Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert Moses Grove - The Greatest Forgotten Player

Lefty Grove had the face of a coal miner. Like one of those photographs by Walker Evans during the Depression. And he might have become one - he was from the coal mining region of Maryland - if he hadn't been able to throw a baseball faster than just about anyone ever has. His photos show sunken cheeks that you'd think would belong to a person who might be tall and thin - even skinny. But you'd be wrong: he stood 6 foot 3 and weighed 190 pounds. And came off the hill with a fluid motion and intimidation that might remind you of Randy Johnson. (Click for You Tube link.)

Most fans have heard of Lefty Grove but know nothing about him. (Tris Speaker is like that.) I think it's because there's no story attached to him, like Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Tony Lazzeri in the '26 World Series, that has stuck in the fans' subconscious.

But he was some kind of a player - and man.

His career won lost record was 300 - 141. He would have won 400 games had the owner of his minor league team, the Baltimore Orioles, been willing to sell him to a major league team during his first 5 years as a pro. (Grove won 108 games during those 5 years.) Instead he toiled in the minors until Connie Mack paid the most ever at that time for a player to join his Philadelphia A's - $100,000.00.

Grove played 9 years with the A's starting in 1925. The A's won 3 penants in a row starting in 1929 and 2 World Championships with Grove as their ace. The A's and Grove peaked in 1931. The A's beat the Yankees that year by 13.5 games - against a Yankee team that had 9 future Hall of Famers on the roster. Grove went 31-4. He was voted the major league's Most Valuable Player. The A's lost the Series that year in 7 games to a very good Cardinals' team but not because of Grove. He won the first and 6th games of the Series.

He was known for his temper and his competitiveness - like an earlier, more intense Bob Gibson, maybe. It's said that after he retired he used to express regret for the stories of his youthful outbursts. But perhaps his passion and competitiveness were essential to a man who wanted to win and knew how to do it - unless somebody else failed to do their part.

The A's traded him to the Red Sox after the 1933 season; he played 8 years for Boston. He hurt his arm almost immediately after he was traded and had to pitch with guile and brains after that. Yet he still found a way to win over a hundred games for the Red Sox. In 1941, Grove was stuck on victory 299 for awhile. Finally he got number 300 with the help of some timely hitting by Ted Williams. He pitched a few more games after that but never won again.

He retired after that year, went home to Maryland and bought a bowling alley. He held court at the bowling alley where stories about his career were be tossed around. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1947 and died in 1975.

Bill James ranks him as the best lefthander who ever pitched. If you've seen Spahn, Koufax, Randy Johnson, or Steve Carlton, well, that means Grove was better than those guys. Can you imagine.

Grove's baseball cards are as undervalued compared to his greatness as his career is. My favorite is a 1932 Caramel pictured on the left. He also is featured on a famous 1933 DeLong card. I have in my collection a 2002 SP Legendary Cuts autograph card (above and to the right) of Grove that I treasure. He had a bold, large signature, which was easily readable. He signed a lot of autographs but like many of the great players, Babe Ruth notably, he appears to have taken the time to sign each autograph with care. I bet the fans who saw him play - and who have mostly passed on by now - knew how lucky they were to watch such a great player. I know I would have.

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