By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
He may have been the most important hitting coach in Montreal Expos history.
Yet, even some of the most diehard Expos fans probably won’t remember Mickey Vernon’s tenure as the club’s batting instructor.
When the two-time American League batting champion took over as the team’s hitting coach under manager Dick Williams in 1977, the Expos were a mess. The team had finished 55-107 in 1976 and their offence was last in the National League in almost every meaningful category, including batting average (.235), on-base percentage (.291), on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) (.631), runs (531) and hits (1,275).
On top of this, the then 59-year-old Vernon was brought in at a crucial juncture in the franchise’s history – a time when many of their top young prospects – like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie and Larry Parrish – were just becoming big league regulars.
So how did Vernon do?
Well, under his guidance in 1977, the team’s batting average increased by 25 points, their slugging percentage by 62 points and the Expos scored 134 more runs than the previous campaign.
In Vernon’s first season with the Expos, Carter and Valentine enjoyed breakout campaigns. Carter hit .284 and belted 31 home runs in 154 games, while Valentine batted .293 with 25 round-trippers and was selected to the All-Star Game. Dawson hit .282 with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 132 contests and won the National League Rookie of the Year award and Cromartie, then just 23, hit .282 and collected 175 hits in his first full season.
Vernon also helped the team’s veterans. Second baseman Dave Cash set a then team record with 188 hits and newly acquired Tony Perez, who had batted only .260 with the Cincinnati Reds in 1976, rebounded to bat .283 with 91 RBIs with the Expos.
So the answer is Vernon did very well as the club’s hitting instructor.
But despite all of this, his name rarely comes up in Expos lore. I’m sure much of this has to do with the fact that his stay in Montreal lasted just two seasons and that for many longtime baseball fans and historians, Vernon is best remembered as a steady first baseman with the Washington Senators who won two batting titles and registered 2,495 major league hits in a playing career that spanned from 1939 to 1960.
Born in Marcus Hook, Pa., in 1918, Vernon honed his skills in the local Little League ranks and in American Legion ball. He was crazy about baseball and he worked diligently on his left-handed stroke and he was impressive enough as a teenager to convince Villanova University to offer him a baseball scholarship.
At Villanova, he started to attract the interest of scouts and the St. Louis Browns signed him in the spring of 1937. He was assigned to their class-D affiliate in Easton, Md., and batted .287 with 10 home runs in 83 games, but the Browns let him go after the season and he was signed by the Senators.
After parts of two seasons in the minors, he made his major league debut on July 8, 1939 and proceeded to bat .257 in 76 games with the Senators before returning to the minors for much of 1940.
The following year was his breakout big league campaign. In 1941, while Ted Williams was batting .406 and Joe DiMaggio was hitting in 56 consecutive games, Vernon batted .299 with nine home runs, 11 triples and 93 RBIs in 138 games. But his production would drop off the next two seasons before he joined the Navy during the Second World War.
When he returned from his military service, he won his first batting title, hitting .353 in 1946. His batting average fell to .265 and .242 in the next two seasons, prompting his trade to Cleveland where he rediscovered his hitting stroke, batting .291 with 18 home runs in 130 games prior to being dealt back to the Senators in 1950.
In his second stretch with the Senators, Vernon hit .337 and secured his second batting title in 1953 and was an all-star for the next two seasons before he was swapped to the Boston Red Sox. He spent two seasons in Beantown before completing his playing career with single campaigns with the Indians, Milwaukee Braves and as a player/coach with the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960.
In all, in 20 major league seasons, he batted .286 with 2,495 hits, including 172 home runs and 490 doubles. The seven-time all-star remained on the writers’ Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years, but never garnered higher than 24.9% support.
After serving as a player/coach with the Pirates in 1960, Vernon was hired to manage the expansion Washington Senators in 1961. He guided them through two 100-loss seasons before being fired in May 1963.
In 1965, he resurfaced as the batting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and then he served as a highly respected minor league manager for several years, including a three-season tenure with the Pacific Coast League’s Vancouver Mounties from 1966 to 1968.
He returned to the big leagues as a batting coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1975, but was a roving minor league instructor the ensuing year when Williams and the Expos came calling.
Vernon was brought in by the Expos in 1977 to replace his friend Larry Doby. And the improved offence under Vernon helped the Expos win 20 more games in 1977 than they did in 1976.
Vernon’s efforts as hitting coach won praise from players like Dawson and Larry Parrish.
“Mickey noticed something I’d been doing wrong last year,” Parrish told the Montreal Gazette for its April 1, 1977 edition. “I was wrapping the bat around my head. It meant that I was taking a very long swing. We’ve shortened the swing and widened the stance. It will help me, particularly against breaking balls.”
Parrish’s batting average improved by 14 points in 1977.
Veteran first baseman/outfielder Del Unser also benefited from working with Vernon. He had batted just .228 in 146 games with the New York Mets and Expos in 1976. But with Vernon’s help, his batting average rose to .273 in 1977.
“Mickey suggested that I tighten my stride. He said that I had quick enough hands,” Unser told the Montreal Gazette for their May 6th edition after he had doubled and singled the previous night. “I tried it today and it worked . . . I was seeing the ball better.”
Given how much the team improved offensively in 1977, it was not surprising that Vernon’s contract was renewed for 1978. Unfortunately, that season didn’t go as well as expected. The Expos had improved by 20 wins in 1977 and there was optimism that the club was finally ready to contend. But that wouldn’t be the case. The club finished with just 76 wins in 1978 – one more than their previous season.
Under Vernon, the team’s offence took a step back. The Expos’ batting average dropped to .254, they scored 32 less runs, drew the fewest walks in the National League and had the second-most strikeouts. And at the end of the season, the Expos gave the New York Yankees permission to speak to Vernon about a job as a hitting instructor in their organization and the then 60-year-old baseball lifer accepted it.
“I have an opportunity to better myself,” Vernon told the Montreal Gazette of his decision to leave the Expos. “I will report to the Yankees’ Instructional League next month. They will tell me where I am to be assigned.”
In the same interview, Vernon confessed that it was getting tougher to communicate with the younger Expos players, but that wasn’t the reason he was leaving.
“The Yankees offered me a good deal,” Vernon said. “The Expos have said nothing to me.”
So Vernon moved on to coach in the Yankees’ minor league ranks and he was promoted to be the club’s big league hitting coach for one season in 1982. He continued with the Yankees as a scout until he retired in 1988 at the age of 70.
In his later years, he settled in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he lived with his wife, Lib, until he passed away from a stroke at the age of 90 on September 24, 2008.