Pittsburgh Pirates Seasons: Arky Vaughan, 1938

Arky Vaughan is an under-appreciated player in big league history, but on a Pittsburgh Pirates history site, we can do something about that. Vaughan was born 109 years ago today in Clifty, Arkansas, which is where he picked up the nickname Arky. We have already featured his best season in this Pittsburgh Pirates Seasons series, but his second best season was extremely impressive as well.

In 1937, Vaughan had his fourth straight All-Star season. He hit .322/.394/.463 in 126 games. He led the league with 17 triples and his season was worth 5.7 WAR. That’s a strong season for most people, but for Vaughan, that was his lowest WAR total over an eight-year stretch from 1933 through 1940. It’s hard to bounce back from a 5.7 WAR season, so let’s just say that he regained his peak performance in 1938.

Vaughan started off the 1938 season with a great series against the St Louis Cardinals. In three games, he went 6-for-13 with a homer, five RBIs and two walks. The rest of April wasn’t that good, except for a 3-for-3 game on April 27th in which his seventh inning grand slam gave the Pirates a 5-4 lead and an eventual victory. His April slash line read .286/.375/.524 in 11 games.

May was a strong month without any games that really stood out. He hit just one homer, didn’t have more than two RBIs or two runs scored in any game, but when the dust settled, he had a .330/.432/.426 slash line in 24 games. He also had an impressive 17:2 BB/SO ratio for the month.

In June, Vaughan saw a slump, but the Pirates still went 16-7 for the month. He hit just .253/.340/.308 in 104 plate appearances. His season slash line at the end of the month stood at .291/.385/.396 in 58 games. That’s the type of production most teams would have killed for from their shortstop, who was also providing Gold Glove quality defense, but there was much more left in the tank this season, as the Pirates fought for first place in the NL.

A better stopping point than June 30th would have been June 28th, because Vaughan finished the month with two strong games. His OPS was .749 through 56 games, a low point on the season.

The Pirates played a July 3rd doubleheader against the Cardinals and Vaughan had three hits, two walks and five RBIs. He kept feeding off the Cardinals in their next series as well. On July 9th, he went 1-for-1 with a double and four walks. Four days later, he had four hits against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Six days later, he went 3-for-3 with two triples, three RBIs and a walk in a win over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates played a doubleheader the next day and he went 3-for-3 with a walk again. Vaughan had another three-hit game on July 24th, then finished the month with hits in six straight games. His average was up to .319 by the end of the month, thanks to a .380/.518/.528 slash line in 32 games. He reached 72 times during the month, scored 19 runs and picked up 23 RBIs.

August started with an 0-for-3 game, then he reached base safely in 19 straight games. The Pirates swept the Boston Bees in a doubleheader on August 3rd and Vaughan had three hits and three runs in the opener, then picked up two hits in the night cap. He had two hits and a walk the next day, then an August 7th doubleheader saw him reach base five times against the New York Giants, with the Pirates taking both games again. Vaughan had an 11-game hit streak snapped on August 15th, but he still walked twice and scored both runs in a 6-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

On August 23rd, the Pirates lost the first game of a doubleheader to Boston and Vaughan went 0-for-4. He made sure they didn’t get swept that day by going 2-for-3 with four walks in the second game. Arky had four multi-hit games in his final five games of the month.

Vaughan had a strong August, but the Pirates slumped with a 16-16 record. It clearly wasn’t his fault, as his .350/.453/.436 slash line would attest to that fact. He scored 21 runs and had a 22:3 BB/SO ratio.

The Pirates had a 6.5 game lead over two teams going into September, so things were exciting in Pittsburgh. You already know that there was no 1938 Pirates World Series team, so it wasn’t a good time to be a Pirates fan. Things got dark for them in September. The month actually started off fine with two wins and a six-game lead after play on September 4th. The Pirates got swept in a doubleheader by the Chicago Cubs on September 5th, but Vaughan had very little to do with that sweep. He was having a great season up to this point, so what the Pittsburgh Press reported that day might be hard to believe.

Vaughan left the first game after one at-bat, then only pinch-hit in the second game. The reason he left was a back injury, but the papers reported so much more. Going into that game, Vaughan was suffering from a stiff neck, a lame back, a skinned leg and an injured thumb. That explains why he only had an .866 OPS at the time.

Vaughan couldn’t play the next two games, then he returned to the lineup on September 10th. He had a hit and a walk in his first game back, then went 4-for-5 with two doubles the next day. As you might assume by now, that game came against the Cardinals. On September 15th and 16th, Vaughan had back-to-back three-hit games. He then went three straight games without a hit, though he drew four walks in that stretch.

The Pirates had a big doubleheader sweep over the Brooklyn Dodgers in September 22nd and Vaughan was a big part of their offense. He had six hits, four doubles, three runs and three RBIs. At least for that day, things seemed good, with the Pirates still holding a 3.5 game lead with ten games left. Vaughan reached base three times in a tough extra-inning loss to the Reds the next day. The Pirates took the next two games and he homered in the September 25th contest. Then came the series against the Chicago Cubs. The series.

The Pirates lost three games to the second place Cubs, who took over first place by the end of the series. If you don’t know the “homer in the gloamin'”, consider yourself to be lucky. The short story is that the Pirates lost first place on a walk-off homer by Hall of Famer Gabby Harnett with two outs in the ninth in a game that should have been called due to darkness. They still had five games left in the season, but the homer was a dagger. Vaughan reached base three times that day and scored two runs. He had one more noteworthy game left. The final win of the season was a 4-2 victory over the Reds on September 30th and he homered, walked twice and scored two runs.

The September numbers were strong, but the Pirates went 12-13 in his 25 games. He hit .303/.421/.494 with 14 runs scored. That would have been great for a healthy player, but Vaughan battled an assortment of injuries at that time.

The final stat line for Vaughan was .322/.433/.444 in 148 games. He made his fifth All-Star appearance and he finished third in the MVP voting. He walked 104 times on the year against just 21 strikeouts.

Vaughan was the top NL player in WAR in 1938, putting up a 9.0 mark that only trailed his incredible 1935 season. What made this year truly special was his 2.8 WAR on defense, which was a career best and led the NL. In Pirates history, it’s tied for the 11th best season ever on defense. His season is tied for the seventh best season by WAR for position players. His OBP is the 17th best in team history, and it’s only been topped three times in the last 82 years. His walk total is the 15th best in team history, but at the time it was only topped by his own total during the 1936 season.

You’re probably wondering about his numbers against the Cardinals that year. Vaughan put up a 1.135 OPS in 20 games against St Louis, easily his best mark against an opposing club. He batted over .300 against six of the seven other teams that year. The lone victor in that department? The Reds, who held him to a .197 average! However, he still managed a .740 OPS, so it wasn’t as bad as the average indicates.

I mentioned up top that a good breaking point for Vaughan’s season would have been June 28th. He bottomed out at a .749 OPS that day. In the final 92 games of the season, he posted a .970 OPS and the Pirates went 54-35 in his starts. The team collapsed, but their star hitter tried his best to carry them.