Multi-sport athlete was first Bobcat
to play in majors, one of first in NFL
One of the first mentions of Joe Vance, the first Texas State Bobcat to play major league baseball, was a sign of things to come for the next dozen years.
It came in the 1927 Pedagog yearbook, in a roundup of the Southwest Texas State Teachers College baseball team’s series against St. Edward’s:
“The two rivals met on the Saints’ diamond which resulted in a fourteen inning pitchers’ duel between Saw Dyer for the Saints and Joe Vance for the Bobcats. It was a scoreless affair for fourteen innings when Jack Lane, the Bobcats’ first baseman got a single and scored on ‘Jumbo’ Smith’s terrific triple to deep center field.
“Other than pitching a wonderful game, Vance fielded his position seldom seen in collegiate baseball . . . ”
By the time Vance reached the big leagues, eight years later, that athletic ability had come out in a variety of ways.
Joe Vance was the seventh of nine children born to James and Constance Vance of Devine, and he wasn’t the only athlete in the family. His brother Frank, who graduated from the college in 1927, played on the football team for three of his four years in San Marcos.
But Frank couldn’t match his little brother’s diversity. The fall of 1927, Joe was one of the stars of the Bobcats’ football team, returning kicks and playing halfback. He took a kickoff back 60 yards in the season-opening victory over Stephen F. Austin, and also scored in games against North Texas and St. Edward’s. In the winter, he was touted as the “Vance, the giant sophomore,” on the basketball team — at 6-foot-1.
In the summer of 1930, he signed his first baseball contract, joining the Macon (Ga.) Peaches of the South Atlantic League. In 66 games for Macon, he hit .306 and also pitched twice. The next year, he moved up to the Western Association, playing in games for both Muskogee, Okla., and Independence, Kan.
That fall, he landed another job — as a halfback for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National Football League. His 11 games for the team made him the second former Bobcat to play in the NFL; Ed Kallina had been on the Chicago Bears’ roster in 1928. It was Vance’s only season in the league, but not his only one in the top levels of the country’s professional sports.
Vance moved closer to home in 1932-33, playing for the Texas League’s San Antonio Indians. When the cash-strapped — and last-place — Indians sold him to the league’s club in Dallas midway through the 1933 season, Joe Vance got his big break.
The Depression was hard on minor-league baseball; dozens of teams and leagues folded as the economy slumped, and those that survived had to cut expenses as much as possible. By 1934, Texas League teams could carry just 16 players, which made one like Vance, who could play several positions, was ranked as the fastest runner in the league and also pitch, more valuable.
In fact, he was so important to the Dallas Steers that the Dallas Morning News started promoting him as the league’s MVP:
“The popular Joe has proven himself one of the most valuable and most versatile stars in all the minors,” the paper wrote in its July 26 edition. “He has done creditably at first, second and third base and in the outfield, and when the hurling staff wavered he stepped on the mound and turned in such an impressive job that Manager Brainard decided to make him a regular chunker.”
Vance, who was among the team’s better pitchers statistically, didn’t win the award. He picked up some money that fall playing football for the Dallas Rams of the now-defunct American Professional Football League, but his good season for the Steers won him his biggest break: a major-league baseball contract.
Vance signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1935, and on April 18 he made his big-league debut against the Detroit Tigers. He got his first victory three days later, pitching in relief against the St. Louis Browns.
He wound up going 2-2 for the White Sox before being sent back to the minors, where he spent two more seasons. He got another shot at the majors in September 1937, when he started two games for a New York Yankees team led by Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig that won the World Series.
Vance appeared in four more games for the Yankees the next season, when they also won the series, but it was the end of his big-league career. He wound up playing in the minors through 1942, going 11-6 in his final season before coming back to South Texas and working as a civilian employee at Kelly Field. In parts of 13 seasons in the minor leagues, he won 108 games as a pitcher and hit .259.
Joe Vance, the first Bobcat to play in the major leagues — and the second to make the NFL — died on July 4, 1978.