behind the Chicago Cubs’ Gabby Harnett and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean in the MVP race. He belted 19 homers and drove in 99 runs to go with that league-leading .385 batting average.
However, as mentioned earlier, Vaughn topped the league in several categories, such as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+. Those stats didn’t mean anything in 1935. Vaughn also led the N.L. in WAR (Wins above Replacement) with a 9.2. Hartnett posted a 5.0 and Dean a 7.1.
Following a run of outstanding seasons, Vaughn was dealt to Brooklyn on Dec. 12, 1941. The Dodgers, who already had Pee Wee Reese playing shortstop, put Vaughn at third base. The new man hit a career-low .277 in his first year in Brooklyn. He rebounded the following year with a .305 batting average and even led the N.L. with 20 stolen bases.
The lefty batter retired—abruptly—after the 1943 season. He got into a beef with Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher and basically said, “the heck with this. I’m outta here.” Here’s the story: Durocher blabbed some nasty stuff to reporters about Brooklyn pitcher Bobo Newsom, a friend of Arky’s. Vaughn, a quiet guy, read the ink and saw red. He threw his uniform at the skipper and called the man a liar.
Vaughn’s retirement lasted one day. He played the next afternoon but quit at the end of the season and for the next three years. Brooklyn G.M. Branch Rickey talked Arky into a comeback in 1947.
In that most interesting of seasons, Vaughn batted .325 in 64 games, and Jackie Robinson made his debut as the first African-American major leaguer of the 20th century. Was Rickey’s timing purely coincidence? Maybe not. Vaughn was a respected player and quiet leader. Rickey probably wanted him around in case any trouble broke out during Robinson’s rookie season. Later, Robinson called Vaughn “a fine fellow.”
Vaughn, just 36 years old, retired for good following the 1948 campaign. He and his wife left for the family cattle ranch in northern California. Tragically, Vaughn and a good friend, Bill Wilmer, died while fishing at Lost Lake in Eagleville, Calif., on Aug. 30, 1952.
The boat tipped over about 60 yards out, and the two men tried swimming for shore in the cold water. According to some eyewitnesses, Vaughn and Wilmer went under only 20 yards from safety. Supposedly, Vaughn was trying to save Wilmer, who could not swim. Vaughn was just 40 years old.
Maybe due to the relative shortness of his career, Vaughn did not make it into the Hall of Fame until 1985. He slugged only 96 homers and retired with just 2,103 hits. Still, thanks in part to that impressive career on-base percentage, he had 72.9 WAR points. Bill James ranked him the second best shortstop of all-time in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract.
He is an overlooked Hall of Famer. Arky Vaughn certainly enjoyed a career worth remembering.