The two fathers and former big leaguers live half a mile apart in Provo and are together nearly every day of the week, which leads Vance to describe himself as “one lucky son” to have his dad, golf partner and sounding board nearby. When they aren’t “talking baseball,” their topics include family, family, family.
“The most important things in my dad’s life are his kids and grandkids,” Vance says. “He’s created a legacy for us.”
One of Vance’s favorite memories was watching his dad pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates and then slipping his fingers inside his dad’s giant hand after the game and walking together to the car parked at a nearby gas station. Fans stopped Vern for an autograph, and the young boy was proud to be the son of Vern Law — aka “The Deacon.”
Playing in the pros (and cons)
Vern’s weight room growing up was throwing milk cans around a farm in Idaho, and that work ethic took him straight to the top of the sport he loved. Vern played pro from 1950 to 1967 during what he describes as “the golden age of baseball.”
He also raised six kids (Vance is #3) while playing 16 years as a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Vern’s stories read like a history book. For example, he was asked to pitch a game on two days rest against Hank Aaron’s Milwaukee team at home in Pittsburgh. At the end of nine innings, it was tied 2-2. Vern stayed in. Twelve innings. Fifteen innings. The coach wanted to pull Vern.
“After pitching this long, let me win or lose this thing,” Vern remembers saying.
After 18 innings, Vern was pulled and went in to shower while he listened on the radio as the reliever pitcher won the game. In today’s sport, a pitcher gives five or six quality innings and then a reliever is called in.
“I’d have a hard time pitching today. I don’t like the idea of somebody else coming in and determining whether we win or lose,” Vern says. “I’d be in the doghouse of my manager all the time for asking to stay in.”
Vern played baseball before major leagues meant major salaries. A rookie today makes more in a signing bonus than Vern did in his whole career.
“It was fun when baseball was a game,” Vern says. “Now it’s a business. Back then we had the reserve clause that held us to our ball club until we were traded or sold. Our team stayed together for a good length of time and matured together. That’s why we are so close even today. And that’s why the fans back in Pittsburgh relate to us more than any other team. They knew who was going to be out on the field every year. People loved that.”
People also love Vern’s generosity.
He brings donuts and chocolate milk to the baseball team — and the women’s basketball team — before they leave for road trips.
“He has always put other people first,” Vance says. “He has set an example of kindness, integrity and honesty.”
Vern as been called the LDS pioneer of baseball and was known as “Deacon” to his teammates, opposing players and umpires.
“At the time I was an elder in the LDS Church, but nobody knows what an elder is, but they do know what a deacon is. And the name stuck,” Vern says.
Vern says his post-game interviews always ended up discussing his faith and religion. Even during the World Series, Vern was referred to as the Mormon boy from Idaho. The Catholic sisters were big fans.
“It was a pretty site to see 10,000 wearing black and white habits in the stands,” he says. “And they would come to the dugout and holler, ‘Deacon, come here!’ So I would visit with them for a few minutes.”
Vern says he knows he wasn’t the best pitcher in the world, but he made the best use of the talent he did have.
“As a result, I had some success,” he says. “I wanted to succeed as bad as anybody. When people asked about my faith, I wanted them to respect me enough to listen to what I had to say.”
One person Vern didn’t want to listen to and follow was Babe Ruth. When Vern met the home run legend, Babe was holding a beer and had an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
“I’m not a Babe Ruth fan. He could have done so much more with his influence. I had a lot more respect for Lou Gehrig,” Vern says. “Lou showed humility.”
Vern showed his own humility when he was asked to endorse Marlboro cigarettes and turned it down faster than he could throw a fastball.
“Young people admire and respect ball players, particularly in Pittsburgh,” Vern says. “Kids do exactly what players do, and I had been outspoken against cigarettes to my teammates. Plus, I wasn’t going to endorse something I didn’t personally use.”
He did endorse hard work and sports with his children, who saw varying levels of success. Vance had a stand-out career as a BYU baseball player before being drafted to the Pirates, the same team his father pitched for.
“I didn’t have anything to do with his signing,” Vern says. “He had to make it on his own, which he did.”
Vance played pro from 1978-1991.
His father often reminded him how important it is “to keep your nose clean.” The media spotlight — especially on Mormon athletes — finds flaws both on and off the field.
The two former boys of summer are now dads and grandpas (and in Vern’s case, a great-grandpa), which means baseball takes a distant back seat.
Filling the family roster
Vern was slated to pitch the second game in a Fourth of July 1962 doubleheader when he got a call that VaNita was headed to the hospital to deliver their youngest son.
He pitched a 7-0 shutout. The last play of the game was when Norm Larker popped-up a fly ball and catcher Smoky Burgess caught it. Vern says Norm turned to him and said, “Now go home and read your Bible.”
Vern went home to something more important — his newest son. Vern and VaNita have never retired from their position as parents. Vance and his siblings continue to turn to their mom and dad for support and advice.
For example, Vance got thrown his toughest parenting pitch 24 years ago when his then-4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
At the prime of his major league career, Vance was struggling between two priorities: providing temporally for his family and providing emotionally.
Both sets of parents lent their shoulders. Toward the end of Vance’s season with the Montreal Expos, they let him go home and play general manager for his wife and daughter.
“That was an amazing example of an employer letting me put family first,” Vance says.
This daughter is now 28 and holds down two jobs despite challenges. Vance now sees this experience as spring training in his early parenting career.
“Nothing was more important than being there for my daughter and wife,” he says. “This helped us grow as a family and see a bigger picture. Up until that time, I had been focused on progressing my baseball career.”
Like father, like son, like son
Vern was an assistant coach at BYU under Glen Tuckett when Vance came out for the team as a freshman. They told Vance he would clearly have to be the best player at his position or he’d have to wait his turn.
“It turned out he was the best player at his position, so I didn’t worry,” Vern says. “He was always in the right spot at the right time. But it’s a little bit of pressure for a dad to coach his son.”
Now Vance is the coaching father while his sons line up for the Cougars.
His son Tim played third base for three years. Andrew is on this year’s squad as an infielder, and Adam will return to the team after finishing an LDS mission in Zimbabwe later this summer.
“It can be stressful to watch your own sons play because you want them to do well,” Vance says. “You want every hop to be a good hop. You don’t want them to strike out. In the end, baseball is a game of averages. And my boys have been around baseball their entire lives, so they have baseball common sense.”
Father knows best
Although Vance and Vern are close on and off the mound, Vance credits his mother with being the stability factor when he was growing up.
“During my dad’s playing days, I was around my mother more than my father,” Vance says. “Even though she’s a small woman, whatever she said went. And our respect for her has never diminished.”
When Vern retired from professional baseball, his father role intensified.
“He became a guidance counselor for me,” Vance says. “He was my coach here at BYU, and he helped me progress through my college days and into my pro career. He always continued to throw batting practice to me. And who better than a Cy Young winner to throw BP?”
But it is Vern’s off-the-field tosses that Vance appreciates most.
“He is a tremendous example of integrity and honesty,” Vance says. “Even with all the notoriety he got being one of the best pitchers in the 1960s, he always lived and acted like he was a normal guy.”
To this day, Vern will get out of his seat to snag a foul ball.
“Some of my guys complain about getting foul balls, but nothing is beneath my dad,” Vance says.
BYU by Law
Vance says there is an identifiable absence when his 81-year-old father isn’t in the stands to watch Cougar baseball.
Vern regularly watches practice, and he’s at nearly every home game and many away contests. Being in the stands to watch Vance’s team take the field is one of Vern’s top priorities.
“If he’s not at a game, there must be something pretty important going on,” Vance says.
Vern has also become a regular face at BYU women’s basketball games. When he missed a few of their games this past winter for a knee replacement, the players asked, “Where’s Coach Law?”
He’s still known as “coach” by many — and the only title he loves more than that is “father.”
The father-son duo wishes more people understood the beauty of baseball.
“There are subtle conflicts that go on between the hitter and pitcher,” Vance says. “Some people think it’s slow moving, but when people understand baseball they see it is an exciting game of strategy.”
Baseball is also a team sport — at times you sacrifice your own stats for the good of the ball club. It’s also a game where failure is expected. The best players fail seven out of 10 times offensively and still keep coming up to bat.
Sounds a bit like fatherhood.