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Wagner not the Bucs’ only great shortstop

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Arky Vaughn Batting Practice Pittsburgh

As has already been established, the Pirates enter the 2020 season with a number of question marks, including what the club plans to do with the middle infield positions.

It wasn’t always that way, though. For years, the Pirates boasted the game’s best defensive second baseman in Bill Mazeroski, a perennial Gold Glove winner who just happened to have hit baseball’s most dramatic home run of all time.

And then there’s the shortstop position. Decades before Maz was designated as Hoover No. 4 by the inimitable Bob Prince, the Pirates trotted out the game’s greatest-ever shortstop and one of the greatest players in the sport regardless of position: Honus Wagner.

Wagner’s offensive numbers are off the charts – he retired with a career .328 batting average, won eight National League batting titles and 11 times owned the best WAR among all NL position players. And that’s not the half of it.

However, the legacy of great Pirates shortstops did not end with Wagner. During the 1930s, Pittsburgh also boasted one of the game’s top players at that position in one Joseph Floyd Vaughan. Better known by his nickname Arky, Vaughan broke into the big leagues after just one season in the minors, at the age of 20, in 1932 and quickly established himself as one of the game’s most potent offensive threats.

In his rookie year, Vaughan batted .318 with a .787 OPS, and he would maintain an OPS of at least .808 for the next nine seasons. His greatest individual offensive season came in 1935 when he flirted with .400 for most of the campaign before tailing off in the final month or so, and settled for a .385 mark. That was good enough to win him a batting title, and that .385 mark has yet to be topped for a full season in the NL.

Tony Gwynn – like Vaughan, a Hall of Famer – batted .394 in 1994, but that season ended on Aug. 12 with a players’ strike. Gwynn appeared in 110 games that season and wound up with an OPS of 1.022 – just shy of Vaughan’s 1.098 OPS for 1935.

Vaughan spent 10 seasons in a Pirates uniform and never once batted under .300. He was dealt to Brooklyn for four players just a few days after Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 as Pittsburgh looked to fortify its roster with the military draft looming. Vaughan played two years in Brooklyn, nearly helping the Dodgers to a pennant in his first season, then walked away from the game at age 31, sitting out the 1944, 1945 and 1946 seasons.

Some theorized that Vaughan had had enough of his Brooklyn manager, Leo Durocher, pointing to a one-man insurrection that Vaughan started before a game against the Pirates in 1943. But Vaughan, who did not talk much and was somewhat of an enigmatic character, maintained that his disagreement with Durocher had nothing to do with his decision, and that it all came down to him being unable to find able-bodied men to run his Northern California cattle ranch. That’s because the military was taking just about anyone capable of helping win the war. So Vaughan stayed home for three seasons and ran his ranch, then came back for two more seasons before retiring at the end of the 1948 season.

Vaughan walked away with no regrets; he enjoyed ranching at least as much – if not more – than playing baseball, and he virtually never talked about the game when he was with family and friends. He bought his dream ranch after retiring, but didn’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy it, as he died in a boating accident while fishing at the age of 40, in September of 1952.

Vaughan’s exploits faded into the background, and he was denied entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame for years until finally getting in in 1985. His numbers – a career .318 batting average, an OPS of .859, seven season in the top 10 in batting average, 11 seasons in the top 10 in WAR among position players, eight seasons in the top 10 in on-base percentage, for starters – place him among baseball’s greatest shortstops.

So when fans talk about the best ever to play the position, just remember that the Pirates didn’t have just the greatest of all time – they might have had the two greatest of all time.

When it comes time for the Pirates to enshrine their first class of players in the club’s new Hall of Fame later this year, they need to give serious consideration to that “other” shortstop – Arky Vaughan.