Preparing my ballot for Baseball: Past and Present’s annual 50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame project, I put on the top of my list Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite Washington Senators player, Mickey Vernon.
Here’s how Vernon became Ike’s #1. On Opening Day 1954 Vernon walloped a two-run homer off New York Yankees’ pitcher Allie Reynolds that won the game for the Senators, 5-4, in the bottom of the 10th. After he touched home plate, Vernon was grabbed by a man he mistook for an overly zealous fan. But it was a Secret Service agent who escorted Vernon to the president’s box where Eisenhower told him, “Nice going.”
In 14 full seasons (measured by 400 at bats or more), Vernon batted over .335 twice, over .300 five times and over .290 nine times. He had two outstanding seasons: 1946 when he won his first batting title with a .353 average and 1953 when he won his second (.337) edging out Cleveland’s Al Rosen by .001 Vernon’s career high in home runs came in 1954 with 20.
Vernon’s final season was unusual. In 1960, he spent most of the year as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first base coach. But the Pirates, in need of a left-handed pinch hitter for the stretch drive, activated Vernon in September. In eight plate appearances, Vernon managed only one hit and returned to the coach’s box where he remained for the World Series.
During his 20-season career, Vernon played for the Cleveland Indians, the Milwaukee Braves and the Boston Red Sox as well as the Senators and Pirates. Vernon also managed the expansion Senators from 1961-1963.
In addition to his two batting titles, Vernon was a 7 time All Star, led the league in doubles three times, participated in 2,044 double plays, the most in major league history, and fielded .990, an astonishing average.
But for a miscommunication, Vernon could have notched a sixth .300 season. In 1941, the Senators’ final three games were in New York. Coming into the series, Vernon was hitting .302 and manager Bucky Harris offered to sit him. But Vernon declined. By Sunday, his average had dipped to .299. Yankees’ third baseman Red Rolfe pulled Vernon aside in the runway and told him to lay down a bunt. “I’ll be back on my heels,” Rolfe said. The game was inconsequential since the Yankees had wrapped up the pennant weeks earlier.
In Vernon’s first three at-bats, the Senators had men on base so he had no bunt opportunity. But in his last at bat and needing the one hit, Vernon looked down the third base line where, as he had promised, Rolfe was playing deep. Vernon, feeling certain that .300 was a lock, put down his bunt. Rolfe didn’t make a play. But catcher Bill Dickey, remembered Vernon:
…came charging out, picked up the ball and threw me out. We had forgotten about him and I ended up with .299.
The Mickey Vernon Sports Museum in Chadds Ford, PA honors Vernon’s career and military service. Vernon. a U.S. Navy World War II veteran, died in 2008 from stroke complications.