Back when Vernon Law was growing up in Meridian, Idaho during post-WWII America when the population was under 2,000, there were no coaches or trainers or private coaches or private trainers; but there were things to throw at. And that’s how he learned to throw strikes on the dairy. Without a trainer, he built his upper body and arm strength by dumping 10-gallon milk cans that weighed as much as 110 pounds each into a vat.
In modern sports, where specialization and money drive youth sports in the hopes for a scholarship or professional contract, Law came about his Major League Baseball career in a way that only could have occurred in the first half of the 20th century, when he first signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Tonight, he comes to Batavia to promote Mormon Night -- his faith and baseball always intertwined.
One day, a young Law was pitching with a 1-0 lead in the 9th inning of a tournament in Meridian.
“I come out to pitch, I throw a couple warm-up pitches and turn around and then I see the hitter I have to face is a midget,” Law describes in a warm, storytelling cadence. “He was only about three feet tall and I had a strike zone of maybe eight or 10 inches. My brother comes out and says ‘What are we gonna do?’ I says, ‘He’s out there for a base on balls. Just get behind home plate, get on your knees, put the glove right on the ground and by the time it crosses the plate, it should be a strike.’”
He threw three straight strikes to strike him out.
Law, who has stood by the principles of his Mormon faith his entire life and passionately asserts its importance in his career, says this might have been where some divine intervention stepped in. A lawyer in the stands watching the game turned out to be a very good friend of Bing Crosby. The performer had a big interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates (he was part-owner from 1946 until his death) and the lawyer told Crosby to send a scout to Meridian.
Crosby was a fan of Law’s pitching from the moment his saw Law for himself. Crosby would tell Law and his parents not to sign for a bonus over $5,000 because that would require Law to sit on the Major League bench, stuck on the roster due to the rules at the time.
As Law drew more attention for his ability to throw hard and throw strikes, there were more scouts around. The Pirates were the only ones who didn’t smoke cigars around the Law home – something Vern’s father did not tolerate – and sent his mother roses and chocolates – the latter of which was rarely found in the Law home.
He signed with them in 1948.
That’s when the relationship between Law and the Pirates began – one that covered the 1960 World Series Championship, a Cy Young award, MVP votes and 119 career complete games and lasted until Law pitched his final game in 1967.
Display of religion in sports remains contentious. From when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the NBA refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and was suspended for a game in 1996 to Tim Tebow, a quarterback whose Christian faith defines his persona, who appeared in a commercial for Focus on the Family, a pro-life organization, during Super Bowl XLIV – overt displays of religion, even from Christians, has lead to sparring.
Law was nicknamed “the Deacon” and it stuck when play-by-play broadcasters throughout his career used the moniker to refer to him. He says, though, that while teammates were aware of his Mormon religion, he never pushed it on anyone. The moral ideals helped keep him focused on baseball because he didn’t smoke, drink, or “chase girls.”
“I’ve had some of the toughest, roughest guys come up to me that can swear a blue streak and say, ‘Deacon, I wish I could be like you.’” Law said. “And I’d say, ‘Well, you can. The things going on in your life, I know they’re troublesome to you and you feel bad about it, but you can change that. You can change your life, you really can, and become a person that is open, that people love to be around.’”
“I concentrated on my family and baseball and the church which made a big different for me.”
Law comes to Batavia tonight to sign autographs meet and great with fans at the Muckdogs game at Dwyer Stadium and throw out the first pitch. But it’s also to show that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – a growing community in Batavia with a place of worship on North Street – is approachable.
“We want people to recognize that we love people, that we love the Savior. We have faith in each other,” he said. “Why am I here? I could be out playing golf, I could be having a good time, but I think the things that we do are trying to get people to enjoy the same kinds of blessings and opportunities that we have. There’s so many opportunities out there for us to open our hearts to other people, and (baseball) is one way of doing it – to share with them our knowledge especially about the church.”
(Here's video of Law pitching in the World Series.)
In 1960, Law was 30 years old. He was 19th in MVP voting after going 18-9 the year before to the tune of a 2.98 earned-run average with 110 strikeouts in 226 innings.
You can’t be a baseball fan and not know about the 1960 World Series – and the Mormon from Meridian, Idaho, who, as the story goes, struck out a person with dwarfism to attract the attention of a lawyer with special connections was a major part of it.
We know that Bill Mazeroski hit the game- and championship-winning home run in Game 7 in walk-off fashion, despite being outscored by 28 runs against the New York Yankees. We’ve seen Mazeroski’s triumphant leaps as he ran to home plate to make it official.
But the Pirates wouldn’t have gotten to that point without Vern Law.
In the regular season, Law pitched 18 complete games in 35 starts, going 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 271 2/3 innings that earned him the Cy Young award. He started three games in the World Series, when there was no wildcard and even no playoff – just the two teams with the best records.
The Yankees, who were coached by Casey Stengel and finished the year at 97-57, featured Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.
Law earned the win in Games 1 and 4.
In Game 7, he protested to his manager, Danny Murtaugh, who pulled him in the sixth inningafter a single to Bobby Richardson and a walk to Tony Kubek. The Pirates were leading 4-1.
“I wish to this day he was still alive so I could ask him why because I’m not going to give up six runs in the last three innings. I can get people out, by hook or crook, I’m gonna get them out, and I know I could get them out,” Law said.
Law though says the series was won when Stengel decided not to pitch Whitey Ford in three games.
“Anything can happen in a short series and in all honesty, I knew who the best team was. It was the Yankees,” Law said. “The players did not lose that series.”
Mantle and Berra would single and homer in that order to take the lead 5-4 before what some call the best home run in baseball history a few innings later…
Law’s career was winding down as he advanced into his 30s. He had multiple injuries to his rotator cuff – the worst injury a pitcher can have. While at a youth conference in Salt Lake City he received a blessing and everything changed.
“Really, when I got home and I picked up the baseball,” Law said, “I could tell something was different. It really was. As a result, I start throwing to my brother, my catcher, and I heard something snap in there, and I said, ‘Oh, that felt different,’ so I kept on throwing. It felt better and better until finally I could throw without pain. That recovery there determined whether I was going to continue my career or not.”
Law tells that story like he knows he sounds crazy and is trying to deflect doubters as soon as he opens his mouth to share it; but Law truly believes in miracles.
He pitched 274 2/3 innings combined in 1966-67, his age 36 and 37 seasons, finishing his career with a 3.77 era and a 162-147 record.
Now, Law is still focused on the church and wife of 63 years, VaNita.
His son, Vance, a former utility infielder for the Pirates, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos, was an All-Star in 1988. Vern’s grandson and Vance’s son, Adam, was drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers this year out of Brigham Young as a third baseman.
With baseball in the family, his Pirates days are never far behind. He still stands a sturdy 6-foot-2 and is excited to show off his arm for the ceremonial first pitch at Dwyer Stadium tonight.
Law says championship rings nowadays are too gaudy; he’d never be able to wear it in public. He much prefers his 1960 ring which he wears on his left pinky finger despite his name and the team’s name being worn off over the last 53 years.
It’s because of that ring and baseball that he’ll feel right at home in Batavia tonight.