Who, You Ask, Was Dazzy Vance?
In 1922 a 31-year-old washed-up fireballer hit the major-league scene with 10 years of minor-league experience under his belt. Three previous trials with major-league clubs had left the hapless pitcher 0-4 with a 4.09 ERA. But by the end of that season he would be Brooklyn's second-best pitcher-behind staff ace Dutch Ruether-beginning a 14-year odyssey that would see him become the National League's strikeout king for the next seven seasons, as well as its MVP in 1924. This after recovering from an inflamed elbow diagnosed in 1916 that took five years to heal, just as his doctor had predicted. Who, you ask, is this unlikely hero?
Clarence "Dazzy" Vance was born in Orient, Iowa, in 1891. In his own words, Vance describes the genesis of his unusual nickname: "Where did I get the nickname Dazzy? Well it has nothing to do with 'dazzling speed' as most fans believe. Back in Nebraska I knew a cowboy who, when he saw a horse, a gun or a dog that he liked, would say 'Ain't that a daisy,' only he would pronounce 'daisy' as 'dazzy.' I got to saying, 'Ain't that a dazzy,' and before I was 11 years old, the nickname was tacked on me."
Vance began his professional career in 1912, but struggled with his control until 1914, when he posted a 26-12 record and 302 strikeouts between Hastings of the NSL and St. Joseph of the Western League. The 6-foot-2 right-hander had a blazing fastball that impressed the Pittsburgh Pirates, who gave Vance a shot at the big time in 1915. The flame-thrower lost command of his fastball again, however, and walked five batters in 2 innings in his only start for the Pirates, prompting them to send him back to St. Joseph. He won 17 games for St. Joseph but continued to struggle with his control. Regardless, the New York Yankees gave Vance another shot, whereupon he went 0-3 with 16 walks in 28 innings. He posted a respectable 3.54 ERA though, and threw a complete game, so the Yankees kept him around.
Unfortunately, the 24-year-old's career was derailed when his elbow became inflamed due to a secretion gland malfunction. Despite his doctor's grim prediction that it would take five years to heal, Vance returned to the minor leagues and continued pitching. He earned another promotion to New York in 1918 but failed to impress the Yankees this time, allowing nine hits and two walks in only two innings.
But the injury would prove to be a blessing in disguise. It forced him to learn how to control his pitches and develop a curveball to offset the loss of the blazing fastball he could no longer rely on. Until 1921, that is, when his fastball returned to its former glory.
Thanks to the astuteness of his manager in New Orleans, who noticed that his pitcher flourished when given an extra day of rest between starts, Vance won 21 games and was able to stay healthy for the entire season. But he was 30-years-old and had a spotty résumé that included three failed attempts as a major-league pitcher. Needless to say, no team was interested in his services. It was only due to New Orleans' insistence that the Brooklyn Dodgers take Vance when they bought catcher Hank DeBerry that he ended up with a big-league club.
The Dodgers, or Robins as they were then affectionately known, were a perfect fit for Vance. Manager Wilbert Robinson had already established a knack for getting the most out of pitchers whose best years were behind them. In 1916, Robinson's club won the pennant with 33-year-old Jack Coombs winning 13 games. In 1920, they turned the trick again when 33-year-old Rube Marquard chipped in 10 wins. Robinson continued the trend by giving Vance a turn to improve a team that had finished in fifth place the year before his arrival. He didn't improve the team, but he proved his best years were still to come.
In 1922, Vance went 18-12, led the National League with 134 strikeouts and tied for the league lead with five shutouts. The Robins slid in the standings, winning only 75 games to finish in sixth place. In 1923, Vance added another 18 wins, winning 10 straight at one point, and increased his league-leading strikeout total to 197. Again, the Robins finished sixth, winning only one more game than they had the previous year. Only four other National League pitchers, including teammate Burleigh Grimes, topped the 100-strikeout mark that year. By now Vance, having mastered his outstanding curveball, continued to throw his fastball past batters and relied on a high leg kick and tattered sleeves to deceive the hitters. In his first two years with Brooklyn, he finished second on the team in wins.
1924 would see him finish second to no one: He compiled a 28-6 record, winning 15 in a row in one stretch, posted a 2.16 ERA and struck out an impressive 262 batters, earning pitching's triple crown and the first MVP Award given by the National League. His 262 strikeouts were the most by an NL pitcher since Christy Mathewson fanned 267 in 1903 and would remain unsurpassed until Sandy Koufax struck out 269 in 1961. Teammate Burleigh Grimes struck out 135 batters, finishing second, 127 whiffs behind Vance. Vance accounted for 8 percent of all strikeouts in the league that year. No pitcher in history can claim such strikeout dominance. In fact, he was so dominant that he edged St. Louis second baseman Rogers Hornsby for the Most Valuable Player award, despite Hornsby's .424 batting average-a 20th century record. More important, Brooklyn jumped all the way to second place, only a game and a half behind the pennant-winning Giants.
After three stellar seasons in the big leagues, Vance held out for more money and finally signed a three-year deal worth $47,500 in mid-March of 1925.
He rewarded the Robins by pacing the NL with 22 victories, 221 strikeouts and four shutouts in 1925. He struck out a career-high 17 batters against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 20 and no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies on September 13. Again, only one other pitcher in the league could manage even 100 strikeouts-Cincinnati's Dolph Luque struck out 140-let alone 200.
1926 was a down year for the league's premier pitcher. He won only nine games, lost 10 and threw only 169 innings after posting 265 the year before. He still managed to lead the league in strikeouts with 140, despite throwing 102 fewer innings than the runner-up, Chicago's Charlie Root, who finished with 127 strikeouts.
Vance improved his record to 16-15 in 1927 while pitching for a team that had the most anemic offense in all of baseball. With more support, he would have undoubtedly won more games-a fact that would haunt him toward the end of his career as he struggled to reach 200 victories. His 25 complete games led the league, as did his 184 strikeouts. Vance again bested Root, who finished with 145.
1928 would prove to be Vance's last great all-around season and would usher in one last hurrah for his strikeout dominance. He went 22-10 with a league-leading 2.09 ERA, four shutouts and 200 strikeouts. For the third straight season a Cub finished second to Vance, when rookie Pat Malone fanned 155 batters for Chicago, while Root finished third with 122.
His run was coming to an end but Vance was earning the highest paycheck in baseball among pitchers, pocketing $20,000 in 1928 and $25,000 in 1929 when he won 14 games and struck out only 126 batters to finish third behind Malone and teammate Watty Clark. It would be the first time he hadn't won the strikeout crown in eight years.
He won his third ERA title in 1930, posting a 2.61 mark, which was an incredible 2.36 runs lower than the league average and more than a run lower than runner-up Carl Hubbell, who fashioned a 3.71 ERA for the New York Giants. He also led the league for the fourth time in shutouts with four. He missed his ninth strikeout title, however, by a mere four strikeouts, losing to the Cardinals' "Wild Bill" Hallahan 177 to 173.
Hallahan would beat him again in 1931, leading the league with 159 strikeouts to Vance's 150, good for third place in the National League. Unfortunately his other numbers would suffer. He won only 11 of 24 decisions and watched his ERA climb to 3.38.
1932 would prove to be Vance's last year with Brooklyn. He finished with a winning record at 12-11 but his ERA was over 4.00 (4.20) for the first time since his arrival in Brooklyn 10 years before and his 103 strikeouts didn't even register a blip on the radar screen. In February of 1933, Vance was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals with teammate Gordon Slade for infielder Jake Flowers and pitcher Ownie Carroll.
Vance left plenty of memories behind when he exited Brooklyn for St. Louis. The Dodgers of the 1920s had been dubbed the Daffiness Boys, owing to their misadventures on and off the field, and Vance was a founding member. He was president of an off-hour group of party animals known as the "Night Prowlers" and was instrumental in helping Babe Herman triple into a triple play (although he actually doubled into a double play). Vance, the lead runner, started from second base and ran more cautiously than expected, returning to third base after rounding the bag. Upon his retreat to third, he met two members of his team, including Herman, who had steamed into the bag with what should have been an easy triple. The other two runners were tagged out and Vance remained at third base, which was rightfully his.
Appropriately, the free-spirited Vance made his only World Series appearance with the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals in 1934, pitching alongside Dizzy and Daffy Dean. The 43-year-old threw an inning and a third of shutout ball for the Cardinals in Game 4-three of the four outs he recorded were strikeouts-to earn a World Series ring.
After brief stints with St. Louis and Cincinnati, Vance ended his career back in Brooklyn, where he won three more games to finish with a record of 197-140. He posted a 3.24 career ERA, struck out 2,045 batters in 2,967 innings and, amazingly, walked only 840 batters.
Vance retired to Florida to operate a hunting and fishing lodge in Homosassa Springs and manage his extensive real estate holdings. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955. He died of a heart attack on February 16, 1961, two weeks shy of his 70th birthday.