Vern Law

By Walter Meyer

November 24 , 2009

Vernon Law might be the only man in the history of major league baseball to be booted out of a game because of someone else’s bad language. He claims it was Nellie King, sitting next to him, who was hollering bad things that Law never would, but Law was pointing at the scoreboard and it looked like he was mocking the umpire.

According to Law, the ump came over to the dugout and said, “’That’s it Law, you’re out of here!’” Law said, “I was embarrassed to be out there any way with all the bad language. He accused me of impersonating an umpire. And I wish I would have thought faster and accused him of the same thing.”

Vern “The Deacon" Law is still fondly remembered in Pittsburgh and baseball circles for his fine conduct both on and off the field. He recorded a 3.77 ERA lifetime, with 1092 strikeouts, while going 162-147.

As good as he was on the mound, Law is most proud of winning the 1965 Lou Gehrig Award. Law said, “It’s given to the person who most exemplifies Lou Gehrig’s character both on and off the playing field. That’s what the award says. So that was a great honor.”

He is proud of winning Comeback Player of the Year, also in 1965, because it exemplifies his philosophy: “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.” Yes, he is credited with originating that old saw, although he himself isn’t sure if it started with him.

He returns to Pittsburgh as often as he can and still considers himself part of the Pirate family. He is already making plans to return in 2010 to the scene of the triumphant World Series victory for the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the most dramatic win in baseball history. And there are plans in the works for a fantasy camp in Florida, with the surviving World Champs.

The Yankees scored more than twice as many runs as did the Pirates in that 1960 series. These were the Yankees of Maris and Mantle and Berra, and had so much firepower that everyone was predicting a New York sweep. But Law pitched well enough for the Bucs to take Game One at Forbes Field.

“ElRoy Face came in and finished up that game, and he gave up some hits. Same way in New York. I had a 3-2 game going, and he came in and gave up some hits.” But the Pirates won that one too, allowing Law to go 2-0 in his World Series starts.

In Game Four, “I hit a double that scored one of the Pirate runs. I hit .333 in the World Series. I took pride in being able to bunt and hit and drive in some runs, and do my share as well. That’s the only time a pitcher really has any fun is when he has a bat in his hand. I think my career average was somewhere around .230 [actually, .216]. Now a guy hitting .230 is making somewhere around $2 to $3 million.”

Law left with a lead in the final game as well. “It was the same in that last game. I went 6 2/3 innings. Murtaugh took me out and brought in ElRoy Face, and ElRoy couldn’t get anybody out. So Hal Smith hits a three-run homer. They bring in [Bob] Friend. The first two guys that face Friend, they get on base. So they bring in Harvey Haddix, and by the time Harvey gets them out they’ve scored two runs to tie it up. And then in our half of the ninth inning, Maz hit the home run to win it.”

“The Deacon” was the last major leaguer to throw 18 innings in a game, and on only two days rest. The Pirates won that one back in 1955, with Bob Friend getting the decision. With a career-best 20-9 record and a league leading 18 complete games, Law won the National League Cy Young Award in 1960. He pitched 271 innings, walking but 40, with 120 strikeouts and a 3.08 ERA. But “for me, the Cy Young Award was kind of a team award, because if you don’t get support, you’re not going to win.”

Law coached for the Pirates in 1967 and ’68, then moved back to his hometown of Meridian, Idaho, and tried to give up baseball. But he couldn’t stay away from the field. “I took a job at Brigham Young University and coached there for ten years.” Then came a two-year stint coaching in Japan, and five years in Denver, with the minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

After coaching in the minors, Law returned to Utah once more, this time as a coach of the Provo High School team. He stayed active, pitching batting practice until his knees gave out during the 2008 season, retiring at the age of 78. He knows he is a prime candidate for a knee replacement, but still manages to play plenty of golf. “I’m still participating in some of the golf tournaments, but I ride the cart. I play almost every day, nine holes, and I will walk that. I try to keep the knee working, but it just won’t take a lot of stress on it anymore.” He’d like to go back to coaching if he gets his knee fixed. “We’ll have to wait and see how active I can be with it.

“I’ve got a lot of friends in Pittsburgh still, and a lot of memories there, whether it’s for a golf tournament or some other activity. Whenever I’m invited to come back, I’m there. I know [Kent] Tekulve quite well, and some of the other people who are still working there. If I ever need anything, I know who to call. I still enjoy my relationship with the guys when we are able to get together.”

He spends time with the BYU team, where son, and former Pirate player, Vance, is the head coach. And Vern does some work for the Mormon Church. His old nickname isn’t quite accurate; he’s not really a deacon. “But nobody in Pittsburgh back then really knew what an ‘elder’ was.” Law says Wally Westlake pinned that on him, and he didn’t mind that it stuck. “Right now I’m a high priest in our faith. So I have a lot of responsibility; lot of administrative work that the priesthood does.”

He and his wife, VaNita, have six children, all with names that begin with the letter "V" (Vance, VaLynda, Varlin, Vaughn, Veldon and Veryl), and at last count, 31 grandchildren. Part of the reason he wanted to return to Provo was to be able to enjoy the grandkids.

His greatest thrill? Of course, “The World Series. Every baseball player that ever put on a uniform; that is the one thing that you wish for and pray for and that’s to play in the World Series, and especially to win a World Series. I don’t care who got the credit. Whoever got the winning hit or whoever pitched the winning out, whatever. We all wanted to win. We were supposed to get beat four straight, and we clawed and scratched and did everything we could. We won all the close games and of course, when they beat us, they hammered us. It’s something to say ‘we were the World Series champs.’ That is the ultimate as far as being a baseball player."

Walter Meyer is a freelance writer originally from Pittsburgh, but currently living in Padre territory. He has been writing about baseball since he covered his high school team for his local paper while he was a member of that team. He has written about college baseball for San Diego Magazine, and his novel, Rounding Third, set on a high school baseball team, is being released in September 2009.


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