Grave Story: Hy Vandenberg (1906-1994)

Here lies Hy Vandenberg, who pitched for seven seasons in the 1930s and ‘40s. He didn’t have his best seasons until he reached the age where most ballplayers retire. Vandenberg played for the Boston Red Sox (1935), New York Giants (1937-40) and Chicago Cubs (1944-45).

Harold Harris Vandenberg was born on March 17, 1906 in Abilene, Kan., but his family moved to Minneapolis when he was four years old. He attended Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, where he played baseball and basketball. Vandenberg spent a couple of seasons playing baseball for various city teams in the Twin Cities area after graduation. He broke into pro ball by playing hooky from school one day to see a Minneapolis Millers game. Specifically, he went to meet pitcher (and recent Grave Story subject) George Dumont.

“My dad knew George,” he recalled years later. “I introduced myself and asked him how I could break in. He introduced me to Billy Myers, assistant manager, who asked me to throw a few. I pitched batting practice that afternoon.”

Source: Star Tribune, July 3, 1932

He tried out in 1930 for the Minneapolis Millers but ended up playing for the Bloomington Cubs of the Three-I League. He won 7 games and lost 12, with an ERA approaching 6.00.

With a playing height and weight of 6’4” and 220 pounds, Vandenberg must have been a commanding presence on the mound. He was mostly muscle, too, as worked as a road grader and a wheat harvester in his youth. He just lacked confidence, according to veteran Millers pitcher Rube Benton. “Just as soon as the kid makes up his mind that he has the batter licked he will start to win games. Vandenberg has the speed, a good curve and control. Trouble is, he thinks the batter is better than he is,” Benton said. His mental attitude would be questioned throughout his career.

Vandenberg turned 25 in 1931, so he was hardly considered a hot prospect. However, he went 8-3 with Bloomington and earned a promotion to the Millers in June. In his first start for manager Mike Kelley, Vandenberg tossed 7 great innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, allowing a run on 4 hits and a walk. The only thing that stopped him was a line drive off his arm in the 8th inning, which knocked him out of the game.

Vandenberg pitched for the Millers through 1934, when he also pitched for Chattanooga and Williamsport. Honestly, there isn’t much in his statistics to indicate he was a future MLB pitcher. He won a fair number of games, but he gave up well over 9 hits per 9 innings, with ERAs over 5.00 and WHIPs over 1.500. The Millers sold his contract to Syracuse of the International League in 1935, and he turned in what was easily his best pro season to date. He had a 13-7 record with a 3.45 ERA, allowing 2.8 walks per 9 innings. When the Red Sox needed another pitcher in June, manager Nemo Leibold said Vandenberg had the best on the team. That was enough to bring the tall hurler to the big leagues.

The 29-year-old rookie’s first stay in the big leagues lasted about a month. His first game came against the Yankees on June 8, and they welcomed him to the majors with 4 base hits and a walk. Vandenberg was pulled from the game without retiring a batter, and 5 earned runs were charged to him. He gave up 2 runs in an inning of work on June 13 and 5 runs in 4-1/3 innings on June 17. That left him with an ERA of 20.25, with 15 hits and 12 earned runs allowed in 5-1/3 innings.

Vandenberg spent all of 1936 with the Syracuse Chiefs and most of 1937 with the Baltimore Orioles, both of which were in the International League. He won 15 games each year and drew the interest of the New York Giants. The Giants, who had already clinched the NL pennant, called up Vandenberg to pitch against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 1, 1937. He threw a complete game but gave up 7 runs on 10 hits and 6 walks while striking out 2. The Giants lost 7-4.

That was kind of how Vandenberg’s career progressed for the next three seasons. He would do well in the minors (specifically, the Jersey City Giants) and would get called up to the majors to pitch sporadically and mostly ineffectively. In 1938, for example, he started a game in April and was knocked out in the 3rd inning. He had two poor relief outings in May and was exiled to Jersey City. He won five games in a row there before being sidelined by a broken bone in his ankle. Vandenberg recovered enough to return to the Giants at the end of August for two more ineffective outings. He started a game against the Boston Braves on September 25 and threw 8 innings of 5-hit ball, allowing 1 earned run. He still took the loss, but he lowered his ERA from four digits to 7.50.

Source: Daily News, April 14, 1938.

Vandenberg won 15 games for Jersey City but made just two appearances for the Giants in 1939. He had a 5.68 ERA in 6-1/3 innings of work. His first appearance for the Giants in 1940 was the best game of his career to that point. Facing the Phillies on April 24, he threw a complete game, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits, with 5 strikeouts. Giants manager Bill Terry kept Vandenberg around through mid-July; while his two other starts went badly, Vandenberg performed well as a reliever. A couple of rough outings in July rose his ERA to 3.90, and he was sent to the minors after that. Still, he pitched his best work in the major leagues by far.

The Cardinals acquired Vandenberg from the Giants on January 3, 1941, as part of an earlier deal that brought pitcher Bob Bowman to the Giants. The Cards assigned him to the Rochester Red Wings, where he stayed for the entire season and won 11 games. He won 17 more for the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers in 1942. In 1943, Vandenberg was out of pro baseball entirely, working in Minneapolis for the war effort and pitching for a park team on the side.

So let’s summarize briefly. Hy Vandenberg had pitched in parts of 5 MLB seasons and had a 1-3 record and 6.69 ERA to show for it. He was going into his age 38 season, although he may have been the only person in baseball who knew how old he really was. The papers tended to list him about five years younger than his actual age. He had also spent a year out of professional baseball. He did not look like a pitcher poised for breakout success.

Then something pretty remarkable happened in 1944. He turned into a very consistent and valuable pitcher for the Cubs. He re-signed the Brewers, but owner Bill Veeck (yes, that Bill Veeck) sold him to Chicago. He became a valuable swingman, appearing in a total of 35 games, with 9 starts. He picked up his first win of the season on May 19 by throwing 8 innings in relief of injured starter Ed Hanyzewski against his old team, the Giants. He held them to 1 earned run and struck out 4. He ended the season with a 7-4 record and a 3.63 ERA. He had a career best 54 strikeouts and also helped himself at the plate, with a good-for-a-pitcher .237 batting average.

The 1945 Cubs won 98 games en route to winning the NL pennant. Vandenberg went 7-3 with a career-low 3.49 ERA in 30 games, with 7 starts, 3 complete games, a shutout and 2 saves. He almost missed out on the season entirely, vowing in the preseason to pitch for a park team in Minnesota rather than sign for the “peanuts” the Cubs were offering him. Fortunately, Vandenberg and the Cubs agreed to terms, allowing the pitcher to experience a rare feat in the late 20th Century: pitching for the Cubs in the World Series.

Vandenberg appeared in 3 games of the 1945 Series against the Tigers, throwing 6 shutout innings. He walked 3, struck out 3 and allowed just one hit, a single to Jimmy Outlaw. He was magnificent in Game 7. He was brought into the game in the top of the 2nd inning in relief of Paul Derringer, with the bases loaded. He retired Outlaw on a grounder back to the pitcher and then shut out the Tigers for the next 3 innings. The Cubs lost that game 9-3, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Vandenberg’s part. Had the Cubs been able to solve Hal Newhouser, Vandenberg could have pitched the Cubs to a Series championship.

After baseball, bowling became Vandenberg’s sport of choice, with a goal of a 200 average. Source: Star Tribune, November 25, 1952.

Vandenberg was sold to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League for the tidy sum of $7,500 in 1946. He initially refused to report unless he was compensated for the transportation costs from Minnesota to California. Once he arrived, he was so ineffective (1-5 record, 5.28 ERA), that the Oaks sold him to Milwaukee at a loss just to be rid of him. Once again, the questions about his lack of competitiveness popped up. An Oakland Tribune columnist relayed a conversation he had with a Chicago sportswriter.

“Vandenberg is one of the mysteries of baseball,” the Chicago scribe said. “He has everything a man needs to be a great pitcher in the big leagues – except the right mental attitude. He has less interest in the game than any man I’ve ever seen who was trying to make a place for himself in the big time.”

The Chicago reporter told a story of a time he and the Cubs were traveling by train, with most of the players chatting about the NL pennant and the World Series. The reporter sat next to Vandenberg and asked the pitcher what he thought. Vandy replied that he was worried – about hunting. He hadn’t been able to locate a single good bird dog all year long, and if he didn’t get one for the offseason, his year would be ruined.

“That cooked Hy Vandenberg with me,” the Chicagoan said. “Here he was with apparently only a single thought on his mind – a hunting trip AFTER the baseball season was over.”

For his part, Vandenberg chalked up his dismissal from the Cubs to a personality clash with general manager Jim Gallagher. The pitcher held out for more money a few times, and Gallagher supposedly ran him out of Chicago as a consequence.

At any rate, Vandenberg had a lifetime 15-10 record with a 4.32 ERA in his seven seasons in the major leagues. He appeared in 90 games, with 22 starts, and he had 7 complete games, 1 shutout and 5 saves. He struck out 120 and walked 128 and had a WHIP of 1.481. He had two seasons (1940 & 1945) where his ERA+ topped 100, and he had a career -0.3 pitcher WAR. He also won 139 games in 14 minor-league seasons.

Vandenberg pitched in Minnesota for a couple of years afterwards. He was in his early 40s by then, but he didn’t want word getting around about his age. “Just tell them I’m still a youngster trying to get along,” he cracked.

After he tired of baseball, Vandenberg turned to bowling, with a goal of achieving a 200-game average. He worked as a liquor salesman, at a sprinkler manufacturer and as an engineer in the Hennepin County Highway Department.

Hy Vandenberg died in Bloomington, Minn., on July 31, 1994, from cancer. He was 88 years old. According to his daughter, he watched baseball regularly and complained about the players who wore their uniforms too tight and their hair too long. When he saw players with gold necklaces, he wondered out loud if he was watching baseball or a jewelry show. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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