Lefty Grove

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Library of Congress

Some consider Lefty Grove to be baseball’s greatest pitcher of all time — or, at the very least, the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.

Robert Moses Grove was born to John and Emma Grove on Tuesday, March 6, 1900 in Lonaconing, Maryland. Following in the footsteps of his father and older brothers, Grove initially began a career working in the mines. He quit after two weeks, however, declaring, “Dad, I didn’t put that coal in here, and I hope I don’t have to take no more of her out.” From there, he drifted between other forms of work, including a “bobbin boy” working spinning spools to make silk thread, as an apprentice glass blower and needle etcher in a glass factory, and as a railroad worker laying rails and driving spikes.

When he was not working, Grove played a version of baseball using cork stoppers in wool socks wrapped in black tape as a ball, and fence pickets when bats were not available. He did not play an actual game of baseball until the age of seventeen, nor did he play organized baseball until nineteen when Dick Stakem, the proprietor of a general store in a neighboring town, recruited him to play in town games on a field located between a forest and train tracks.

Grove put on such a good performance as a pitcher, the manager of the B&O railroad wanted the teenager on his team, and hired him to clean cylinder heads of steam engines in Cumberland, Maryland. Grover never got the opportunity to play baseball with B&O, however. A local garage manager named Bill Louden also happened to manage the Martinsburg, West Virginia team of the Class D Blue Ridge League and offered Grove an astonishing $125 a month, a sum $50 more than his father and brothers were making.

Grove took a 30-day leave from his job, going 3-3 with 60 strikeouts in 59 innings for the Martinsburg team. Word of Grove’s performance reached Jack Dunn, owner of the International League (Double-A) Baltimore Orioles, and Dunn proceeded to buy Grove for a price somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 from Louden.

Grove won his debut, 9-3, over Jersey City, prompting Dunn to say he wouldn’t sell Lefty to anyone for $10,000. From 1920-24, Grove was 108-36 and struck out 1,108 batters for a minor-league record. Grove was often wild as well, however, and went 3-8 in the postseason. His final season in Baltimore, however, he went 26-6, struck out 231 batters in 236 innings, and reduced his walks from 186 to 108. Following the 1924 season, Dunn sold Grove to Philadelphia owner and manager Connie Mack, for $100,600. The extra $600 supposedly made it a higher price than the Yankees had paid the Red Sox for Babe Ruth after the 1919 season.

Grove was twenty-five years old when he broke into the big leagues on April 14, 1925 with the Philadelphia Athletics. He had a rough rookie season, going 10-12 and leading the American League in both walks (131) and strikeouts (116). “Catching him was like catching bullets from a rifleman with bad aim,” Athletics catcher Mickey Cochrane commented years later.

In 1926, Grove’s ERA dropped from it’s previous 4.75 to a league-leading 2.51, his walks dropped from 131 to 101, and his strikeouts increased from 116 to 194. However, Grove also didn’t receive much support, and he was shut out four times in the season’s first two months. He would finish the season with a 13-13 record.

His bad fortune would not last forever, though. Grove led the league in strikeouts the next five years and won twenty or more games for the next seven. In 1929, the A’s won the pennant. Connie Mack declined to start either Grove or Rube Walberg, another left-handed pitcher, in the World Series, but Grove made his mark in relief. Coming into Game Two in the fifth inning, he recorded six strikeouts, three hits, one walk and no runs allowed over 4 1/3 innings. Grove then pitched the last two innings of Game Four in relief as well. The A’s took the Series, four games to one over the Cubs, and Grove struck out ten batters in 6 1/3 innings.

In 1930, A’s went 102-52 to finish in first place, and Grove won the Triple Crown of pitching by leading the league in wins (28), strikeouts (209), and ERA (2.54). In the World Series, the A’s faced the St. Louis Cardinals, who had batted .314 as a team for the season. Grove won the opener, 5-2, throwing seventy strikes and a mere thirty-nine balls, striking out five and allowing nine hits. Grove then relieved George Earnshaw in the eighth inning of a scoreless Game Five and won it, 2-0, with the help of Jimmie Foxx’s two-run homer.

Grove finished the 1931 season 31-4 with an ERA of 2.06. He won his second straight Triple Crown with 175 strikeouts and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. The Athletics won the pennant again, finishing 13 1/2 games ahead of second-place New York. With a blister on one of his throwing fingers, Grove gave up twelve hits in the World Series opener, but he received good fielding support and won, 6-2. However, Grove allowed eleven hits and four earned runs in eight innings during Game Three, losing 5-2. Grove then won Game Five, 8-1, on five hits and one walk. However, the A’s lost the Series in seven games to the Cardinals.

Grove had a 24-8 record in 1932 and led the league with a .750 percentage and 21 complete games. In 1933, he finished 24-8 with a 3.20 ERA — the first time since 1927 that he finished the season with an ERA above 3.0. Following the 1933 season, facing the financial realities that came with the Great Depression, Connie Mack traded Grove to the Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately, Grove was unable to contribute much during his first year in Boston, as an arm injury held him to an 8-8 record. He bounced back in 1935, however, finishing 20-12 with a league-leading 2.70 ERA. In the 1936 season, he pitched a 2.81 ERA to win his seventh ERA title while posting a 17-12 record and 130 strike-outs. He then won his eighth ERA title a year later, finishing with a 17-9 record and 153 strike-outs. Grove then finished with records of 14-4 in 1938 and 15-4 in 1939, but in 1940, he had a 7-6 record while recording a 3.99 ERA with 62 strike-outs. The 1941 season would be his final season, and he finished 7-7, winning his 300th game on July 25th.

Grove finished with a career record of 300-141, and his .680 lifetime winning percentage is eighth all-time. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947, his first year of eligibility.

Lefty Grove died in Norwalk, Ohio, on May 22, 1975 at the age of seventy-five and was buried in the Frostburg Memorial Cemetery in Frostburg, Maryland.


“Line-Up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals,” by Ogden Nash

I have a feeling that I have seen this particular poem before, though for the life of me, I do not recall where.  In any case, this piece by Ogden Nash was originally published in the January 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine.  Nash uses the letters of the alphabet to pay tribute to some of baseball’s most popular players.

You can find a chart listing the players each stanza stands for here.

*

A is for Alex
The great Alexander;
More Goose eggs he pitched
Than a popular gander.

B is for Bresnahan
Back of the plate;
The Cubs were his love,
and McGraw his hate.

C is for Cobb,
Who grew spikes and not corn,
And made all the basemen
Wish they weren’t born.

D is for Dean,
The grammatical Diz,
When they asked, Who’s the tops?
Said correctly, I is.

E is for Evers,
His jaw in advance;
Never afraid
To Tinker with Chance.

F is for Fordham
And Frankie and Frisch;
I wish he were back
With the Giants, I wish.

G is for Gehrig,
The Pride of the Stadium;
His record pure gold,
His courage, pure radium.

H is for Hornsby;
When pitching to Rog,
The pitcher would pitch,
Then the pitcher would dodge.

I is for Me,
Not a hard-hitting man,
But an outstanding all-time
Incurable fan.

J is for Johnson
The Big Train in his prime
Was so fast he could throw
Three strikes at a time.

K is for Keeler,
As fresh as green paint,
The fastest and mostest
To hit where they ain’t.

L is for Lajoie
Whom Clevelanders love,
Napoleon himself,
With glue in his glove.

M is for Matty,
Who carried a charm
In the form of an extra
brain in his arm.

N is for Newsom,
Bobo’s favorite kin.
You ask how he’s here,
He talked himself in.

O is for Ott
Of the restless right foot.
When he leaned on the pellet,
The pellet stayed put.

P is for Plank,
The arm of the A’s;
When he tangled with Matty
Games lasted for days.

Q is for Don Quixote
Cornelius Mack;
Neither Yankees nor years
Can halt his attack.

R is for Ruth.
To tell you the truth,
There’s just no more to be said,
Just R is for Ruth.

S is for Speaker,
Swift center-field tender,
When the ball saw him coming,
It yelled, “I surrender.”

T is for Terry
The Giant from Memphis
Whose .400 average
You can’t overemphis.

U would be ‘Ubell
if Carl were a cockney;
We say Hubbell and Baseball
Like Football and Rockne.

V is for Vance
The Dodger’s very own Dazzy;
None of his rivals
Could throw as fast as he.

W is for Wagner,
The bowlegged beauty;
Short was closed to all traffic
With Honus on duty.

X is the first
of two x’s in Foxx
Who was right behind Ruth
with his powerful soxx.

Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People battled against him,
But I never knew why.

Z is for Zenith
The summit of fame.
These men are up there.
These men are the game.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fifth Inning

Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s.  The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s.  As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically.  Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.

Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s.  It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle.  Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.shadow ball

Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball.  (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.)  While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished.  Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues.  And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play.  Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.

We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball.  He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige.  Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games.  He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality.  He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him.  Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.

Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot.  No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades.  As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older.  When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball.  Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight.  Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.

As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability.  While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson.  Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance.  The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil.  In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.

We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.”  In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees.  DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series.  Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.

During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round.  They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different.  They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.

Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population.  Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers.  He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself.  Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over.  Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.

In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career.  On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium.  Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.

1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class.  It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839.  The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter.  O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.


This day in baseball: American All-Stars face Eiji Sawamura

Seventeen-year-old Japanese pitcher, Eiji Sawamura, took the mound against a team of touring All-Star players from Major League Baseball on November 20, 1934.  He came into the game in the fourth inning and pitched nine innings, striking out nine batters and giving up only one run.  At one point, he successively struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx.  The only run came on a home run by Gehrig as the American team won, 1-0.

American team manager Connie Mack was so impressed by the young man’s performance that he tried to sign him to a contract.  Sawamura declined, however, as anti-American sentiment was strong in Japan at that time.

Eiji_Sawamura

The Japanese Book


This day in baseball: Foxx’s MVP awards

On 2 November 1938, Red Sox first baseman Jimmie Foxx received 19 of 22 first-place votes on the Most Valuable Player ballot.  Winning the award that year made him the first player in baseball history to win the MVP award three times, having won it previously in 1932 and 1933 while with the Philadelphia A’s.

Photo source: FenwayPark100.org