“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1934-1941
#8   LEFTY GROVE

Lefty Grove may have been baseball’s greatest all-time pitcher. He was certainly its most dominant. No one matched his nine ERA titles, and his .680 winning percentage (300-141) is the highest among 300 game winners (eighth best overall). After winning 111 games in a minor-league career that delayed his major-league debut until he was 25, Grove led the American League in strikeouts his first seven years, pitched effectively in hitter’s’ parks (Shibe Park, Fenway Park) and starred in three World Series. Few if any pitchers threw tantrums on a par with the 6’3”, 190-pound Lefty, who did everything big. He even led all pitchers by striking out 593 times as a batter.

Robert Moses Grove was born to John and Emma Grove on March 6, 1900, in the bituminous-mining town of Lonaconing, Maryland. His father and older brothers preceded him into the mines, but Lefty quit after two weeks.  Lefty drifted into other jobs: as 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. In his spare time, he played a kind of baseball using cork stoppers in wool socks wrapped in black tape, and fence pickets when bats weren’t available. He did not play genuine baseball until 17, nor genuinely organized baseball until 19, when Dick Stakem, proprietor of a general store in nearby Midland, began using him in town games on a field sandwiched between a forest and train tracks.

The B & O manager supposedly wanted Grove, and the next year Bob was cleaning cylinder heads of steam engines for B & O in Cumberland, Maryland. Before he could put in a baseball season there, a local garage manager named Bill Louden, who managed the Martinsburg, West Virginia, team of the Class C Blue Ridge League, offered him a princely $125 a month, a good $50 more than his father and brothers were making. With his parents’ blessing, Lefty took a 30-day leave from his job, signed a contract on May 5, got a roundtrip rail pass from his master mechanic and was driven across the mountains in a large car supplied by the Midland team. While Grove was going 3-3, with 60 strikeouts in 59 innings, word reached Jack Dunn, owner of the International League (Double-A) Baltimore Orioles. Dunn sent his son Jack Jr. to watch Grove. As it happened, the Martinsburg team had started the season on the road because it lacked a fence around the home field. Dunn bought Grove for a price in the $3,000-$3,500 range that satisfied Louden.  According to some accounts, the Orioles signed Grove just ahead of overtures from the Giants, Dodgers, and Tigers. It will forever be debated how many major-league games Grove would have won if he hadn’t spent five seasons with the Orioles. We’ll never know the answer, but we do know that Grove enjoyed playing for the Orioles. Starting at $175 a month, he won his debut, 9-3, over Jersey City, prompting owner Dunn to say he wouldn’t sell Lefty for $10,000. In 1920-24, Grove was 108-36 and struck out 1,108 batters for a minor-league record, though he was often wild and went 3-8 in postseason play. By his last season in Baltimore, however, Grove was certainly pitching like a major leaguer. He went 26-6 despite missing six weeks with a wrist injury, struck out 231 batters in 236 innings and reduced his walks from 186 to 108. Moreover, Grove routinely struck out between 10 and 14 major leaguers in exhibition games (they may have been reluctant to dig in against him), told Babe Ruth “I’m not afraid of you,” and made good his boast by whiffing the Bambino in nine of 11 exhibition at-bats.

With no minor league draft in the 1920s, Dunn could wait for the best offer before selling Grove to the majors. By the 1924-25 offseason, he couldn’t resist. The Cubs and Dodgers offered $100,000, according to the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, but Dunn sold Grove to an old friend, Philadelphia owner/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.  The much-ballyhooed sale backfired on Grove, who was called the “$100,600 Lemon” when he went 10-12 in 1925 and led the American League in both walks (131) and strikeouts (116). Nonetheless, Mack stuck with him, and Grove, taciturn and sullen during the season, returned home with a mission.

Though he was only 13-13 in 1926, his ERA dropped from 4.75 to a league-best 2.51, his walks dropped from 131 to 101 and his strikeouts climbed from 116 to an AL-best 194. A victim of non-support, he was shut out four times in the season’s first two months. Grove led the league in strikeouts the next five years and won 20 or more games for the next seven. In 1929, the Athletics broke through. Grove was 2-1, with two saves, against the Yankees, 20-6 overall, and the A’s won the pennant.  Grove returned to spring training in 1930 as truculent as ever. While the first-place A’s went 102-52, Grove won the Triple Crown of pitching by leading the league in wins (28), strikeouts (209), and ERA (2.54), the latter an incredible 0.77 ahead of the next best pitcher. He also led the league with nine saves, though the stat wasn’t tabulated until years later. In the World Series, the A’s faced the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals, who had batted .314. The entire NL batted .303 for 1930 season, with the Cardinals’ .314 only third best (the Cards scored the most runs/game). Only two of the six NL teams didn’t hit at least .300 and they each hit .281 for the season. Grove won the opener, 5-2, while throwing 70 strikes and just 39 balls, fanning five and allowing nine hits.  Grove was 2-1, with 10 strikeouts in 19 innings and a 1.42 ERA.

Grove still had not had his best year. By August 23, 1931, he was 25-2 for the season and tied for the American League record with 16 straight wins. By season’s end, he was 31-4.  Winning his second straight Triple Crown with 175 strikeouts, he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. The Athletics won the pennant again, this time in a walk. At 107-45, the A’s were 13 1/2 games better than second-place New York. 
In his three World Series (1929 through 1931), Grove went 4-2, with a 1.75 ERA, 36 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings and two saves. In these same seasons, he was 79-15 in regular-season play.

Stung by poor attendance in the Depression, Mack began unloading his roster and traded Grove to the Boston Red Sox. Grove arrived in Sarasota, the 1934 Red Sox spring training camp, anointed as team savior. They had won 43 and 63 games in the previous two seasons, but newsmen called them contenders. Unfortunately, Lefty developed a sore arm in mid-March, struggled all season and went 8-8 with a 6.50 ERA while the Sox limped to fourth at 76-76. The improvement of 13 games and the record 610,640 home attendance didn’t satisfy the naysayers, too many of whom blamed Grove. Once again, he was a lemon.

Yet he didn’t sour. As wily and ingenious as ever, Grove spent three weeks at Hot Springs, Arkansas during the offseason, playing 36 holes of golf a day or using a rowing machine when it rained. He pitched only four innings against major leaguers in spring training and proclaimed himself fully recovered for 1935. With a new approach of “curve and control,” Grove, now 35, went 20-12 with a league-leading 2.70 ERA. The curve became his major out pitch, Grove explained, because he had lost his fastball. Grove won three more ERA titles in the next four years while winning 17, 17, 14, and 15 games and mellowing in his behavior.

He slipped to 7-6 in 1940, but he had won 293 games and no one doubted he’d reach 300 in 1941. Oh, what a strange season it was! In April, all baseball eyes were on Grove, but they refocused on the pennant races and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak before watching in awe as Ted Williams went 6-for-8 on the last Sunday to hit .406. All this while Americans were awaiting the latest word on approaching war clouds.

Meanwhile, Grove labored to get the big one. He had six wins by midseason. On July 25, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin told Grove, “Pop, this is a nine-inning game. I’m not coming out to get you.” Cronin didn’t, and Grove survived a rock-’em, sock-’em slugfest to beat the Indians on 12 hits, 10-6, with his best friend in baseball, Jimmie Foxx, getting the decisive two-run triple. His final win was no pathetic last gasp, some descriptions notwithstanding. Grove threw only 38 balls and walked just one batter. The 12th 300-game winner, the first since Pete Alexander in 1926 and the last until Warren Spahn in 1961, he had earned his place in history.

Grove quietly told owner Yawkey that he was retiring while they walked through Yawkey’s hunting preserve in South Carolina in early December. The news was upstaged by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947, his first year of eligibility.