The night Bing Crosby went to a Far West League game

Entertainer Bing Crosby was part of the group that bought the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946 (at about the same time his frequent film partner Bob Hope bought into the Cleveland Indians as part of Bill Veeck’s group; the photo at right is available for purchase from the Owens Archive).  Crosby was a vice president of the Pirates and played a key role in the team’s signing of 18-year-old pitcher Vernon Law in 1948.

The story was often told (and probably embellished somewhat) over the years.  Law grew up in Meridian, Idaho, just outside of Boise, and when he graduated from high school in 1948 he was the subject of a bidding war.  His older brother, Evan, was a catcher who attended Boise Junior College (which eventually became a four-year school and is now Boise State University).

The story as told in The Sporting News issue of June 21, 1950, was that a lawyer from nearby Payette, Herman Welker, contacted Crosby and told him to have a Pirate scout contact the Laws.  (The 1950 story says Welker wired Crosby; another TSN story on February 7, 1951, said Welker called Crosby in Hollywood.)  The 1950 TSN story refers to Welker as “a classmate [of Crosby] from their college days at Gonzaga University,” and the story has been repeated that way through the years, but the biographies I’ve seen of Welker say he attended the University of Idaho and mention nothing about Gonzaga.  (Welker was elected U.S. Senator from Idaho in 1950 and gained greater baseball fame for his role in helping the Washington Senators sign Harmon Killebrew in 1954.)

The Law brothers both signed with the Pirates after a phone call that was recounted in The Sporting News issue of June 9, 1948:

Crosby telephoned from New York and Mrs. [Jess] Law [Vern and Evan’s mother], all aflutter, immediately forgot that she and her husband earlier had said that either Brooklyn or Cleveland would be the choice for their youngsters.  “I’d like to come up and sign both boys myself, but business in New York won’t allow it,” Bing said.  “So I’ll send Babe Herman, my personal representative, instead.”

Almost three years later, the story was told a little differently in that 1951 Sporting News article.

“I entered the picture late,” Babe Herman relates.  “By the time I arrived at the Law home, scouts had been there and gone, but many were still hanging around.  I talked to Vernon and his brother, Evan, a catcher, talked to his father and his mother.

“Then I had an idea.  I knew Mrs. Law was a Crosby fan and also knew Bing had a ranch not far from the Law home.  I put in a call to Bing and told him to phone the family.”

Now Mrs. Law takes up the story.

“We had just about decided that Vernon and his brother should sign with the Pittsburgh organization because Mr. Herman was so nice and didn’t make us any outlandish promises,” Mrs. Law said.  “We felt our boys’ futures would be best served with the Pirates, and then came the call from Mr. Crosby.

“I thought it was a joke at first.  Imagine Mr. Crosby phoning me!  But it was him all right.  He talked about the weather, told me he had a ranch near us and said he comes into Idaho quite often.

“Then he said he had heard about Vernon and Evan and he hoped the Pirates would be able to sign them.  He promised the boys fine treatment.  That just about clinched it.  But I want to make it clear that we thought an awful lot of Mr. Babe Herman.”

Vern’s signing bonus was not mentioned in any of these stories.  Ray Robinson, in a profile of Law that appeared in the book “Baseball Stars of 1961,” didn’t give a number either but said the Pirates signed the Law brothers for an amount “that wasn’t more than Leo Durocher pays for a good suit.”  A 2005 story about Vern Law in the Deseret News, the daily newspaper owned by the Mormon church, said Law got a $2,000 signing bonus and a contract for $175 a month.  Brent Kelley, in his book about the bonus rule, “Baseball’s Biggest Blunder,” wrote Law’s bonus was $6,000, the most that could be given at the time without requiring the player to spend time in the majors.

The Laws were Mormons.  That didn’t come up in the 1948 story when he signed, but by 1950 Vern’s religious story was told in great detail:  a deacon in the church at the age of 12 (his baseball nickname was “Deacon”), ordained to the priesthood at 17, by the age of 20 a church elder who had the authority to marry, baptize and administer the sacraments.  (“Nobody knew what an elder was, so they called me the deacon,” Law said in 2004.)

According to a 2004 story on the Brigham Young University website, “Vern Law was his era’s Steve Young [the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback].  He was a big as Steve Young is now, only about 30 years earlier.  He was the pioneering Latter-day Saint athlete to make it big.”

That same BYU story adds another element to the signing story that was not mentioned in any of the Sporting News stories at the time…which makes me wonder just how much of this is true.  But here’s the way Nathan Morley told it in his story about Vern Law:

Word began to spread about the pitcher from rural Idaho to the point that nine big league teams were interested in signing him. Each team sent representatives to the Law house in Meridian. Upon arrival, the baseball executives would show up smoking cigars, something the Law’s were turned off by.

“My dad, being what he was, said you can come in, but that’s got to stay out,” Vern said.

Every organization showed up with cigars, except the Pirates. The Pirates showed up with chocolates and roses for Vern’s mom and began to make their pitch to the Laws. Then the unexpected happened.

“Halfway through the conversation, the phone rings,” Vern said. “On the other end is Bing Crosby. My mother about fainted.”…

Years later, Vern found out the Pirates had given all the other teams the cigars in a ploy to help the Pirates sign Vern.

A story that good, wouldn’t it have been told at the time if it were true?  A similar story was told in a 2000 Sports Illustrated item about Law.  There’s also a version of this story in which Welker accompanied Babe Herman at the Laws’ home and was himself involved in the cigar scheme; that appears in a 2003 book. “Tales From The Pirates Dugout.”

Okay, we’re a thousand words into this and we still haven’t gotten to Bing Crosby attending a Far West League game.

When Vern and Evan Law signed, they were assigned to the Pirates’ new Class D farm club, the Santa Rosa Pirates of the first-year Far West League.  (In a Nov. 19, 1960, Sporting News article after Vern Law won the Cy Young Award, Hy Hurwitz wrote that Law “agreed to go with the Pirates with the understanding that he would not be called upon to pitch on Sundays” and said Law did not pitch on Sundays in the Far West league.  “After that year,” Law told Hurwitz, “I figured that if I were ever to make the big leagues and wanted to pitch in them, I’d have to work on Sundays.  It was my own decision to release the Pittsburgh organization from our arrangement which gave me the day off on Sundays.”)

And when Vern Law made his professional debut on June 2, at Santa Rosa’s Doyle Park, Bing Crosby was there.

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat gave advance notice of Crosby’s appearance to see Law, “a fireballer many say is destined to shoot at the mark of Walter Johnson, another lad captured by the big leagues in the sage-brush end of the Gem state.”  As a result the game drew what the Press-Democrat called “an overflow throng” (although no attendance number was printed) that “packed the stands and part of the playing field with fans, many of them women, despite the cool night.”

The singer, whose voice has charmed millions, was a little late but apparently had timed his appearance so that he arrived just as the game was about to begin after spectators craned necks a half hour for a glimpse of the actor.

The game was played on a Wednesday; the Press-Democrat said Crosby had spent the previous weekend taking part in a golf benefit “at the Lake Merced club in San Francisco for the family of Ben Coltrin, golf pro, who died two months ago.”

Crosby saw his new pitcher lose to Redding, 9-6.  The Press-Democrat reported “due to his teammates’ mental and physical mistakes [Law] was in a hole in the first inning as Redding scored four runs.”  Law was an excellent control pitcher in his major league career, averaging just two walks per nine innings pitched, but he issued three walks in his first inning as a pro, and his teammates committed three errors behind him.  One came when shortstop Bill Rush failed to touch second base on a fielder’s choice (one of 30 errors Rush committed in 38 games at shortstop that season); another came when catcher Al Conforti failed to tag a runner at home plate.

But the night got better.  “Law, a heavy ball artist, whiffed nine batters and…demonstrated he is a top prospect,” according to the Press-Democrat.  He went on to post an 8-5 record for Santa Rosa, with 126 strikeouts in 110 innings, and batted .340.  Just over two years after his debut at Doyle Park Law was pitching for Pittsburgh to start a career that saw him win 162 major league games, all with the Pirates.  Not a bad use of Bing Crosby’s time on the telephone.

And what of Evan Law, Vern’s brother?  He must not have played in ten games for Santa Rosa because he doesn’t appear in the league’s official stats that had a minimum ten game requirement.  The only stats I’ve found for the elder Law are 40 at-bats in the Class D Alabama State League in 1949; he hit .125 and was done.  As I go through game-by-game accounts during my Far West League project I’ll see if he actually did get in a game for them, and if he ever caught his brother as a pro.

Among the other games in the FWL on June 2, 1948…

Marysville’s Herb Hamilt, who had pitched the first no-hitter in league history a month before, pitched a three-hitter at Medford…but Medford scored eight runs on those three hits, with the help of eight Marysville errors, to win 8-4.

Pittsburg defeated Oroville, 16-14, in a game that featured 23 walks and “three batters beaned,” according to the Associated Press account, which added, “The game was called at the end of six innings when it reached the league time limit.”  A league time limit?  I’ll have to find out more about that.

Oh, and before we sign off, let’s get a picture of Vern Law with his son Vance, who played more than 1200 games in the major leagues himself as an infielder and is now the head baseball coach at Brigham Young.

Tim Law, at right in the photo above, is Vance’s son; he had played for BYU, as a first baseman, and is no longer on the coaching staff.

Oh, one more thing…one of the things that was widely known about Vernon Law during his playing days was that his wife and all their children all had first names that also began with V.  For the record, they were wife VaNita and children Vance, Varlin, Vaughn, Veldon, Veryl and VaLynda.

1 thought on “The night Bing Crosby went to a Far West League game

  1. Pingback: A who’s who of the Far West League, Part 2 « The J.G. Preston Experience

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