September 18, 2019

Who, You Ask, is Dazzy Vance?

October 14, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m currently finishing up my second book, “It Ain’t So: An Alternative History of the Chicago Black Sox,” but I’d like to contribute something to the site, so here’s an article I wrote about Dodgers hurler Dazzy Vance last year.

In 1922 a 31-year-old seemingly washed up fireballer hit the major league scene with ten years of minor league experience under his belt and an 0-4 record and 4.09 ERA from three failed trials with major league clubs. By the end of the season he would be Brooklyn’s second best pitcher behind Dutch Ruether and would embark on a 14-year odyssey that would see him become the National League’s strikeout king for the next seven consecutive seasons, as well as its MVP in 1924. This after recovering from an inflamed elbow diagnosed in 1916 that took exactly five years to heal, just as his doctor had predicted. Who, you ask, is this unlikely hero?

Clarence Vance was born in Orient, Iowa in 1891. His acquisition of the nickname “Dazzy” has been credited to several different sources. Some say he gained the name as a youngster in Iowa, adopting the phrase “Ain’t it a dazzy?” from a neighbor. Others claim that he earned the moniker in Nebraska while playing for Red Cloud of the Nebraska State League, due to his mispronunciation of the word “daisy.” Vance himself claimed it was a little of both. “Back in Nebraska I knew a cowboy who, when he saw a horse, a gun or a dog that he liked, would say ‘Ain’t that a daisy,’ only he would pronounce ‘daisy’ as ‘dazzy.’ I got to saying, ‘Ain’t that a dazzy,’ and before I was 11 years old, the nickname was tacked on me.” He would be forever known as Dazzy Vance to baseball fans young and old.

Vance began his professional career in 1912 but struggled with his control until 1914 when he posted a 26-12 record and 302 strikeouts between Hastings of the Nebraska State League and St. Joseph of the Western League. The 6-foot-2 righthander had a blazing fastball that impressed the Pittsburgh Pirates, who gave Vance a shot at the big time in 1915. The flame-thrower lost command of his fastball again, however, and walked five batters in 2 1/3 innings in his only start for the Pirates, prompting them to send him back to St. Joseph. He won 17 games for St. Joseph but continued to struggle with his control. Regardless, the New York Yankees gave Vance another shot at the majors, where he went 0-3 with 16 walks in 28 innings. He posted a respectable 3.54 ERA, though, and threw a complete game so the Yankees penciled him into their future plans.

Unfortunately the 24-year-old’s career was derailed yet again when his elbow became inflamed due to a secretion gland malfunction. Despite his doctor’s grim prediction that it would take five years to heal, Vance returned to the minor leagues and continued pitching. He earned another promotion to New York in 1918 but failed to impress the Yankees this time, allowing nine hits and two walks in only two innings. But the injury would prove to be a blessing in disguise as it forced him to learn how to control his pitches and develop a curveball to offset the loss of the blazing fastball he could no longer rely on. Until 1921, that is, when his fastball returned to its former glory.

Thanks to the astuteness of his manager in New Orleans, who noticed that his wounded pitcher flourished when given an extra day of rest between starts, Vance won 21 games and was able to stay healthy for the entire season. But he was 30 years old and had a spotty resume that included three failed attempts as a major league pitcher. Needless to say, no major league team was interested in his services. It was only New Orleans’ insistence that the Brooklyn Dodgers take Vance when they bought catcher Hank DeBerry that he ended up with a big league club.

The Dodgers, or Robins as they were affectionately known, were a perfect fit for Vance as manager Wilbert Robinson had already established a knack for getting the most out of pitchers whose best years were behind them. In 1916 Robinson’ss Dodgers would win the pennant with 33-year-old Jack Coombs winning 13 games and in 1920 they would turn the trick again as 33-year-old Rube Marquard chipped in 10 wins. Now it was Vance’s turn to improve a team that had finished in fifth place the year before his arrival, while proving that his best years had yet to come.

In 1922, Vance went 18-12, led the National League with 134 strikeouts and tied for the league lead with five shutouts, sharing the honor with Pittsburgh’s Johnny Morrison, but the Robins slid in the standings, winning only 75 games to finish in sixth place. In 1923, Vance added another 18 wins, winning 10 straight at one point, and increased his league-leading strikeout total to 197. Again, the Robins finished sixth, winning only one more game than they had the previous year. Only four other National League pitchers, including teammate Burleigh Grimes, topped the 100-strikeout mark that year.

By now, Vance had mastered his outstanding curveball, continued to throw his fastball past batters and relied on a high leg kick and tattered right sleeve to deceive the hitters. “Dazzy Vance pitched off a high mound and he was already a big man, so the ball came down at you instead of straight toward you,” recounted Riggs Stephenson, who faced Vance while playing for the Cubs in the mid-1920s and early ’30s. “He also had a sharp overhand curve, the kind we used to call a drop. Then, to make things even harder on the hitter, he’d cut his shirt around the right arm so you couldn’t pick up the ball with those shreds of sleeve flapping around.”

In his first two years with Brooklyn, he finished second on the team in wins. 1924 would see him finish second to no one as he compiled a 28-6 record, winning 15 in a row in one stretch, posted a 2.16 ERA and struck out an incredible 262 batters, earning pitching’s triple crown and the first MVP Award given by the National League. His 262 strikeouts were the most by an NL pitcher since Christy Mathewson fanned 267 in 1903 and would remain the most until Sandy Koufax struck out 269 batters in 1961. Teammate Burleigh Grimes fanned 135 batters, finishing second, a distant 127 whiffs behind Vance. Vance accounted for eight percent of all strikeouts in the league that year. No pitcher in history can claim such strikeout dominance. In fact, he was so dominant that he edged St. Louis second baseman Rogers Hornsby for the Most Valuable Player Award, despite Hornsby’s .424 batting average- a twentieth century record. More importantly, however, was the fact that Brooklyn jumped all the way to second place, only a game and a half behind the pennant-winning Giants.

After three stellar seasons in the big leagues, Vance refused to sign the contract proffered to him by Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, who offered the hurler a two-year deal.Vance demanded a salary of $22,000 for one year, $37,500 for two, or $50,000 for three, preferring the three-year deal.Ebbets countered with an offer that called for three years and $47,500, to which Vance agreed in principle.When Vance read the contract, however, he balked at the inclusion of the standard ten-day clause and refused to sign again.Less than a week later he finally agreed to sign his deal, accepting all the terms of the contract.

The tense negotiations had no effect on his pitching as he rewarded the Robins by pacing the NL with 22 victories, 221 strikeouts and four shutouts in 1925. Again, only one other pitcher in the league could manage even 100 strikeouts- Dolph Luque struck out 140 batters for Cincinnati- let alone 200.

He struck out a career high 17 batters against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 20th, tossed a one-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on September 8th, and then improved on that performance by throwing a no-hitter at the Phillies on September 13th. Richards Vidmer of the New York Times captured the event eloquently when he wrote:

Through a shower of straw hats and with the deafening roar of 20,000 shouting his praise, the great Dazzy Vance climbed to the pitching pinnacle at Ebbets Field yesterday. Under the burning rays of a golden sun which left him dripping, the royal Robin right-hander pitched a no-hit game against the Phillies.

Reaching back behind him were seven more hitless innings left over from last Tuesday, when he held the same Phils to one lone hit, and he now has an unbroken string of sixteen successive frames in which not a single safety has been made off his deceptive delivery.

Following the 1925 season Vance explained the keys to his success:

“Most pitchers try to save their arm. They won’t put much stuff on the ball except in the pinch. I generally put a lot of stuff on every thing I throw. That’s my theory of getting results with the least effort in the long run. But I always plan to have something up my sleeve. I don’t cut loose with everything I’ve got more than four or five times a game. When the bases are full and you’ve got two and three on the batter, you’re pretty apt to let fly and get your shoulder blades, your ears and your tonsils behind that pitch. But I don’t like to cut loose with everything. It’s like speeding in an automobile. Something may give.”

1926 was a down year for the league’s premier pitcher as he won only nine games, lost 10 and threw only 169 innings after hurling 265 the year before. Ironically, he still managed to lead the league in strikeouts with 140, despite throwing 102 fewer innings than the runner-up, Chicago’s Charlie Root, who finished with 127 strikeouts.

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Vance improved his record to 16-15 in 1927 while pitching for a team that had the most anemic offense in all of baseball. With more support, he would have undoubtedly won more games—a fact that would haunt him towards the end of his career as he struggled towards 200 victories. His 25 complete games led the league, as did his 184 strikeouts, again besting Root, who finished with 145.

1928 would prove to be Vance’s last great all-around season and would usher in one last hurrah to his strikeout dominance. He went 22-10 with a league leading 2.09 ERA, four shutouts and 200 strikeouts. For the third straight season a Cub finished second to Vance as rookie Pat Malone fanned 155 batters for Chicago, while Root finished third with 122. His run was coming to an end but Vance was earning the highest paycheck in baseball among pitchers, pocketing $20,000 in 1928 and $25,000 in 1929 when he won 14 games and struck out only 126 batters to finish third behind Malone and teammate Watty Clark. It would be the first time he hadn’t won the strikeout crown in eight years.

He won his third ERA title in 1930, posting a 2.61 mark, which was an incredible 2.36 runs lower than the league average and more than a run lower than runner-up Carl Hubbell, who fashioned a 3.71 ERA for the New York Giants. He also led the league for the fourth time in shutouts with four. He missed his ninth strikeout title, however, by a mere four strikeouts, losing to the Cardinals “Wild Bill” Hallahan 177 to 173. Hallahan would beat him again in 1931, leading the league with 159 strikeouts to Vance’s 150, good for third place in the National League. Unfortunately his other numbers would suffer as he won only 11 of 24 decisions and watched his ERA climb to 3.38.

1932 would prove to be Vance’s last year with the Dodgers. He finished with a winning record at 12-11 but his ERA was over 4.00 (4.20) for the first time since his arrival in Brooklyn 10 years before and his 103 strikeouts didn’t even register a blip on the radar screen. In February of 1933, Vance was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals with teammate Gordon Slade for infielder Jake Flowers and pitcher Ownie Carroll.

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Vance finished his career with Brooklyn in 1935 and appeared in 20 games as a reliever at the age of 44.

Vance left plenty of memories behind when he exited Brooklyn for St. Louis. The Dodgers of the 1920s had been dubbed the “Daffiness Boys” due to their misadventures on and off the field and Vance was a founding member. He was president of an off-hour group of party animals known as the “Night Prowlers” and was instrumental in helping Babe Herman triple into a triple play (although he actually doubled into a double play).

Vance, the lead runner, started from second base and ran more cautiously than expected, returning to third base after rounding the bag. Upon his arrival at third, he met two members of his team, including Herman who had steamed into third with what should have been an easy triple. The other two runners were tagged out and Vance remained at third base, which was rightfully his.

Appropriately, the free-spirited Vance made his only World Series appearance with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals in 1934, pitching alongside Dizzy and Daffy Dean. The 43-year-old threw an inning and a third of shutout ball for the Cardinals in Game 4—three of the four outs he recorded were strikeouts—to earn a World Series ring.

After brief stints with St. Louis and Cincinnati, he ended his career back in Brooklyn, where he won three more games to finish with a record of 197-140. He posted a 3.24 career ERA, struck out 2,045 batters in 2,966 2/3 innings and, amazingly, he walked only 840 batters.

Vance retired to Florida to operate a hunting and fishing lodge in Homosassa Springs and manage his extensive real estate holdings. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955 and died of a heart attack on February 16th, 1961, two weeks shy of his 70th birthday.

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