“Whoosh … budap … snap … whoosh … budap … snap.” Vern Duncan’s earliest memory of baseball was of throwing a ball against the brick wall of a neighboring store in his back yard.1 His childhood efforts led him on a long baseball career highlighted by three seasons at the highest professional level, one in the National League and two in the Federal League.
Vernon Van Duke Duncan2 was born on January 6, 1890, in Clayton, North Carolina, to Alexander Romulus “A.R.” and Elizabeth “Bettie” Turner Duncan.3 Vern was the couple’s youngest of seven children. Both of his parents were in their 40s at the time of his arrival. Bettie died in 1898 at age 52, while A.R., who spent time as both a farmer and postmaster, died three years later aged 60, before Vern turned 12. From age 13 to 17, Duncan played for both the school and town teams in Clayton, where at 15 he was praised by a newspaper for doing “some star work” in left field.4 Memories of how the scorekeeper would announce the players stayed with him into adulthood: “Cable at the bat, Duncan on deck, and Ellis in the hold.”5 He remembered that runs were “kept by cutting notches in a stick or on the ground” and that his first uniform, bright red and heavily quilted to protect the skin when sliding, cost 85 cents. For away games they would travel to Raleigh, Smithfield, Selma, and Wendell (all within 15 miles of Clayton6). Departing at 8 A.M. via horse wagons or buggies, they often returned home at 9:30 P.M.7
In 1907, 17-year-old Vern transferred to Trinity Park, a prep school aligned with Trinity College (now Duke University) in Durham.8 The following spring he played second base on “the best team [Trinity Park] has ever had, and is well trained.”9 He would remain a keystoner until he became a professional. During the summer of 1908 he was a member of a semipro team in Wadesboro, North Carolina, playing for expenses and everything he “wanted to eat, drink, smoke, or wear.”10 He got off to a great start, collecting three hits in the first game of the season, an 11-3 win over Florence (South Carolina) on June 17.11 At the end of the season he received a watch and a gold fountain pen for his efforts.12 Apparently, being on the Wadesboro team had other benefits as he and three other teammates made the social pages in mid-August when they attended a “delightful porch and lawn party … in honor of … Miss Virginia Truesdel, of Kershaw, S.C … and the guests were loath to leave.”13
Duncan received professional offers to play in both the Tri-State (Class B) and South Atlantic Leagues (Class C) Leagues.14 He chose to attend the University of North Carolina, where he was the starting second baseman in the spring of 1909. A Wadesboro and UNC teammate, B.C. Stewart, said that Duncan and fellow Trinity Park alumnus and new Tar Heel W.P. Moore (catcher) were “among the best he ever saw.”15 In a March doubleheader against Amherst College, Duncan had five hits in six at-bats. The Daily Tar Heel noted that Duncan and his partner at shortstop (Winn) “pulled off two fast double plays and got everything that came their way.”16 After a great season with the Tar Heels, leading the team with a .350 batting average (35-for-100),17 he returned for the summer to the Wadesboro team and a Charlotte paper made note of his fielding prowess.18 Wadesboro went 28-13-1, outscored its opponents 207-75, and was crowned the unofficial amateur champion of the Carolinas.19
In 1910, during Duncan’s second season with the Tar Heels, he was offered contracts to play with the Hartford Senators (Connecticut State League, Class B) and the Wilmington Sailors (Eastern Carolina League, Class D). He declined both offers, hoping to play with the Raleigh Red Birds, a more local team (Eastern Carolina League), but the Redbirds manager, King Kelly,20 said that at age 20, he “was too young to try professional ball.”21 His UNC season complete, Duncan played for Rockingham (North Carolina) in the Pee Dee Association that summer.22 While at a hotel in Cheraw, South Carolina, he signed his first professional contract, with Columbia, South Carolina (Sally League, Class C).23
Duncan made his professional debut with the Columbia Gamecocks on July 25, 1910, against the Columbus (Georgia) Foxes with a two-hit effort in the leadoff position. Responding to Duncan’s query as to whether or not he should take some pitches, manager Bill Breitenstein replied, “Hit anything that looks good to you.”24 The first pitch must have looked good because he hit it to left-center for a double. Although he continued his hitting success25 in his second game, his fielding left much to be desired at second base and by the third game he was moved to right field for the remainder of the season. For his efforts, he collected a $250 bonus for hitting over .240. (He hit .275.)26 The Gamecocks, however, did not have a great season, finishing last in the league, playing at a .390 clip, 23½ games behind champion Columbus.
In 1911 Duncan returned to Columbia, now known as the Commies (short for Commissioners27), and led the team in batting (.317) and hits (158). The league played a split season with Columbia winning the second half and going on to lose to first-half champion Columbus in the playoffs, four games to two. That fall, American League teams Detroit and Cleveland both drafted him with the Tigers winning rights to sign him via “the draw.”28
In the spring of 1912, Detroit farmed Duncan out to Chattanooga (Southern Association, Class A). However, arm problems limited him to just a few games. He was soon sold to the Dallas Giants of the Texas League (Class B) where he would rejoin his manager from Columbia, Dred Cavender,29 who would be his biggest proponent for three seasons (1911-1913). When Cavender left Columbia and joined Dallas in late 1911, he advised owner Joe Gardner to sign Duncan.30
The hot Texas sun seemed to rejuvenate Duncan’s ailing arm. Vern was in the top four on the Giants in batting average (.268), doubles (18), hits (132), and triples (12, number one on the team).31 Early in the season the El Paso Herald noted “Duncan is showing good class and promises to be a star in the company.”32
During spring training in 1913, Dallas and Duncan faced the New York Giants and their vaunted pitcher Christy Mathewson. “I hit one of his famous fade-away balls and it almost got to the pitcher and the butt end of my bat went all the way to third base – broken bat.” 33 Duncan showed marked improvement that season, leading the Texas League in batting in early August (.328).34 The Houston Post noted that Duncan was a “remarkable fielder,” adding, “He is fast and covers a world of territory in his garden, and in addition is the possessor of an excellent wing. There is not another fielder of the Texas League this season who has had as successful a year as Van Duke Duncan.”35 Manager Cavender proclaimed, “You can quote me as saying that Duncan will go to the big leagues and stay. I believe there are [sic] no end to his ability. He has everything that goes to the making of a major leaguer.”36
Duncan went on to lead the junior Giants in batting average (.307), hits (169), doubles (28), triples (13), and slugging (.416). His performance, in fact, earned him a trip to the “bigs” late in the season when he was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies.37 Duncan was rewarded for his accomplishments in Dallas by being selected to the 1913 All-Texas League team.38
However, Duncan’s trip to Philadelphia was not a sure thing as Boston Braves manager George Stallings claimed in August that Dallas owner Jim Gardner had agreed to sell Duncan’s rights to the Boston club. He claimed he had posted a check in addition to making a public announcement of the deal. The next day, Stallings received a wire from Gardner stating that the Phillies had given him a better offer.39 The Braves protested, taking the matter to the National Baseball Commission, which ruled on September 1 in favor of Philadelphia.40 He joined the Phillies in Boston and then headed to St. Louis by train for the next series. However, delays made it an interesting train ride. The team’s train arrived late in Cleveland, missing its connection by two hours. Two cars were hooked up to an engine and baggage car and, as Duncan described it, they “lit a rag – the fastest I ever rode on a train,” arriving in Terre Haute, Indiana, in time to transfer to the St. Louis-bound train.41
On September 11 in Robison Field, St. Louis, Duncan made his major-league debut, pinch-hitting for Sherry Magee (hitting .317 at the time) and then was inserted into left field. Duncan hit into a force play when the Cardinals shortstop, Wese Callahan, made a nice play to force the runner at second.42 He then was thrown out attempting to steal second on a muddy field.43 On September 21, in Chicago’s West Side Grounds, Duncan pinch-hit for Grover Cleveland Alexander in the third inning, stroking a double to left field for his first major-league hit as the Phillies won, 8-7.44
Duncan had a two-hit game on September 27 against the visiting Boston Braves. He pinch-hit for pitcher George Chalmers in the fifth and remained in the game playing right field. He made his first career start against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in the last series of the season.45 Playing right field, he went 1-for-4 (single up the middle with the bases loaded) with a run batted in.46
After the season, Philadelphia sent Duncan to the Montreal Royals (International League, Double A) for more work. Meanwhile, the Federal League had formed and the Baltimore Terrapins made him a good offer. When he could not come to terms with Montreal on a contract, he, in his own words, “jumped to Baltimore.”47
Duncan had an inauspicious start in the Federal League in 1914, batting a mere .202 at the end of May. However, he found life in his bat and brought his average up to .259 by mid-July. He finished the season at .287, his high mark for the year.
Duncan had a “career week” June 5-11, going 14-for-25. The skein included a four-hit effort in Indianapolis and two three-hit games.
In a late-season game in Baltimore, the Terrapins led Kansas City 3-2 with one out in the eighth inning. Kansas City had a runner on first when Duke Kenworthy hit a long fly to the left field fence.48 As the Baltimore Sun described it,
Grand Duke Duncan saved the day for his comrade (pitcher King George Suggs) when he made one of the greatest catches seen on any ball field this year. It was a gloved-hand stab of a long clout just as the ball was about to hit the fence. Duke took the sphere in as gracefully as if he were picking cherries.49
Duncan led the Terps in plate appearances (667), runs scored (99), and sacrifice hits (28). He pounded out 20 doubles and 8 triples. His slash line (not that they were looking at them in 1914) was .287/.375/.363.
Duncan’s hot bat continued into 1915: He was batting .397 a month into the season, resulting in his receiving a new two-year contract from the Terrapins at a healthy increase in salary. He was still hitting .337 in mid-June and was given an offer by the Cincinnati Reds to jump back to the National League. But he did not want to walk out on his contract with Baltimore. His bat cooled down and he finished with a batting average of .268 (hitting .205 after August 25). For the season, Duncan led the team in games played (146), at-bats (531), hits (142), stolen bases (19), walks (54), and sacrifice hits (33). His slash line was .267/.337/.328. One of the Federal League team owners, Robert B. Ward of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, died in October, an event that, in Duncan’s opinion, was partly responsible for the league’s demise.50 After the league folded, all players with Federal League contracts were told to return to the team previously holding their rights.51
Duncan was considered the property of Montreal, which sent him a contract for $150 per month, the same amount he made while playing for Columbia in 1910-11.52 Montreal also informed him that he would be sent to a lower league. Duncan requested that the club send him to the Raleigh Capitals (North Carolina State League, Class D), near his hometown, and in late April he was sent there for Harry Damrau.53
Duncan performed well back in his home state, leading the way with a .336 batting average on 115 hits (second on the team). Before the season was over the 26-year-old found a spot on the St. Paul Saints (Double-A American Association). The transition from Class D to Double-A baseball was initially a difficult one, but by season’s end Duncan’s average reached .280 in 27 games. He had shown St. Paul enough to have the club draft him from Raleigh for the following season.
In 1917 Duncan batted .276 in 137 games (19 doubles, 6 triples) for St. Paul, which remained his home through 1921 with a year off in 1918 during World War I. Duncan served at two Army bases in South Carolina, Camp Jackson (Columbia) and Camp Sevier (Greenville), with the 81st Division.54 He was able to play on the 156th Depot Brigade baseball team.55
The 1919 Saints won the American Association pennant and were considered to be a “richly talented, opportunistic team, more adept at preventing runs than scoring them. … [T]hey were the American Association’s most enigmatic champion, relying on stolen bases.” St. Paul led the league with 216 stolen bases (Duncan was second on the team with 29) and allowed the fewest runs (542).56 Duncan batted .279 with 28 doubles. One of his teammates was football Hall of Famer George Halas, future owner and coach of the Chicago Bears. An elaborate end-of-season banquet was held for the players at the St. Paul Athletic Club. Each player received a watch while the fans gave manager Mike Kelley a gift of $1,400 ($21,000 in 2019).57
St. Paul made a postseason trip to California to play the champion of the Pacific Coast League, Vernon (near Los Angeles), in a best-of-nine-games Junior World Series. En route to the West Coast, the team stopped in Lincoln, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Price, Utah to play games.58 Against Vernon, St. Paul lost 3-2 in the ninth and deciding game.59 The winning hit was made by Vernon’s Wheezer Dell in the bottom of the ninth when he hit a double over Duncan’s head in left field, after St. Paul manager Kelley moved Duncan to shallow left. After the game, actor Tom Kennedy, unhappy with the calls being made from behind the plate, approached umpire Jim “Bull Head” Murray and attacked him, landing the first punch on the head from behind. The umpire was subsequently awarded $500 in damages.60
After leaving Vernon, the Saints traveled to San Francisco and Oakland for a week of games. Duncan noted the beauty of the landscapes during the train ride back east to Minnesota, especially along the Columbia River.61
The St. Paul team of 1920 again finished in first place with 115 wins and is regarded as one of the all-time great minor-league teams (ranked number six by Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright in their 2001 listing of the top 100 minor-league teams of the twentieth century).62 In a later reminiscence, Duncan said, “In 1920 we had the best minor league team I ever saw at St. Paul. We won the pennant again, this time by 26 ball games and let up three weeks before the season closed.”63 The Saints were the only American Association team to lead the league in both triples and home runs,64 though Duncan’s contribution was minor in those categories, 6 and 2). His overall numbers improved over the previous season, however, as he hit .313, slugged .403, and had a .359 on-base percentage in 118 games. The Saints pitching staff was superb. Charley “Sea Lion” Hall led the way with a record of 27-8 and a league-leading 2.06 ERA. In addition, he hurled his third career no-hitter in August. Hall was supported by Howard Merritt (21 wins), Steamboat Williams (20 wins), and Fritz Coumbe (19 wins). The team sparkled in the field with a league-leading .967 fielding percentage. Its .301 team batting average was the best in the league since 1911.65 In the Junior World Series St. Paul played International League champion Baltimore and again came out on the losing end (five games to one).66
After the news of the Black Sox 1919 World Series scandal became public in 1920, Duncan commented, “We read of the White Sox-Cincinnati World’s Series scandal which put a damper on baseball and [it was] the worst scandal ever known in baseball circles. …”67
Although Duncan had another solid season in 1921 with the Saints, sporting a .304 average, the team did not fare as well. The Saints dropped to sixth place with an 80-87 record, 17½ games behind the first-place Louisville Colonels. Four former major leaguers joined the team (Tim Hendryx, Tom Sheehan, Nick Allen, and a former semipro opponent from 1909, Rube Benton), disrupting the club’s chemistry, according to Duncan, due to their “superior” attitude. He called it “one of [his] most unpleasant seasons in baseball.”68
In 1922 Duncan headed back to Raleigh, where he took the reins as player-manager of the Capitals (Class-C Piedmont League). He was with Raleigh through the end of his career, in 1927. Duncan batted a lofty .337 in that first season, tapering off to .286 with 22 doubles in 1923. A teammate that season, Carr Smith, batted .418 with a .759 slugging percentage, and totaled 77 extra-base hits (28 doubles, 25 triples, and 24 home runs). Smith would go on to play 10 games for the Washington Senators in 1923 and ’24. At the end of the 1923 season, Duncan was still owed $2,700 in salary plus additional expenses. He decided to buy the club in hopes of saving money, but eventually sold the club in 1926 to Jimmy Hamilton of the Nashville Volunteers (Southern Association).69 He commented that his plan to save money “backfired.”70
In 1924 Duncan ended his three-year run as manager and became a part-time player, hitting just .226. However, he was able to put the ball into play the following years, batting .313 in 1925 and .304 in 1926. In 1927, his final season in Organized Baseball, he played in just 19 games (.169).
Duncan took the reins of his alma mater, North Carolina, for one season in 1926, finishing with a record of 9-16.
Duncan met his future wife, Elizabeth Moore Gordon,71 while in Raleigh, in what he considered the highlight of his years with the club. They had two children, Gordon and Jane.
At the end of his career, Duncan tried out with the Richmond Colts of the Virginia League (Class B) but did not make the team. Eighteen years after his professional career started, he “laid my suit, shoes, and glove aside to follow other lines.”72
Whoosh … budap … snap … whoosh … budap … snap … [silence].
After his baseball career ended, Duncan became the postmaster in Clayton with Elizabeth working as a clerk in the post office. By 1940 he had become a salesman while Elizabeth was a teacher. He suffered a heart attack on May 29, 1954, and died three days later, on June 1, at the age of 64 in Daytona Beach, Florida.73 Elizabeth died in 1988.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted ancestry.com, baseball-reference.com, and retrosheet.org.
1 Vern Duncan, untitled document documenting his life in baseball, November 13, 1935, 1. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Hereafter cited as Life in Baseball).
2 Most sources cite his name as Vernon Van Duncan with Duke being a nickname. However, his Certificate of Death (Florida), June 1, 1954, shows his name as Van Duke Duncan, and a document from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum showing his salaries from 1910-1913 lists him as V.D. Duncan.
3 “Vernon Van Duke Duncan,” Ancestry.com, retrieved June 28, 2019.
4 “Raleigh Is Victor,” Raleigh News and Observer, June 23, 1905: 5.
5 (Life in Baseball, 1. Note that the baseball term “in the hole” was originally “in the hold,” probably of nautical heritage as was “on deck,” since the next place after being on deck on a ship would be in the hold (or below deck). Chris Landers, “Discover the Mysterious Origins of Some of Baseball’s Most Well-Known Terms,” Cut 4 at mlb.com, July 13, 2017, mlb.com/cut4/more-wacky-stories-behind-baseball-terms/c-218978328, retrieved November 19, 2018.
7 Life in Baseball, 1.
8 In a 1908 news tidbit, Duncan’s name was listed as William D. Duncan in an announcement of his leaving for Trinity Park School in Durham. “Personals,” Raleigh Times, September 8, 1908: 6; “Baseball at Trinity College,” Greensboro Daily News, January 10, 1908: 3; “Duke University, “Trinity College of Arts & Sciences: Our History,” trinity.duke.edu/about/our-history, retrieved March 16, 2019.
9 “Trinity Park School Has a Strong Bunch,” Charlotte Observer, March 23, 1908: 3.
10 Life in Baseball, 1.
11 “A Fine Game Yesterday,” Messenger and Intelligencer (Wadesboro, North Carolina), June 18, 1908: 1.
12 Life in Baseball, 1.
13 “Miss Caraway Entertains in Honor of Miss Truesdale,” Wadesboro Messenger and Intelligencer, August 13, 1908: 1.
14 “Manager Masten of University Hands Out Dope; Play Twins Easter Monday,” Winston-Salem Journal, December 23, 1908: 1.
15 Ibid.; “Wearers of the ‘N.C.,’” Messenger and Intelligencer, May 27, 1909: 4.
16 “We Get the Other One,” Daily Tar Heel, April 1, 1909: 1.
17 “Wearers of the ‘N.C.’”
18 “Wadesboro Takes Two from Union,” Charlotte Evening Chronicle, August 4, 1909: 2.
19 “Wadesboro Claims the Championship,” Charlotte Observer, September 2, 1909: 8.
21 Life in Baseball, 1.
22 “Standing of Clubs,” Charlotte Observer, June 26, 1910: 8. The name Pee Dee comes from the Pee Dee River, which originates in central North Carolina and runs south to South Carolina. The four towns with Pee Dee teams (Jonesboro-Sanford, Laurinburg, Rockingham, and Waynesboro) are all near the river. Pee Dee comes from the name of the Pee Dee Indian tribe. “Pee Dee Indian Tribe,” peedeetribe.org peedeetribe.org/home.html, retrieved October 18, 2019.
23 Life in Baseball, 1.
24 “Luyster in Good Form,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, August 18, 1910: 2. The quote came from Life in Baseball.
25 1-for-2, according to Life in Baseball, but could not be confirmed.
26 Life in Baseball, 2.
27 Columbia Defeats Newberry,” Newberry (South Carolina) Weekly Herald, March 17, 1911: 5.
28 If two or more teams drafted a player, their names would be put into a hat, and the team whose name was drawn would be able to sign the player. Joe S. Jackson, “Sporting Facts and Fancies,” Washington Post, September 1, 1911: 8.
29 Cavender had succeeded Breitenstein.
30 “Play Ball,” Wadesboro Messenger and Intelligencer, May 28, 1908: 1.
31 Life in Baseball, 2.
32 H.H. Shelton, “Swell Race Is Being Run in Tight Little Texas League,” El Paso Herald, May 4, 1912: 20.
33 Life in Baseball, 2. The game took place in Dallas on March 8, 1913, with New York coming out on top 7-0. “Giants Shut Out the Dallas Club by Score of 7-0,” Baltimore Sun, March 9, 1913: 13.
34 “The Texas League Race,” Houston Post, August 10, 1913: 19.
35 “Van Duke Duncan–The Texas League Leader,” Houston Post, August 17, 1913: 17.
36 “Play Ball,” Wadesboro Messenger and Intelligencer, May 28, 1908: 1.
37 Life in Baseball, 2.
38 “The Houston Post’s 1913 All-Texas Leaguers,” Houston Post, September 14, 1913: 17.
39 “Play Ball,” Messenger and Intelligencer, May 28, 1908: 1.
40 “Holds Dallas Sale Valid,” Austin American-Statesman, September 2, 1913: 3.
41 Life in Baseball, 2.
42 “St. Louis Might Demand Return of Traded Dog,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Times, September 12, 1913: 8.
43 The author could not confirm the anecdote from Life in Baseball. However, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a forecast of thundershowers followed by fair weather, which would make the muddy conditions possible. “Thundershowers and Then Fair Weather,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1913: 1.
44 Life in Baseball, 2.
45 Of note, Duncan’s start was in game one of a doubleheader, one of five straight doubleheaders, the day prior’s included finishing a suspended game – for three games completed in a single day. In fact, the Phillies played a twin bill on 14 of the last 15 days they played (29 games played in 35 days). Reference for suspended game finished: “Phillies Get Two Victories in Shortened Games, but Giants Win Only Full Length One,” New York Sun, October 3, 1913: 8.
46 Life in Baseball, 2.
47 Life in Baseball, 3.
48 C. Starr Matthews, “Suggs and Duncan Star,” Baltimore Sun, September 17, 1914: 5.
50 Stephen V. Rice, “July 24, 1914: Brooklyn Tip-Tops Win on Carom Off Pitcher’s Leg,” SABR Games Projects, sabr.org/gamesproj/game/july-24-1914-brooklyn-tip-tops-win-carom-pitchers-leg, retrieved November 25, 2018.
51 Life in Baseball, 3.
52 Untitled V.D. Duncan salaries document.
53 C. Starr Matthews, “Orioles Will Open League Season Today,” Baltimore Sun, April 26, 1916: 10.
54 “Division Rapidly Getting Into Form,” Greenville News, July 6, 1918: 6.
55 “Remount Team Again Victors,” Greenville News, October 9, 1918: 6.
56 Rex D. Hamann, The Millers and the Saints: Baseball Championships of the Twin Cities Rivals, 1903-1955 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2014), 99.
57 Life in Baseball, 4. See also “Calculate the value of $1,400 in 2019,” Dollar Times, dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=1400&year=1919, retrieved January 12, 2019.
58 Life in Baseball, 3, 3-4.
60 “Hickey Is to Ban Vernon from Series,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1919: 8.
61 Life in Baseball, 4.
63 Life in Baseball, 4. Statscrew.com shows the final difference between first-place St. Paul and second-place Louisville Colonels as 28½ games. “1920 American Association Standings,” statscrew.com, statscrew.com/minorbaseball/standings/l-AA2/y-1920, retrieved October 18, 2019.
64 Hamann, 111.
65 Hamann, 112.
66 Life in Baseball, 4.
69 “Duncan Signs to Coach Baseball,” Daily Tar Heel, February 23, 1926: 1, 3.
70 Life in Baseball, 4.
71 “Vernon Van Duke Duncan,” Ancestry.com, retrieved June 28, 2019. Ancestry.com lists Elizabeth’s last name as Gordan; however, her grave marker as seen in findagrave.com lists it as Gordon. images.findagrave.com/photos/2010/337/52418806_129145938515.jpg
72 Life in Baseball, 5. Duncan stated that it was 1927, Duncan stated that it was 1927 when he tried out for the Richmond team, but he also played for Raleigh that year, so it might have been 1928.
73 Duncan’s Certificate of Death (Florida), dated June 1, 1954, shows the cause of death as a “coronary occlusion with myocardial infarction” (blockage of the coronary arteries followed by a heart attack).