River Views

by Malcolm Macdonald, March 28, 2012

It’s hard to believe that Vern Piver is gone, especially with baseball season coming on. He was one of the last links to a now forgotten world on the Mendocino Coast. Vern played ball for my father’s first cousin Archer (Andy) Anderson at Fort Bragg High School. Arch (as family members called him) played baseball at UC Berkeley between 1916 and 1920. He chauffered the Hearst family part-time and graduated with a degree that he believed would get him a job in foreign trade. He was set to see the world when the post-World War One economic recession hit. Overseas jobs dried up. Arch spent nine months working in the first National Bank of San Francisco then headed for the oil fields near Hanford, California, partly as a laborer (dollar an hour wages) but chiefly as a ballplayer for the company team. He earned ten dollars a game, but wearied of the vagabond life after a few months, returning to Cal for a teaching credential in physical education. He taught in Corning then returned to the coast to teach and coach at Fort Bragg High for decades.

My first memory of Vern Piver was walking into his Redwood Saw Shop with my dad. My lasting memory of Vern, however, comes from watching him run up and down the court refereeing a forgettable high school basketball game. He jogged back and forth alongside the languorous on-court activity, chatting with acquaintances in the stands. After a couple minutes one of the coaches hollered, “Hey, Vern, there’s a game going on.”

An instant later the whistle blew, Vern called a foul (correctly) under the basket, a player headed to the free throw line, Vern smiled and winked at the vociferous coach, and the game went on.

Bruce Anderson wrote a fitting tribute to Vern in the March 14th edition of the AVA — a wonderful piece that included a couple of columns of Vern in his own words. What more could you ask for? My only quibble with the article is the claim that Vern was the best baseball player Mendocino County ever produced. That honor surely belongs to one John Charles Babich.

Johnny Babich was born a few miles down the river in Albion on May 14, 1913. Johnny Babich was a 20-game winner, at the age of 20, with the San Francisco Missions (crosstown rivals of the San Francisco Seals) in the Pacific Coast League; his success was due largely to a pitch he called a “sailer.” Today we’d term it a wicked slider. In that 1933 season he faced Joe DiMaggio during Joltin’ Joe’s 61-game minor league hitting streak. Eight years later Johnny was on the mound with a chance to stop DiMaggio’s 39 game hitting skein, but Joe nearly undressed Babich with a line drive up the middle. DiMaggio, the San Francisco native, went on to establish a major league record 56 game hitting streak that has never been seriously challenged.

Babich made the major leagues in 1934 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the following year struck out Babe Ruth three times in a game, albeit in the Bambino’s final abbreviated season.

Johnny hurt his arm that year and spent the next five years recuperating then battling his way back through the minor leagues. He won 17 games for the Yankees top minor league team in 1939, losing only six, but the big club let him go to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. In 1940 Johnny won 14 games for an otherwise woeful major league club, including five wins and no losses against the mighty Yanks.

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