Major League in sports and the gospel

Heritage Leading the way, Vern Law, center, was a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Son Vance, BYU coach, left, followed him to the Major Leagues and grandson Tim plays for the Cougars. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

PROVO, UTAH--The athletic-looking, gray-haired man sitting just below the press box in Larry H. Miller Field at BYU blends in with the crowd as he watched the Cougars play baseball. His World Series ring on a pinky finger is inconspicuous and obviously, he doesn't have his Cy Young Award with him.

He is Vernon Law, one of baseball's best pitchers. Young, casual fans might not immediately recognize the name. But avid fans, those who hearken back to a time when the game was much richer in tradition, would readily recall "Deacon."

He has many reasons for being at a BYU baseball game. He was once the team's pitching coach and, now in his 70s, continues to throw batting practice regularly. His son, Vance, is the current BYU head coach and grandson Tim is playing for the Cougars after serving a mission in Toronto, Canada.

It didn't take much coaxing to get the senior Law to talk--with a bit of drawl--about baseball and about the gospel.

Raised in a strong LDS family in Meridian, Idaho, he developed faith that carried him through the lifestyle challenges of Major League Baseball. Signed by Pittsburgh in 1948, he made his debut with the Pirates in 1950.

Brother Law wasn't shy about his religion when talking ot the media of his teammates, and was labeled "Preacher" by teammate Wally Westlake. He explained to Westlake that the Church doesn't have typical preachers. He talked about being ordained a deacon, teacher, priest and elder. So Westlake started calling him "Deacon," and the nickname stuck throughout his career.

The Church was an integral part of his career. He said he pitched against the Houston Colt 45s (later Astros) on a miserably hot, humid July 4th in Texas. Leading 7-0 bin the ninth, he got the last batter to pop up. After catcher Smokey Burgess caught the ball, he turned and shouted to his pitcher, "There! Now go home and read your Bible!"

He said he attended Church as often as possible during the season. Even on the road he would often take a taxi to Church, then arrange for another to pick him up and take him to the ballpark.

He and his wife, VaNita, had six children during his Major League career. He said keeping the family together was important to them. His family would accompany him to spring training in Ft. Myers, Fla., move to Pittsburgh during the summer and then to their permanent home in Idaho during the offseason.

Brother Law said his wife was a key to his baseball success. "It would just ruin your career if you didn't have the support of a good wife."

When the Laws first started attending Church in Pittsburgh, there were about 35 in attendance in a house, he said. "But now if you go back to Pittsburgh, there's a beautiful stake center practically in Pittsburgh and there are chapels all around the surrounding areas there...It's interesting to see how people come into the Church and how it begins to expand and grow and it was a wonderful thing to be a part of."

He took seriously the responsibility of being an example of what the Church stands for, he said. While many other players landed lucrative promotional opportunities, Brother Law spent most of his time making non-paying appearances with and at Church gatherings. He said he was particularly mindful of his example when speaking to Little Leaguers who tended to put Big Leaguers on a pedestal. "I would talk to them about living a good life, a clean life, and taking care of themselves and dedicating themselves to good things along with education and baseball." He said one Little Leaguer asked him, "Do you smoke?" He answered, "No, That's not something that athletes should do." The youngster asked him why some of the other Major Leaguers were smoking. "They look at you and they watch every step you take, and you'd better step in the right direction," Brother Law said.

Since retiring as a player, he has stayed close to baseball. Besides coaching at BYU, he was a coach in Japan and a manager and coach in the Minor Leagues. Now, he said, he takes time for his family, always willing to throw batting practice for his grandsons.

And his commitment to the Church remains firm. He is on the high council of the Provo Utah Grandview Stake and has served in many callings, including bishop. "The Church finds things to keep you busy and out of mischief," he concluded.

`Deacon' shined for the Pirates

Vernon Law, nicknamed Deacon, was a stellar pitcher over a long career--1950-1967--with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He started three games in his team's dramatic, seven-game win over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. He won two and ended up with no decision in Game 7. He left the game with a 4-2 lead in the contest that eventually ended 10-9 with Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning, game-winning home run. Law says with a smile that if Pirates' manager Danny Murtaugh had left him in the game, he would have shut the Yankees down and no one would have ever herd of Mazeroski.

Brother Law won the Cy Young Award, given to baseball's best pitcher, in 1960 with a record of 20-9. There was only one award presented that year. He insists that 1965 was his best year, but he didn't get much run support from his teammates. He was 17-9 with a 2.15 ERA, and won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award as comeback player of the year.

He was voted by the fans to the Pirates' Team of the Century in 1999.

He pitched 18 innings in a single game against the Milwaukee Braves--Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, et al--in 1955. He said he wasn't scheduled to pitch until the following day, but was called on just before game time.

Recalling the game, he said both teams scored early and it was 2-2 after nine. Then, and again after 12 innings, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh threatened to take him out. He responded, "I'm fine, Skip. I'm still gettin' `em out." After 15 innings, Murtaugh again said he wanted to take the pitcher out, "I looked him right in the eye and I said,`Skip, let me stay in, win or lose this ting, after pitching this long.' Well, he let me stay in."

After neither team had scored through 18 innings, Murtaugh said, "Deacon, go take a shower." I said, `Skip...' and he said, `I don't want to hear it. Go take a shower. You've done more than anybody expected.'"

Bob Friend came on in relief and gave up a run in the top of the 19th, but the Pirates scored twice in the bottom of the inning to win, 4-3. "You know who got the win?" Brother Law asked sourly. "Friend got the win."

In his next start he was winning1-0 with two outs in the ninth when he tried to slip an off-speed pitch low and away to the Cincinnati Reds' Frank Robinson. "The last time I saw the ball was as it went over the center field fence," he said. But he still won the game in 13 innings.

Ghill@desnews.com

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