More than 200 family members and friends celebrated Thanksgiving five days early last week during a memorial service for Mickey Vernon at Widener University in Chester, Pa.
These folks were giving thanks for the life of the longtime Washington Senators first baseman, one of baseball’s all-time good guys, who died Sept. 24 at 90 in Media, Pa., following two strokes. And they might be doing so again Dec. 8, when the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame announces the results of its 2008 vote.
Given the quixotic nature of such matters, no one among Vernon’s friends or family is taking anything for granted. In fact, speakers at Saturday’s affair were admonished not to mention the Hall of Fame and rightly so. We all know how big a role superstition plays in rounders.
Mickey is one of 10 eligible players whose careers began in 1942 or earlier. His competition, so to speak, includes notable contemporaries like Allie Reynolds, Joe Gordon and Vern Stephens, in addition to older old-timers like Wes Ferrell and Bucky Walters. The 12-member election panel for this category won’t meet again until 2013, when Vernon likely would be more of a long shot. So for all intent, it could be now or never for Mickey.
Does he belong in Cooperstown? Well, Vernon is one of very few whose career spanned four decades (1939-1960), he won two American League batting titles (1946, 1953) while spraying 2,495 hits and his work around the bag was so exemplary it was said he could have played the position in a tuxedo.
As with any candidate for anything, there are negatives, too. For much of his career, Vernon performed for mediocre Washington teams that avoided both winning and commanding national attention. Plus, his .286 lifetime batting average and 172 home runs do not exactly sparkle by Cooperstown standards, particularly for a guy who played a power position.
“I think it’s even money,” baseball analyst and broadcaster Phil Wood said. “Mickey’s career stats compare very favorably to several Hall of Famers, but there’s always the fact that players seem to get punished for playing with bad teams.”
So we’ll have to wait another couple of weeks to see. Of course, if Hall of Fame membership were conferred on players for being decent, caring individuals, Mickey would have made it five years after his retirement.
It was heartwarming to hear how many speakers at Saturday’s memorial, organized nicely by close friend Jim Vankoski, remarked that Vernon was an even better person than ballplayer. Of too many too often has it been said, “He didn’t have an enemy in the world,” but Mickey certainly seems to qualify.
Rich Westcott, Vernon’s biographer, told of Hall of Famer Bob Feller insisting, “If you didn’t like Mickey, you didn’t like anybody.”
Stanley Glenn, a former Negro League player who got to know Vernon in the segregated 1940s, vowed, “I never met a nicer person in my life.”
Curt Weldon, a former U.S. congressman and mayor of Vernon’s hometown, Marcus Hook, Pa., said Vernon “lived the American dream and lived it with class.”
So it went as visitors to Widener’s Latham Hall strove to capture the essence and evoke the spirit of a man whose life touched them deeply.
The 90-minute ceremony was enlivened by video and film clips of Vernon plying his baseball trade and talking about his career with customary diffidence. It was duly noted that this mild-mannered fellow actually was ejected from a handful of games, especially when he managed the pathetic expansion Senators in the early 1960s.
One such earlier occasion occurred in 1941, a year after Washington skipper Bucky Harris was tossed by an umpire for protesting a decision with some heat and possibly a pinch of profanity. The following season, the same sort of call was made by the same umpire, and now even Mickey was incensed.