Vern Stephens was Baseball’s First Home Run Champion Shortstop

Vern Stephens Helmar R-319, card #82

The worst thing Vern Stephens ever did to his reputation was hit home runs like a corner outfielder. The man whom the St. Louis fans called “Buster” and his teammates called “Junior,” became the first shortstop to hit 20 homers three times and the first shortstop in the modern major leagues to win the home run title. After he was traded to the Red Sox he taught himself to pull the ball over the Green Monster and averaged 33 homers and 147 RBI from 1948-1950.

Those should have been good things, but his slugging overshadowed his abilities with the glove. Stephens was no iron hands in the field, he played deep because he didn’t have great range, but he made up for it with one of the strongest arms in the infield in the 1940s.

Read the quote below from St. Louis skipper Luke Sewell: he’s describing a guy who made up for average range through athleticism and a strong arm.

“Buster” Stephens was thick-chested with muscular arms. He didn’t look like tiny Phil Rizzuto or string bean Marty Marion, he looked more like Joe Medwick. For that reason, some people assumed he wasn’t a good defender.

Teammate Mark Christman, comparing Stephens to Marion, who played shortstop in St. Louis for the Cardinals when Vern was with the Browns, said that Vern had “not as good hands, but he covered as much ground, and he had an arm like a shotgun.”

“I couldn’t win a pennant with Marty Marion at shortstop. Batting is also part of this game. I have Vern Stephens in the cleanup spot: he led our league in runs batted in last season and was second in home runs. Marion couldn’t serve me that way; his great asset is his defensive play. As a matter of fact, Stephens has made plays for us the last few years that I’ve never seen another shortstop make. He can dive for balls hit to his right, knock them down, and throw out the batter from his knees.” 

St. Louis BROWNS’ MANAGER Luke Sewell, 1945

Stephens takes a trip down to Mexico

The most fascinating chapter of Stephens’ baseball odyssey came in the spring of 1946 when he briefly flirted with playing in Mexico. Well, flirted isn’t a good way to put: Vern went all the way, so to speak. For about a week, he was employed by the Veracruz Blues in the Mexican League, after a multi-millionaire industrialist named Jorge Pasquel, who was president of the Mexican League and also a team owner, offered obscene money to stars from the United States.

If there was one thing Vern loved, it was a hefty salary. (If there was another, it was scotch on the rocks with a twist, but I digress.)

Pasquel reportedly agreed to pay Stephens $175,000 to play in Mexico for five years starting with the 1946 season. That guarantee got Vern on a train to Mexico City, where he was promptly welcomed into Pasqual’s opulent mansion. Stephens had his own maid, his own butler, a man designated as his personal bartender, and all the Mexican liqueurs he could pour down his throat.

Stephens was enjoying himself in Mexico while Pasquel tried to pay off more American ballplayers south to legitimize his efforts to challenge Major League Baseball for supremacy in North American. But in late March, MLB commissioner Happy Chandler decreed that all players who did not return to the United States within ten days would be banned from organized baseball in the U.S. for five years.

Stephens got into uniform for two games for the Veracruz Blues, but when his father contacted him (urged by the owners of the Browns), he rethought his decision and bolted for the United States. His journey to get across the Mexican border and into the U.S. was harrowing at times, since Stephens was concerned that Pasqual had bribed Mexican officials to detain him in the country. But Stephens was “smuggled” into the States by his father and former infielder Jack Fournier, who was working for the Browns. All was forgiven, and the Browns actually gave Vern a raise for the 1946 season.

Bill Veeck’s affection for Vern Stephens

Bill Veeck always loved to tinker with his teams. Lou Boudreau, who played and managed under Veeck, once said, “We have three teams: the one on the field, the one coming, and the one going.” Veeck never fell in love with a player and he was always sure his roster could be better. He probably made more trade offers than anyone in baseball history, and Stephens’ name was often on his tongue.

Stephens was the object of Veeck’s gaze a few times. After the 1947 season, during the World Series, Veeck started talking to the Browns about Stephens and a young catcher he also wanted. Veeck offered to trade his boy wonder shortstop-manager Boudreau to get Stephens and the prospect. After the consummation of the deal, Veeck planned to hire Al Lopez (or possibly Casey Stengel) to manage the Indians. Veeck had a group of managers he always liked, along with Lopez and Casey were Charlie Grimm and Jimmie Dykes, two baseball lifers and good drinking buddies. But word of the Boudreau/Stephens trade leaked to the press, and before the World Series was over the folks back in Cleveland started squawking. They loved Boudreau, didn’t want to lose him. Veeck backed off trade talks. The following season, Boudreau led Veeck’s team to the World Series, which they won. Bullet dodged.

A few years later after Veeck was forced to sell the Indians when he was going through an expensive divorce, he became a principal owner of the Browns. By this time, Stephens had been traded to Boston, but Veeck wanted his big bat back in a Browns’ uniform and got his man when Stephens was placed on waivers. Following the season, Veeck was forced out as owner, the rest of the American League was tired of his ideas, tired of his big mouth. He latched on with the White Sox, eventually buying that club. His first deal as an adviser to the club was the signing of Stephens early in the 1955 season. “Buster” hit three homers for Chicago in about a month, then re-injured his knee and was forced to retire.   

Stephens’ career ended prematurely due to that serious knee injury. Or maybe it was his drinking, he was a notorious boozer. Mostly, it was the knee. Vern hit 247 career home runs and batted .286 in more than 1,720 games. He averaged 23 homers and 111 runs batted in per 162 games. The seven-time All-Star was, and remains, one of baseball’s most dangerous sluggers among shortstops.

He took up golf after his baseball days and became a long-drive, scratch player. He once had two holes-in-one in the same round at the country club he belonged to in southern California. Sadly, he was gone way too young: Stephens had a heart attack in November of 1968 and died a few days later at the age of 48.

There’s a story that bounces around the walls of the Hall of Fame that goes like this: one year when Ted Williams was on the Veterans Committee, the assembled group was going on and on and Ted dozed off. Someone nudge him awake, and when Williams was told that the subject was “Why isn’t Vern Stephens in the Hall of Fame?”, Ted barked “Because he was a hell-raiser and pussy-hound!”

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