PROVO — BYU student Brandon Crow, a California native who grew up on a steady all-America diet of sports and movies, couldn’t quite believe his friend Blake Romney when Romney told him he’d run into Vernon Law at the supermarket.
“Vernon Law the baseball player?”
Affirmative, said his friend.
“He lives around here?”
Baseball players, even legendary ones with a Cy Young Award hanging on the wall, have to live somewhere. For Law, that’s been Provo for the past 40-plus years, ever since Glen Tuckett, then the baseball coach at Brigham Young University, brought him to town to be his pitching coach in the 1970s.
There’s almost 60 years difference between the 27-year-old Crow and Law, who will be 86 on March 12, but Crow knew all about him. One of the greatest Mormon athletes ever, nicknamed "the Deacon," he played 16 seasons in the major leagues, all for the Pittsburgh Pirates, capped by one of the best seasons ever recorded by a pitcher, in 1960 when he went 20-9 in the regular season, won two games in the World Series against the New York Yankees of Mantle-Berra-Maris et al, and might have won a third when he left Game 7 in the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead. The Yankees went on to tie the score, setting the stage for the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski to hit the only Game 7 walk-off homer in World Series history. Some baseball purists call it the greatest game ever played.
The 1960 Cy Young Award, recognizing the best pitcher in baseball, went to Vern Law.
That was the guy who lived around here.
Brandon wasn’t just excited that he might run into Vernon Law at the supermarket. A broadcast major at BYU, he entered fall semester 2015 needing to pass just one more communications class, an upper-level course in advanced reporting taught by Robert Walz, to get his degree. His entire grade depended on a documentary he would film. On a subject entirely of his choosing.
He opened his laptop, clicked on the find-a-person white pages, typed in “Vernon Law,” and the baseball great’s phone number and address popped up on his screen.
He called the number. Vernon Law answered. Brandon introduced himself, explained he was a broadcast major at BYU, dropped his professor’s name, crossed his fingers, and asked if he’d be OK with him filming a documentary on his life.
“Oh yeah, sure, that’s fine,” said Vernon Law.
School had never been this easy, or fun, never even close. Brandon and his project partner, Reggie Lewis, were soon meeting the Deacon and his wife, VaNita, at their home just west of State Street where they raised their seven children.
Vern took them downstairs and showed them his Cy Young Award, cast in real silver, and other baseball memorabilia, including dozens of baseballs signed by everyone from Bob Feller to Sandy Koufax to Willie Mays. He told them how he was signed by the Pirates fresh out of high school in Meridian, Idaho, in 1948. There were scouts from nine organizations waiting on his porch the day after he graduated, but the first eight walked in with cigars, which didn’t make a great impression on Vern’s folks, who asked them not to smoke in the house. The Pirates made their pitch last, the lone team to come in without a cigar. They had chocolates and a dozen roses for Vern’s mother instead.
Only later did the Laws learn that the Pirates, knowing they were dealing with devout Mormons, handed out the cigars to the other scouts before they went in the house.
These and other stories that only get better with age made it into the movie Crow and Lewis assembled, with help from cinematographer James Terry and Jack Mergist, who composed the music.
The 1960 World Series, with archived video and audio footage, provides the documentary’s emotional backbone, along with interviews from people inside and outside the game who attest to a full life well lived by the Deacon.
“He was who he was no matter where he was,” marvels Crow. “I think it’s hard to find a superstar athlete like that today.”
The 57-minute movie, titled "The Deacon," premiered to a full house that included the Laws and their extended family this past December at the Varsity Theatre on the BYU campus. Crow held his breath when the credits rolled, worried whether Law liked it or not, then exhaled when the pitcher pulled professor Walz aside and told him, “You better give these guys an A plus or I’m going to find you.”
The film is scheduled to be shown to the public this Thursday, March 3, at 12:15 p.m. as part of the LDS Film Festival that runs March 2-5 at the SCERA Center in Orem.
If you go, with a little luck you’ll run into the filmmakers — and maybe the Deacon. He lives just down the road.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.