If you're making early book on the 1999 MVPs, I'd suggest you
look past Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and the
other musclemen who are threatening to dent the record book with
their bats. In a season such as this one, the most deserving
stars have to be those rare pitchers who can stem the offensive
flood: Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez, say, or Astros righty
Jose Lima. Or, looking back to the most profligate offensive
season in history, the Dodgers' Dazzy Vance (right).
In 1930 the ball was so hot that the Phillies' Chuck Klein had a
.386 average, 40 home runs, 170 RBIs and 250 hits--and didn't
lead the National League in any of those categories. The
freakish Cub, Hack Wilson (5'6", 190 pounds, size 5 1/2 shoes,
size 18 neck) earned his spot in baseball history with his
epochal 190 runs batted in. Offense was so supercharged that the
National League averaged .303, with the Giants leading the way
at .319, which is still the single-season major league record
for a team. Giants manager John McGraw, in his 40th season in
the game, thought the situation so extreme that he proposed
moving in the mound.
Yet if there was any question about the brand of baseball that
fans preferred, the daily detonations of 1930 answered it.
Despite the onset of the Depression, attendance exceeded 10
million for the first time. The public went giddy over games
such as the one on July 23 between the Phillies and the Pirates,
in which Philadelphia had 27 hits and a
major-league-record-tying 48 total bases--and lost 16-15. The
pitching in 1930, it seems, was as bad as the hitting was good.
Except, that is, the pitching of the A's Lefty Grove in the
American League and Vance's work in the National. The
fireballing righthander Vance, in the words of teammate Johnny
Frederick, "could throw a cream puff through a battleship."
Though his record was only 17-15 that year, Vance had a
league-leading 2.61 ERA that was more than two runs better than
the league average of 4.97 and an astonishing 1.26 ahead of
runner-up Carl Hubbell's of the Giants. Vance's 1930 performance
was the capstone to one of the most singular careers ever.
Arthur Charles Vance of Orient, Iowa, won his first major league
game in 1922--when he was 31 years old. Pitching from a motion
so extreme that the knuckles on his right hand would nearly
graze the ground as his lead foot pointed to the sky, he would
win 196 more in the 14 full seasons (all but two of them with
the Dodgers) that followed, copping a big-league-record seven
straight strikeout titles along the way. It was in 1930, though,
when he was 39, that Vance demonstrated that when baseballs are
flying out of parks like popcorn from an overheated skillet,
it's superb pitching that ought to capture our attention.
B/W PHOTO: SI PICTURE COLLECTION