Kiss It Goodbye

by | Mar. 05, 2010

People

On the day after Vern Law's high school graduation and betrothal to VaNita McGuire, there was a knock at the Laws' door. Outside, the front porch was packed with nine stout men in suits, eight of them smoking cigars and asking to come in. Each was a scout or agent from a professional baseball team, com to convince the family that Vernon should play for them. Vern took no part in the conversations. He stayed in his room, content to let his parents make for him the biggest decision of his life. "My dad would politely tell them to leave their cigars on the porch, then they could come in and we'd talk."

One by one, they told Vernon's parents about his bright future in baseball and what their teams would do for him. None of them mentioned his personal welfare, which was the one thing his parents wanted to hear about. Money was just money. Vernon was their son.

The last team's representative to come in was immediately recognizable. Babe Herman had played for the Brooklyn Robins, later the Dodgers. Herman was not smoking a cigar when he came into the Laws' living room. Nor was he representing the Dodgers. He was working as a scout for the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. And instead of a cigar, he was holding a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates for Mrs. Law. After about fifteen minutes of talking with the family, the phone rang. With a knowing grin, Herman advised Vern's mother to answer the phone.

On the other end was Bing Crosby, vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "My mother about fell over in a faint," wrote Law. "She wouldn't believe she was talking to the great singer, Bing. That was about the frosting on the cake and I'm sure a determining factor in my signing with them."

The story of Law's recruitment by the Pirates, and the other agents' stupidity in bringing cigars into a Mormon home, is well known in Pirate lore. But the story would not be complete without a footnote. Ten years later, Vern Law, by then an accomplished Pirate pitcher, was on the mound at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. After the game, Bing Crosby walked into the clubhouse. Throughout Law's first few years in professional baseball, Crosby kept up a correspondence of letters and telegrams with Vern, sometimes critiquing Law's performance, sometimes just offering good wishes. On this day in Los Angeles, they reminisced about Law's signing, the role Crosby's phone call had played in the decision, and the revulsion his father felt when he saw the cigars at his front door.

"I thought that might work," Crosby said offhandedly.

"What do you mean?" asked Law.

"Well," said Crosby, "I told Herman to go get a big box of cigars and pass them out to the other boys while they were waiting on your porch."

The Pitcher Learns to Pitch Vern started off in Santa Rosa, California, on the Class D team--the lowest rung in the Pirates' organization. In spite of his natural ability, for Vern, the first challenge, surprisingly, was to learn how to pitch. He could rear back and throw the ball like a BB--92 miles an hour at the height of his career, by his reckoning. But as every pitching coach, manager, and decent baseball analyst can attest, throwing is not the same as pitching. The first is a show of strength. The second is more a craft that entails varying speeds, placing the ball, and probing a batter's weaknesses.

Vern came to understand this. He admitted, "I had no coaching growing up, so I had need of a good pitching coach to help me develop a decent windup and learn how to set up a hitter. Another important thing I needed to learn was to throw a changeup and use off-speed pitches.

"In Santa Rosa, my manager was Danny Reagan, a former catcher, and he helped somewhat but didn't know the ins and outs of helping me in that process, but was helpful in helping me understand the game and how it should be played."

The next season, 1949, brought changes in Laws' career. He moved to Davenport, Iowa, and Class B ball and learned how to pitch instead of just throw. The Davenport Pirates' manager that year was a former Major League pitcher named Bill Burwell. A native of Jarbalo, Kansas, Burwell pitched two seasons for the old St. Louis Browns and one for the Pirates before embarking on a lengthy career as a minor league manager.

A right-hander like Law, Burwell taught the boy from Idaho some of the subtleties of which his still undeveloped arm was capable. "From him I learned how to throw a changeup and also the importance of changing speeds," Law said. "He told me, when you throw batting practice, take a little off your fastball and see what happens. I did as I was instructed and found out I really messed up the hitters' timing and from that point on I became a winning pitcher, instead of just a .500 pitcher. He also taught me a very important lesson: hitters will swing at bad pitches."

Thrown Out In 1956, the new Pirates manager, Bobby Bragan, brought with him a track record of being an umpire baiter, a trait guaranteed to make games interesting. With the club playing Philadelphia at Connie Mack Stadium, Law, not scheduled to pitch until the next day, was just sitting on the Pirates' bench along with relief pitcher Nellie King, who would one day become part of the Pirates' broadcast team. During his playing days, King could be counted on to clown around, keeping the team loose but also annoying the apposing team (and the umpires, if their calls did not suit him).

Law recalls: "It seemed like every pitch was either just in or out of the strike zone, and every play at first base was bang-bang! and could have gone either way. As a result, there was a lot of hollering from both benches and some swearing was being done."

The scoreboard in Connie Mack Park was in right field. When Law checked the out-of-town scores and noticed that the Cardinals had scored several runs, he tapped King on the shoulder and gestured to the numbers. "When I looked back to home plate, I saw the umpire was looking straight at me. He said, 'Law, you do that one more time and you’re out of the game.' So I kind of tapped the bill of my cap with one finger and gave a halfhearted smile. And he said, 'That's it. Go take a shower.' I ran up to him and said, 'Stan, why are you throwing me out? I haven't been swearing at you.' And he said, 'Maybe not, but you were impersonating me.' "

That was a first. The Deacon had never been ejected from a sports contest of any kind in his life. Still mystified at his punishment, Law slunk into the clubhouse and listened to the rest of the game on the radio. His biggest concern, he recalls, was the possibility of being fined by the National League, which often accompanied ejection. "I couldn't afford to pay the League on what I was making," he fretted.

Two days later, a copy of Stan Landes's report to the league president about the Pirates-Phillies game was released. The umpire said: "I threw Law out of the game because I knew he's a minister of some kind and there was a lot of abusive language on the bench, and I didn't want him to hear it. So I threw him out."

Not Just a Superstar Just as any player on a winning team, then or now, Vernon Law was a public figure, an object of intense scrutiny, and much in demand by groups in and around Pittsburgh who hoped to trade in on his celebrity. Over the course of the nearly six-month 1960 season, Law figures he spoke to or appeared at one hundred group gatherings and events. That is more than one event every other night. Many were church-sponsored. Law would always have an interest in the weakest persons of faith, and the disadvantaged. His visits to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh went largely unpublicized and undocumented.

He did not try to convert cancer-stricken kids to Mormonism. Instead, he talked boldly and unabashedly of the need to believe in God. "I remember one boy in particular who had open heart surgery," Law writes. "His name was Robert Stringer. He was a real fan of mine. I guess he was having a very hard time recuperating so his dad called me. I took an autographed baseball and went to see him. Just the look on his face made it all worthwhile. His dad reported afterward that that was the turning point for him, and he made rapid progress after that."

Law was not unique in his charity, nor was the era in which he played necessarily more inclined to promote it. Players today spend vast sums of their salary on personal charities, pet causes, and good deeds. The difference is that Law was going out nearly every night during the season, while his team was in hot pursuit of the league flag. He believed in the game that gave him his living. But he believed even more in the principles that gave him a reason to live.

A player's life was not just baseball in 1960. A superstar (for that is what Vernon Law was in his prime playing days) was expected to take his children to school, to find work in the off-season to supplement his income, to make sure the grass was cut and the windows were clean, the garbage taken out, the lights turned off at bedtime. A player was expected not just to play but to be a man. A good man. And then, at game time, to go out and win.

--- Adapted from Kiss It Goodbye: The Mystery, the Mormon, and the Moral of the 1980 Pittsburgh Pirates, copyright 2010 Shadow Mountain Publishing. Now Available.

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