Why Isn’t Vern Stephens in the Hall of Fame?
Signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Browns, Vern Stephens joined that lowly club in 1941 for a cup of coffee, and then became their full time shortstop the following year. The Browns’ fortunes took an immediate turn for the better, as they would finish over .500 for three of the next four years. Vern Stephens possessed an extremely strong arm and good hands to make up for his lack of range at short. At five-foot ten inches tall and weighing 185 pounds, Vern Stephens was large for a shortstop at that time. An old knee injury caused Vern Stephens to flunk his army physical so that he could not join the military in the midst of World War II. He slugged 36 homers and knocked in 183 runs his first two years with St. Louis and in 1944 helped lead them to their only AL pennant by hitting .293 and knocking in 109 runs to lead the circuit. However, Vern Stephens failed to knock in a run in a six game loss in the World Series to the cross-town Cardinals.
After three more very solid campaigns for the Browns, Vern Stephens was traded to the Red Sox prior to the 1948 season, along with pitcher Jack Kramer, for six players and the sum of $310,000, a big number back then. Kramer had by far the best year of his career in ’48 when he went 18-5, and Vern Stephens, a right-handed batter, was tickled pink to be playing half of his games in Fenway Park with the inviting left field wall. Vern Stephens responded with a 29 homer, 137 RBI season to help lead the Red Sox to the brink of the pennant. But Boston lost a one game playoff to the Indians to miss out on the World Series. Finishing fourth in the MVP voting behind Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau, his teammate Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio, Vern Stephens was about to have an even better year in 1949.
Manager Joe McCarthy, who had so much success with the Yankees and Cubs, had taken over the Sox in 1948 and had batted Vern Stephens cleanup behind the great Williams in order to give him protection in the order. He had also moved All-Star shortstop Johnny Pesky to third to allow Vern Stephens to play short. Pesky would later say about the move to third, “I always believed McCarthy did it because Stephens had such a great arm.” 1949 was Vern Stephens’s best offensive year, as he hit the 39 homers to go with a major league leading 159 runs batted in. It would be fifty years before anyone would surpass that total in baseball. But the Yankees and Rizzuto won the pennant over Boston by one game in the season’s last series between the two squads. Vern Stephens finished just seventh in the MVP voting, behind the winner, Ted Williams. Rizzuto finished second to Ted, with a .275 average and 65 RBI year!
Vern Stephens once again had a great season in 1950, when he tied with his teammate, Walt Dropo, for the RBI title with 144, clubbed 30 homers, and hit a solid .290. Yankees’ shortstop Rizzuto, whose team had beaten the Red Sox again for the AL flag, was named the MVP, despite Vern Stephens’s superior year. Rizzuto hit .324 with 66 runs batted in and 7 homers. To make the insult worse, Vern Stephens didn’t even finish in the top twenty in the balloting. Despite the fact that he led his own league in RBI, six other Boston players received more MVP votes than Vern Stephens did in 1950!
Vern Stephens suffered a sharp decline in his skills at the age of 30 when he re-injured the knee that had kept him out of the war. He played a few more years with the Browns, White Sox, and Orioles before retiring in 1955. Stack his numbers up against those of Boudreau and Rizzuto and you will see the injustice of Vern Stephens being left out of Cooperstown. Vern Stephens hit .286 over 15 years with 247 homers and 1,174 runs batted in. Boudreau played 15 years, hit .295 with 68 homers and 789 RBI. Rizzuto played 13 seasons, hitting .273 with 38 home runs and 563 RBI. Vern Stephens, an eight time All-Star, had the lowest fielding percentage of the three, but the difference is not enough to explain how he could not be in the Hall of Fame with them.
Vern Stephens succumbed to a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 48. Once, at one of the many All-Star games Ted Williams played in, he was kidding around with Yankees’ hurler Allie Reynolds. Williams asked Reynolds when he was going to finally give him some good pitches to hit, to which Reynolds replied, “Never, as long as Vern Stephens is hitting behind you.”