No one ever thought to call Charles Vance “The Orient Express,” but seeing as how he entered the world in Orient, Iowa, a tiny little community that sprung up to accommodate the burgeoning railroad industry in the late 19th century, it may have been appropriate.
Why “Express”? Not because of any fast-charging locomotive: Vance was a purveyor of speedballs that he propelled from a right shoulder that was gifted with amazing strength and elasticity.
Charles tossed the baseball hard enough in dusty Iowa to get himself a professional contract when he was only 21 years old. That was in 1912, but the tall right-hander with bright red hair didn’t win his first game in the major leagues until 1922 when he was 31. If that doesn’t sound like the beginning of a glorious career in big league baseball, that’s because typically it isn’t. Who gets his first chance when he’s 31 and goes on to glory?
But Vance, who was dubbed “The Dazzler” in the Hawkeye State, had lightning in his arm. It just took a little wriggling to get it to come out.
Overcoming a Painful Right Shoulder
Vance pitched with pain for more than a decade, bounced around professional baseball, never stuck anywhere very long. One night he was playing poker and he banged his right elbow on the top of the table. The pain felt different and he went to a doctor. The physician performed an operation on Vance’s elbow, most likely to remove bone chips. The random incident turned his career around.
That fateful poker game occurred in 1920, and Dazzy (as his friends called him) was 29 years old. The following year he pitched without pain for the first time since he was a boy in Iowa, and had a good season for New Orleans. Brooklyn bought his contract for next to nothing, and in 1922 the 31-year old won 18 games and led the National League in strikeouts. He led the league in strikeouts the next year too, and the year after that.
The red-headed flamethrower led the National League in K’s for seven straight seasons, and in 1924 when he was 34, Dazzy won the MVP Award when he won 28 games and captured the pitching triple crown.
Vance used an over-the-top fastball that appeared, some batters said, as if it came “from out of the sky.” He used a similar motion for his breaking pitch. Several years he nearly single-handedly kept the Dodgers in the pennant race. Vance pitched until he was 44 years old and won all of his 197 games after his 30th birthday. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955. His is one of the most peculiar careers in baseball history.