Vernon Helped Ike like Opening Day '54

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, long ago, there was major league baseball in Washington. And Opening Day was a very big deal because (a) the president of the United States usually threw out the first ball, and (b) it was practically the only time all season when the Washington Senators would sell out Griffith Stadium, their 27,000-seat bandbox at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW.

Of all the presidential openers from William Howard Taft in 1910 through Richard Nixon in 1971, the best might have come on April 13, 1954. That was the marvelous day when Mickey Vernon, the Nats' classy first baseman, clouted a 10th-inning home run high over the 40-foot wall in right field to beat the lordly New York Yankees 5-3.

The Yankees had won five straight World Series. The Nats' last pennant had been in 1933. Washington didn't have many golden sporting moments in the '50s, but this was a keeper.

Unfortunately, it was not an omen. After two surprising seasons around the .500 mark and the first division, Washington would fall to sixth place in '54 with a 66-88 record - 45 games behind champion Cleveland. For the first time since 1948, the Yankees did not take the pennant, but they did manage to win 37 games more than the Nats. So what else was new?

In seven more years, those Nats would leave for Minnesota, yielding Washington and environs to an expansion version of the Senators. Eleven years after that, the "new" Nats left, too, for Texas. Twenty-eight long years later, we are still waiting for our baseball birthright to be restored.

But for one golden afternoon so very long ago, Washington was baseball's capital, as well as the nation's.

About 40 miles away, the Baltimore Orioles were celebrating their return to the majors after 52 years by losing to Detroit 3-0. Had President Dwight D. Eisenhower been more politically astute, he might have visited Memorial Stadium instead; after all, Maryland was a key swing state while the District's citizens still could not vote. But no: The presidential opener was a tradition in Washington, and fans did not treat such things lightly - or treat kindly politicians who ignored them.

Before and after his monumental swat, James Barton (a k a Mickey) Vernon spent many unmemorable summers laboring for Washington also-rans (1939 to 1948 and 1950 to 1955). Older fans will remember him as a first baseman of unsurpassed grace. And during a 20-year major league career that produced a solid .286 batting average, his smooth left-handed stroke authored two spectacular seasons in which he won American League batting championships.

In 1946, Vernon's .353 left no less than Ted Williams in arrears. And in '53, his .337 beat Cleveland's Al Rosen by a point and deprived the Cleveland third baseman of the Triple Crown.

Ah, but that home run on Opening Day '54 was the highlight of a career that should have landed Vernon in the Hall of Fame by now.

"Sure, that was my biggest baseball thrill," said Vernon, now 81, from his home in Wallingford, Pa., last week. "The two batting titles were up there, too, but . . ."

Oddly, the defending batting champion was working on an oh-fer (0-for-4) as the 10th inning started in a 3-3 game. Leadoff man Eddie Yost walked - his specialty - but Tom Wright struck out against Allie Reynolds, one of the Yankees' superstars, pitching in relief of starter Whitey Ford.

Two years earlier, Reynolds had pitched two no-hitters in one season. …