“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
The 1940s witnessed a special group of major league shortstops, including the likes of Lou Boudreau, Phil Rizzuto, Marty Marion, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky. During his own career, Vern "Junior" Stephens was considered to be as good or better than any of his illustrious peers, yet within a few years after his retirement, he had been largely forgotten, remembered mostly as a plodding one-dimensional slugger. He was much more than that. Yes, he was a three time RBI champion, but he was also a fine fielding shortstop, an eight-time all star, and a very popular teammate on some of the era's most successful teams. History ought to remember him.
Vern entered American Legion baseball at age 13, and played shortstop on the 1936 Southern California champions. One teammate was Bob Lemon, later a star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, who remained a close friend for the rest of Vern's life. Stephens went to Long Beach Polytechnic High School, while Lemon was across town at
Wilson High School. Vern's high school teammates included future major leaguers Chuck Stevens and Bobby Sturgeon. Vern was a natural athlete-he also played basketball and swam-but he was quite small (5' 5" and 120 pounds) in high school. In his late teens, he grew to 5' 10", and ended up a powerful 185 pounds. Vern attributed his
upper body strength to his swimming.
The next year he dominated the Kitty League with Mayfield (Kentucky), leading the circuit with 123 RBI and a .361 batting average while hitting 30 home runs. After another RBI title with San Antonio of the Texas League in 1940, manager Marty McManus, a former big league shortstop himself, called Stephens the "best shortstop prospect I have ever seen." One more excellent minor league season, with Toledo of the American Association (14 home runs, .281), earned him a recall late in 1941 and a shot at a job with the Browns the following spring.
As a rookie Stephens batted .294 with 14 home runs and 92 RBI, as the Browns achieved their best record in 20 years. Stephens finished fourth in the 1942 MVP balloting, one slot behind fellow rookie shortstop Johnny Pesky of Boston. He led the league with 42 errors, but contemporary accounts make no mention of his defense being a
problem. He was only 21, and one of the bright young stars in baseball. A strong man with a powerful upper body, Stephens did not look like a shortstop. If he had less range than some of his slighter contemporaries, he could play deeper because of his great throwing arm. A right-handed hitter, he had a spread stance, slightly
open, and stood deep in the batter's box.
In 1946 all of the stars returned from the war, and many observers assumed that Stephens' star would dim. He missed 39 games with assorted injuries that made his power (14 homeruns and 64 RBI, both league highs for shortstops) seem to have slipped, but he hit a career high .307. In 1947, he had another pretty good year with the bat (15 homeruns, 83 RBI, and a .279 average). He turned 27 that October and was rightly considered one of the best players-offensively and defensively-in baseball.
The Browns, on the other hand, had fallen into dire straits. In 1947 ownership spent two million dollars to buy and renovate Sportsman's Park in St. Louis and to build a new facility for their San Antonio farm club. After drawing only 320,000 fans and finishing last, the Browns had to sell players to recover their huge losses. The demand for Stephens, their best player, was high. The Boston Red Sox had long coveted Stephens. They had missed signing him in 1938, and had been trying to trade for him every year since he reached the major leagues. Taking advantage of the Browns struggles, the Red Sox finally got their man, forking over eight players and $385,000 for Stephens, Ellis Kinder, Jack Kramer, and Billy Hitchcock. The deal, announced in two pieces on consecutive days in November 1947, was one of the largest transactions yet consummated.
The most interesting dilemma facing Sox manager Joe McCarthy in the spring of 1948 was which of his star shortstops he would move the third base. The prevalent thinking was that he would move Stephens, a powerfully built man who looked less like a shortstop than the slight Pesky. McCarthy did not announce his intentions until spring training in Sarasota, when he moved Pesky to the hot corner. In 1948, playing in a friendlier park for his skills and hitting behind several great table setters, Stephens hit 29 home runs and drove in 137 (second in the league to Joe DiMaggio). Though his batting average fell to a career low .269, he established a new high with 77 walks. He finished fourth in the balloting for MVP, behind Boudreau, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. After several weeks of experimentation, McCarthy eventually settled on Stephens to hit cleanup behind Williams, and that's where he would hit for the remainder of his years in Boston. The Red Sox improved from 83 to 96 wins, but lost a one-game playoff for the pennant to the Indians.
In 1949 Stephens slugged a career-high 39 home runs, a record for shortstops later broken by Ernie Banks, and drove in a 159 runs, a total not surpassed by in the major leagues for 50 years, when Cleveland's Manny Ramirez totaled 165 RBI in 1999. He also batted .290 and walked a career high 101 times. Despite great years from several other players, the Red Sox lost a great pennant race on the last day of the season to the Yankees. At about this point the baseball media began to turn its back on Stephens. The reasoning is not hard to discern: Stephens was putting up great statistics every year, but the Red Sox were still finishing second. He received one first place vote in the MVP balloting and finished seventh, surprisingly low considering his historic year. Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, for example, hit .275 with no power-he had 94 fewer RBI than Stephens-yet finished second to Williams in the voting.
In 1950 Stephens hit 30 home runs, led the league with 144 RBI and hit .290. Nevertheless, he finished 25th in the MVP balloting, behind six of his teammates. It is hard to fathom how a shortstop could lead the league in RBIs and be considered the seventh-best player on his own club. One of the knocks on Stephens was that he was a good hitter who was lucky to play in Fenway Park. While the ballpark helped his statistics, from 1948 through 1950 he averaged 15 home runs and 67 RBIs ... on the road. A shortstop who hits like that in half of his games, walks 80 times a year, plays good defense, gets along with his teammates and manager, and stays healthy-this was basically Stephens for ten years.
Following the 1950 season, the Red Sox acquired yet another shortstop, their 1948 nemesis, Lou Boudreau. New manager Steve O'Neill moved Stephens to third and divided the time at shortstop between Pesky and Boudreau. Unfortunately, Stephens aggravated his old knee injury and played only 91 games in the field. In only 377 at bats, he hit .300 with 17 home runs, and 78 RBI-production consistent with the previous three seasons. He declined fairly rapidly thereafter. Following another injury-laden year in Boston, he moved on to the White Sox, the Browns, and the Orioles for three mediocre seasons. After 1950, when he turned 30, he never again played more than 101 games or hit more than eight home runs. In mid-1955, he signed with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, where he played through the end of the 1956 season.
An annual all star and MVP candidate, Vern Stephens' star has faded over the years. In 1962, when he was first eligible for the Hall of Fame, he did not receive a single vote from the writers who had loved him in the 1940s. For ten years, Vern Stephens was one of the better players-offensively and defensively-in baseball. His record speaks for itself, and it speaks loudly.