Mickey Vernon; Smooth Fielder, Hot Hitter for Senators

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Mickey Vernon, a star first baseman who was a two-time batting champion for the old Washington Senators, a longtime fan favorite and the first manager of the second-generation Senators of the 1960s, died Sept. 24 at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, Pa. He was 90 and had suffered a stroke last week.

Mr. Vernon had a 20-year major league career, including 14 in Washington, and recorded the highest batting average in the American League in 1946 and 1953. Mr. Vernon, who batted and threw lefthanded, was an elegant, assured presence on teams known more for futility than success.

During his years with the Senators, his teams had a winning record only two times. Nevertheless, Mr. Vernon made seven All Star teams and was recognized as perhaps the finest all-around first baseman of his era. Some baseball historians have argued that if he had played on better teams in a more visible market, he would be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He still holds American League records for most double plays (2,044) and games played by a first baseman (2,237).

"Mickey was so smooth around the bag," a minor league manager once remarked, "that he could have played first base wearing a tuxedo."

Both of Mr. Vernon's batting titles included dramatic head-to-head battles with better-known players. In 1946, he hit .353 in 1946 to defeat Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who finished with .342. Seven years later, Mr. Vernon edged Cleveland's Al Rosen by a single point, .337 to .336. He finished second to Rosen in runs batted in.

On Opening Day 1954, Mr. Vernon continued his heroics with a 10th-inning home run to defeat the New York Yankees at Washington's old Griffith Stadium. A Secret Service agent escorted him to the presidential box, where Dwight D. Eisenhower -- who said Mr. Vernon was his favorite player -- offered his congratulations.

In 1961, after the original Senators decamped and became known as the Minnesota Twins, Mr. Vernon was named the first manager of Washington's new expansion franchise. He had little luck with a team of castoff players and unproven minor-leaguers before being fired in 1963.

Off the field, Mr. Vernon was affable and easygoing but was known for his stubborn contract negotiations. Team owner Clark Griffith, who often cut a player's salary after a subpar year, called Mr. Vernon "the most difficult man I ever dealt with on the salary question."

After his stellar 1953 season, Mr. Vernon told The Washington Post: "If a ball player can't cash in on the kind of a year I had, it's a hopeless profession. . . . Last season was one they can't take away from me. If the Washington club couldn't show any profit, it wasn't my fault. I gave it a pretty good try."

James Barton Vernon was born April 22, 1918, in Marcus Hook, Pa., and was known as Mickey from his youth. He hitchhiked to Griffith Stadium in 1933 to attend what turned out to be the last World Series that a Washington team has played in. He attended Villanova University outside Philadelphia for a year, then played minor league baseball in Easton and Salisbury, Md.

He joined the Senators for short stints in 1939 and 1940 and became a starting player in 1941. He served in the Navy in 1944 and 1945 in Hawaii, where his commander was Max Patkin, a onetime pitcher who became a comedian known as the Crown Prince of Baseball.

Mr. Vernon met an impressive young player, Larry Doby, whom he recommended to the Senators. But because Doby was African American, he went unsigned until Jackie Robinson broke baseball's racial barrier in 1947. When Mr. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Doby was one of his teammates.

Early in the 1950 season, Mr. Vernon was traded back to Washington and enjoyed some of his finest seasons. He spent 1956 and 1957 with the Boston Red Sox, batting behind Williams in the lineup, then finished his career with Cleveland, the Milwaukee Braves and, briefly in 1960, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

His career batting average was .286. He hit 172 home runs, including 31 at New York's Yankee Stadium -- the second-most ever by a visiting player.

After losing his managing job with the Senators, Mr. Vernon coached for several major league clubs and was a minor league manager.

Few athletes in Washington had the enduring popularity that Mr. Vernon enjoyed. In 2005, he received a warm ovation at RFK Stadium when he appeared at the first game of the new Washington Nationals.

"I was very fortunate to be able to do something which I really liked to do," he told Baseball Digest in 1999. "I always had the dream."

His wife of 63 years, Elizabeth "Libby" Vernon, died in 2004.

Survivors include a daughter.

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