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, got rolling in the heart of the Jazz Age 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.
By Glen Sparks
Clayton Kershaw began the 2015 season in most un-Kershaw-like fashion. His record on May 10, six weeks into the campaign, stood at 1-2. His ERA had risen to 4.26 following another mediocre outing. What was wrong, fans and media asked, with the ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Nothing, as it turns out.
By the end of the season, Kershaw’s record was 16-7. His ERA had nosedived to 2.13 (third in the National League). In 232.2 innings (tops in the league), he struck out 301 batters, the first pitcher to eclipse the 300-strikeout mark since Curt Schilling fanned 316 for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2002.
Kershaw also led the league in starts (33), FIP (1.99) and K/9 (11.6). He tied for the lead in complete games (four) and shutouts (three) and finished second in K/BB (7.167). Kershaw ended up third in H/9 (6.305), WHIP (0.881) and WAR for pitchers (7.5).
The 27-year-old left-hander from Dallas, Texas, can celebrate tonight. He is the Dazzy Vance Award winner for the second straight season. (No trophy or monetary reward goes with this prize. It is simply a matter of pride.)
You’ll recall that I created the award last year. It goes to the National League pitcher who in this blogger’s opinion put up the most Dazzy-like numbers during the season. Vance, who played in Brooklyn for most of his great career, made his Hall of Fame reputation as a strikeout pitcher with excellent control.
He led the league in strikeouts seven times, K/BB ratio eight times, FIP seven times and WHIP three times. The right-hander also topped the N.L. in ERA three times and wins twice.
Now, Kershaw did not win the Cy Young award this season, as he did last year, along with the N.L. MVP. He finished third in that race, behind Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles teammate Zack Greinke. (Vance didn’t win a Cy Young, either. Baseball did not start giving out the award until 1956. Dazzy retired during the 1935 season. He did win the N.L. MVP in 1924.)
Again, the key to being the Dazzy-est pitcher is not necessarily to win the Cy Young. The key is to pitch in a way that best reflects the prime years of Dazzy Vance. Arrieta did put up some Dazzy-like numbers. He led the N.L. in wins (22), H/9 (5.9) and HR/9 (0.4). The 29-year-old right-hander actually tied Kershaw for the lead in complete games and shutouts, along with a handful of other hurlers. He struck out 236 hitters (third in the league) and was ninth in K/9 (9.275).
Greinke, meanwhile, ended up first in ERA (1.66), ERA+ (225) and WHIP (0.884). He completed the season with a 19-3 mark and league-leading .864 winning percentage. However, he did not finish in the top 10 in either strikeouts (200) or K/9 ratio, two important stats in any Dazzy Vance award competition.
This one was close. Really, Max Scherzer probably offered the most competition for Kershaw. Scherzer, the big right-hander for the Washington Nationals, finished second in the league in strikeouts (276) and K/9 ratio (10.863), behind Kershaw. He also took second in BB/9 (1.338), behind the New York Mets’ Bartolo Colon (1.110) and ahead of Kershaw (1.625), who was fifth.
Scherzer, though, ended up behind Kershaw in most other important Dazzy Vance categories, such as ERA (2.79, eighth in the N.L.), ERA+ (144, sixth) and WAR for pitcher (7.1, fourth).
So, congratulations to Clayton Kershaw. Dodger fans hope he can be a three-time winner in 2016. … How many more days until pitchers and catchers report?
By Glen Sparks
My blog turns one-year old today. Over the last 365 days, I have posted 217 articles, mostly about baseball, occasionally about other topics. I’ve written stories on the modern game and on baseball in the years just after the Civil War’s end. I’ve posted stories about, among many others, Will White, Fred Merkel, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, and, of course, Dazzy Vance himself, the one-time journeyman hurler turned Hall of Fame flamethrower. These men have all helped make baseball a great game and a fascinating conversation piece.
Below, you’ll find stories I wrote in the early days of this blog. You may have missed them. Thank you for reading, and I look forward to another year of blogging about baseball.
By Glen Sparks
Sadly, the 2015 baseball season is nearing the halfway point. Three more months and the playoffs begin. Following the World Series, we must be content to do, as the great Rogers Hornsby said he did every offseason, stare out the window and wait for spring.
We can, however, take some time now to analyze the 2015 Dazzy Vance Award competition. You’ll recall last year that I instituted this award amid much pomp and circumstance. It is named in honor of Vance, of course, the late, great right-hander for the Brooklyn Robins (forerunner of the Dodgers).
Vance, a late-bloomer, dominated several pitching categories in the 1920s, including K/BB ratio (N.L. leader eight times), K/9 ratio (eight times) strikeouts (seven times), FIP (seven times) and H/9 ratio (four times). He also led the N.L. in ERA three times, ERA+ three times and wins twice. In 1926, the Nebraska native went 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA and won the league MVP.
I set up just a few guidelines for this award. The winner must be a starting pitcher, and he must be a National Leaguer. (Vance pitched 2,936.1 innings in the N.L. during his 16-year career. He tossed just 30.1 innings in the A.L. He was a Senior Circuit guy.)
Also, the winner should be someone with Dazzy Vance-type stats. He should be a guy who strikes out a lot of hitters, but who doesn’t walk many. Soft-tossers and wild throwers need not apply.
Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the award the last year. He was the Dazzy-est. The left-hander (The winner can be a lefty or a right-hander) led the N.L. win wins (21), ERA (1.73), ERA+ (201), FIP (1.81), WHIP (0.857), K/9 (10.8) and K/BB (7.71). This choice was easy.
How ‘bout this year? The top candidates include (in no particular order) Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Matt Harvey of the New York Mets, Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals, Shelby Miller of the Atlanta Braves, Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, A.J. Burnett of the Pirates (Suddenly, he isn’t walking batters.), Zack Greinke of the Dodgers, and Kershaw, the incumbent.
I won’t go over everyone’s qualifications. You can go to baseball-reference.com to look up all the numbers. I will say that Scherzer looks to be the frontrunner. He leads the N.L. in innings pitched (110.1), FIP (2.01), WHIP (0.789), H/9 (6.0) and K/9 (9.29). He is second to Clayton Kershaw in strikeouts (130), second to Zack Greinke in ERA (1.79), second to Bartolo Colon (?!) in BB/9 (1.142).
Recently, Scherzer put up Dazzy-like back-to-back performances. He tossed a one-hitter followed by a no-hitter, just the fourth pitcher to throw back-to-back shutouts while allowing one hit or less. Vance did it in 1925.
By Glen Sparks
“The Dodgers have three men on base!”
“Oh, yeh? Which base?”
This joke made the rounds for years. Here is the backstory:
On Aug. 15, 1926, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Dodgers (or, the Robins as they were known as then) were playing the Boston Braves. The score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning, and Brooklyn had loaded the bases. Chick Fewster was on first, our good friend Dazzy Vance was on second, and Vance’s personal catcher, Hank DeBerry, stood on third. Floyd Caves Herman, better known as “Babe”, stepped into the batter’s box.
Herman, Brooklyn’s power hitter, ripped a pitch to the right-field wall. DeBerry scored the go-ahead run easily. Fewster, a second baseman, sprinted from first to third and held up. Vance, unfortunately, got caught in a run down. Rather than trying to barrel over the catcher, he headed back to third base.
It got awfully crowded 90 feet from home plate. Then, it got ridiculous. First, Herman slid into second base. That’s where he should have stayed. But, he watched the outfield throw go home and high-tailed it to third, his head down, undoubtedly. He remained oblivious in all ways to any shouts and signals from teammates, coaches and fans.
Babe met up at third with two of his teammates. It was comical and comically heart-breaking.
Eddie Taylor, Boston’s quick-thinking infielder, tagged out all three Brooklyn runners. There was already one out, but why take any chances? Umpire Beans Reardon ruled it this way: Vance was entitled to the base. Fewster and Herman were out. The inning was over.
And, that’s the story of how Babe Herman, born in Buffalo, N.Y., raised in Glendale, Calif., “doubled into a double play,” as some people liked to say. (The official scorer gave Herman a double. He went to third on the throw.)
Well, that might not be the nicest story to tell about Herman on the 112th anniversary of his birthday. But, it does illustrate two important points about the man. He sure could hit, and he sure could do something to make you scratch your head.
Herman, who moved with his family to southern California as an infant, batted .324 in a 13-year career that began in 1926. He hit 181 home runs and drove in 997 runs. He was never better than he was in 1930 for Brooklyn, when he batted .393 with 35 home runs, 130 RBI and 18 stolen bases.
The 6-foot-4-inch left-handed batter played six seasons in Brooklyn, three in Cincinnati, two for the Chicago Cubs and one apiece for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Tigers. Babe retired after the 1937 season, to play minor league ball with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.
In 1945, Babe made a brief comeback with Brooklyn. He batted .265 in 34 at-bats and hit one home run. Then, it was back to California where he had some business and other interests. Being so close to the movie industry, he picked up some work behind and in front of the cameras. Babe served as technical consultant on the Lou Gerhig movie Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper in the title role. Herman even doubled as in some long shots on the baseball field.
Herman worked as a scout for some teams and stayed in baseball until his death in 1987 at the age of 84. He never garnered any real Hall of Fame support, topping out at 5.7 percent of the vote in 1956.
Some people blamed it on his relatively short career. Others blamed it, believe it or not, on that gaffe in the Braves game. Plus, some other stuff. In 1928, Herman supposedly got konked in the head with a flyball while playing in the outfield. Herman insisted this never happened. Hit in the head? The good-natured Herman said, “On the shoulder, yes, never on the head!”
The truth was, though, that Herman never was much of a fielder. Managers put him into the line-up to hit. And, that he did. He always reminded the jokesters that, in that famous game in 1926, he not only drove in the winning run, he also drove in Brooklyn’s other two runs.
Spence Abbott, a Major League scout, put it best when asked about Babe Herman. Abbott saw Herman playing for the Seattle Indians of the PCL in 1925. As usual, Herman was whacking line drives all over the place.
“He’s sort of funny in the field,” Abbott reported, “but when I see a guy go six-for-six, I’ve got to go for him.”
By Glen Sparks
Only a single off the superbly nicknamed Louis Nelson “Chicken” Hawks kept Dazzy Vance from throwing back-to-back no-hitters in the late summer of 1925.
Vance tossed his no-no for the Brooklyn Robins (forerunner of the Dodgers) on Sept. 13 at Ebbets Field. He beat the Philadelphia Phillies 10-1 in the first game of a doubleheader. The Brooklyn ace, and reigning National League Most Valuable Player, struck out nine batters and walked one. The Phillies scored a run on two Brooklyn errors and a sacrifice fly. Milt Stock and Jimmy Johnson led the Brooklyn offense, with three RBI apiece.
Just a few days before his no-hitter, on Sept. 8, Vance had tossed a one-hitter against those very same Phillies, also at Ebbets Field. In that start, Vance only got the bare minimum of support. He beat Philly 1-0 in a pitching duel with Ray Pierce. Jack Fournier knocked in the Robins’ only run, scoring Stock in the fourth inning on a base hit.
Dazzy didn’t walk anyone and struck out six. Chicken Hawks, batting fifth in the order, singled with one out in the second inning. (Thank you to baseball-reference.com for providing details about these games. You can go there to check out box scores from games in 1914 to the present day. Awesome.)
Hawks, who was erased on a caught stealing, finished the game 1-for-3. The first baseman from San Francisco batted .322 in 1925, his second and final year in the majors. Hawks broke in with the New York Yankees as a 25-year-old rookie in 1921 and hit a respectable .288 in 73 at-bats. The first baseman from San Francisco spent most of his long playing career in the minor leagues, in California and on the east coast.
Following his two great starts, Vance raised his won-loss record to 22-8 and lowered his ERA to 3.32. He extended his no-hit streak to 16 innings until giving up a first-inning single to Max Carey of the Pittsburgh Pirates in his next start.
The 6-foot-2-inch right-hander from America’s heartland (born in Iowa, raised in Nebraska) finished the 1925 campaign with a 22-9 mark and 3.53 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts, something he did every from 1922 through 1928, with 221 and in shutouts with four. Dazzy retired after the 1935 season with a 197-140 career won-loss record and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
Johnny Vander Meer, of course, is the only pitcher in Major League history to toss back-to-back no-hitters. He did it in 1938 for the Cincinnati Reds. Besides Vance and Vander Meer, the only other pitchers to throw back-to-back shutouts, allowing one or fewer total hits are:
Howard Ehmke, 1923 for the Boston Red Sox
Jim Tobin, 1944 for the Boston Braves
Max Scherzer, 2015 for the Washington Nationals
Congratulations to this select group of pitchers for being back-to-back magnificent.
By Glen Sparks
They say that a record is made to be broken. Even a Dazzy Vance record.
Cleveland Indians’ ace Corey Kluber struck out 18 St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday evening at Progressive Field in Cleveland. No pitcher has ever fanned that many Redbirds in one game. Dazzy Vance held the previous mark with 17.
Vance enjoyed his big game on July 20, 1925. The Brooklyn ace set his career-high mark that day in a 10-inning 4-3 win. Vance also tied the 20th century single-game strikeout mark. The Chicago Cubs’ Jack Pfiester punched out 17 hitters in 17 innings on May 30, 1906.
In 1925, Vance fanned 221 batters to lead the National League for the fourth straight season. He would go on to finish first in K’s for the next three years, giving him seven strikeout titles in his career and ensuring his place as one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history.
Kluber, meanwhile, continues to make his mark in baseball. Like Vance, Kluber is a late-bloomer. Dazzy really didn’t get things going until his age-31 season in 1922. Kluber, out of Coppell, Texas, near Dallas, is 29 years old. He attended Steton University in central Florida (home of the Hatters, of course) and didn’t make it to the majors until he was 25.
Kluber pitched a bit in his first two seasons (2011 and 2012), with some crummy results. In 2013, he broke out with an 11-5 won-loss mark and a 3.85 ERA (99 ERA+). Last season, he really hit the mark, going 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA (155 ERA+) and taking home the A.L. Cy Young Award.
The 2015 season began in a rough way for Kluber. He went 0-5 in his first seven starts with a 5.04 ERA. Then on Wednesday, he pitched one of the best games in baseball history. The Cardinals’ Jhonny Peralta broke up Kluber’s no-hit bid with a single to center field with two outs in the seventh inning.
Kluber’s 18 strikeouts tied Bob Feller for the most strikeouts in one game by an Indians pitcher and were the most by any pitcher in the Majors since the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ben Sheets fanned 18 on May 16, 2004. He certainly mixed things up. Everything was working against the Cardinals. Kluber struck out six batters on curveballs, four on his four-seam fastball, four on his sinker and three on his slider. Kluber’s game score of 98 was the best in history for any pitcher in an eight-inning performance. (50 is average.) The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayon Kershaw is the last pitcher to exceed a 98 game score, recording a 102 on June 18 last season in his 15-strikout, no-walk no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium.
Kerry Wood is the only other pitcher with a game of 18 or more strikeouts, no walks and no more than one hit. Wood did that for the Cubs, against the Houston Astros, on May 6, 1998. He went the whole way, gave up a hit and struck out 20.
Cleveland Manager Terry Francona pulled Kluber after eight innings and 113 pitches. The starter had to watch Cody Allen, with a high-flying ERA of about 9.00, get the final three outs and preserve a 2-0 masterpiece.