Shortstop Arky Vaughan is a Hall-of-Fame baseball player yet remains one of the least remembered and under-appreciated players in the history of the game. Described by New York Times columnist Red Smith as “baseball's most superbly forgotten man,” his relative absence from the collective baseball memory can be attributed to a number of things, including his untimely death at the age of 40 in a extinct volcano crater lake.
Born in Clifty, Arkansas in 1912, Floyd Ellis Vaughan (He later changed his name to Joseph Floyd after converting to Catholicism) was raised in California and grew up to be a tremendously talented athlete. Among his schoolmates was one Richard Milhous Nixon. Although Vaughan only briefly lived in the Razorback State, his nickname stuck throughout his life.
After a stand-out prep career at Fullerton High School and for organized community leagues, the shortstop was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winter of 1931 after his neighbor passed along information about the talented youngster to a scout.
The left-handed hitting Vaughan played his first professional season in 1931 with the Wichita Aviators, hitting .338 with 21 home runs. That was more than enough to earn him a ticket to play for the Pirates the following year. Still raw in different areas of the game, especially in the field, he was put under the tutelage of former Pittsburgh shortstop great Honus Wagner, who worked almost exclusively with him—with outstanding results.
During a 14-year career with the Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1932-1948), Vaughan hit a combined .318 with 96 home runs and 2,103 base hits. He was also a terrific defender, and his 72.9 career WAR is 83rd best of all time. He was out of baseball from 1944 through 1946 because of a decision to retire early but came back for his two final seasons.
His other achievements include:
He hit at least .300 in all 10 of his seasons with the Pirates.
He walked 937 times during his career while striking out on just 276 occasions.
In 1941, he became the first player to hit two home runs in an All Star game when he took Sid Hudson and Eddie Smith deep.
He made nine All-Star teams.
His 136 career OPS+ is better than many baseball greats, including George Brett (135), Joe Morgan (132), Roberto Clemente (130) and Carl Yastrzemski (130).
Despite his quiet demeanor, he joined many of his teammates in portraying themselves in the 1943 Red Skelton film, Whistling in Brooklyn.
His three year “retirement” came at the end of the 1943 season with the Dodgers after standing up to manager Leo Durocher for berating teammate Bobo Newsome.
Although there were undoubtedly other reasons why he decided to stay home, the confrontation was certainly an aberration from his day-to-day persona. Perhaps it was for the best that he decided to return in 1947, which was the year Durocher was suspended for his association with gamblers.
Vaughan’s re-entry to baseball had a positive impact on at least one person. Years later, Jackie Robinson would tell a New York Times reporter "He was one fellow who went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a rookie. I needed it." The man who broke baseball’s color barrier faced many challenges that first season, so it was important to have the support of such a respected veteran.
After he retired, Vaughan never received more than 29 percent of the votes from the writer’s Hall of Fame ballots and ultimately had to wait until 1985 when he was finally enshrined via the Veteran’s Committee, thus confirming his relative anonymity in the modern day. That point was truly driven home when the Hall released commemorative envelopes to celebrate his impending induction with his last name spelled “Vaughn.” Even when he was being appreciated he was under-appreciated.
Sadly, he never lived to see his induction or how his baseball legacy was shaped following his playing days. In 1952, just four years after his final major league season, he was dead from a strange accident at the age of 40.
After leaving baseball, he returned to California to live with his wife and four children on their sheep ranch in Eagleville. He was also an avid fisherman, and on August 30, 1952 he and his friend, Bill, took a boat out on nearby Lost Lake. It wasn’t your standard lake, as the water actually sat in the crater of a long-extinct volcano.
In the midst of their fishing, the boat capsized. The two men struggled to make it to shore. Just moments from hitting land they both succumbed in 20-foot deep water.
Initially, there were conflicting reports that the accident had been caused by a sudden storm or Vaughan had gotten entangled in fishing gear. However, a full account of the actual events was reported by Bill McCurdie in a January 13, 1986 issue of the Los Angeles Times:
On Aug. 30, 1952, Bill Wimer, Arky's friend and neighbor, visited the Vaughan ranch to talk Arky into going fishing. Arky declined, saying he had too much work to do that day, but Wimer convinced him to change his mind, saying the work would be there when he returned.
Arky asked his wife, Margaret, who had grown to love the outdoors nearly as much as her husband, if she wanted to join them, but she declined. Had she gone, one relative said, they would have fished from the shore of the lake instead of going out in the boat…
When Arky and his companion found a place where the trout were biting, Wimer, a logger and a hulking man of more than 200 pounds, stood in the boat to cast. Verne Wheeler, an elderly man who witnessed the incident from the shore of Lost Lake, told authorities of how the boat overturned, sending both men into the chilly water.
Arky was a good swimmer but Wimer apparently was not. Both men headed toward the shore but Wimer began to struggle long before he got there. Once he realized his plight, Wimer began to panic. Arky tried to help his companion, but, outweighed by more than 50 pounds, was unsuccessful. About 25 feet from shore, both men went under and never resurfaced. Their bodies were recovered the next day.
The Fullerton Daily News Tribune, Vaughan’s hometown newspaper, eulogized their quiet hero with an observation that he would likely see his record fade more quickly than most of his peers. “He lacked only one thing—a colorful personality. Those who knew him best believe he would have been one of the game's greatest heroes had he been endowed with the sparkling personality that made lesser players great.”
His younger brother Bob remembered him similarly in later years. “It's like I said when Arky was inducted to the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame (in 1982), if Arky would have been there, he would have said, 'Thank You.' And that would have been it. But he'd have meant it."
In 1999, Pittsburgh Pirates fans were polled on their opinion of the greatest shortstop in team history. Of the more than 14,000 votes cast, Wagner was the justifiably clear-cut winner with over 11,000 tallies. Dick Groat and Jay Bell trailed with just under 1,000 votes a piece. Sadly, Vaughan barely registered on the ballot with 264 votes, affirming his status as baseball’s forgotten star.
Arky Vaughan was a baseball gem whose accomplishments have sadly faded like old photographs. He may have had a quiet demeanor and met an early end but none of that should detract from what he did on the field. Hopefully, his legacy will experience a comeback, much like the final years of his playing career, and he will be forever remembered in the way he should have been from the start.
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