Lefty Grove: The Best Pitcher a Fence Can Buy

 

Just about 98 years ago today, a tall, lanky nineteen-year-old stepped onto the train platform at Baltimore’s Camden Station. The kid’s name was Robert Groves, though everyone back home in Lonaconing, Maryland called him Bob, and here was in Charm City to join the Baltimore Orioles.

The railroad station where the teenager arrived in Baltimore is still there today, located right next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the current home of the Orioles. However, back in 1920, the tall stranger had to travel to the other side of the city to get to the old Oriole Park on 33rd Street to join his new club.

Baltimore was the equivalent of a million miles away from the mining town of Lonaconing, nestled in the mountains of western Maryland. Like most of the men in Lonaconing, Groves’ father was a bituminous coal miner, and his son Bob joined him underground as soon as he reached his teens. However, the subterranean life wasn’t for Bob Groves. After a few weeks of work, Groves quit, telling his dad “I didn’t put that coal in here, and I hope I don’t have to take no more of her out.”

The restless teen bounced from job to job in and around Lonaconing: apprentice glass blower, railroad lineman, and factory worker. While he tried to find his calling in life, Bob Groves began playing baseball. He’d grown up playing a modified version of the game using makeshift equipment, and it wasn’t until his late teens that he began playing with a real leather ball and glove. Groves made the town team of nearby Midland, where he started as a first baseman. Soon, the team manager recognized the tall, sturdy teen was a natural left-handed pitcher, and just like that, Bob Groves found his life’s calling. In his first game as a newly minted pitcher, the 19 year-old struck out 15 batters in his 7 inning rain-shortened debut. Word quickly spread through the Blue Ridge Mountains about the Groves boy, and soon a man from the Martinsburg Mountaineers of the Class D Blue Ridge League came calling. The professional contract offered to the youngster guaranteed a $125 a month to play ball, almost $50 more than his father made digging that dreaded coal out of the ground.

After Groves had pitched six games for the Mountaineers, word had reached Baltimore of the kid lefty’s great arm. Jack Dunn, Jr., son of the owner/manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles hopped on a train to see the young phenom in person. The Orioles had won the International League pennant the year before, and Jack Dunn, Sr. was assembling one of the greatest minor league teams of all-time. Dunn was a former major leaguer who was a connoisseur of good pitching and had accumulated a stable of formidable arms on his club. With his son’s positive scouting report, Dunn decided to pull the trigger and opened negotiation with Martinsburg to by the kid. To Dunn’s great luck, Martinsburg management was only too eager to sell. It wasn’t that they were unhappy with Bob Groves’ performance – in his six appearances he went 3-3, but had a 1.68 ERA and gave up just 30 hits in 59 innings. Martinsburg would have loved to keep the kid for the whole summer, except for the team was in deep financial trouble. During the spring the club built a new outfield fence, the balance still unpaid. Jack Dunn proffered a check for $3,500; enough for Martinsburg to pay off the wall and put their books in the black, and Bob Groves was a Baltimore Oriole.

As was the norm back in 1920, when Groves showed up in the Orioles clubhouse none of the other players acknowledged his existence. Grove’s place on the team’s roster meant a veteran lost their job, and it was only after he’d won a handful of games that his teammates warmed up to him. Not that he cared much – the rookie was a loner with a surly disposition. He had no interest in the amenities or attractions of big cities, and he instinctly operated under the fear that someone was perpetually out to lift his wallet or cop his watch. When the Orioles staff ace (and world-class flake), Rube Parnham invited the rookie out to dinner, the crafty veteran left the rookie with the bill. Hazing like that only cemented the young pitcher’s pessimistic outlook on the world. He didn’t care what anyone else thought, he showed up to win and nothing else mattered.

And win with Groves the Orioles did. The new lefty went 12 and 2 in 19 games as Baltimore stormed towards another pennant. Groves was now getting $175 a month and earning a reputation as a real tough customer, both during a game and before. When Groves took the mound to pitch batting practice, the kid refused to lob up the easy ones, gunning his scorching fastball past his nervous teammates. Besides the speed, Groves was equally wild, and he usually had no idea where the ball was going to hit once it left his hand. Legend has it that it got to the point that the rest of the Orioles were skipping their time in the cage – probably the first time in BP history of ballplayers passing up the chance to take their practice cuts.

While it’s part of baseball lore that Lefty Grove came down off a Maryland mountaintop completely ready to take on the world, he did have some very rough edges in 1920. Besides his a fore mentioned wildness, Groves couldn’t field his position well nor hold base runners close to the bag. In fact, he didn’t know how to pitch from the stretch. Still, the kid had that whistling fastball and he seemed to never get fazed or rattled by anything while he was on the mound. Groves’ surly and distant disposition caused Jack Dunn to step carefully around his prized rookie. Unlike many managers at the time, Jack Dunn ran a loose club, trusting that his handpicked and carefully scouted players possessed the ability to learn and develop on their own. Fortunately, this hands-off and trusting management style enabled a guy like Lefty Groves to organically develop and eventually thrive. One recorded exchange between manager and rookie early in that 1920 season went something like this:

Dunn: “Who taught you how to pitch?”

Groves: “Nobody. Taught myself.” 

Dunn: “Well, learn the rest yourself.”

That fall the Orioles met the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. Dunn sent his rookie to the mound twice, both resulting in losses, as Baltimore went down 5 games to 3. This unexpected lack of success in the Junior World Series was something both the Orioles and Groves would be plagued with for the next few years.

Grove’s second year proved his rookie season was no fluke: 25 wins and an ERA of 2.54. He led all International League hurlers in strikeouts, but he also led the league in walks, a problem that would dog him as he struggled to harness his fastball. His wildness proved costly the following year when the Orioles faced St. Paul in the Junior World Series: Groves lost the second game by walking in the winning run.

In 1923 he decided to work on his repertoire of pitches and developed a curveball. Since it crossed the plate so quickly it didn’t have much movement on it, but it did give the batter something else besides speed to think about. Around this time local Baltimore sports writers began leaving off the “s” at the end of Bob Groves’ last name and simply referred to him as “Lefty Grove”.

Grove won 27 games in 1923 and again led the league in strikeouts and walks. Facing the Kansas City Blues in the Junior World Series, Grove won Game 2 with a 4 hitter and was pitching another gem in Game 4 when he split a finger and left the game. After he was clobbered in Game 6 and 9, it was beginning to look like the lanky lefty was ineffective in big games.

Grove’s lack of success in the Junior World Series failed to deter major league interest. Since the Orioles were an independent club, Jack Dunn did not have to sell any of his ballplayers unless he chose to do so. With the forced sale of Babe Ruth still fresh in his mind, Dunn aimed to make the major league owners pay through the nose if they wanted any of his boys.

In 1924, Grove seemed to have found that handle on his fastball. His walks declined sharply and he finished the season 26 and 6 and led the league in winning percentage and strikeouts. With a new crop of pitchers coming up, Dunn finally sold Grove to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Mack knew a fireballer like Grove came along but a once in a lifetime and agreed to the astronomical price of $100,600 – $100 more than the figure the Yankees paid Boston for Babe Ruth in 1919. It was quite a return on Dunn’s original investment of the cost of a fence!

When Jack Dunn informed Grove that he had been sold to the Athletics, he showed his appreciation by writing a check to his departing ace as a thank you for the 108 victories he had logged for the Orioles.

Lefty Grove, along with former Orioles teammates George Earnshaw, Joe Boley and Max Bishop, formed the core of Mack’s 1929-1931 Philadelphia Athletics, considered to be the greatest team in major league history. In the majors, Grove’s .680 winning percentage is the highest of all pitchers with 300 wins or more and he is considered one of the greatest left-handers to ever play the game. Combined with his 108 wins in Charm City, It’s simply staggering to think of what the record books would look like had he made the majors four or five years earlier than he did.

I’ll be back soon with some more stories of the 1919-1926 Baltimore Orioles. Besides winning seven straight International League pennants, Dunn’s Orioles had more than their share of interesting characters that would be right at home here at the Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Most biographies on Lefty Grove passes quickly through his five seasons in Baltimore – not so with Jim Kaplan’s Lefty Grove: American Original. Kaplan’s chapter on Grove’s time in Charm City is the most complete I have found in the modern biographies of the Hall of Famer. Outside of Kaplan’s book, the only other option for the modern researcher to mine Grove’s Baltimore sojourn is in contemporary newspaper articles. Fortunately, Baltimore had a few good newspapers back then, and each competed to have the best Orioles coverage. This leaves the modern researcher a nice well from which to draw stories and anecdotes of the 1920’s Orioles. For a general history of the old minor league Orioles, James Bready’s “The Home Team” is a must-have. Though he later produced a big budget hardback history of baseball in Baltimore, his 1958 “The Home Team” is still the better book in my opinion, especially when it comes to the 1919-26 teams. Bready only made 5,000 copies of the book, so it’s a little hard to find, but well worth it because not only does it have countess never before seen photos, but Bready really knew his stuff when it came to those old Orioles teams.

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