Vern Stephens

Vern StephensIn an era when slick-fielding shortstops were making the All-Star team and earning MVP consideration while hitting .270 with 5-10 homers and 60 RBI, Vern Stephens was an anomaly. The strong right-handed hitter belted 20 homers in six seasons, drove in 100 runs four times, and led the American League in RBI three times. Stephens was a seven-time All-Star and he received MVP votes in nine consecutive seasons. Yet, while contemporaries Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto are in the Hall of Fame, Stephens didn’t receive a single vote in his lone season on the ballot for Cooperstown. BY all accounts he was considered a very good defensive shortstop, but even though he outslugged all of his peers at his position, his legacy is one of anonymity.

Sometimes, when something is obviously different than everything else it’s a sign of greatness. It’s celebrated and ushers in a new era. When Babe Ruth started hitting a bunch of home runs in the early 1920s that’s what happened. But occasionally, when there’s something different, that doesn’t fit a pre-conceived notion, it’s labeled as an aberration or as weird. In the 1930s and 1940s, major league shortstops were little pesky guys who flitted about the middle of the infield scooping up groundballs. They were team leaders who were scrappy and had nicknames like “Red” and “Scooter” and “Rowdy.” They hit a few home runs every season but mostly they could run well, knew how to drop down a bunt, and hit either at the top of the order where they worked their way on base via walks and singles, or they hit eighth.

When “Buster” Stephens came along in 1941 he was a stronger, more muscular athlete than any other shortstop before him. Like with Cal Ripken Jr. in the 1980s, experts questioned whether Stephens was capable of playing the position. He was supposed to be a third baseman or a corner outfielder. He was too big, too slow to be a prototypical major league shortstop. One of the first men to manage Stephens in the minors, Fred Haney, swore that Vern would never be a big league shortstop. But he was with the perfect team to make it as a shortstop in the majors. The St. Louis Browns were the worst team in baseball, and had been for decades. Where better to buck a trend than with an organization that had nothing to lose? What the rest of baseball saw as a lark, the Browns figured was a no-lose situation. They could finish last with Stephens at short or at third or at first base. Whether Vern Stephens failed as a shortstop or not, the St. Louis Browns would still probably lose 100 games. Ironically, the fact that the Browns were almost always a terrible team worked in Vern’s favor as far as his aspirations to be a major league shortstop, but it hurt him because he didn’t get the exposure of being in a pennant race every year like Reese and Rizzuto and Pesky.

Stephens’ teammates marveled at his athletic ability, because no one had ever seen such a strong-chested, thick-muscled athlete play shortstop as well as he could. Stephens had decent range, in part because he played very deep at shortstop due to his amazing throwing arm. He led the American League in assists by a shortstop three times and in range once.

Stephens spent his first seven seasons with the Browns, one of the few stars who did not go off to fight in World War II. Vern failed his Army physical due to a knee injury he suffered as a teenager. The injury kept him from serving for Uncle Sam, but he could still play baseball. Some experts believe the fact that Stephens racked up four of his better seasons against depleted ranks in the majors hurt his legacy. However, it’s important to note that Stephens had his best offensive numbers after World War II, from 1948-1950.

Stephens was thought highly enough of that when the Browns traded him and pitcher Jack Kramer to the Boston Red Sox after the ’47 season they not only got six players but also received more than 300 grand in cash. He was also good enough with the glove to force Boston manager Joe McCarthy to move Johnny Pesky from short to third base. In Boston he flourished in one of the greatest lineups in baseball history, teaming with Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky. Batting cleanup directly behind Williams, Stephens drove in 440 runs in his first three seasons with Boston, an average of 147 or about one per game. He also enjoyed slugging the ball into and over the Green Monster in left field, increasing his extra-base and home run totals. He peaked at 39 dingers in 1949 for the Red Sox, a new record for a shortstop.

He was hitting .328 with 14 homers and 58 RBI at the All-Star break in 1951 and all seemed to be as usual for the slugger. But his old knee injury, the one that kept him out of the military, flared up and he struggled in the second half. He limped to a .300 season but only hit three homers after the break. The injury nagged him the following season when he had his poorest season at the plate as a professional, driving in just 44 runs in 92 games. Vern never played regularly in his 30s, and in 1953 the Red Sox dealt him to the White Sox. He was so banged up by that time that the Browns were able to get him off waivers. He spent parts of three seasons back with his old team, following them to Baltimore when they became the Orioles in 1954. Whereas he had hit 207 homers and drove in 968 runs in his 20s, averaging 21 and 97 respectively, Stephens hit only 40 homers and drove in just 206 runs in the five seasons after his 30th birthday. His body simply betrayed him.

Still, when he retired after the ’55 season after another brief stint with the White Sox, Stephens had 247 homers, more than 1,100 RBI and 1,000 runs to his credit. No shortstop had ever hit as many homers and his runs scored and RBI figures ranked in the top five all-time for his position. After more than 50 years, Stephens still ranks sixth all-time among shortstops for homers, behind only Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Ernie Banks, Miguel Tejada, and Derek Jeter.