How Did an Injury at a Poker Game at the Age of 29 START a Hall of Famer’s MLB Career?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.

BASEBALL LEGEND: A bizarre mix of circumstances (including an injury at a poker game) allowed Dazzy Vance to resurrect his (at the time failed) career at the age of 31 for the Dodgers.

STATUS: True

Charles “Dazzy” Vance probably does not have the ODDEST career in Major League history, but it sure is up there.

Vance pitched for 16 seasons in the big leagues, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.

That’s not particularly odd, but what IS odd is WHEN his career started and HOW it started.

You see, Vance had his first productive year in the big leagues at the age of 31!

Vance had bummed around the professional leagues for years while in his 20s.

He made the majors in 1915 at the age of 24, pitching so terribly for the Pittsburgh Pirates that they quickly let him go to the new owners of the New York Yankees.

It was not that Vance was not a good pitcher – he definitely had some good stuff, he just had major problems with arm soreness. And it affected him greatly, as he was bad for the Yankees, as well, and was sent to a Yankee affiliated team somewhere in the minor leagues (the minor leagues were not the organized structure that they are today, so by “minor leagues,” I just mean a league that was not the American or the National).

They called him back up in 1918, and he proceeded to stink once again (2 games pitched, 15.43 Earned Run Average), and at the age of 27, it seemed like his career in the majors was over.

He settled in to working for the various minor leagues, eventually settling in the Southern Association, where he mostly played for the New Orleans Pelicans.

While there, in 1920, at the age of 29, he had a decent season, but nothing too impressive. Again, though, his arm problems were the key – his sore arm robbed him of any dynamism he might have.

But then his saving grace came – in the unlikeliest of places. While playing poker, Vance banged his elbow on the table, and suddenly his sore arm was now very much not “sore,” but rather actively shooting pain into his arm. He was in agony.

His friends brought him to a surgeon, who performed surgery on the elbow (no one knows what exactly) and when it healed, suddenly not only was the SHARP pain gone, but so was the chronic soreness (no one knows exactly what the surgeon did, but it sure sounds like he removed either bone chips or bone spurs, doesn’t it?).

Suddenly, Vance was a new man.

The next season, 1921, at the age of 30, he had a strong year for the Pelicans.

However, as you might imagine, Major League teams were not exactly lining up to take a shot at a guy who failed in two separate stints in the big leagues and suddenly had a good year in the minors at 30.

Luckily for Vance, things were still looking up for him!

The Brooklyn Dodgers were looking for a catcher, and the Pelicans had a good one in Hank DeBerry.

When the Dodgers offered to purchase DeBerry from the Pelicans, the Pelicans responded that they could have DeBerry, but only if they also took Vance along with him, a package deal for $10,000 together.

The Dodgers would have been fine spending close to that for DeBerry alone, so they took the deal and Vance was allowed to try out for the Dodgers in the spring of 1922, at the age of 31.

And, surprise surprise, he was really, really good!

In his first year with the club, Vance won 18 games and led the league in strikeouts!

In his third year, 1924, Vance won the “Triple Crown” of pitching, leading the league in wins (28), Earned Run Average (2.16) and strikeouts (262) on the way to winning the Most Valuable Player award (he would come in 5th in the voting in 1925 and 11th in 1928).

He would go on to pitch until he was 44, making stops in Cincinnati and St. Louis (where he was part of the 1934 World Series-winning Cardinals) before retiring in 1935, about 17 years after everyone though that he was “washed up!”

Instead of being washed up, he ended up being perhaps the best Dodgers pitcher before Sandy Koufax!!

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Glenn Stout’s great Dodgers resource, The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball, was valuable for this entry! Thanks, Glenn!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

2 Responses to “How Did an Injury at a Poker Game at the Age of 29 START a Hall of Famer’s MLB Career?”

  1. Good thing you added that “perhaps,” because Don Newcombe and possibly even Burleigh Grimes would like to have a word with you about calling Vance the best Dodgers pitcher before Koufax! 🙂

  2. Vance is actually the Dodgers career WAR leader among pitchers, even edging out Koufax (although, of course, Koufax did his in way less years). Of the top four single season performances by Dodger pitchers by WAR, Koufax has two of them and Vance has the other two. Vance was crazy good.

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