This article was written by Dan Fields
The numbers for Nippy Jones in the 1957 World Series don’t look like much: three games, three plate appearances, two at-bats, no runs, no hits, one hit-by-pitch. But the “shoe-polish incident” in the tenth inning of Game Four, when Jones was able to confirm that a pitch from Tommy Byrne had struck his foot by showing the plate umpire, Augie Donatelli, a smudge of black shoe polish on the ball, was a turning point in the Series and earned Jones enduring fame among Braves fans. The incident capped a career with many highlights.
Vernal Leroy Jones was born on June 29, 1925, in Los Angeles. His father, Andrew Jones, was a car painter, and his mother, Leona Sims-Jones, worked as a secretary at a manufacturing company. In a 1989 interview the ballplayer explained how he got his nickname: “My father was nicknamed Nip. He liked to take a nip of the bottle now and then. When I’d tag along with him, [people] used to say, ‘There goes Nip and Little Nipper.’ From then on, Nippy just stuck. With a name like Vernal, I guess you have to have a nickname.”
His parents later divorced, and the boy lived most of his early years in the crowded home of his grandparents, George and Dora Sims. According to family lore, young Nippy liked to water the roses. Unfortunately, they were the roses on the carpet of his grandmother’s parlor! Jones thought of himself as an only child, because his half-brother (20 years his junior) was born to his father and his wife, Gladys, while Nippy was in the Pacific during World War II. His mother married several times but did not have any more children.
In 1939, while attending Edison Junior High in Los Angeles, Jones met the girl who would become his wife, Nora Frances Graff. However, it wasn’t love at first sight: Nora had to fall off her bicycle several times in front of Nippy’s house before he really took notice. In a 1997 interview, Nora said of Nippy, “He was a handsome boy and young man. The girls fell all over themselves trying to get his attention. He played all sports – baseball, basketball, and football – and was very popular.”
While attending John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles, Jones, who batted and threw right-handed, played baseball on the school team and also on an American Legion team, Sunrise Post 357. (A fellow infielder with Jones on both teams was Gene Mauch.) In 1942 the Sunrise team won the American Legion World Series in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Jones got to meet Babe Ruth. Scouts at the series were impressed by Jones’s play, and after he returned to Los Angeles, he was offered several contracts.
In early 1943, when Jones was still 17 years old, his father signed a contract for him with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. To the dismay of his mother and his girlfriend, Nora, Jones dropped out of high school and traveled north to join the Sacramento Solons (then a Cardinals farm team) of the Pacific Coast League. In the 1943 season he played 129 games at second base, leading the team in doubles (25) and batting average (.304) and tying for most triples (6). Jones earned $75 a month and sent most of the money home to his mother.
In September 1943 Jones (now 18 years old) joined the Marines. Cheryl Noss, one of Jones’s four daughters, said, “The war in the Pacific was not going well, and Dad decided it was his duty to serve. He was an excellent shot and had a skill for teaching others to shoot. He was promoted to corporal and became a rifle instructor in boot camp at Pendleton. He was in the 38th Replacement Battalion, and they joined the Fifth Marine Division.”
Baseball may well have saved Jones’s life. According to Noss, “The Fifth Marine Division was getting ready to sail to Iwo Jima when dad and his best friend, Wimpy Quinn, were called back to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to play baseball for the Admiralty. They boarded a plane for Hawaii ten days before the Fifth Marine Division hit the beach at Iwo Jima. The Fifth Marines suffered 80 percent casualties on the beaches of Iwo Jima. Back home, in Los Angeles, his mother and girlfriend were getting all the horrible news from the Pacific Theater on the casualties that the Fifth Marines were taking on Iwo Jima. His mother kept waiting for the fatal knock on the front door that said her beloved son was a casualty. It was several weeks before my dad was able to contact his mom and let her know he was alive.”
Jones spent the rest of his tour at Pearl Harbor playing baseball, football, and basketball on Marine Corps teams for the entertainment of the troops. During that time, he played baseball with or against several major leaguers, including Ted Williams.
In May 1946 Jones, now 20 years old, was discharged from the Marine Corps. On the way home, he called Nora Graff and asked her to meet his ship in San Diego. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, Jones proposed marriage, and the pair wed three days later, on May 29, 1946. Within two weeks Jones made his major-league debut on June 9, replacing Cardinals second baseman Red Schoendienst in the seventh inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. In June, July, and September, Jones played in 16 games with the Cardinals, mostly as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. He rapped out four hits in 12 at-bats. He also had one appearance as a pinch-hitter in the 1946 World Series, striking out against Joe Dobson of the Boston Red Sox in Game Five, and won the first of his two World Series rings.
Jones spent the balance of the 1946 season with the Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals Triple-A team. Playing in 71 games, mostly at third base, Jones batted.344, five points less than the International League batting champion, Jackie Robinson of the Montreal Royals.
In 1947 Jones played in 23 games with the Cardinals during April, May, and September, mostly as a second baseman or pinch-hitter. He had 18 hits in 73 at-bats, for a .247 average. On September 11, Jones hit his first major-league home run, off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jones also hit a double and a single in the game.
With Rochester again in 1947, Jones led the International League in batting average (.337), doubles (36), and triples (12). He hit 10 home runs and drove in 81 runs in 118 games, playing mostly at second base or third.
By 1948 Jones was ready to be an everyday player with the Cardinals, but the lineup was crowded. He was again battling Red Schoendienst for the job at second. “There was no way I was going to beat out Schoendienst,” said Jones in a 1991 interview. “So [manager] Eddie Dyer wanted to put me at first base. But they already had Stan Musial and Dick Sisler at first.” Just before the season started, Sisler was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and Musial was moved to the outfield. So Jones became the Cardinals’ starting first baseman.
In 1948 Jones played in 132 games and batted .254 with 21 doubles, 9 triples, and 10 home runs. His 81 RBIs, .397 slugging average, and 191 total bases were third highest on the team (behind future Hall of Famers Musial and Enos Slaughter). Jones also grounded into 25 double plays, tied for the most in the major leagues.
On May 23 against the Phillies, Jones had a double, two singles, and two walks (one intentional) and drove in six runs; he had four more three-hit games during the season. On May 31 Jones spoiled a no-hit bid by Ken Raffensberger of the Cincinnati Reds with a single in the eighth inning.
While playing with the Cardinals, Jones became a skilled card player, according to his daughter Cheryl Noss. Card games were a popular pastime on teams’ long train trips. Pinochle was the favorite game of manager Eddie Dyer. According to Noss, “Mr. Dyer was a firm believer that if you couldn’t strategize and win at pinochle, you had no business being on a baseball diamond. He said pinochle was a thinking man’s card game and baseball was a thinking man’s ballgame. Needless to say, Dad learned to play pinochle, and all card games, with great skill and cunning!”
Jones also had solid numbers in 1949. Playing in 110 games and often batting fourth between Musial and Slaughter, he batted.300, with 62 RBIs. His .426 slugging average was third highest on the team. On defense, Jones participated in two triple plays. He led NL first basemen with 15 errors. On June 15, 1949, in a game against the Dodgers, Jones had two singles, a double, and a home run and drove in six runs. On August 21 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he hit three doubles and a single. In the opener of a doubleheader on August 28 against the Boston Braves, Jones hit two home runs and a single, scored three runs, and had three RBIs. In the second game he hit another home run and a single, scored two runs, and had two RBIs. The Cardinals swept the twin bill.
But 1949 was also the year in which Jones suffered a back injury that shortened his career. In a game against the Dodgers, he took a lead off first base. On a pickoff throw he slid feet-first back to the bag as Gil Hodges applied a slap tag. A terrible pain shot through Jones’s back, and he was carried off the field on a stretcher. Jones had a herniated disc, which required surgery in the offseason. For a time after the surgery, he was paralyzed from the waist down. In a 1991 interview Jones said, “I was never the same after that. Until the operation, Joe McCarthy [who was scouting for the Yankees] and Eddie Dyer said I was one of the most feared right-handed hitters in the game at the time. After the operation, I could still hit, but not like before. For the rest of my career, baseball people kept asking me about my back. It was a stigma in my career.”
Jones played in only 13 games with the Cardinals in 1950, all in July and August. In 1951, he played 80 games with St. Louis between mid-May and early September and batted .263. On May 19 he drove in five runs in a game against the Dodgers. Jones also played in 23 games with Triple-A Rochester.
After the ’51 season Jones was taken by the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. He played in eight games with the Phillies early in the 1952 season, and played in 117 games with the Baltimore Orioles, then a Phillies Triple-A affiliate, and batted just .220. He wondered if his back was so bad that his baseball career was finished.
Jones spent the winter of 1952-1953 playing baseball in Mazatlan, Mexico. He led the league in batting (.386) and hit a game-winning home run that gave Mazatlan the Mexican League pennant. Jones’s self-confidence returned.
On February 8, 1953, Jones was sold by the Phillies to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League. He was the starting first baseman for the Solons from 1953 through mid-1957, and he wanted to prove that he could make it back to the major leagues. In 1953 Jones led the team in games played (176) and RBIs (102), with a .287 batting average. In 1954 he led the Solons in batting average (.304), hits, doubles, and total bases. In 1955, he led the league in hits (206) and led the last-place Solons in several other batting categories. In 1956 Jones led the Solons in home runs and RBIs.
On June 23, 1957, Milwaukee Braves first baseman Joe Adcock broke his right leg sliding into second base and was expected to be sidelined for six to eight weeks. The Braves needed another first baseman to share time with Frank Torre, and purchased Jones from Sacramento. On July 14 he played in his first major-league game in more than five years. Jones, now 32 years old, played in 30 games with the Braves in 1957 and had 21 hits in 79 at-bats (.266). On July 26, in a game against the New York Giants, he hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. On August 24 he hit his last major-league home run, against Johnny Podres of the Dodgers. Jones played his last regular-season game in the majors on September 29.
In the first three games of the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees, Jones grounded out in two pitch-hitting appearances. But in the bottom of the tenth inning in Game Four, with the Yankees ahead 5-4 and leading the Series two games to one, Jones was sent up to pinch-hit for Warren Spahn against left-hander Tommy Byrne. In a 1991 interview, Jones said, “I knew Byrne when we were both in the Pacific Coast League. I knew he was going to start me out with a bad curve, something low and inside, hoping I’d go after it.”
Jones was right. He took the pitch, which skipped past catcher Yogi Berra. Umpire Augie Donatelli called it a ball, but Jones claimed that the pitch had struck his right foot. Charlie Blossfield, a ballboy for the Braves, had let the ball roll to the backstop, and it bounced back toward home plate. Jones scooped up the ball and showed the umpire the black smudge of shoe polish on it. Donatelli reversed his call and awarded Jones first base. Berra and manager Casey Stengel argued the call, to no avail.
Felix Mantilla was sent in to run for Jones, and Bob Grim replaced Byrne. Mantilla advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Schoendienst and scored on a double by Johnny Logan. With the game tied, 5-5, Eddie Mathews hit a walk-off two-run home run. The Braves had tied the Series and went on to conquer the Yankees in seven games. The shoe-polish incident was widely regarded as the turning point in the Series. The at-bat was Jones’s last in the major leagues.
The Braves sent Jones back to Sacramento after the season. In eight years in the major leagues he had played in 412 regular-season games and batted .267 with 25 home runs.
Jones played two more seasons with Sacramento as the starting first baseman. In 1958 he batted .302 and led the team in most batting categories. In 1959 Jones batted.249. In his final season, 1960, he was the starting first baseman for the PCL’s Portland Beavers, batting.249. In 13 years in the minor leagues between 1943 and 1960, Jones batted .292 with 1,678 hits and 119 home runs.
After Jones retired from baseball, he didn’t look back. Cheryl Noss said, “My father was a man who prioritized his life. Family always came first, and this is a trait he instilled in his children and grandchildren. My father and mother were only children, raised by divorced and widowed mothers. I believe the strength of my father’s love of family allowed him to leave baseball with no regrets. His life wasn’t baseball; it was family.” She added, “Baseball was a sport he loved, but being away from his family became more difficult as the years passed. He always wanted a large family, and with each subsequent birth of a daughter, it got harder and harder for him to be away from us. He felt he was missing so much.”
During offseasons Jones had worked in public relations for Title Insurance and Trust in Sacramento. After retiring from baseball he became the company’s head of public relations. “This was his post-baseball dream job,” said Noss. “He had a duck/pheasant club and a cabin cruiser on the Sacramento River to entertain clients. He took [real-estate] clients hunting, fishing, golfing, and out to lunches and dinners – all paid for by TI. He brought in a great deal of big business to the title company. He loved the job and the town, and the feeling was mutual.”
Jones was well-suited for the position, said Noss: “My dad was easygoing, charismatic, confident, and self-assured in almost all situations. He was soft-spoken and had a relaxed manner. He had the ability to make people want to be around him. He was also humble about his achievements on the playing field. Unless you knew my dad was Nippy Jones, the hometown hero baseball player, you would never find out from him. He was never cocky or arrogant, which was why he had so many friends. Almost all were sportsmen like him who loved hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors.”
Jones worked in the title-insurance business for 27 years and retired in 1987 at the age of 62. Then he started the Happy Hooker fishing guide service, on the Upper and Lower Sacramento River. He worked part-time as a fishing guide for the next five years or so. In 1988 Jones appeared at a card show in Milwaukee and autographed the famous baseball that had struck his foot more than 30 years before. Former ballboy Charlie Blossfield, who was given the ball by the umpire, brought the historic ball to the show.
Jones had a major heart attack and emergency open-heart surgery in 1989, but was back on his boat within six months. In 1992 he was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. In 1994 he had a minor stroke. By the time Jones turned 70 in June 1995, said Noss, “We could all tell he was slowing down. His eyes weren’t as bright, and he was a little quieter than we had ever seen him. He still loved his fishing and would go out with his son-in-law, grandson, and friends. He would still tell jokes and tell tall tales to his grandson. He had his grandson Chris Jr. believing the water tower on the Sacramento River was stocked with salmon.”
Jones was 70 years old when he died of a heart attack while sitting in his favorite chair, on October 3, 1995, less than six months before his and Nora’s 50th wedding anniversary. He was buried at Southeast Lawn Memorial Park in Sacramento. Nora died on June 15, 2004, and was buried next to her husband.
Noss recently reread the cards that her mother received after her father died: “Overwhelmingly, the cards said, ‘Nippy was a good man.’ So simple a statement, yet so complex – just like my dad. Being a “Good Man,” to many people, means different things. He was a good son, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather, a good son-in-law, a good father-in-law, a good friend, a good worker, a good fishing guide, a good sportsman, a good baseball player: a Good Man. I think dad would be more proud of that legacy than any other he could have left.”
This biography is included in the book “Thar’s Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves” (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
I thank Cheryl Noss, her sisters Diane Bennett, Debbie Thomas, and Cindi Hayashida, and James Noss (Nippy and Nora’s oldest grandchild) for their recollections and for access to newspaper clippings.
Jones, Steve, “Ex-Solon ‘Nippy’ Jones, ’57 Series hero, dies at 70,”
Sacramento Bee, October 6, 1995, B1.
 Tom Mortenson, “Vernal ‘Nippy’ Jones: The ballplayer who made shoe polish famous,” Sports Collectors Digest, March 24, 1989, 146.
 James Noss, One of the Boys of Summer: A Biography of V.L. ‘Nippy’ Jones (Sacramento: self-published, 1997), 1.
 E-mail correspondence by the author with Cheryl Noss, January 7, 2013.
 Ben Swesey, “ ‘Nippy’ helped polish off Yankees: Emergency fill-in took one for team in ’57 World Series,” Sacramento Bee, September 22, 1991, D9.
 E-mail correspondence with Cheryl Noss.
 Ben Swesey, 1991.
 E-mail correspondence with Cheryl Noss.