Ever heard of Hippo Vaughn? Probably not. But Vaughn was once the best and most prolific southpaw in baseball.
If you were 6’4 and more than 215 pounds 100 years ago, you’d get stares when you went out in public. If you were an athlete they’d unapologetically call you names like Jumbo Jim or Hippo, both of which Vaughn was known by. He was six feet tall when he was 13 years old, and in the warm Texas summers he would help his stonemason father by hauling rocks. He was sort of a breathing wheelbarrow. That work led to a muscular frame and a strong left arm.
When he was 19, “Jimmy” was signed to play professional baseball in the North Texas League. One year later the big southpaw made his big league debut for the New York Highlanders, as the Yankees were known at the time. In 1910, Hippo earned a spot in New York’s rotation. But he was erratic as a young pitcher. He would look great one outing and get pounded the next, so he was left unprotected and eventually signed with the Cubs.
“When I got to Chicago my entire life changed,” Vaughn recalled years later. “My teammates took me in, and the fans showed me their appreciation every time I stepped on the mound for their club.”
Vaughn’s career blossomed when Hank O’Day was hired to manage the Cubs in 1914. A former pitcher and umpire, O’Day tutored Hippo on the finer points of the craft. That season, the 26-year old won 21 games, the first of five 20-win seasons by the hulking lefty. O’Day returned to umpiring after the season, and he frequently worked Vaughn’s games.
“Among the lefties of that era, he’s the soundest in form,” “O’Day said of his former pupil. There may have been an incestuous relationship between the two: Hippo went 21-7 with a 1.76 ERA in 30 starts with O’Day behind the plate.
Best Left-Handed Pitcher for Each Decade, According to Wins Above Replacement
1900s: Rube Waddell
1910s: Hippo Vaughn
1920s: Herb Pennock
1930s: Lefty Grove
1940s: Hal Newhouser
1950s: Warren Spahn
1960s: Sandy Koufax
1970s: Steve Carlton
1980s: Fernando Valenzuela
1990s: Randy Johnson
2000s: Randy Johnson
2010s: Clayton Kershaw
2020s: Max Fried