The improbable career of Dazzy Vance

They lined up in Brooklyn to watch Dazzy Vance pitch (via Bain News Service).

They lined up in Brooklyn to watch Dazzy Vance pitch (via Bain News Service).

Fastballs, poker, and laundry. All the ingredients for a Hall of Fame career, right?

By the time he reached thirty years of age, Charles Arthur Vance had pitched in 11 games for two different big league teams, and was winless in four decisions, with an ERA of 4.91. At the time, he was still toiling in the minors, for the New Orleans Pelicans (not these Pelicans, whose mascot is providing nightmares to children all over America), but was three years removed from his last cup of coffee in the American League. He was a sore-armed pitcher who had shown some promise, but all the evidence suggested that Dazzy Vance‘s window of opportunity had closed forever.

That’s where the story gets good, as they say.

Let’s back up for a minute. Born in Iowa, raised in Nebraska, Vance first broke into professional baseball in 1912, not long after his 21st birthday. He found immediate success, and had advanced to Class A St. Joseph within two years, winning 26 games in 1914. In 1915, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased Vance’s contract. He started one game, surrendering 3 runs in 2.2 innings in his major league debut, walking five and, ominously, failing to strike out a batter. Whereupon Vance was promptly sold to the Yankees. In eight games for New York, Vance was 0-3 with a 3.54 ERA, and the arm problems had begun.

“Somewhere in between my stay with St. Joe and my early experience with the Yankees, something went wrong with my right arm,” said Vance. “I no longer could throw hard, and it hurt like the dickens every time I threw.” The Yankees held onto Vance, but he bounced around the minor leagues: Columbus, Toledo, Memphis, Rochester. In between, he got one more chance at the big time, pitching two games with the Yankees as a 27-year-old in 1918. After giving up five runs on nine hits in 2.1 innings, New York finally gave up on him. Vance was sold to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League in 1919.

After Sacramento, Vance went back to Memphis and ultimately, he landed in New Orleans. Sometime before his thirtieth birthday, fate smiled on Dazzy under unusual circumstances. During a typical late-night poker game with some teammates, Vance won a hand. As he went to rake the pot, he banged his arm on the edge of the table. The pain in his arm, which had been chronic for several years, turned into a sharp pain that necessitated emergency surgery.

As Bill James noted in his Historical Baseball Abstract, no one knows the exact procedure performed by this random New Orleans doctor. James speculated that bone chips and debris were cleared out of the elbow. Whatever the doctor did, the pain was gone and Vance could suddenly throw hard again.

After winning 21 games with New Orleans the following year, Vance was sold to Brooklyn along with catcher Hank DeBerry. Brooklyn actually had no interest in Dazzy, and when New Orleans insisted that Vance be included in the deal, Brooklyn team president Charley Ebbets nearly nixed the deal. Ultimately, Ebbets gave in and Brooklyn sent $10,000 to New Orleans in exchange for the two players. Vance always maintained that the deal was $9,000 for DeBerry, $1,000 for him.

All of a sudden, Dazzy was back in the big leagues at age 31, an overnight success that was more than a decade in the making. He was outstanding from day one, winning 18 games as a rookie, with a 3.70 ERA. Despite striking out hitters at what would be the lowest rate of his career (4.9 per nine innings), Vance led the National League in strikeouts.

Thus began a run that no one could have anticipated. Vance led the league in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons in the league. In 1924, at the age of 33, Vance was the best pitcher in baseball. That season was the greatest of his career; he won the first official National League MVP award by going 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA, 174 ERA+, and 10.4 bWAR. Perhaps most impressively, Vance led the league with 262 strikeouts, three times as many hitters as any other pitcher in the NL was able to strike out, other than Burleigh Grimes. (Grimes whiffed only 135 batters.)

Four years later, the 37-year-old Vance had another great season: 22-10, 2.09 ERA, 190 ERA+, 10.0 bWAR. His run from 1922 to 1928 was nothing short of remarkable, as Vance averaged 7.2 WAR per 162 games, and according to one measure of adjusting strikeout rates across eras, Vance had the three best single-season strikeout rates in baseball history from 1924 to 1926. It gets better; Vance has four seasons among the top five in history by this metric, and six of the top twelve. All between 1923 and 1928.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that we will ever again see a player put together a Hall of Fame career entirely after the age of 30. Vance’s thirties were marvelous; before reaching his fortieth birthday, Dazzy won 164 games with a 3.05 ERA. He struck out 1637 hitters, posted an ERA+ of 135, and tossed 191 complete games. As you might expect, Vance’s numbers during his thirties stack up very well against anyone else in baseball history.

Ranking MLB pitchers, ages 30-39, by bWAR:

1. Lefty Grove, 78.3

2. Randy Johnson, 68.9

3. Phil Niekro, 63.1

4. Gaylord Perry, 62.7

5. Curt Schilling, 59.7

6. Vance, 57.3

7. Bob Gibson, 56.2

8. Warren Spahn, 54.9

9. Grover Cleveland Alexander, 53.9

9. Roger Clemens, 53.9

Vance, of course, is the only pitcher in that group who didn’t pitch in the big leagues at age 30. If you expand the query, ranking pitchers from age 30 until the end of their career, Vance still places in the top ten in wins above replacement:

1. Johnson, 89.7

2. Niekro, 88.7

3. Grove, 81.1

4. Clemens, 76.2

5. Perry, 73.0

6. Cy Young, 72.5

7. Spahn, 67.3

8. Alexander, 65.4

9. Schilling, 63.7

10. Vance, 63.1

Vance also ranks among the top ten in strikeouts and complete games after the age of 30. All this after striking out just 18 hitters and “compiling” -0.5 WAR before he turned thirty. Baseball is a funny game.

By the time he was traded to St. Louis before the 1933 season (at age 42), Vance was a Brooklyn legend. One of the Vance legends was recounted in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary:

“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

Chris Jaffe explored this legend within these electronic pages some time ago. Alas, he discovered that Dazzy was not unhittable on Mondays. However, Jaffe kept digging and found real evidence that would lead one to believe that, far from being apocryphal, this story might actually be true, except that it was the Sunday wash that helped disguise Vance’s pitches. Check out both those pieces; they are definitely deserving of a re-read.

Vance retired at the age of 44. Two decades later, he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame. Contrary to the advice I received as a child, good things can come of poker and gambling, evidently. If Vance hadn’t raked that pot on a fateful night in the Big Easy, he might never have earned that plaque in Cooperstown.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    It’s this kind of stuff I love about baseball; it’s history is so entwined with American social history.  This reminds me of the old movies where the hero has to find a phone somewhere or disaster will happen.  This plot could never happen today because of cell phones.  Similarly, the Vance story couldn’t happen today because (1) most stadiums are enclosed and (2) people don’t hang their laundry outside anymore.

    Can you imagine what Tim McCarver would have had to say about hitting against the laundry?

  2. Scott Dominiak said...

    I really enjoyed the story about Dazzy Vance because it was so interesting. Stuff like this you normally don’t see in publications. Nice work!

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