Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Deacon's Amazing Comeback

TRIVIA QUESTION:  The 1966 Pittsburgh Pirates were a team of sluggers but a rookie pitcher helped drive the team to nearly capturing the NL title. Who was this 12 game winner from Ewing, KY?  

In 1963 the Boston Red Sox played 17 extra inning games. Among them they went 14 innings three times and another three times took the game to 15 innings. They won nine of the 17.

 Vern Law was one of the most respected pitchers in baseball during the 1960's. Signed in 1948 as an amateur free agent, he went on to 16 big league seasons, all with Pittsburgh.  After two years of military service he came back as a workhorse starter for the Pirates and in 1958 won 14 games over 202 innings. It looked like he was on his way and he was.

In 1959 when the Pirates looked like a team on the brink, he went 18-9 with a 2.98 ERA and 266 innings pitched. He pitched 20 complete games and probably wasn't as affected by Roy Face coming in and going 18-1 out of the bullpen as teammate Bob Friend who went 8-19. 

It was in 1960 where the man they called "the Deacon" (he was a deacon in the LDS Church) really showed his stuff. The ace of the Bucs staff went 20-9 and easily won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League. He again was a finisher, completing 18 games. 

In the infamous World Series against the Yankees he started three games and won two, ending with 18 innings and a 2-0 record. He won games one and four and lasted five innings in the wild seventh game won by the Bucs on Bill Mazeroski's walk off homer in ninth. 

It was in that 1960 season, Law's physical problems began. Rumor has it he was injured during the celebration in Game Seven. SABR's C. Paul Rogers III writes it was a different situation which actually began much earlier.

"The Pirates clinched the pennant on September 25 while losing to the Braves in Milwaukee. Afterward the Pirates celebrated with champagne in the clubhouse and on the team bus. In the midst of the hubbub aboard the bus, several of Law’s teammates restrained him while catcher Bob Oldis playfully yanked a shoe off his foot, spraining Law’s left ankle in the process. Although Law soldiered on in the World Series, starting Games One, Four, and Seven, he injured his arm while favoring his bad ankle and thereafter struggled for several years to regain his 1960 form. It turned out that he had torn muscles in the back of his shoulder during the Series while favoring his bad ankle."

It was a major blow for the Pirates who competed but broke up the 1960 club over the next two seasons. Dick Stuart was shipped off to the AL, MVP Dick Groat was traded to the Cardinals, Don Hoak, Dick Schofield, Bob Skinner and even Bob Friend were eventually moved to other clubs. Law, Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were kept and all retired as Pirates.

Law struggled, winning 29 games over four years until the 1965 season. Whatever it was, the presence of teammate Bob Veale (17-12), a decent bullpen or maybe his arm finally responded, but 35 year-old Vern Law was back. In an amazing comeback season, Law went 17-9 and lowered his ERA to 2.15, third only behind Sandy Koufax (2.04) and Juan Marichal (2.13). 
Considering he didn't win his first game until May 21st, losing his first five decisions, to go on and win 16 more over the rest of these season was pretty amazing in itself.  After the first win he reeled off six more wins before taking a loss. It was a season of streaks for the aging right hander who was battling Father Time. 

The Bucs contended right down to the wire, finally losing out to the Dodgers and coming in third behind San Francisco.  

In 1966 Pittsburgh pitching faltered big time and the Old Deacon could not regain the form from the previous season. He still managed a respectable 12-8 season with a 4.05 ERA as Pittsburgh contended again down to the wire, losing out to the Dodgers again. Law pitched only 97 innings in 1967 going 2-6 before calling it quits with 162 wins to his credit. He was the Pirates pitching coach for a time after that, and worked his way back to Utah where he became an assistant coach at BYU under his son Vance, who himself spent 12 seasons in the big leagues. 

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