Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Arky Vaughan

After Arky Vaughan died in a freak fishing accident in the summer of 1952 he was rightfully remembered as an All-Star infielder and batting champion for the Pirates and Dodgers. As the years passed his career was lauded as worthy of the Hall of Fame, and he was eventually enshrined there.  Missing from that narrative was Vaughan's role in the 1949 San Francisco Seals tour of Japan.

Arky (real name Joseph Floyd) never even made it to Japan, even if his fame preceded him.

After three years off from baseball, he had come back to the Dodgers in 1947, where he would get to play in the only World Series of his career.  Despite a resurgent spring that left him with a .325 average at the end of '47, he spent a less than stellar two year stint with Brooklyn.  At the close of the 1948 season, he was seemingly at the point of ending a stellar career.  Thought a star in his day, modern metrics reveal a career even more valuable than most contemporaries considered.  He never won an MVP, but was a consistent leader in  OPS and, as measured today, WAR, finishing his career with 72.9 according to Baseball Reference.

At the start of 1949 Vaughan decided to play one more season in the sun, but this time closer to home.  He signed on with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and would eventually play in 97 games, roughly half of the teams games that season.  Though he hit .288 with 6 triples, he was already set to hang up his spikes by July, telling reporters "when this season is over I'm going back to my home in Uklah (120 miles north of San Francisco) and buying another cattle ranch."  He sat out almost the entire month of August before hanging it up officially on September 3, citing a gall bladder issue.  He would be comfortably resting in Northern California when the Seals were welcomed by thousands of fans in a parade through Tokyo on October 12.

The Seals won 10 games and lost 1 during their trip through Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.  They faced an All-Star team composed of the stars of Japan in 1949, including Makoto Kozuru, Kaoru Betto, Tetsuharu Kawakami and Noboru Aota, as well as the Yomiuri Giants and Army/Navy/Air Force squads. Almost every game sold out, with some games drawing nearly 60,000 fans who waited in overnight lines to obtain tickets.

Several sets of menko cards were produced in the time leading up to and during the Seals tour of Japan, including the set cataloged as JCM 50, which features the card pictured above of Vaughan.  This was not the only set featuring Vaughan, though most known sets included only the players who played in Japan, such as Al Lein, Con Dempsey and Dino Rostelli, as well as Lefty O'Doul.

If he had made the trip, he would have been the most famous player, and, next to O'Doul, the most well known American baseball figure to have visited Japan since the 1934 tour featuring the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx and company.  So it makes sense that, even with his absence, his likeness would make the trip.

More on the '49 tour to come, as well as part 2 of the history of the Two League system.

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