Joseph Floyd Vaughan was born in Clifty, Arkansas on March 9, 1912, and only lived there for a year, but that was enough for his teammates to nickname him “Arky” when he arrived in the big leagues with the Pirates in 1932. Had he played anywhere but Pittsburgh, Vaughan may have been written into history as one of baseball’s all-time greats. However, for his first 10 big league seasons, Vaughan patrolled the same tract of Forbes Field once covered by Honus Wagner, and Wagner left Vaughan some tremendously large shoes to fill.
Vaughan led the league in errors while playing at shortstop his first two seasons, but playing around future Hall of Famers Pie Traynor, Paul Waner and Lloyd Waner, Vaughan was within 5 games of the World Series in both 1932 and 1933, finishing behind the Cubs in 1932 and the Giants the following year. Vaughan hit .318, but had an even more impressive .375 OBP in 129 games during his rookie campaign, and with increased playing time in 1933 his numbers improved again, as in 152 games Arky was among the top five in OBP (.388), slugging (.478), OPS (.866), triples (19), RBI (97) and walks (64).
While Vaughan’s first two seasons put him on the map, his next three seasons made his mark on baseball’s landscape permanent. Over that three year stretch, between Vaughan’s 22nd and 25th birthdays, he averaged 115 runs on 189 hits, 103 walks and 35 doubles, with 90 RBI. His OBP for each season was over .430, and he slugged over .500 in 1934 and 1935, the only two times he did that in his career. In that three year stretch he led the league in OBP and walks each year, and finished in the top five in batting average three times, OPS twice, runs twice, and slugging, doubles, triples and HBP once each.
However, these great seasons from Vaughan coincided with the decline of the Pirates in the standings. The Pirates replaced manager George Gibson with Pie Traynor 51 games into the season in 1934, but under new leadership, the Pirates finished 2 games under .500 and in 5th place, 19½ games out of first. The team rebounded to finish above .500 in 1935 and 1936, but still finished in 4th place both seasons.
Vaughan was an All-Star for the first time in 1934, and played in nine consecutive All-Star games from that point on, starting in six of them, including 1937 and 1942, where he started at third base. He played five more years for the Pirates, and remained perennially solid, with OBP’s over .390 in all but one season and statistics good enough to earn All-Star consideration year after year. In 1938 he finished in the top three in the MVP voting for the second time in his career, as the Pirates finished just 2 games behind the Cubs in the National League. Vaughan never hit for much power in his career, hitting just 96 home runs in his career and only breaking double digits in homers twice in his career, but one of his crowning moments was a power explosion: in the 1941 All-Star Game Vaughan became the first All-Star ever to hit two home runs in a game. Then, after the 1941 season, the Pirates traded Vaughan, a future Hall of Famer, for these four players:
Pete Coscarart: A 29 year old infielder who would go on to play 4 full seasons as a Pirate but only hit better than .242 once.
Luke (Hot Potato) Hamlin: a 37 year old pitcher who had won 20 games three seasons earlier, in his only season above .500. Hamlin pitched just one year for the Pirates, going 4-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 112 innings, and only played one more big league season.
Babe (Blimp) Phelps: A veteran backup catcher who played one solid season splitting time with future Hall of Famer Al Lopez.
Jimmy Wasdell: The Pirates were the third team of Wasdell’s young six-year career, and his stay was brief. He never got a chance to be a full time player until the Pirates sold him to the Philadelphia Blue Jays four games into the 1943 season.
While the players the Pirates received in return didn’t make much of an impact in Pittsburgh, though, Vaughan also got off to a slow start in Brooklyn. Not counting the All-Star game, Vaughan had only played away from shortstop 17 times in his career, but the Dodgers had a 23 year old future Hall of Fame shortstop of their own, Pee Wee Reese. So Vaughan spent the 1942 season at third base, and struggled offensively on a team that won 104 games but finished 2 games back of the Cardinals, who won the World Series. Vaughan was an All-Star for the last time in 1942, but his offensive numbers don’t look like All-Star material, as his OBP dipped to .348, his slugging was just .341, and he only collected 49 RBI, the second lowest full-season total of his career. Vaughan was still only 30 years old, however, and too young for time to be taking its toll, and in 1943 the Dodgers were forced to rely on him even more, as Pee Wee Reese left for World War II. Arky responded by improving his OBP back up to .370, hitting 39 doubles (third best total of his career) and scoring 112 runs. However, it would prove to be his last full season in the major leagues.
Vaughan was involved in a dispute with Dodgers manager Leo Durocher during the 1943 season, and while he did finish out the season, he remained on his ranch in California for the start of the 1944 season, supporting the war by farming and avoiding Durocher. Vaughan remained at home for the next three seasons, coming back in 1947 when Durocher was gone and serving as a pinch hitter and backup outfielder for two seasons.
This prolonged absence makes Vaughan’s career numbers difficult to judge. Had he simply had three seasons equal to his career average from 1944-1946, his career hit total rises from 2103 to 2664, and if he had played those three seasons, he probably would not have had nearly as much rust to shake off in 1947, and maybe could have added more to that total. However, that question will never be answered. Vaughan retired after the 1948 season, and drowned in 1952 when his fishing boat capsized.
Vaughan’s lasting legacy comes mainly from his 1935 season, where he set several records which have yet to be as much as approached. First, Vaughan’s .385 batting average was the highest by a shortstop since 1896 (Hughie Jennings hit .401 in 1896 for Baltimore). His .491 OBP that same year is also the highest ever by a shortstop. Furthermore, his career .406 OBP is better than Luke Appling (.399), Honus Wagner (.391), Alex Rodriguez (.382), or any other shortstop in baseball history.
Bill James rates Arky Vaughan as the second best shortstop in baseball history in his The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In the explanation, he says, “The selection of Vaughan as the number two shortstop in baseball history was as much a surprise to me as it is to you.” It’s also worth noting that the selection was made in 2000, and most of Alex Rodriguez’s recent work is not noted. A-Rod is ranked 17th, but would probably challenge Vaughan for the #2 spot now, if he doesn’t challenge Honus Wagner for the top spot. As mentioned earlier, however, Vaughan would probably draw more historical notice if he hadn’t played defense on the same dirt as Honus Wagner.