Thursday, March 8, 2007

100 Greatest Red Sox >> #41 Vern Stephens

Vern Stephens, #5, SS (1948-1952)

660 G, 721 H, 449 R, 122 HR, 562 RBI, .283 Avg, .363 OBP, .492 SLG, All-Star (1948-1951)

Vern Stephens was a capable shortstop, but it was his bat that made him a star and almost a Hall of Famer. If it weren’t for the knee injuries that reduced him to a part time player by the time he was 31 and forced him out of baseball entirely by the age of 35 he’d have his plaque in Cooperstown. Some will argue that he belongs anyways, citing his superior numbers to Phil Rizutto and Lou Beadreau, two shortstops of Stephens’s era that made it into the Hall.

Stephens stormed through the minor leagues and broke into the majors with the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles), a perennial basement dweller and laughing stock of the league. With Stephens leading the team they won their only pennant in Browns history. He played with them for six years and managed to turn a laughingstock into a semi-respectable team.

After the 1947 season the Browns were strapped for cash and even with Stephens they had no hope of competing. They traded Jack Kramer (who went 18-5 in his first season with the Sox before fading into obscurity) and Stephens to Boston in exchange for six prospects, none of whom ever panned out, and $310,000, a big chunk of cash in those days. Stephens was thrilled to be going to Boston. He wanted the chance to win and loved how inviting the Green Monster was, so close to home plate.

Stephens made an immediate impact on the Red Sox hitting 29 HR and 137 RBI in 1948, his first season with the team. He combined with Ted Williams (25 HR, 127 RBI) and Bobby Doerr (27 HR and 111RBI) that year to become the most feared threesome in any line up in baseball. The next year Stephens was even better hitting .290 with 39 HR and 159 RBI. He helped the league’s MVP, Ted Williams, lead the team to a 96 wins and a 2nd place finish that year. 1949 was a peak year for the slugging shortstop, but he still had one more fantastic year in him when he hit .295 with 30 HR and 144 RBI in 1950. With Walt Dropo (34 HR and 144 RBI) added to the mix the Red Sox scored 1027 runs, the most in team history. Eight members of that lineup scored at least 80 runs, five of them scored at least 100. It was an unbelievable lineup, even better than the beloved squads of 2003 and 2004, and their shortstop, Vern Stephens was a huge part of that.

In 1951 Stephens was putting together another typical season hitting .300 and slugging .501, but then his knees started to slow him down. He played just 109 games that year and would never be a full time player again. After a 1952 season in which Stephens hit just 7 HR in 92 games, he was traded to the White Sox for 3 role players. He was released by the White Sox in his first year with the team.

Was he a Hall of Famer? It’s tough to say. And, as the old saying goes, if a guy is a borderline Hall of Famer, he’s not a Hall of Famer. But was he a better player than Phil Rizzuto and Lou Boudreau, two shortstops of his era already in the Hall? I’m comfortable with answering yes on that one. He gave the Red Sox 3 and a half amazing seasons. Despite his short time with the team he still is 20th all time on the team’s RBI list with 562 and 22nd on the list with 122 HR, just 2 fewer than Fred Lynn.

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