It is tough being the second best shortstop in Pittsburgh Pirates history because no one who has ever played the position stands up to Honus Wagner but many baseball historians don’t just consider Arky Vaughan the second best Pirates shortstop, they consider him the second best all-time shortstop.
It took Vaughan just one season in the minors to convince the Pirates they had something special. He was just 19 years old when he hit .338 with 21 homers and 16 triples in 132 games, playing for Wichita of the Western League during the 1931 season. The next year he was with the Pirates to begin the year and by the third week of the season he was their everyday shortstop. He played 129 games that rookie season, hitting .318 with 61 RBI’s and 71 runs scored. His fielding wasn’t that great to start but the Pirates hired Honus Wagner as a coach and had him working with Arky daily to get better.
His second season had some similarities to the his first, he hit .314, led NL shortstops in errors again and he finished 23rd in the MVP voting for a second straight season. It was however a strong improvement over his first year. He played 152 games so his fielding percentage went up 11 points and he showed better range. His also drove in 97 runs and led the National League with 19 triples. He added 66 point onto his slugging percentage from the previous season, finishing with a .478 mark which was good for fifth in the league. Vaughan was just 21 and much better things were yet to come.
In 1934 Arky played in his first all-star game alongside his teammates Paul Waner and Pie Traynor. He hit .333 that year, fourth highest total in the NL and he led the league with 94 walks and a .431 on base percentage. He also drove in 94 runs while scoring 115 and for the second straight season he showed a noticeable improvement on defense. That season was just a small preview for 1935 when he had one of the best seasons in team history.
Prior to 1935 the Pirates record for single season batting average was .381, accomplished by Honus Wagner in 1900, his first season with the team. That mark would be topped for the first and only time in team history and it was by his pupil. Vaughan hit an NL leading .385 but he didn’t just hit for average that year, he also led the league with a .607 slugging percentage, which at the time set a Pirates single season record. If that wasn’t enough, he also drew a league leading 97 walks which led to a franchise record .491 on base percentage. His 1.098 OPS that year is also a team record. Arky scored 108 runs, drove in 99 and he did it all while striking out just 18 times all year.
Vaughan had another terrific season in 1936, leading the league in four offensive categories and for the first time, leading the league in a positive defensive category as well. His 122 runs scored and 118 walks led the NL and also set career highs for him in each stat. He also played a league leading 156 games and for the third straight year he had the NL’s highest OBP with a .453 mark. At shortstop he led the league in putouts. In 1937 he had some injury issues that allowed him to play just 126 games and while his overall numbers were down, he still hit .322 and led the league with 17 triples.
In 1938 he finished third in the NL MVP voting, matching his previous high finish in 1935. He batted .322 for a second straight season, drew 104 walks, scored 88 runs and led all NL shortstops in both putouts and assists. He would repeat those last two feats the next seasons as well. His average fell to .306 in 1939 and down to .300 the following year but in his ten seasons with the Pirates he never hit below .300 and only during his rookie season did he have an OPS below .800 in any season with Pittsburgh. Despite hitting “just” .300 in 1940 Arky still led the NL in runs scored with 113 and triples with 15.
In 1941 the Pirates signed a young shortstop named Alf Anderson, who they planned to use at shortstop because Vaughan had slumped down to .300 and Anderson was supposed to be a strong hitter. Arky was not a favorite of manager Frankie Frisch, who was said to prefer a strong defensive shortstop over one that could hit well but was just average on defense like Vaughan. When Arky’s production at the plate dropped they looked at it as a chance to replace him. He played just 106 games, with Anderson also seeing plenty of time at shortstop but Vaughan was able to hit .316 in what would end up being his last season in Pittsburgh. Anderson ended up hitting 101 points lower than Arky.
After that 1941 season the Pirates dealt Vaughan to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for four players. The trade was detailed here. It was not a good deal for Pittsburgh, they received very little from the players they got back in the deal and while Vaughan didn’t play as well as he did in Pittsburgh, they still should’ve got back a better return for someone who had made eight straight all-star teams and was still just 30 years old in 1942. Besides the problems with Frisch, the Pirates also wanted to move him for younger players and a bigger return before he lost too much trade value.
He played two seasons with the Dodgers before retiring for three seasons. He was convinced to come back for the 1947 season and would hit .325 in a part-time role. He played for Brooklyn in 1948 and then finished his career in the Pacific Coast League in 1949. Just three years after he retired, at the age of 40, Vaughan passed away trying to save a friend who was drowning. Despite a .318 career average in 1817 games and numerous times leading the league in various offensive categories, Vaughan was an afterthought on the Hall of Fame ballots. He was a nine time all-star who got on base over 40% of the time and had an amazing 937/276 BB/K ratio yet when he first appeared on the ballot he was named on just one of the 264 total ballots cast. It took up until 1985 for his to finally be elected by the Veteran’s Committee, 37 years after he retired.
On the Pirates all-time list, he ranks seventh in batting average(.324), tied for third in OBP(.415) tenth in runs scored(936) ninth in hits(1709) ninth in doubles(291) eighth in triples(116) ninth in RBI’s(764) and sixth in walks with 778. Arky’s nephew Glenn Vaughan played in the majors with the 1963 Houston Colt .45’s.