By Glen Sparks
That poker game in 1920 changed everything.
Charles Arthur Vance, along with some teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans, took his spot around a card table one evening—undoubtedly sultry—in the Big Easy.
They called Vance “Dazzy.” He picked up that nickname because he once fired a dazzling fastball. That was when his right arm was strong. Now, it was sore. It had been for years. That was why he was pitching in the Southern League at the age of 29. Vance hoped for one last chance in the majors.
He was a decent prospect at one time. Vance, born March 4, 1891, in Iowa, grew to 6-feet-2-inches and 200 pounds. Country strong, as they say. Local scouts liked the young fireballer. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him in 1915; he made his big-league debut later that year. In his one game with Pittsburgh, he tossed 2.2 innings and gave up three runs, all earned. Not too dazzling. The Pirates promptly traded him to the New York Yankees.
Vance pitched in eight games for the Yanks in ‘15, picked up three decisions and lost all three. Over the next few years, he toiled in the minor leagues and nursed his chronically sore arm. Dazzy finally made it back to the Bronx for 2.1 innings in 1918 and made a mess of things, surrendering nine hits and four earned runs. New York sent him from one farm club to another and, finally, to New Orleans.
He couldn’t stay healthy. Luckily for Vance, smacking that poker table turned a chronic pain into an excruciating one. He sorely needed medical attention. (He supposedly won the pot. His exact hand is lost to history.)
Whatever the doctor did, it worked. (One theory is that Vance had some bone chips removed from his aching elbow.) He notched 21 wins for the Pelicans in 1921. The Brooklyn Robins, the forerunner of the Dodgers, purchased Vance’s contract from New Orleans in early 1922. He responded by winning 18 games in each of the next two seasons for Brooklyn.
That led up to 1924. The pitcher, with a big smile and a shock of wavy red hair that he hid underneath his cap, won the MVP award that season. Besides compiling a career-high 262 strikeouts, he went 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA (174 ERA+) and a WAR of 10.4. Vance won 15 straight games at one point and struck out a career-high 15 batters on Aug. 23 against the Chicago Cubs.
Vance flat-out dominated National League hitters. Burleigh Grimes and Dolph Luque, finished second and third, respectively, in strikeouts that season. They fanned 221 batters combined, or 41 fewer than Vance.
The Dodgers’ ace threw a no-hitter the next year. The Sept. 13 no-no came on a Sunday afternoon at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, in the first game of doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies. Vance was matched up against Clarence Mitchell, who didn’t record an out in the game. He gave up three runs in the first inning, departed for relief that never came and was on the losing end of a 10-1 blowout. Dick Cox, the Brooklyn clean-up batter, had four hits, while Johnny Mitchell and Jimmy Johnston each drove in three runs.
Vance walked one batter and struck out nine. Philly scored a lone run in the second inning. Nelson “Chicken” Hawks reached on a Johnston error, advanced to second base and ran safely to third following a passed ball by Brooklyn catcher Hank DeBerry. Hawks then scored his unearned run on a sacrifice fly from Bernie Friberg.
With that victory, Vance improved to 22-7. The Brooklyn ace lost his last two games of the season but 22-9 isn’t shabby, especially for a team that ended up 68-85 and in sixth place. He led the N.L. with 221 strikeouts and four shutouts. Writers voted him fifth in the N.L. MVP race.
Dazzy combined a hot fastball with a 12-6 curveball. Batters couldn’t catch up to the heat or make any sense out of the breaking stuff. He finished first in ERA in 1928 (2.09) and again in 1930 (2.61) at the age of 39. Following a 12-11 season in 1932, Vance left the Robins for the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Cincinnati Reds. He returned to Brooklyn for one more season, 1935, before calling it quits at the age of 44 with a career won-loss mark of 197-140 and a 3.24 ERA (125 ERA+).
All told, Dazzy led the National League in strikeouts a record seven straight seasons (1922-28). He topped it in K/BB ratio eight times (1924-31) and in K/9 ratio eight times (1922-28, 1931). Vance put together an incredible (and overlooked) career that began slowly in the year that Babe Ruth slugged his first major-league home run, got rolling as the Jazz Age grew loud, and ended during the Great Depression.
Sabermatrician Bill James rated Dazzy the 35th best pitcher of all-time in the 2003 paperback edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, just ahead of Bert Blyleven and Hal Newhouser. Baseball writers elected Vance to Cooperstown in 1955. The Hall of Famer died Feb. 16, 1961, in Florida. He was 69.