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The Most Modest of All Stars

Arky Vaughan might be the most famous Potter Valley resident ever, and he’s not famous at all. Ask the next hundred people you meet about Arky Vaughan and you’ll get a whole lot of blank stares in response.

And that’s just how Arky would’ve liked it. He was a quiet man who took pains not to bring attention to himself, never sought the limelight and remained modest and private his entire life.

(Photo courtesy of Kathleen Roberts)

And you say “A modest Potter Valley rancher who declined the spotlight? What about it? Aren’t all Potter Valley ranchers quiet and modest? Anybody ever heard of one who demanded attention, or hoped to star in a Hollywood movie about himself?

Probably not. Then again, if ever there was a rancher who had a right to brag it was Arky Vaughan, though he would have cut his tongue out first.

Arky Vaughan lived in Potter Valley and was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. (Through the past 120 years there have been an awful lot of baseball players.) Arky’s in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and is among a handful of the best shortstops ever, up there with Honus Wagner, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ozzie Smith.

Arky Vaughan (Photo courtesty of the Pittsburg Pirates)

Arky was the best shortstop of the 1930s and may have been the best ballplayer. He was among the brightest stars on All Star teams of that decade, utterly feared as a hitter. His defensive skills took longer to appreciate, but today’s advanced metrics suggest he was well above average playing the toughest position on the diamond.

How do I know all this? I just finished “ARKY: The Baseball Life of Joseph Floyd ‘Arky’ Vaughan” by Frank Garland, a meticulously researched biography of one of Mendocino County’s forgotten heroes.

The book, as promised by the title, dives deep into Vaughan’s athletic skills, which were mighty. There seems little point in my spitting up a blur of statistics, but please allow a few: 

Career .318 batting average, a season in which he hit .385, still the highest for a shortstop in National League history, an All Star his first nine seasons. For more stats and details read the book or go to google.

Bottom Line: He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, and The Ukiah Daily Journal’s own All Star sports editor, Glenn Erickson, wrote up a big story in the next day’s paper. I’d like to read it again.

So Arky Vaughan is now in Cooperstown but every offseason he was here, and some of his grandkids still are. Old-time locals recalled him as a hardworking cowboy who loved his horses and his cattle and the semi-solitary outdoor life of hunting and fishing.

The Vaughan ranch in Potter Valley. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Roberts)

Playing most of his career in Pittsburgh with the Pirates he never sought out reporters and in fact all but shunned them. He was never considered quotable and didn’t have a ready supply of quips or colorful stories to contribute to his celebrity image. He was sufficiently modest that when the ballgame was over he had his brother stand outside Forbes Field to sign autographs for adoring fans. Few people knew of the impersonation and there is no surviving information on what Robert Vaughan experienced in his role producing counterfeit signatures.

Later the Vaughan family, including wife Margaret, three daughters and a son, moved to Ukiah and lived on School Street. He liked playing card games, and when he visited a downtown cigar store (the long-gone Hub on West Standley Street?) he stood quietly to the side until asked to take a chair and join the game.

Everyone knew he was famous but Arky.

By then he played for Brooklyn, and to show how proud he was of his association with the team, he carefully removed all the telltale “Dodgers” insignia from the new blue jacket so as not to draw attention to himself. Modest indeed.

(NOTE: While with the Dodgers, Vaughan had a teammate named Dolph Camilli who played first base, which meant half the Brooklyn infield was made up of players from two of the smallest towns in remote Mendocino County.)

He loved to hunt and fish so perhaps there is irony mingled with the tragedy of him drowning in 1952 at Lost Lake near Eaglesville, CA., while fishing with a buddy. Arky Vaughan was 40 years old.

His oldest daughter, Patricia, who lived in Ukiah, represented the family at ceremonies for his induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He never sought fame or glory. He played baseball…the way he lived, with all his heart and soul and to the best of his ability. And in his induction into the Hall of Fame today the fame and glory he never sought are his forever.” 

Frank Garland’s “ARKY: The baseball life of Joseph Floyd ‘Arky’ Vaughan” is published by McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC. Get a copy at the Mendocino Book Company or online.

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