Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Day in Baseball History (Lefty Grove Loses Bid for Record—and His Cool)

August 23, 1931—Although batters didn’t want any part of Philadelphia Athletics ace Lefty Grove during this special season, on this date it was his own teammates who didn’t want to be around him. After a contest in which he lost his chance at a record 17th consecutive victory, Grove displayed his nasty stuff—not in the form of his blazing fastball but his blazing temper.

Following a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns—a defeat that occurred because of an error by a substitute leftfielder--"I went in and tore the clubhouse up—wrecked the place, tore those stall lockers off the wall and everything else,” the surly southpaw related, in uncharacteristic tranquility, later. (The “everything else” included tearing off and shredding his uniform.)

Nor was Grove done yet. Even after his one-man wrecking-crew routine, the pitcher still hadn’t vented all his anger. But this time, instead of releasing it on hapless sub Jimmy Moore, he took it out on the man being replaced, leftfielder Al Simmons.

Why, Grove wondered, did Simmons have to choose this day—one in which the pitcher was trying to break the consecutive-win record jointly held by Walter Johnson and Smokey Joe Wood these last 19 years—to go to the doctor? Had Simmons been in the field instead of Moore, the pitcher felt, that routine line drive by the woebegone Browns’ Sky Melillo would have been caught and Grove would have been out of the inning without any damage.

Some guys explode, then forget all about it in a matter of minutes. Not Grove. For a full week, he wouldn’t talk to anyone. It would take several more years before he forgave Simmons.

When reading the vague outlines of this story, I wondered if the pitcher might have been better off changing his name to Lefty Grudge. This kind of competitiveness that curdles into churlishness, I reasoned, is the sign of an abnormal person—particularly since Simmons probably won, oh, 15 games almost singlehandedly for every one he “lost” for the A’s ace, what with a league-leading .390 batting average and a reputation as his team’s clutch hitter.

But as I read a bit more about “Bucketfoot Al” (a nickname derived from his unusual batting stance), I wondered if Grove might have had a point. Simmons enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, but he felt chagrined that he retired some 70 hits from the magic 3,000 circle. Had he not had to check out of games early—or miss some altogether—because of hangovers, he reasoned, he might have been able to pick up a few more hits along the way.

Surely Grove knew about this. I haven’t been able to discover the cause of the ailment that sent Simmons to the doctor (if that was indeed the true story), but if the slugger had to miss the game because of alcohol, maybe Grove had a right to be peeved.

Grove didn’t lose many other games that year. When he was finished for the season, he led the American League in earned run average (ERA), shutouts, strikeouts, winning percentage and wins, and tied for complete games. Then consider some of his other achievements in this period:

* A 46-4 record from July 25, 1930, through September 24, 1931—believed to be the best 50-game stretch by any pitcher in baseball history;

* An ERA of 2.06 in 1931, less than half the league average that year;

* Coming out of the bullpen to save five games.

Grove was instrumental in helping the A’s capture 107 regular-season games in 1931—and, more important, take the pennant by 13½ games over the New York Yankees, who still had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their primes. In fact, in a 1996 cover story called “The Team That Time Forget,” Sports Illustrated writer William Nack made a creditable case that the 1929-31 A’s belonged in any conversation with the ’27 and ’61 Yankees as the best team in baseball history.

There are all kinds of testaments to Grove’s greatness, including that he won 300 games in his career despite not pitching regularly in the major leagues till age 25, or that, even after an injury made him lose some speed, he continued to enjoy winning records each year till he retired at age 41. Stats maven Bill James has come right out and asked, “What argument, if any, could be presented against the proposition that Lefty Grove was the greatest pitcher who ever lived?”

But no statistics convey the quality of the lanky, fierce southpaw at his best more than an opposing player who said his fastball looked “like a flash of white sewing thread coming up at you.”

Given all that I’ve just written about Grove’s volatile temperament, many of my readers, I think, might look at the photo accompanying this post and wonder, as did Esquire in running one particular image of Richard Nixon throughout the 1970s, “Why is this man smiling?” (Well, sort of smiling, anyway: This was probably as close as Grove got to it in his career.) In Grove’s case, the occasion was the American League MVP trophy he won for his sensational 1931 season.

In case you’re wondering: unlike Ty Cobb’s, Grove’s temper subsided quite a bit after his playing days were through. Fellow residents of his hometown, Lonaconing, Md., and, later, Norwalk, Ohio, actually found him to be quite a friendly guy in the three decades between his retirement and his death in 1975. Who'd have thought it?

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