The one that got away.
The Pirates have had 46 different players, owners or coaches reach the Hall of Fame in their history. Some are easy to name (Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner). Some are better known for being with another team (Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, Goose Gossage). But there is one man who made his major league debut with the Bucs but never played for them again. This is the story of Dazzy Vance.
The day is Apr. 16, 1915. It’s the third game of the season, and the Pirates are in Cincinnati to take on the Reds.
The Pirates lineup 4/16/1915
LF Max Carey
1B Doc Johnson
3B Jim Voix
RF Bill Hichman
CF Sheldon Lejeune
2B Alex McCarthy
SS Wally Gerber
PH Honus Wagner
C George Gibson
P Dazzy Vance
P Joe Conzelman
PH Dan Costello
P Erv Kantlehner
The 24 year old Vance impressed in the minor leagues the last three seasons and was purchased by the Pirates that winter. He is one of three future Hall of Famers playing in this game (Wagner, Carey), and manager Fred Clarke is destined for Cooperstown, too. This is among the greatest single game lineups in Pirates history.
Vance started strong but ran into some trouble in the third, allowing three runs before being pulled with two outs in the inning. He walked five, allowed three hits and did not strike out a batter. That one inning ended up being too much for the Pirates to overcome. They lost 4-2.
Vance was sold to the Yankees shortly after that start and was demoted to the minors at the end of the season. He didn’t get another crack in the majors until 1918, but burned out quickly once again.
While he had promise coming to majors, his stuff didn’t impress coaches because his velocity was way down. According to his SABR profile, Vance was experiencing arm pain before he even became a Pirate.
“Somewhere in between my stay with St. Joe and my early experience with the Yankees, something went wrong with my right arm,” Vance recalled later in his career. “I no longer could throw hard, and it hurt like the dickens every time I threw.”
While his career seemed over, he finally caught a break down in Louisiana in 1920. One night, he was playing poker and injured his right arm raking in a pot. It hurt so badly that he went to a doctor, who found the root cause of the pain he was feeling during his playing career. He had surgery and returned a new pitcher. (Bill James theorizes that the doctor removed bone chips from his elbow.)
He returned to baseball at age 31 as a throw in for the sale of a minor league catcher to the Brooklyn Robins. He would lead the National League in strikeouts the next seven seasons, won the 1924 MVP award and was enshrined into Cooperstown in 1955. It’s been almost 100 years since his return to the game and his numbers in his thirties still rank among the best of all-time.
For one game, Vance was a Pirate. It’s hard to blame them for not sticking with an injured pitcher for seven years before he finally got good, but it would be interesting to see what would have happened had he stayed in Pittsburgh. Could the Pirates stolen another pennant or championship in the 20s with him anchoring the rotation? We’ll never know.
Do you want to read about humidors? Well, here you go, I guess...
And I’ll wrap this post up with shameless self-promotion! Over at TPOP, I wrote about how the Steamer projections say the Pirates are currently on the cusp of the playoffs...for now.