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Line-drive hitting Vernon won pair of batting titles for Washington Senators

Ranks among all-time leaders in games played at first base

February 24, 2007 | Dawn Klemish

COOPERSTOWN, NY:   Not many can say they were a U.S. President's favorite player. Fewer still can boast playing professional ball in four different decades. Mickey Vernon not only earned both distinctions but had an impressive 20-year playing career that saw him appear at first base more than anyone in American League history.

Mickey Vernon

Popular Mickey Vernon was a seven-time All-Star. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

This is his first year on the Veterans Committee ballot, in which a candidate must gain 75 percent of the vote to gain election. Prior to that, he appeared on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot 15 times (1966-1980), with his highest vote total percentage of 24.9 coming in the final year. Results of the 2007 Veterans Committee election will be announced on February 27, and the Induction Ceremony will take place on July 29 in Cooperstown.

James Barton "Mickey" Vernon began his big-league career in 1939 and didn't hang up his spikes until 1960, after 20 seasons and 2,409 games. The left-hander played with the Senators, Indians, Red Sox, (Milwaukee) Braves and Pirates, although the majority of his time was spent with Washington (1939-1948, and again from 1950-1955).

It was while there that many suspect Vernon developed his reputation as a line-drive hitter, as well as his knack to place the ball in any part of the field. While many first basemen are known for their power, the Senators' ballpark, Griffith Stadium, was notoriously tough on hitters. Vernon realized this, so instead of swinging for the fences, he kept the defense guessing with his well-placed hits.

"He was tall, lanky and very graceful," said Rich Marazzi, co-author of the book Ballplayers of the 1950s. "Vernon hit a lot of balls in the gaps. He learned very early on that he was not going to be a home run hitter, and so he adapted his style to the ballpark he played in."

As a result, his career home runs total just 172, but his other lifetime stats -- 2,495 hits, 490 doubles, 120 triples and .286 batting average among them -- show Vernon had little trouble adjusting.

In 1946 with a career-high .353 batting average, Vernon took home Major League's first-ever Silver Slugger award, handed out annually to each position player with the highest average. The award was presented to him personally by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who proclaimed Vernon to be his favorite baseball player.

Evidence of this also surfaced on Opening Day in 1954, when Eisenhower was restrained by his secret service from running on the field to congratulate Vernon on his 10th-inning, two-run homer. The secret serviceman met Vernon as he crossed home plate, and escorted him to the President for his proper congratulations.

Vernon shined in the field as well, leading the AL in fielding percentage four times, and the Majors twice. His pristine play and .990 fielding percentage earned him the distinction as one of the few first basemen in history to hold that success rate or better.

In addition, Vernon holds the big league record for most double plays turned by a first baseman, most putouts, most total chances. He also held the assist record for a time.

His consistency showed all-around, as the seven-time All-Star hit greater than .335 twice, .300 five times and .290 nine times. Vernon was a batting champion twice (1946, 1953), led the league in doubles in 1946, 1953 and 1954, and finished in the top 10 in triples in nine seasons.

In his book Baseball's Famous First Basemen, Ira Smith quipped, "Mickey Vernon is as silent as a night watchman, as conservative as a banker, and as well-behaved as a vicar." A good-looking, soft-spoken, well-rounded ballplayer, Vernon had the complete package, and was quite popular among teammates and opponents alike.

Perhaps the best example of his popularity came during the last game of the 1953 season, when Vernon and Indians third baseman Al Rosen were neck-and-neck for the batting title. Late in the game, word reached the Senators that Rosen had gotten three hits that day and that if Vernon -- 2-for-4 at that point -- would claim the title if he didn't bat again. Vernon was the seventh batter scheduled up and Washington was six outs away from the game's end, so the team held an impromptu meeting and decided to protect its teammate's honor.

First, Mickey Grasso doubled and got picked off easily. Four outs later Kite Thomas was thrown out by several feet in an attempt to stretch a single into a double. Pete Runnels then struck out to end the game with Vernon in the on-deck circle, his .337 average edging out Rosen by .001.

The extended later in life as well, when Marcus Hook, Penn. erected a life-size statue of Vernon in September 2003, on the very fields its hometown hero played sandlot ball growing up.

"He had a very Gary Cooper-like personality," Marazzi said. "I never heard anybody say a bad word about him."

Only Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Luke Appling played more games than Vernon without appearing in a postseason, yet Vernon still has a World Series ring. In 1960, he spent the majority of the season as the Pirates first base coach although activated for nine games at first base. Vernon earned a ring as a coach that year after Pittsburgh defeated the Yankees in seven games, and retired at 42 years old, nearly a full year older than anyone in the Majors.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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