Wednesday, January 28, 2015

188. Dazzy Vance: Dazzy's Last Dance

This is the third of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

One of the greatest attraction for Bushwicks fans was the revolving door of former big league stars who suited up at Dexter Park. George Earnshaw, Waite Hoyt, Jeff Tesareau and Dazzy Vance were among the aging marquee names that played a last season or two with the semi-pros. 

Dazzy Vance was by far the Bushwick fan's favorite. For more than a dozen years Vance had toiled for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although he'd won the MVP Award in 1924, led the National League in strike outs seven consecutive times and wins twice, Vance never seemed to get the adulation he deserved, solely because he played for a lousy ball club. Still, the cowboy from Iowa kept a cheery attitude and went out there every time determined to win. By the time he was released by the Dodgers in August of 1935, Vance had won just three game shy of 200 games all for a team that very rarely finished over .500. It was this determination in the face of overwhelming odds endeared him to the blue collar Brooklyn fans. Vance was a well-traveled 44 years of age when the Dodgers handed him his walking papers. Over the hill as he might be, Vance still felt he had life left in his arm and someone, somewhere would want him on their side. He didn't have to look far. 

Max Rosner quickly put together a lucrative package to lure the pitcher to Woodhaven: $4,000 for 2 months work. This was a tidy sum back in 1935 and when adjusted for inflation would be about $69,000 today. For Rosner, the four grand was pretty much a guarantee that the Bushwicks would pull in sold out crowds for the rest of the season. 

While today it might seem sad to see a former star playing for a semi-pro team, Vance for one didn't think so. He was going from the worst team in the National League to a team that not only drew more fans than the Dodgers but also could probably beat his old team in a short best of seven series. Another factor was Vance would get to pitch at least for a little while longer before a crowd that totally idolized him. What aging ballplayer wouldn't want to hear that roar a few more times before slipping away into the history books?

There was one last reason Vance was eager to take the Bushwicks offer, something he couldn't get with any major or minor league team. The pitcher told reporters "I'm having my first fling, too, at pitching against Negro teams".

Dazzy Vance's debut for the Bushwicks was on August 30th. Before a huge crowd Vance threw 2 hitless innings against the semi-pro Springfield Greys, striking out three. Two days later he faced his first Negro League opponent, the Nashville Elite Giants of the Negro National League, the big leagues of blackball. Although the pitcher was sick earlier in the day, once he saw the 15,000 who packed into Dexter Park to see him, he suited up. The old hurler was terrific, scattering three hits through seven innings and striking out five.

And so it went. On September 8 the bearded House of David came to Dexter Park. Pitching for the House was an even older ex-big leaguer than Vance - Grover Cleveland Alexander. Alex was barely holding himself together at this point in his career, his 49 year-old body ravaged by alcohol abuse and years of neglect. Still, 20,000 fans watched as the two dinosaurs faced off one last time. Alex lasted barely two innings, but Vance put on quite a show, six shutout innings and striking out eleven of the beards that day. 

A week later he faced another Negro National League team, the Philadelphia Stars, going six innings and leaving the game down 4-3. Seven Stars were strike out victims. Five days later he lasted three innings against the Elmhurst Grays, a local white semi-pro team. On the 29th Vance pitched against the New York Cubans, striking out nine in six innings of work. If Vance truly wanted to test his mettle against the best Negro League clubs, the Elites, Stars and Cubans were among the best around, and for an aging 44 year-old, he did pretty good. 

The crowds that turned out to watch Vance's swan song certainly made Max Rosner's $4,000 investment worth while. It was now midway through October and the weather was getting cold and wet. Baseball season would soon be over, but there was still one big game left. On October 13th the rival Brooklyn Bay Parkways came to play, this time with the great Babe Ruth on their team. 

15,000 fans braved football weather to see the two oldsters face off. Vance was in top form, holding the 40 year-old Ruth hitless his first two at bats. When The Babe came to the plate the third time, the fans razzed the big man, all of which he took in stride. "Hell" he yelled to the crowd "I'm tryin' to get a hit!" Vance turned around and waved his outfielders in, the ultimate in baseball showmanship, a direct challenge to The Babe. Vance fired one straight down the middle for strike one. No one ever knew what the next pitch was because Ruth knocked it over the right field wall for a home run. Smiling broadly, The Babe circled the bases as the crowd went insane.

Dazzy Vance and The Babe faced off one last time a week later. Ruth went 1 for 3 and Vance, playing his last game, pitched five innings before calling it a career. The ancient pitcher retired to Florida, leading an active life and frequent guest at Brooklyn Dodgers reunions up until his death in 1961.

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