Dazzy Vance tracerby Chris Jaffe
April 27, 2009
"You couldn't hit him on a Monday. He cut the sleeve of his undershirt to the elbow and on that part of it he used lye to make it white, and the rest he didn't care how dirty it was. Then he'd pitch overhand out of the apartment houses in the background at Ebbetts Field. Between the bleached sleeve of his undershirt waving and the Monday wash hanging out to dry—the diapers, and undies, and sheets flapping on the clothesline—you lost the ball entirely. He threw balls by I never even saw." Rube Bressler, on Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance, recounted in the Daffiness Boys segment of the Fifth Inning of Ken Burns's documentary on baseball.
Ever read any of Bill James' Baseball Books from the early 1990s? I don't mean any ol' book he happened to write about baseball. These were attempts to produce a baseball annual that was considerably less labor intensive than the Abstracts.
In the Books, James included some items he termed "tracers." In the tracers, James would take an old-time baseball anecdote and do some research to see if and when it actually happened. Well, James himself didn't necessarily do the research; that's what a research assistant named Rob Neyer was for. (Neyer so enjoyed the experience that years later he made an entire book of tracers, the Big Book of Baseball Legends.)
Ken Burns' PBS miniseries on baseball offers a chance to look up many different tracers, such as the one quoted above. That particular story always stuck in my mind because it sounds plausible that a pitcher would do that (not to mention diabolically brilliant). It would especially make sense for a fastballer like Dazzy Vance, where the opposing hitters needed every split second available to pick up on his heat.
Plan of action (plus an embarrassing detour)
The Vance tracer should be fairly easy to check, given the info available at Retrosheet. Go there, look at the games Vance pitched at home for the Dodgers, figure out which weekday they occurred on, and see if he was especially unhittable on Mondays. Retrosheet doesn't list weekdays, but that can be fairly easily determined with a little bit of work.
Retrosheet only has box scores available for some of the years Vance pitched in Brooklyn. He was there from 1922 to 1932, but box scores are only up from 1922 to 1929. The good news is those are the most important years, when he was in his prime. The bad news, well, that takes a little bit of explaining.
I cut/pasted this Retrosheet information into an Excel spreadsheet last year as part of a much larger project. At that time, only 1922 NL box scores were available. I didn't notice the other years had gone up until, well, about the time I was finishing up the rough draft of this column.
Instead, I used runs allowed per game for the times Vance toiled in Brooklyn on Sunday. This is less precise for various reasons. First, I can't literally see how many hits he allowed per inning. One can roughly gauge his effectiveness, however, by looking at runs allowed. Vance completed 212 of his 326 starts as a Dodger, so noting runs allowed per game is actually a fairly reasonable, if slightly imprecise, way to determine how well he pitched in these games.
You can actually get a more precise answer on your own if you want to do the digging, but I can provide good enough evidence to see if Vance was especially good or bad on these days.
Well, digging it through, Vance started 171 games in Ebbetts Field for the Dodgers from 1922 to 1932. Even before looking at the runs/game results, an oddity emerges that doesn't quite negate Bressler's memory but certainly doesn't fit into it: Vance only started 12 games in Ebbetts Field on Mondays. That seems a bit low (less than one start in 14) given that he had a brilliant plan to use that day to his advantage.
Don't get me wrong: he shouldn't have had one-seventh of his starts occur on Monday. Baseball traditionally likes having weekend series (when more fans can attend), causing Monday to be a frequent travel day. Also, back in those days, there were frequent doubleheaders on weekends, especially Sundays. Still, one would expect his managers to try to ensure he started Monday, when possible.
From 1922 to 1932, Brooklyn hosted 84 home games on Monday, meaning that Vance started exactly one out of every seven. On non-Mondays, he started one-fifth of their home games. Below shows how many starts Vance had in Ebbetts from 1922 to 1932, how many home games the Dodgers played on that day, and what percentage Vance was responsible for.
Day DV Brk % SUN 48 240 20.00% MON 12 84 14.29% TUE 25 194 26.60% WED 15 99 15.15% THU 19 89 21.35% FRI 25 90 27.78% SAT 26 149 17.45% All 160 844 20.12%
This completely goes against what one would expect. The day Bressler claimed Vance was unstoppable was the day he gobbled up the smallest percentage of starts. Weird. Of course, that doesn't prove the story incorrect. Teams sometimes misuse their players.
The real question was how well Vance pitched on the days in question. Here are his starts, runs allowed, average, and the team's win-loss record in Vance's starts (which would not be the same as Vance's personal win-loss record in those contests) for each weekday:
Day GS RA R/G W-L SUN 48 135 2.81 34-14 MON 12 48 4.00 7-5 TUE 25 100 4.00 12-13 WED 15 41 2.73 14-1 THU 19 65 3.42 12-7 FRI 25 96 3.84 16-9 SAT 26 80 3.08 15-11 All 170 565 3.32 110-60
Well that just botches up everything quite nicely. Not only was Vance least likely to start on Mondays, but it was one of his least effective days. It ties Tuesdays as the weekday he allowed the most runs per game. At least Brooklyn had a better winning percentage with Vance pitching on Mondays than on Tuesdays, but they were more likely to win in each of the other five days than Monday.
Looking game by game, the Dodgers allowed two or fewer runs only once in Vance's dozen Mondays. That happened a minimum of five times in every other day of the week when he pitched at home for Brooklyn. Adjust for number of games pitched per day all you want, Vance was at his least dominating the day the tracer claims he was without peer. This story refutes Bressler's memory as hardily as possible. Or does it just refute Bressler's tongue?
Sunday or Monday?
Before I ever did the digging on Bressler's quote, one detail within it always sounded the wrong note to me: why is everyone doing their laundry on Monday?
I can understand everyone in a neighborhood doing the same chore on the same day. Some necessary obligations take so much time that you want to make sure they're done when there is plenty of time to spare. Looking at the story, this is a pre-drying machine society, so the laundry would be a more time-consuming chore than it is for most of us currently.
There lies the rub. If the laundry is such a time-consuming job that everyone does it the same day, why is everyone doing it on the weekday? Wouldn't the weekend when people have more time available make more sense? In particular, if there is one day a person doesn't have to go to work, it's Sunday.
I realize that laundry is traditionally "women's work" and out-of-the-house labor opportunities were less common back in the day. However, the modern feminist movement wasn't the beginning of women in the workplace. Instead, it allowed women to work by choice. Previously, women often worked in order to supply the family with extra income, and apartment-dwellers by Ebbetts would be the sort of women who would hold jobs such as seamstresses.
Regardless of whether or not they worked outside the home, I can't imagine that the entire neighborhood did their laundry on the first day of the workweek.
Let's look a little more closely at Vance's Sunday performances. He allowed 2.81 runs per game on Sunday, better than any day except Wednesday, and it isn't much worse than that day. His Wednesday sample size is small enough to be a bit fluky, which is considerably less likely to be the case with his substantial Sunday smorgasbord of starts.
In some ways, Vance's Sundays are even more impressive than his Wednesday performances. For example, excluding his 48 Sundays, the Dodgers allowed 3.52 runs per game when Vance started, which is 0.71 runs per game more than the team allowed on Vance's Sundays. Remove his Wednesdays from the total, and Brooklyn only allowed 3.38 per contest, which is 0.65 more than on Wednesday.
Furthermore, Vance was exceptionally dominating on Sundays. Opposing teams failed to score in eight of his 48 Sunday starts, but that happened only 13 times in his other 122 home starts. In 24 of Vance's 48 Sunday starts—exactly half—Brooklyn allowed two or fewer. That occurred in "only" 49 of his 122 other starts.
Also, a bit of a progression exists in Vance's Sunday starts. In his first 14 such starts at Ebbetts Field, the Dodgers allowed 49 runs, 3.5 per game—which is almost exactly what he averaged in his non-Sunday starts as a Dodger.
It was only May 31, 1925 in his 15th Sunday home start (which oddly enough was a loss, 2-0 to the Giants) that Vance began a stretch of dominance. After losing that pitchers' duel, he hurled consecutive Sunday shutouts in Brooklyn, followed by back-to-back games where the team scored one run each time. After those first 14 starts, the Dodgers allowed 2.53 runs in Vance's final 34 Sundays before the Flatbush faithful. Opponents scored two or fewer runs 20 times in those 34 games and had more than four runs only twice.
From July 1924 to August 1926, the Dodgers allowed a grand sum of 18 runs in 10 successive Sunday home starts by Vance. He never had that dominating a stretch on any other day. Looking at Retrosheet's box scores, Vance posted a 1.44 ERA in those games, allowing only 55 hits in 87.3 innings while fanning 82 and walking 16.
That impressive achievement perhaps underestimates Vance's dominance in those games, believe it or not, because in one contest he was drilled for seven runs (six earned) off of 14 hits in 6.3 innings. Remove that game and Vance posted a miniscule 0.89 ERA with only 41 hits over 81 innings. That's the sort of dominance Bressler must have been referring to.
That leads one to ponder how Vance could've been drilled so badly in the outlier game. In fact, in other rare occasions he got hammered in other home Sunday starts. I have a theory for those games: the weather. If it was drizzling or a good chance for rain existed, people wouldn't put their laundry out but the game would have to go on. I would love to see the weather reports for Vance's hittable Sundays.
Back to the source
One other item should be checked. This whole inquiry began in response to a quote by Rube Bressler. What happened when he faced Vance?
Bressler was actually Vance's teammate in Brooklyn from 1928 to 1931. In 1932, Bressler split time between the Phillies and Cards, never facing Vance on Sunday or Monday in Ebbetts. (The Cards played against Vance there, but it was a week after they got rid of Bressler.)
From 1922 to 1927, Bressler was a Red. In that span, Brooklyn hosted Cincinnati three times when Vance was on the mound.
The first one came on July 27, 1924, when Vance led the Dodgers to a 5-1 victory. Playing first base for the Reds (and yes, it's right around here I noticed Retrosheet now has game logs available for much of the 1920s) he went 1-for-3 with an RBI single. It was one of only five hits by the visitors that day.
The second contest came on September 14 of that year, when Brooklyn won 2-0. Bressler went 0-for-3 this time, but at least he didn't strikeout. He was one of only two men in the starting lineup who could claim that.
Vance also faced Cincinnati in September 1926, but Bressler didn't play that day. (Cincy won that game 5-0 off of 13 hits—all off Vance. I'd love to see the weather report that day.)
That can be evidence that the quote could be Sundays instead of Mondays, but it's hardly conclusive. What about when Bressler faced Vance on Monday?
Here is where it really gets interesting. Based on the information gleaned from Retrosheet, Bressler never faced Vance on a Monday in Brooklyn. None of Vance's dozen Monday starts came against the Bressler-era Reds. He only had one relief appearance against Cincinnati in that spell, and that occurred in Ohio, not Brooklyn.
I suppose it's possible Vance pitched in relief against Bressler in 1932, when the first baseman was no longer on the Dodgers. It doesn't pass the smell test, though. Bressler's quote sounds like it's the memory of facing Vance in his prime. By 1932, Vance was a mediocre pitcher.
All the information lines up with Sunday as Vance's special day—except the quote itself. It sounds like a perfectly good memory, just attached to the wrong day.
I thought I might have misheard it, so I went back, and listened to it again, and it's unmistakable: the actor voicing Bressler's memories says Mondays, not Sundays. My hunch is Bressler scrambled the days in either his mind or tongue.
Oh, let's get it right
Well, as long as Retrosheet has game logs for 1922-29, let's take a look. I don't have time to figure out what Vance's numbers were on each day of the week, but here were his overall numbers on Sundays and Mondays as well as his performance in all home games in those particular years.
Day G GS SHO IP H ER BB SO W L ERA SUN 38 37 6 321.3 254 76 65 282 25 10 2.13 MON 9 8 0 75.7 67 22 31 64 3 4 2.62 All 134 128 14 1100.7 933 313 304 904 78 42 2.56
Sunday was Vance's special day. This can be dramatized by comparing his rate stats on Sundays versus what how he did the other six days of the week:
When H/9IP W/9IP K/9IP R/9IP Sunday 7.11 1.82 7.89 2.60 Non-Sun 7.84 2.76 7.18 3.33
Best of all, for purposes of this tracer, was the substantial decline in hits allowed. Guys couldn't make contact with Vance despite his rarely throwing the ball outside of the strike zone on Sunday. His strikeouts didn't change too drastically, but then again he was already at the upper limit of what was then possible. In 1924, for instance, Dazzy Vance was personally responsible for every 13th strikeout in the National League. (Yes, really.)
Finally, it was on a Sunday in Ebbetts Field, on September 13, 1925, that Vance threw a no-hitter. Not only was that his only no-no, but it was one of only four no-hitters in the NL from 1920 to 1933. For one day at least, batters truly could not hit him on a Sunday.
References and Resources
The story came from Ken Burns' Baseball documentary.
The concept of "tracers" came from the old Bill James Baseball Books of 1990-92, and of course Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends.
As noted in the article, Retrosheet was vital in this research.
The last bit about Vance throwing one of the NL's only no-hitters from 1920-33 came from a list of officially sanctioned MLB no-hitters available at Baseball-Reference.com's bullpen.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.