- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

The uniform shirt was hanging there in all its retro glory at the memorabilia show and whispering loudly, “Buy me — I will make you feel like a kid again.” So I did.

The cost was reasonable, as such things go, but this would have been worth almost any price. A 1949 Washington Senators home shirt, with pinstripes and the big navy blue “W” trimmed in red on the left breast? Zowie!

“You can have a number on the back,” the man behind the counter suggested.

That was easy. “Number 3, for Mickey Vernon,” I said, and then, indeed, it seemed as if I were 11 years old again and showing off the shirt around my neighborhood in Northwest, except that such shirts were not available to the public in 1949.

So James Barton “Mickey” Vernon was very much on my mind recently when a man named Ed Gebhart called to let me know that Mickey’s old hometown of Marcus Hook, Pa., would be dedicating a statue of him at the entrance to the town park in September. I’ll tell you what kind of influence nice guy Mickey has on the folks around him. He hasn’t lived in Marcus Hook for more than 50 years and hasn’t been a ballplayer for more than 40, but the citizens still want to honor him. Now that’s) fame, even if the ever modest Vernon never courted it.

“The people up here have known about the statue for quite a while, but I only found out a couple of weeks ago,” said Vernon, now a spry 85 and living 10 miles down the road in Wallingford, Pa., near Wilmington.

“How come?” a man asked.

Mickey chuckled. “I think they were afraid I’d try to talk them out of it.”

Why does Mickey Vernon deserve a statue anywhere? For one thing, he was a marvelous player, one of the few to appear in four decades (1939-60). He never got into a World Series, though he watched one as a first-base coach for Pittsburgh in 1960. The Pirates activated him for nine games in September, so Mickey could complete his four-decade odyssey, but he wasn’t eligible for the Series, worse luck.

Longevity was only one of Vernon’s achievements. He won two American League batting titles, hitting .353 in 1946 and .337 in ‘53, on the way to finishing with 2,495 hits and a .286 average. And with a glove on his right hand and a twinkle in his toes, there never was a more graceful first baseman. Like Joe DiMaggio in center field with the Yankees, Mickey never looked like he was working hard in the field — no matter how hard he worked.

In baseball, as in anything else, your earliest memories stick with you. I can shut my eyes a half-century later and see Vernon’s level swing at the plate and quick feet around the bag. There’s no telling how many errors he saved the Senators’ other infielders by digging throws out of the dirt or stretching out that lanky 6-foot-2 frame.

I remember, too, how he used to study the ball intently before rolling it to the mound as he ran off the field after making the third putout in an inning. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the reason: so that, with his team coming to bat, he could alert the umpires if the ball was defaced in any way.

Line-drive hitter Vernon had just 172 career home runs, which figured because the right-field fence at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, where he played for most of his career, was 31 feet high. One of them was most memorable, a 10th-inning swat over that wall that beat the lordly Yankees in the 1954 opener. Before the game, President Dwight Eisenhower presented Vernon with a silver bat for winning the batting championship the previous season. After the game, Ike summoned Mickey to his box next to the dugout to offer personal congratulations.

Nearly 50 years later, I asked Vernon who the Yankees’ pitcher had been.

“I’m not sure — could have been [and was] Allie Reynolds.”

“What kind of pitch was it?”

“Gee, I don’t remember — fastball probably.”

“What was the count?”

“Sorry, but I don’t remember.”

Mickey was never one to toot his own horn, as the saying went back then.

Years of laboring for the victory-challenged Senators undoubtedly taught Vernon a lot about humility. So did some roller-coaster dips in offensive production. After his monster campaign in ‘46, he dropped off to .265 and .242 the next two seasons, prompting owner Clark Griffith to trade him to Cleveland in ‘49. Washington fans howled so much that Griff had to get him back the following season, and Mickey thanked the old man by winning that second batting championship three years later.

There was high drama attached to it, too. On the season’s final day, Vernon edged Al Rosen by one point, depriving the Cleveland third baseman of the Triple Crown. Of course, Mickey doesn’t crow about it.

“I didn’t beat Al out — he just didn’t catch me,” he protested. “I led him most of the season, but he got hot at the end and just ran out of time.”

That’s Mickey for you, a guy who was being gracious to everybody long before Cal Ripken got the idea and who still is. That’s one reason he might not have been successful as the first manager of the expansion Senators from 1961 to 1963 (135-227 — .373). It’s pretty hard to imagine him bawling out a player or cussing out an umpire.

It’s impossible.

Gebhart, a former newspaperman who went straight, and U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon — like Vernon, a native of Marcus Hook (such people are known locally as “Hookers”) — are members of the statue committee. The group is still knocking on doors for corporate contributions, but Gebhart says more than $25,000 has been raised through private donations. Recently, a check arrived from Texas signed by Sid Hudson, Vernon’s longtime teammate and later his pitching coach with the Senators.

Just about anybody who played with or against Mickey is a potential contributor, considering the respect in which he was held. Probably even Al Rosen, if somebody asked him.

“We just decided to go ahead and do this,” Gebhart said. “Mickey’s getting older and honoring him is way overdue.”

Something else is way overdue. Vernon is one of two Senators who belong in Cooperstown and aren’t; the other is Cecil Travis, the superb pre-World War II infielder and hitter whose cause is being championed by former commissioner and D.C. native Bowie Kuhn. Back in January, the Hall of Fame’s expanded Veterans Committee reported it had found no one worthy of election. That’s a laugh, except it isn’t funny.

“Sure, I was disappointed,” Vernon said. “I don’t think about the Hall of Fame much unless somebody asks me about it — but, yeah, it would be great.”

Meanwhile, the statue in Marcus Hook will have to do as a reminder of what kind of player he was and what kind of person he is. I hope it’s a handsome, inspirational statue that reminds us of what baseball used to be and used to mean. Mickey Vernon deserves no less.

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