This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Hy Vandenberg was a big right-handed pitcher, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, who debuted in the majors in 1935 but didn’t win his first game until 1940 and didn’t win his second until 1944. Thanks to the war years, he was able to compile a 15-10 record in the big leagues and win 139 games in the minors.
He was born as Harold Harris Vandenberg in Abilene, Kansas, on March 17, 1906, to Anna (Aker) Vandenberg and John Vandenberg, a salesman for a creamery. John’s parents were both Dutch immigrants; he was born in Iowa. Anna was a Pennsylvania native. They had two children – Floyd and then, a year later, Harold. John Vandenberg died of consumption (tuberculosis) when Harold was about 4 years old; he was present at the time of the 1910 census.1 After John died, Anna moved to Minneapolis, where she had a close girlfriend. She married William Gurdin, the manager of a coffee roasting concern.
Harold attended the Longfellow School, and then Roosevelt High School for three years, and (after a little controversy with the principal at Roosevelt), transferred to South High School from which he graduated after one year. He’d played second base in seventh grade, but later said, “I got tired of watching our pitcher trying to get somebody out, so I marched up and told him I could do better than he. I did. I pitched all through high school but then my best pitch was a roundhouse curve.”2 He was captain of the football and basketball teams, and all-city in both; the baseball team didn’t have captains.3
For $25 or $35 a game, he played semipro ball in small towns in the area. A town would call and say they needed a pitcher, and he’d get the call. “That was a million dollars” at the time, he recalled.4
How did he get into professional baseball? “I played hooky from school one day and went to the Minneapolis ball park to see a hurler named George Dumont work. My Dad knew George. 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. I was too wild to be hit much but I had a lot of power. That same day I was called into the office, signed to a contract.”5
He signed that professional baseball contract right out of high school after fending off some teams which had tried to sign him while he was still in school.6 Vandenberg reportedly signed with the Minneapolis Millers for $4,000 (he bought himself a used Hudson for $400 with some of the money), but he first turns up in currently-available statistics with Bloomington (Illinois) Cubs in the Three-I League (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) when he was 24 years old, in 1930.7
It was Class-B baseball. Vandenberg was 7-12 with a 5.92 earned run average in 1930. He split the 1931 season between the Millers and Bloomington, after Minneapolis transferred him back to the Three-I League on June 25. He was with the Millers, and was 8-3 with a much-improved 3.98 ERA for Bloomington, then back with Minneapolis by year’s end. Records show him 2-0 for Minneapolis. He then put in two full years for the Millers in 1932 (11-6, winning seven games in a row at one point) and 1933 (7-6). Minneapolis won the pennant in 1932. He went to the Little World Series against Newark, but manager Donie Bush favored his older pitchers and never used Vandenberg.
In 1934, after marrying Florence Norvella Melquist in April, he played for three teams – Minneapolis (0-1), Williamsport (0-4), and Chattanooga (5-5). At some point, his offseason work involved selling “maraschino cherries to the highball trade.”8 Earlier work had helped build him up into a husky young man, harvesting wheat in North Dakota. “I also worked as a road grader in the camps of Minnesota. I always liked anything out in the open.”9 He was an excellent bowler, too.
Vandenberg went to the Syracuse Chiefs in the spring of 1935. He was pitching well when, on May 30, the Boston Red Sox acquired him. “Van is a big fellow,” said Red Sox GM Eddie Collins, “and Nemo Leibold, the manager at Syracuse, tells me that he is the best pitcher they have. I hope he will help the pitching situation. The team can use some more pitching.”10 The Sox sent Lee Rogers to Syracuse on option, and released George Pipgras a couple of days later.
Vandenberg debuted in the first game of a doubleheader with the Yankees on June 8. The Yankees had a slim 7-6 lead after six innings. Vandenberg came out to pitch the top of the seventh. It would be difficult to imagine a rougher outing. He faced five batters, giving up four base hits and walking one, leaving without retiring anyone. “He is still a virgin as far as retiring a batter goes,” wrote Victor O. Jones of the Boston Globe.11 All the men he put on base scored, and he was charged with all five earned runs. He had an ERA of infinity. “Van quickly was knocked all out of shape,” summarized the New York Times.12 Both the Globe (Van Denburg) and Herald (Van Denberg) took a day or so to get used to his name. He said that Lefty Grove told him, “Don’t feel bad, Son. We had a million dollars’ worth of pitchers out there and we couldn’t get them out.”13
In Detroit on June 13 he got the ball again, with the Tigers ahead, 4-1. He threw the bottom of the eighth and retired the side, but in the meantime he gave up four hits and two runs. Thanks to the three outs, his ERA was now 63.00. A third opportunity came on June 17 in Cleveland. Starter Gordon Rhodes was charged with six runs; Vandenberg worked the last 4⅓ innings. He faced 22 batters, and gave up five more earned runs but worked to the end of the game. His ERA was down to 20.25. But the Red Sox had seen enough.
Vandenberg saw it a little differently. “They kept me six weeks, pitched me only three innings of relief and then shipped me back. I wonder if anyone would call that a fair trial?”14
He wrapped up the season with Syracuse and was 13-7 (3.45) all told.
He put up back-to-back 15-17 seasons, with Syracuse again in 1936 (4.54 ERA) and then 1937 with the International League Baltimore Orioles, where he registered the same 15-17 record again, this time with a 4.28 ERA. Dan Daniel wrote that he’d lost eight of the games by one-run margins.15 Along with fellow pitcher Bill Lohrman, he was purchased in a cash deal by the New York Giants in July, for fall delivery.16 The Giants called him up to the majors and he appeared in one game, on October 1 at Ebbets Field, giving up seven runs in eight innings and losing 7-4 .
In 1938 and 1939, he was with the Giants’ Jersey City affiliate. He had one very good year (15-10, 2.72) in 1939, when Jersey City won the pennant, bracketed by two seasons where he didn’t get as much work – 1938 and 1940. In 1938, he was with the Giants early and late, appearing in three games in April and May and three more in August and September. In between, shortly after he’d been optioned to Jersey City, he broke his foot (ankle), accounting for the lack of work.17 His only decision was a loss to the Boston Bees on September 28.
In 1939 he was recalled from Jersey City long enough to make was one relief appearance and one start, both in May and neither resulting in a decision. Manager Bill Terry had already shown some irritation with him in spring training, when Vandenberg pled a lame arm. “He came up with it just when he was to have worked against the Indians,” griped Terry. “Sometimes these things happen too conveniently to be accidental…I’m unimpressed by his efforts of late. I’m undecided whether he is just our type.” 18
Finally, in 1940, he got his first win in the big leagues. He had a much stronger spring and was expected to contribute significantly. That first win came on April 24 in Philadelphia against the Phillies, a 5-2 complete-game victory for Bill Terry’s Giants, “a first-class five-hitter” that the Times described as an “elegant mound triumph.”19 He appeared in 13 games, but his only other decision that year came in his last appearance, on July 13, a relief loss to the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth in the second game of the day’s doubleheader. Scoring the way it is, though, when he came on with two inherited runners in the July 3 game against Brooklyn, the grand slam he gave up to Pee Wee Reese in a 3-3 tie game saw the loss attributed to Cliff Melton. On July 15, the Giants signed Willis Hudlin, and Vandenberg spent the rest of the year with Jersey City again (6-8, 4.97). In December, they assigned his contract to Rochester.
The Giants had first purchased Vandenberg at the recommendation of Jack Ogden in 1938, and manager Bill Terry said Vandenberg “could put more stuff on the ball than 75 per cent of the pitchers in the National League,” but he failed to ever match his perceived potential.20
The Cardinals must have seen a little something at some point; on January 2, 1941, they purchased his contract from the Giants, reportedly an outright sale. It was said to be related to the December deal which saw Bob Bowman go from the Cards to the Giants. There was some rather complicated dealing in here, which involved Commissioner Landis, but it was all worked out.21 He trained with the Cardinals in the springtime but never could come to terms with Branch Rickey and on April 24 they released him outright to Rochester, a Cardinals farm club. He appeared in 28 games for Rochester and was 11-10, 3.38.
Vandenberg pitched in 1942 for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) 17-10 in 42 games (31 starts).
Because of a broken leg, he was exempted from military service but he worked at a war plant in Milwaukee in 1943, later in the year pitching for the Mitby Sathers in the Park National League in Minneapolis. On April 18, 1944; the Chicago Cubs bought his contract from the Brewers; he had been due to work the opening day game against St. Paul the next day.
With the Cubs in 1944, Vandenberg appeared in more games than his entire preceding career combined. He started nine games, closed 16, and appeared in 35. In each category, the total was more than all prior totals. He was 7-4, with two saves. His earned run average for the year was 3.63, almost dead-on the fourth-place Cubs’ team ERA of 3.59. Vandenberg’s roommate that year was Jimmie Foxx.
Charlie Grimm had taken over as Cubs manager after Jimmie Wilson had gotten off to a 1-9 start. In this first full year as manager, and in the last year of wartime baseball, Grimm’s 1945 Cubs won 98 games and the pennant, by three games over the reigning world champion Cardinals.
Though he was a holdout and forced to train on his own at the University of Minnesota, thus getting started late, in the end Vandenberg contributed a season very similar to his ’44 campaign, 7-3 (3.49 ERA), with three of the wins coming in September. His best outing was a one-hitter on June 15, a first-inning double by Cincinnati’s Al Libke that barely eluded a shoestring catch by left-fielder Peanuts Lowrey.
He had his first (and only) World Series. The Cubs lost in seven games to the Detroit Tigers. Vandenberg pitched very well. In Game Four, he worked two full innings (the sixth and seventh), facing six batters and retiring all six. The very next day, also at Wrigley, he pitched in Game Five. The game was tied 1-1 through five. Starter Hank Borowy couldn’t get anyone out in the top of the sixth, giving up a single, a double, and then two more singles. Grimm called in Vandenberg, who recorded an out (and an assist) on a sacrifice bunt. He then walked the next batter intentionally, to load the bases and pitch to Tigers pitcher Hal Newhouser. Unfortunately, he also walked Newhouser, quite unintentionally. Another inherited runner scored on a groundout to second base. Then Vandenberg was relieved.
He worked in the deciding Game Seven. Starter Borowy worked to the first three batters, all three of them singling. A quick hook and Paul Derringer was brought in. By the time the Cubs got to bat, they were already down, 5-0.
It was 6-1 in the top of the second, with the bases loaded and two outs, when Grimm asked Vandenberg to replace Derringer. He got Jimmy Outlaw to ground out back to the mound, then worked three innings of one-hit ball before being removed for a pinch-hitter (in his one at-bat leading off the third, he flied out to deep right field). The Cubs lost the Series, but at least one sportswriter suggested that Vandenberg had been one of the best pitchers for the Cubs.22
The first time his mother ever saw him pitch was in the World Series.23
He trained with the Cubs on Catalina Island in spring training 1946 but in early April he was released unconditionally to Oakland (Pacific Coast League). Unless he were paid the same salary he would have received with the Cubs, he said he would not report.24 He did report, but perhaps his heart wasn’t fully in it; he was 1-5 (5.28) for the Oaks. He was purchased by the Milwaukee Brewers on August 5 and was 1-2 with Milwaukee in 1946.
The Oklahoma City club bought his contract for 1947, but he left professional baseball and pitched (15-4) for Springfield, Minnesota, in the amateur Western Minor League.25
As a major-leaguer, he had a 15-10 record, with a career 4.32 ERA. At the plate, he hit .169 with eight RBIs. His fielding percentage was .962.
His post-baseball career was as an engineering technician for the Hennepin County Highway Administration in Minnesota.
Vandenberg died at home from cancer in Bloomington, Minnesota, on July 31, 1994. He was preceded in death by wife Florence and brother Floyd, and was survived by daughter Gretchen Ann Lancaster and three grandchildren.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Vandenberg’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Rick Bradley interview with Hy Vandenberg on October 16, 1993, courtesy of SABR’s Oral History Committee archives. “I was a St. Patrick’s Day baby,” Vandenberg said. The interview includes many reminiscences of ballparks in which he played, the players, umpires, and all.
2 Jimmy Powers, “The Powerhouse,” New York Daily News clipping datelined April 1, 1940, in Vandenberg’s Hall of Fame player file.
3 Rick Bradley interview.
6 Vandenberg player questionnaire, National Baseball Hall of Fame, and David Chanen, “Hy Vandenberg, Former Pitcher for Chicago Cubs,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 1, 1994.
7 David Chanen’s obituary is the source of the signing with the Millers. The purchase of the Hudson comes from Rick Bradley’s interview.
8 Unidentified April 18, 1938 clipping in Vandenberg’s Hall of Fame player file.
9 Jimmy Powers.
10 “Collins Acquires Pitcher Vandenberg; Sox, Yanks Idle; Play Twin-Bill Today,” Boston Herald, June 1, 1935.
11 Victor O. Jones, “Ostermueller Wins in Duel with Gomez,” Boston Globe, June 9, 1935: 32.
12 John Drebinger, “Yanks Break Even; Gomez Losing 7th,” New York Times, June 9, 1935: S1.
13 Bradley interview.
14 Jimmy Powers.
15 Dan Daniel, “Daniel’s Dope,” New York World-Telegram, February 7, 1938.
16 “Giants Grab Off Two Baltimore Pitchers,” The Repository (Canton, Ohio), July 21, 1937: 20. In October, the Giants sent first baseman Phil Weintraub to the Orioles in what was belatedly described as part payment for Vandenberg.
17 Daniel, “Vandenberg Also Gets Mound Job,” New York World-Telegram, August 20, 1938.
18 Will Wedge, “Manager Aims Caustic Shots at Vandenberg,” dateline April 5, 1939 article in Vandenberg’s Hall of Fame player file.
19 John Drebinger, “Young’s Home Run Downs Phils,” New York Times, April 25, 1940: 30.
20 “Giants Sell Vandenberg to Cards, Action Linked with Bowman Deal,” New York Times, January 4, 1941: 16. A story by Tom Meany in the New York World-Telegram said that Vandenberg was outspoken and angry that Ogden had not cut him in on a part of the purchase price when he was sold to the Giants (dating it in 1937, not 1938), and that the “feud” even saw Vandenberg involve Mrs. Ogden and Jack’s brother Curly. See New York World-Telegram, August 26, 1939. On at least two occasions in August 1939, fistfights broke out. Warren Bornscheuer, “Vandenberg-Ogden Feud Flares Into Two Fistic Battles,” unidentified newspaper, August 31, 1939, in Vandenberg’s Hall of Fame player file. Vandenberg felt he was owed $10,000, but Ogden said that promises don’t count if they’re not on paper. Vandenberg said he slugged Ogden so hard that he knocked him out of his swivel chair. See Bradley interview for Vandenberg’s telling of the story at some length.
21 Daniel, “Cards Get Vandenberg as Landis Kills Wing Deal,” New York World-Telegram, January 4, 1941.
22 Eddie T. Jones, “Bruin’s (sic) Best Pitcher? Could Be Vandenberg,” Columbus Daily Times, uncertain date October 1945. Clipping in Vandenberg’s Hall of Fame player file.
23 Bradley interview.
24 Hy Vandenberg Balks At Coast League Orders,” Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1946: 19.
25 Evansville Courier and Press, April 5, 1948: 15.