This article was written by Rory Costello
“For a man who wants to stay in baseball, being a utilityman is the best training he can get. Much better than being a regular. The fellow who’s on the bench, if he applies himself, has an opportunity to study every facet of the game, and to learn more about it than the regular.”1
That was Vern Benson in 1968. Fifteen years before, the infielder-outfielder’s modest major-league career (.202 in 104 at-bats over fractions of five seasons spread over 11 years) had ended. Yet he stayed in the game for decades, passing on his knowledge. Although he served just briefly as an acting manager in the majors, he was a skipper for 8½ seasons in the minors and seven more in winter ball. Benson was also a big-league coach during 18 summers, and though he stepped down from that role after the 1980 season, he remained active as a scout until 1996.
Perhaps the greatest testimonial to Benson’s impact as a teacher came from Bob Gibson. As author Tom Van Hyning wrote, “Benson remembers a thank-you note he received from Gibson after the pitcher’s retirement from baseball. ‘I wouldn’t want to take any credit for the success Gibson had after that [their winter together in Puerto Rico in 1961-62], but that tells me something.’”2
Vernon Adair Benson was born on September 19, 1924, in Granite Quarry, North Carolina, of Swedish and Irish descent. His father, William Luther Benson, was a brickmason. His mother, born Ruth Elizabeth Foster, was a homemaker. Vern’s one brother, William Luther Jr., became an accountant.
When he wasn’t on the road with baseball, Benson did not stray far from his native soil, living in either Granite Quarry or neighboring Salisbury until his death. He and his wife, Rachael Lyerly Benson, were married for more than 61 years – from October 23, 1946, until she died in April 2008. The Bensons had two daughters, Bonnie and Robin, and a son named Vernon Randall (“Randy”). In addition to seven grandchildren, he became the great-grandfather of seven.
Growing up, Benson played baseball and basketball at Granite Quarry High School. After high school he entered Catawba College in Salisbury in 1942, where he focused on baseball. Records he set include a streak of 16 games with a run scored. The Catawba Sports Hall of Fame inducted him as part of its second class in 1978.
Few men alive in 2010 could talk about what it was like to play under Connie Mack, and Benson was one of them. After his sophomore year, Benson played for the Salisbury Aggies in the Carolina Victory League, a local semipro circuit that sprang up during World War II. Ira Thomas, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1909 to 1915, scouted the Victory League for the A’s. Owner/manager Mack, in need of reserves amid the war, assessed a group of youngsters up from Catawba.3
Benson was the only one who impressed the Tall Tactician enough to get a contract. He signed on July 29, 1943 (he never did go back and get his degree). Two days later the 18-year-old made his big-league debut at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. He flied out as a pinch-hitter for pitcher and future big-league manager Lum Harris.
Days later, however, the Army drafted Benson. He missed the rest of 1943 plus all of the 1944 and 1945 seasons in the service. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he played ball for two years. He also went to France and Germany.
When he returned to professional baseball in 1946, Benson had a new position. A brief AP news report from spring training that March said, “Vernon Benson, a 21-year-old outfielder, is putting smiles on Connie Mack’s face. The Philadelphia Athletics’ manager says Benson – once an infielder – ‘may be the man we’re looking for.’ He has a good arm, is fast and can hit.”4
Although Benson made the roster to start the season, he saw little action. Of his seven appearances, four came as a pinch-runner. He was hitless in five at-bats and went back to the minors in early May – at his own request – to play regularly. He would not resurface in the majors for five years.
After the 1946 season Benson was released by the Athletics and joined the St. Louis Cardinals chain. Future Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, then GM of the Columbus, Georgia, farm team, recommended him. “He saw me at Savannah,” Benson said. He played most of the next five seasons at Triple-A, spending a stretch at Double-A in 1949. The 1951 season was easily his best as a pro: For Columbus he batted .308 with 18 homers and 89 RBIs, and drew 111 walks. All were career highs.
As a result, the Cardinals recalled Benson after the American Association season ended. He got into 13 games, and more than eight years after his major-league debut he finally recorded his first base hit. Nine days later, on September 18, the left-handed hitter stroked his first big-league home run, at Sportsman’s Park off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca – 15 days before Branca served up Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World.”
During the winter of 1951-52, Vern went to play in Cuba. He was the shortstop for the Havana Reds, who won the league championship thanks to Benson’s bases-loaded triple. As a result, he got to play in the Caribbean Series in Panama. Against Venezuela on February 21, teammate Tommy Fine threw the only no-hitter in the tournament’s history. Benson (at third base) made one of two great defensive plays that preserved it.
Benson started the 1952 season back at Columbus, but he returned to St. Louis in July and spent the rest of the year with the Cardinals as a backup third baseman. He had nine hits in 47 at-bats over 20 games, including his two other homers in the majors. Both homers, hit off the Pirates’ Murry Dickson and Jim Wilson, also came at Sportsman’s Park.
Another moment from that year echoed for much longer, though. On August 25, Benson hit a little sinking liner to Dodgers left fielder Dick Williams, who dived for it and missed, injuring his shoulder badly. Williams credited that injury with starting him on the path to becoming a manager. Like Benson, he became a student and observer of the game.
Benson made the Cardinals roster out of spring training in 1953, but he remained at the end of the bench. From Opening Day through May 30, he got into just 13 games – eight as a pinch-runner and five as a pinch-hitter. In early June, St. Louis signed its first bonus boy, 18-year-old Dick Schofield, and optioned Benson to Houston in the Texas League.5 He never got back to the majors.
Benson returned to winter ball in 1953-54, hitting .346 in 60 games for Pastora in the Venezuelan League, and again played in the Caribbean Series. The following winter, he appeared in 22 games for Santa Marta. A quarter-century later, he would return as a manager.
He made his transition to coaching in 1954 with Rochester, under GM Bing Devine, and two years later he was named manager of Winnipeg in the Northern League in 1956. For his first three years as a skipper, he remained a playing manager, finally playing in his last two games in 1959, with the Tulsa Oilers.
In 1961 Benson began the season managing Portland in the Pacific Coast League. Then, on July 6, St. Louis fired Solly Hemus as manager and replaced him with Johnny Keane. The Cardinals reassigned coach Darrell Johnson and, at Keane’s request, brought Benson up to the big-league staff. Keane had managed Benson for several years in Triple-A, going back to 1949. “I said, ‘I won’t come as a yes-man,’” Benson recalled in 2010. “And I didn’t.”
During the early 1960s Benson coached winter-ball teams in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In the winter of 1961-62, he managed the Santurce Cangrejeros to the Puerto Rican Winter League championship as well as to victory in the subsequent Inter-American Series tournament. He brought down several young Cardinals for seasoning, including Bob Gibson. “[Benson] was familiar with player turnover, the lack of pitching depth, and other winter challenges.”6 For example, he reached out to the Dominican Republic and got another Cardinal, Julián Javier, to fill in at second base for a while.
Two winters later (1963-64), Benson managed successfully in his only season in the Dominican Republic, at the helm of the Licey Tigres. The Tigres were just 28-30 in the regular season but came together in the playoffs. In the best-of-five first round, they lost the first two games but then came back and won; in the finals, they dropped the first three before running the table. Again young Cardinals were present, such as Phil Gagliano.
When Benson joined Johnny Keane’s staff, he likely served as the first-base coach, given that Harry Walker was the batting coach, Howie Pollet was the pitching coach, and Red Schoendienst was a player-coach. Keane, who had been the third-base coach under Solly Hemus, continued to coach third while managing the club through 1962, although Benson spelled him on occasion that year.7 When Keane moved full-time to the dugout, Benson took over the third-base lines. He also got a chance to manage the Cardinals during a doubleheader on May 12, 1963, when Keane was out with gastritis.
In 1964 the Cardinals won it all. During the World Series against the Yankees, Benson’s insights helped St. Louis come out on top. In the opener, against Whitey Ford, he told Lou Brock to ask for a new ball because he knew that catcher Elston Howard was helping Ford load up. “He would act like he’d lost his balance and screw the ball into the dirt,” Benson said. The crafty Ford would then turn the dirt into mud on the mound.
In Game Four, with Roger Craig in long relief, Benson asked Keane in the fifth inning, “Who are you gonna use to hit for Craig?” Keane replied, “The way he’s pitching, I may just let him go.” But after Keane reconsidered, Carl Warwick’s leadoff single in the sixth inning paved the way for Ken Boyer’s game-winning grand slam.
Despite the Cardinals’ championship, the 1964 season left an unpleasant taste for Benson, following the firing of GM Devine in August. After the Series, Benson followed Keane to the New York Yankees as his right-hand man. When he arrived Whitey Ford greeted him by saying, “You caught me, didn’t you?” As Jim Bouton recalled in Ball Four, Vern also got the nickname Radar because he was not only the first-base coach (Frank Crosetti was at third) but also Keane’s eyes and ears in the clubhouse.
“I didn’t like it in New York,” Benson recalled, “the city or the situation. I said, ‘That ball club’s getting old.’” When the Yankees fired Keane in May 1966, it was not surprising that Benson went too.
He wasn’t out of work long, though. “The Angels offered me a job even before I’d left town. Bing Devine [by then GM of the New York Mets] found a spot for me in rookie ball at Marion, Virginia.” When the Cincinnati Reds made Dave Bristol their manager in July 1966, he hired Benson, whom he had known since 1957 (when Bristol was playing for Wausau, Wisconsin, in the Northern League). “I got paid by three clubs that year – but I don’t recommend doing it that way!” Benson said.
He remained the Reds’ third-base coach until Bristol was fired after the 1969 season. Although Bristol succeeded Joe Schultz as manager of the Seattle Pilots (shortly thereafter to become the Milwaukee Brewers), Benson did not go with him. In late October Devine – who had returned to the Cardinals in December 1967 – brought Benson back into the St. Louis organization. Benson was a general instructor in the minors, in charge of infielders and baserunning. He rejoined the big club in July 1970, and remained on Red Schoendienst’s staff through the 1975 season.
In 1976 Dave Bristol got a new managing job with the Atlanta Braves. He brought Benson aboard as third-base coach. “Atlanta was close to home,” Benson recalled, “and I could get home more often.” He served as acting manager whenever Bristol served suspensions. He said, “When you’re with Dave Bristol you get a lot of chances to manage.”8
Benson’s record-book entry as a big-league manager consists of one game. It came under unusual circumstances. On May 11, 1977, with the Braves mired in a 16-game losing streak, mercurial owner Ted Turner put Bristol on a 10-day “special assignment” and became skipper himself. National League President Chub Feeney forced Turner out of the dugout after one game, in which Benson and another coach, Chris Cannizzaro, actually made the strategic decisions. Benson took over on May 12. The Braves won, ending the losing streak, and Bristol was back the next day.
When the Braves fired Bristol after the 1977 season, Benson went to manage the Syracuse Chiefs, the top farm club of the Toronto Blue Jays, for two seasons. The Chiefs were 50-90 in 1978, but they bounced back to second in the International League in ’79. They lost the Governor’s Cup to Columbus in the ninth inning of Game Seven. The Sporting News named Benson its Minor League Manager of the Year.
“‘I’ve never had more satisfaction from a club,’ Benson remarked at the close of the season. “They worked hard. I couldn’t have gotten any more out of them. They’re why I got Manager of the Year. It’s not that I was smarter than anybody else.’” The article described Benson as “humble, extremely patient . . . firm but fair.”9
One of the Chiefs was his son Randy, whose minor-league career as a pitcher lasted from 1972 to 1980. Both Bensons went down to Venezuela that winter as Vern took a job managing Cardenales de Lara. He led the club through the winter of 1982-83, reaching the finals in three of his four seasons.
Benson had expressed interest in managing the Blue Jays when Roy Hartsfield was dismissed after the 1979 season. The Jays offered him a coaching position instead, which he turned down. He said, “I don’t feel like I lost anything because I never had it, but I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t disappointed. If I didn’t merit the job after this season, then I’d reached the end of the road there.”10 In early October Benson joined Dave Bristol once more. He coached third base for the San Francisco Giants in 1980.
Bristol found himself out of a job again in December 1980, and so in February 1981 Benson came back home – literally and figuratively. He became the Cardinals’ scouting supervisor for the Carolinas, which allowed him to work out of Granite Quarry. His reports prompted St. Louis to draft several men who made it to the majors, the most notable being Cris Carpenter, pitcher from 1988-1996. It became a father-and-son operation starting in 1994; Randy also worked as a regional scout (and eventually scouting supervisor) for the Cardinals.
Vern Benson died at the age of 89 on January 20, 2014. He was residing in a Salisbury nursing home called The Laurels. Four years previously, looking back in over his life in baseball, he had said, “I was in the game 56 years and I never missed a payday. I never made much money, but just about every year was enjoyable.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Vern Benson for his memories (via mail and a telephone interview on June 27, 2010).
This biography is included in the book Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
Bjarkman, Peter C. Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Bjarkman, Peter C. Baseball With a Latin Beat. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.: 1994.
Figueredo, Jorge S., Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003.
Figueredo, Jorge S., Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003.
The Sporting News Baseball Register, 1965.
Rachael Benson obituary, Salisbury Post, April 8, 2008.
1 Burick, Si. “Utility Role Is Best Training for Embryo Pilot.” Baseball Digest, December 1968: 89.
2 Van Hyning, Thomas. Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1995: 181.
3 Utley, R.G., and Tim Peeler with Aaron Peeler. Outlaw Ballplayers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2006: 188.
4 “Benson Pleases Connie.” Associated Press, March 12, 1946.
5 “Cards Sign Bonus Star, Option Benson.” International News Service, June 4, 1953.
6 Van Hyning, Thomas. The Santurce Crabbers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1999: 87.
7 “Keane of Cards to Quit Coaching.” Associated Press, January 18, 1963.
8 Timms, Leslie. Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, September 10, 1976: b2. Bristol was ejected 14 times while Benson was coaching for him.
9 Bellinger, Chuck. “Vern Benson Hailed As No. 1 Minor Pilot.” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 45.