A SOX COLLECTION IN CARDS: LEADING OFF, VERN STEPHENS
Red Sox curator Sarah Coffin, with assistance from such notable interns as Nate Lucchino and Rachel Kirby, has digitized thousands of baseball cards of Sox players. Beginning today, April 2, the date of our scheduled home opener, I plan to share some of these cards with you, and tell you a bit about the players pictured on those cards.
I’m beginning with Vernon Decatur Stephens Jr., known as Vern, Junior and Stevie during his 15-year big-league career. Stephens rarely gets mentioned in any discussion of best Red Sox shortstops, which usually revolves around Nomar Garciaparra, Joe Cronin, Johnny Pesky, Rico Petrocelli, Everett Scott (for the early 20th Century crowd) and now Xander Bogaerts, who is quickly forcing his way into the conversation.
But Stephens, who played for the Red Sox from 1948–1952 after coming from the lowly St. Louis Browns in a complicated, eight-player trade that required two days to unfold, did some impressive things while he was here. Upon his arrival, Sox manager Joe McCarthy regarded him highly enough to move the popular Pesky from short to third, installing Stephens in his place.
An All-Star in each of his first four seasons in Boston — he finished fourth in voting for American League MVP in 1948 — Stephens led the American League in RBIs in both 1949 and 1950, driving in 159 runs in ’49, a record for shortstops that still stands. No one drove in more runs until Manny Ramirez knocked in 165 for Cleveland in 1999, 50 years later.
Stephens also hit 39 home runs in 1949, a club record for shortstops that stood until Petrocelli hit 40 in 1969. Only Garciaparra, with 178, hit more home runs as a Sox shortstop than Stephens, who finished with 122, and Nomar played in 306 more games.
Stephens did not excel just in the counting numbers. His OPS of .856 with the Sox ranks 13th in club history, sandwiched between Kevin Youkilis (.875) and Jim Rice (.854).
Until the flareup of an old knee injury turned him into a part-time player in his last two seasons with the Sox, Stephens was exceptionally durable, appearing in all 155 games the Sox played in both ’48 and ’49 and 149 more in 1950.
Stephens, who was born in New Mexico in 1920 and whose family moved to Long Beach, California, when he was 2, was known as a bad-ball hitter. He also had a bit of a reputation. “Junior Stephens was an amazing physical specimen,’’ author David Halberstam wrote in “Summer of 1949.” “He played hard all day, and he played just as hard all night. He was not so much a drinker as a carouser.’’
Stephens was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2006. He deserves to be remembered.