Lefty Grove was a coal miner’s son who threw a fastball like a rifle shot and tantrums like a spoiled two-year-old, but his career got off to an inauspicious start in 1920 when he was traded for a fence.
He was baseball’s most dominant pitcher during the late 1920s and 1940s. Some say he was the best left-handed pitcher ever. Sportswriter Bugs Baer said he could throw a pork chop past a wolf.
He won 300 games and lost only 141, despite playing five seasons in the minor leagues when major league teams clamored for his services. He had the lowest earned run average for nine seasons, led the American League in strikeouts for seven seasons and starred in three World Series – sadly, not for the Boston Red Sox. He did win 20 games for the Red Sox in 1938, a year they finished second.
His tantrums were legendary, but he never managed to hurt himself despite ripping up locker rooms. Ted Williams called him a ‘careful tantrum thrower’ because he never punched a locker with his throwing hand.
Not Afraid of the Babe
Hall of Famer Joe Sewell described what it was like to face Lefty Grove:
Sometimes when the sun was out, really bright, he would throw that baseball in there and it looked like a flash of white sewing thread coming up at you.
Grove pitched five years for the Baltimore minor league team. In 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics bought his contract for $100,600 – more than the Yankees paid for Babe Ruth. As a minor leaguer, Grove had faced Babe Ruth 11 times in exhibition games and whiffed him nine times. He said to the Bambino, “I’m not afraid of you.”
He played for nine years with the Philadelphia Athletics, leading the team on a championship run that brought three pennants in three years and two World Series championships. In 1933, Connie Mack dismantled the team and traded him to the Boston Red Sox.
The Lefty Grove Temper
Outfielder Doc Cramer remembered his most famous temper tantrum, aimed at Hall of Famer Al Simmons. Simmons sat out a game to see a doctor and his replacement muffed a fly ball that cost Philadelphia the game. It also cost Grove his 23rd straight win. Said Cramer:
The sparks were flying off Grove. Oh I mean to tell you. I knew it was going to happen. Well, he was about three lockers down from me. I saw him stand up and take hold of the top of his shirt with both hands — we had buttons on our shirts in those days — stand like that for a second, and then rip! He tore that shirt apart so fast and so hard that I saw the buttons go flying past me, three lockers away.
Then everything went flying–bats, balls, gloves, shoes, benches. He broke up a couple of lockers. Nobody said a word. There was no point. You had to wait till the steam went out of him. Next day he was all right. But I never will forget those buttons flying past me.
He was traded to Boston in 1934. In 1935, he missed spring training because of injury and the skin on his throwing hand hadn’t hardened. During the season in a game against Detroit, he struck out a batter in the fifth inning and the catcher threw the ball to the third baseman, Bill Werber. Werber noticed blood on the ball. He took the ball to the mound and showed the ball to Lefty. Then he noticed there was no skin on his pitching fingers. “Lefty, you can’t pitch like that,” he said.
Grove snapped back at him: “You play third base and I’ll do the pitching.”
Ted Williams, as competitive as Lefty Grove, hit a home run and a single to help him win his 300th victory on July 25, 1941. But Williams didn’t appear in the victory photo with Grove. During the game, Williams had also let in two runs by committing an error in left field and popped out weakly with two men on base. Jimmie Foxx won the game with a triple, and the story spread that Williams refused to pose for a photograph with Grove because he was jealous of Foxx. Williams set the record straight:
I drove in two and let in three that day, and that’s why I was so mad at myself. And I’m mad now that I’m not in the picture with my arm around Lefty Grove. That’s a picture I really wish I had.
He was born Robert Moses Grove on March 6, 1900 in coal-mining country, Lonaconing, Md. His father and older brothers went to work in the mines. Lefty tried it for two weeks and quit. He said, “Dad, I didn’t put that coal in here, and I hope I don’t have to take no more of her out.”
He worked as a bobbin boy in a textile mill, an apprentice glass blower and needle etcher in a glass factory and as a railroad worker laying rails and driving spikes.
He didn’t play baseball until he was 17. At 19 he started to pitch for a town team in Midland, Md. In 1920, when he had a job cleaning the cylinder heads of steam engines, he was offered $125 a month to pitch for the Martinsburg, W.Va., Class D minor league team. That was $50 a month more than his father and brothers were making. He took it.
He was once asked if it was true that he rode a bicycle over the mountains to get to his new job. “Whoever heard of riding a bike in the mountains,” he said. “I walked.”
The team didn’t have a fence around its ball park. Lefty Grove started out as a first basemen at Martinsburg but was quickly shifted to pitching. He struck out 60 batters in 59 innings. The owner of the AA Baltimore Orioles minor league team heard about Grove’s fastball and offered him something between $3,000 and $3,500 – enough to buy a fence. Said Grove,
I was the only player ever traded for a fence.
Lefty Grove died May 22, 1975 in Norwalk, Ohio.
With thanks to the SABR Baseball Biography Project and From Maryland to Cooperstown: Seven Maryland Natives in Baseball’s Hall of Fame by Lois Nicholson.