Baseball 95: Dazzy Vance

You could start anywhere in the Dazzy Vance story, and it would be every bit as wonderful, but I want to start with an obscure tale he told in 1955, the year that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was one of four players elected that year -- a group headlined by Joe DiMaggio -- and each of the four wrote a little story for the papers about a moment that stood out in his career.

Vance had a lot of moments to choose from. But he chose this one: In 1930, he was pitching in a scoreless game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The irrepressibly vexing Sparky Adams -- all 5-foot-5 of him -- somehow got on base, and then somehow worked his way around to third, where he was dancing and taunting and threatening to steal home.

At the plate was Chick Hafey, who would be elected to the Hall of Fame 41 years later, for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Regardless, Hafey was a tough out, and Vance locked in. With the count 0-2, he began his windup and started to pitch ...

... and at that exact moment, he realized that Adams was stealing home.

He also realized that Adams was going to make it; there was no way to stop it.

"He had home stolen," Vance wrote. "There was only one thing I could do ... I hit Hafey in the back and forced Adams back to third. But Wild Bill Callahan beat me 1-0 when I gave up a run in the 10th inning."

This is a cool story for two reasons, one obvious, the other not so much. The obvious reason is that it's a funny story. Mid-motion, Vance realized that his only hope to prevent the run was to plunk Chick Hafey. In the words of Fezzik from The Princess Bride, it's not very sportsmanlike. But it's pretty quick thinking.

The second reason, though, is why I mention it: The story is 100 percent true. These stories are NEVER 100 percent true, not ever. The longer I do this -- and I talk about this with Rob Neyer sometimes -- the more I realize that none of us remember things exactly as they happened. Players, managers, sportswriters, all of us always remember a detail wrong, we always confuse a player for another, we always change something.

But this story is precisely right. This happened on Sept. 16, 1930, Cardinals vs. Vance's Brooklyn Robins. Sparky Adams led off with a single, moved to second on a fielder's choice, and moved to third on a fly ball, and then, sure enough, on an 0-2 count, Vance hit Chick Hafey.

And Vance lost the game by giving up a run in the top of the 10th. Wild Bill Hallahan completed the 10-inning shutout in the bottom of the 10th. Incredible. Dazzy Vance got it exactly right.

* * *

Dazzy Vance's career is basically impossible. His full name was Charles Arthur Vance, but people called him Dazzy from a young age. It was sometimes said that the nickname came from his dazzling fastball, though I always preferred Vance's explanation: He said that growing up in Nebraska, he came across a cowboy who, when seeing something particularly beautiful -- a sunset, a gun, a horse, whatever -- used to say "Ain't that a daisy." But he would pronounce "Daisy" like "Dazzy." Vance began doing the same, and so friends started calling him "Dazzy."

He did have a dazzling fastball for a time as a young man, though he never had much control of it. At age 23, he won 26 games, most of them in Class D Hastings, Neb. There were those who said he threw the ball as hard as Walter Johnson, and at 24, wild as he was, the Pirates bought him. He pitched one lousy game for the Pirates, who promptly sold him to the Yankees. He started or relieved in 10 games over four seasons with New York, and didn't win any of them. By then his arm was a wreck. The Yankees sold him to Sacramento, and that seemed like the end of Dazzy Vance.

[caption id="attachment_23213" align="aligncenter" width="298"] Vance won 197 games in the big leagues -- all after his 31st birthday.[/caption]

In 1920, he played in the most famous poker game in baseball history. It happened in New Orleans. Vance was 29 years old, he had exactly zero victories in the big leagues, and he couldn't pitch because of arm problems that nobody could quite figure out. During the game, Vance apparently lost a heartbreaking hand, and he smashed his arm on the table. The pain was so intense that he almost fell to his knees. He'd never felt THAT kind of pain before. The next day, he went to a doctor whose name, sadly, has been lost to history. The doctor did something. Bill James guesses that he removed some bone chips, but we don't really know and never will know.

All we know is that after that, Dazzy Vance became one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

From 1922 -- when Vance was 31 years old and a virtual big league rookie -- to 1928, seven straight seasons, Vance led the league in strikeouts. In all, he led the league in wins twice, in ERA three times, in WHIP three times, in shutouts four times, in pitcher WAR four times, in Fielding Independent Pitching seven times. He was named MVP in 1924*, and probably should have been in 1928, but that was before the current MVP format, back then you could only win the award once.

*Despite the fact that Rogers Hornsby hit .424 that year with a 12.1 WAR -- could you imagine THAT Twitter blow-up?

So many of our best fictional baseball stories are of players who just show up, out of nowhere, Roy Hobbs style. You'd have to say that Dazzy Vance is the closest to the real thing.

* * *

Vance was famous for his waving shirt sleeves. He would cut them so that when he pitched they flapped in the wind and distracted hitters trying to hit his blazing fastball and devastating curve.

"I tore it by accident in Pittsburgh," he said. "The next afternoon in Cincinnati, the Reds bench started to ride the Ole Dazzler. 'Hey Dazzy,' they yelled at me. 'Where did you get that shirt?' They offered to buy it. But I wouldn't sell. I had a hunch it was going to be an asset."

It was an asset. The guy was smart. This is the thing about Vance that fascinates me now. So many of the stories about him paint him as sort of a folksy Dizzy Dean character -- it's, in fact, likely that Dizzy got his nickname as a play off of Dazzy (and Dizzy's brother, Paul, was soon called "Daffy"). There was certainly a lot of folksiness in Dazzy Vance. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame, he famously said: "I feel like a mule that got kicked in the head and ain't woke up yet."

And probably his most famous moment came when he was one of three Brooklyn players ending up at third base during a crazy play. Vance reportedly looked up at the umpire and said, "If you carefully peruse the rules of our national pastime, you will find that there is one and only one protagonist in rightful occupancy of this hassock: namely, yours truly, Arthur C. Vance."

But it is striking, looking back, at Dazzy Vance's intelligence. For instance, he delivered one of the greatest quotes I've ever heard about the mental challenge of being an athlete.

"Confidence gives you relaxation," he said. "Relaxation gives you rhythm. And rhythm makes you an athlete."

Isn't that fantastic? Confidence gives you relaxation, that's so true. Relaxation gives you rhythm, again, a brilliant insight. And rhythm makes you an athlete. That's as good as anything even John Wooden said.

Vance's record is filled with such insights. He was famous for being a goofball, for some wild nights -- he famously kicked one player out of the Dodgers' "4 for 0 Club"* for getting caught after one of those nights. But even that story ends with Vance showing off his impressive intelligence. The player apparently had a sportswriter ghost-write a letter to Vance asking back in; Vance replied, "You are not only a big dope to get caught by Robbie, you are deceitful as well. There are words in this letter that you can't spell."

*The club was so named because players were expected to go hitless in their four at-bats. Vance was a famously and proudly terrible hitter -- he hit .150 for his career. Years later, he told a writer that he was curious to know how he got to third base in the famous three-men-on-third incident. "Not surprisingly," he said, "I walked."

* * *

In his later years, Dazzy Vance moved to Homosassa Springs, which was said to have the best fishing in the state of Florida. He ran a lodge there for a while. One day in 1955, he was driving, when a police officer pulled him over.

He expected a speeding ticket. Instead, the officer told him to pick it up -- he had to get home.

"There are a lot of photographers waiting for you there," the officer said.

There were a lot of photographers -- that was the day that Vance was elected to the Hall of Fame. That was when Vance said he felt like the mule who had been kicked in the head. Later he told people that he could die happy having achieved all four of the baseball stages -- rising through the game, making the major leagues, winning the MVP and being elected to the Hall of Fame.

"The Lord can take me now," he said.

He lived another six years.

It's hard to place Dazzy Vance in the history of baseball, because there's simply no one else like him, no other sore-armed pitcher who won his arm back in a poker game and at age 31 began a trek to the Hall of Fame. Vance was also star-crossed. He did pitch in the World Series when he was 43 -- he had been picked up on waivers by the Cardinals in 1934. Other than that, though, he spent almost every year playing on hopeless Brooklyn teams. Even though he only played for one season for the "Dodgers" -- they changed the nickname from Robins in 1932 -- Vance became the very essence of what would become known as the Dem Bums Dodgers, those lovable losers who preceded Jackie Robinson's Boys of Summer and, later, Koufax and Lasorda and Scully's Los Angeles Dodgers.

One final Vance quote: When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in '55, thousands of Dodgers fans showed up for a celebration. Vance was overwhelmed.

"I feel," he told the crowd, "the same way Columbus must have felt when he looked out from his ship and first saw land."