Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Vern Stephens

Yesterday I talked about Joe Gordon, who is on the short list for Hall of Fame induction by the Veterans Committee. Today I'll take on the case of Vern Stephens.

Vern Stephens

When I first became aware of Vern Stephens, I was shocked that I hadn't heard of him before. He doesn't appear in many history books, but his statistics are eye-popping. I invite you to visit his page on for a taste. If you thought Ernie Banks was the first slugging shortstop, you've completely missed out on Vern "Junior" Stephens. From age 21 through 29, he was about as good as it gets: a middle infielder who hits for power, has a pretty good batting eye, and drives in runs. He took his talents to an entirely new level after being traded in November 1947 to the Red Sox, where he drove in 137, 159, and 144 runs his first three years in Boston.

Of course, there's a reason he could drive in that many runs: he had baseball's greatest on-base machine, Ted Williams, batting in front of him. In fact, in 1949, both Stephens and Williams drove in 159 runs (teammate Bobby Doerr picked up the scraps with 109 RBIs himself).

At that point, Stephens had built himself a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Then it all fell apart. According to a biographical article about Stephens by Mark Armour published in the SABR Bio Project, Stephens injured his knee in 1951 and never got healthy again. He was only 30 years old, and perhaps today with modern medicine, Stephens could have rehabbed his knee and gotten back to baseball. But alas, he didn't, and his career basically ended, though he hung on for a few futile years.

His life ended the same, sad way: In 1968, he suffered a heart attack while working a construction job and died. He was only 48.

The case for Stephens: He was a powerful hitter who played a key defensive position. He racked up big numbers in his 20s.

The case against Stephens: Injuries curtailed his production before he could post big career numbers. He finished with 247 home runs and 1,147 RBIs, not Hall of Fame-caliber.

My opinion: Not really a close call. Stephens is an interesting player, and if he had continued posting big numbers until age 35 or so, he might belong in the Hall. But he didn't, and he doesn't.

No comments: