- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2005

As anyone who has known him will attest, longtime Washington Senators first baseman Mickey Vernon is quiet, modest and unassuming — qualities found all too rarely among professional athletes.

Unfortunately for sportswriters and authors, these traits don’t necessarily make for exciting reading. So in his new biography, “Mickey Vernon: The Gentleman First Baseman” ($24.95, Camino Books, 223 pages, illus.), Pennsylvania writer Rich Westcott has to work hard to make Vernon’s story interesting. Which, to his credit, he does nicely.

I was delighted to be on the scene when a statue of Vernon was unveiled in his hometown of Marcus Hook, Pa., in September 2003. At 87, Mickey remains the sort of person for whom the term “role model” could have been coined.

It has been 50 years since he last played for the original Washington Senators and 42 since he was fired as manager of the expansion Senators, yet Vernon remains something of an icon in Washington’s long baseball history. In the 71 years of the two previous Washington clubs, only Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson and slugging Frank Howard achieved such popularity in these parts.

And when Vernon stepped onto the field to be introduced at RFK Stadium before the Nationals’ home opener April 14, he established an instant link between the new club and its predecessors.

Vernon played for the original Senators from 1939 to 1943, from 1946 to 1948 and from 1950 to 1955, departing only for Navy service during World War II and a one-season exile to the Cleveland Indians. On defense, he comported himself with a grace perhaps matched only by New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio among his contemporaries.

At bat, Mickey was somewhat less consistent. A left-handed batter who frequently slammed line drives to the opposite field, Vernon hit only 172 home runs while playing most of his career in Griffith Stadium, baseball’s most spacious park. He averaged as high as .353 in 1946 and .337 in 1953, winning two batting titles, but also turned in seasons of .242 and .251.

How come? Mickey’s explanation reflects the difficulty an interviewer has in trying to make him talk about himself: “I guess some years the hits just weren’t falling in.”

Other baseball men were among Vernon’s biggest boosters. Said Jack Dunn III, a Baltimore Orioles official in the 1950s: “Mickey is the only man I know who could play first base in a tuxedo, appear perfectly comfortable and never wrinkle his suit.”

And when Vernon came down to the final innings of the 1953 season with a slight edge over Cleveland’s Al Rosen for the batting championship, Westcott relates how Mickey’s teammates deliberately made outs so he wouldn’t have to bat again.

The book posits quite reasonably that Vernon might have made the Hall of Fame years ago had he played in a bigger media market and for a better team than the usually lagging Senators. Also, laboring in Washington in the 1940s and 1950s was hardly a way to make a buck. Vernon had constant salary battles with Clark Griffith, the club’s skinflint owner. For instance, after Vernon batted .291, drove in 97 runs and fielded at a .992 clip while playing 151 games at age 36 in 1954, the so-called “Old Fox” tried to cut his salary from a whopping $30,000 to $27,500.

Nor did Vernon get any breaks when he accepted the thankless task of managing the expansion club in 1961 (for $25,000). Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada, the club president, knew nothing about baseball and saddled Mickey with a prime assortment of has-beens and never-wases. The club finished 61-100, 60-101 and 14-26 before he was “paroled,” as one writer put it, in 1963.

Along the way, author Westcott misses a few pitches. He describes Bucky Harris as beginning his managerial career in 1928, thereby ignoring pennants the “Boy Wonder” won with the Senators in 1924 and 1925. He misidentifies the expansion Senators’ second owner as James Johnson (it was Johnston) and ignores his partner, James Lemon. And he describes Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning home run for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom Vernon was a coach, as “generally considered the most memorable moment in baseball history.” Oh yeah? Not by anyone outside of Pittsburgh who has heard the name Bobby Thomson.

By and large, though, Westcott has done a valuable book about a fine man — one that belongs on the shelf of every past and present Washington baseball fan.

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