There is sadness today in the hearts of many Washingtonians with more than a touch of gray in their hair. Mickey Vernon, whose only historical rivals for the affections of local baseball fans were Walter Johnson and Frank Howard, is no longer with us.
Soon after Vernon died Wednesday at 90 in Media, Pa., following a stroke, people were using similar words to describe him: gentleman, wonderful human being, extremely modest despite abilities on the field that should have landed him in the Hall of Fame long ago.
Those skills were immense. For one thing, Vernon was the most graceful first baseman of his era. Jack Dunn III, an official with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s, once swore Vernon could have played the position in a tuxedo.
Offensively, Mickey won two American League batting titles, sprayed 2,495 hits with that level left-handed swing and batted .286 during a career that stretched over four decades (1939-60) with time out for two years in the Navy during World War II.
Vernon never played in a World Series, but he had a knack for coming through when it meant the most, although most of the Washington teams for which he labored were bad.
The season after collecting his second batting championship, Vernon was 0-for-4 when he came to bat in the 10th inning of a tie game against the Yankees on Opening Day 1954 at Griffith Stadium. When Allie Reynolds tried to sneak a fastball past Mickey, the horsehide disappeared over the 40-foot wall in right field - a shot so dramatic that Dwight Eisenhower called Vernon to his box for a presidential handshake while first lady Mamie Eisenhower smooched the weathered chops of Clark Griffith, the Senators' 84-year-old owner.
That batting crown in '53 was special, too. Vernon hit .337 to beat out Al Rosen by a point and deprive the Cleveland third baseman of the Triple Crown, but there might have been a touch of chicanery involved. Clark Griffith II, the Old Fox's grandson, remembers that Vernon's teammates deliberately made outs in the eighth inning so Mickey wouldn't get to the plate again on the final day of the season.
"Eddie Yost, who was known as 'The Walking Man,' was swinging at all kinds of bad pitches, and so was Pete Runnels," Griffith recalled. "Mickey Grasso, who wasn't much of a hitter, lined a single to left, realized he had done the wrong thing and tried to stretch it into a double. Of course, he was thrown out."
Vernon, who was in the on-deck circle when the inning ended, must not have known of the scheme or he would have told his pals to forget it. Honesty was a big thing with Mickey.
When people congratulated him on edging out Rosen, his reply was characteristic: "I didn't really win the title. Al just ran out of time to catch me."
Perhaps Vernon's closest friend among his teammates was George Case, a fleet outfielder who also put in many years with the Senators.
"He was Uncle Mickey to me," said Case's son, George III. "He'd come over to our house and do things like singing songs. I really was closer to him as a person than as a baseball player. He was a very fine guy."
Vernon was the first manager of the lamentable expansion Senators, who stunk up the American League during his 2 1/4 seasons. Probably Mickey was too nice to be a successful skipper despite his vast store of baseball knowledge.
"Mickey was the epitome of stature and elegance," said Jim Hannan, a rookie pitcher who joined the club in 1962. "He commanded respect for his presence and what he had done. But the club was terrible, and I think he was a scapegoat when they fired him. But I enjoyed playing for him."
Five years ago, the citizens of Marcus Hook, Pa., Vernon's hometown, built a lovely statue of Vernon in the town park even though he hadn't lived there for more than 50 years. Said Mickey: "They didn't tell me about it [ahead of time] because they knew I'd try to talk them out of it."
No surprise there. The only person not impressed by Mickey Vernon was Mickey Vernon.
Bowie Kuhn, the late baseball commissioner, lobbied long and hard for Vernon and Cecil Travis, another Senators hero, to be installed in the Hall of Fame by its Veterans Committee. Now it might never happen, but for Vernon's friends and family there is the satisfying knowledge that he was a true Hall of Famer as a man.