Lefty Grove Essentials

Positions: Pitcher
Bats: L Throws: L
Weight: 190
Born: Year: 1900 in Lonaconing, MD USA
Died: 5 22 1975 in Norwalk, OH USA
Debut: 4/14/1925
Last Game: 9/28/1941
Hall of Fame: Inducted as a Player in 1947 by BBWAA
Full Name: Robert Moses Grove

 

In a 1941 interview with The Washington Post, Charlie Gehringer was asked if he thought Bob Feller had supplanted Walter Johnson as the premier fireballer of all-time. “Leave me out of this Johnson-Feller thing,” replied an incredulous Gehringer. “I can tell you one thing: Feller has never shown me a fastball like Lefty Grove . . . you were up there swinging at an aspirin tablet.” Gehringer, a career .320 hitter and one of the toughest strikeouts of all-time (one K per 23.8 at-bats), was an expert on the subject, having faced Grove more often than anyone else. In 201 at-bats versus the superlative southpaw, “The Mechanical Man” – who hit .317 when facing left-handed starters not named Grove – posted a paltry .244/.280/.348 slash-line while fanning 20 times (once every 10 at-bats). Conversely, against a young Bob Feller, Gehringer struck out only six times in 84 plate appearances, while compiling a terrific .373 on-base percentage.

On March 4, 1938 – two days before Lefty’s 38th birthday – longtime umpire “Brick” Owens, in an interview with The Associated Press, lists Walter Johnson, Grove, and “young Bobby Feller” as “the three fastest pitchers in history”; Owens adds that Johnson had the most deceptive delivery he’d ever seen, though he couldn’t match the latter two in pure velocity. Several years earlier, “The Big Train” himself cited Grove as the fastest pitcher since Smoky Joe Wood. Johnson’s only knock on Lefty: “His fastball comes at you straight as a string.” Despite the purported lack of movement, Grove relied upon, in his words, “nuthin’ but fastballs” early in his pro career, though he occasionally threw a change-of-pace and what would eventually be known as a slider (Lefty called it a “sailor”).

Grove, who found himself stuck in the minors due to Orioles’ owner Jack Dunn’s reluctance to sell his stars, didn’t make the big leagues until age 25. Over five seasons (1920-24) in the International League, Lefty won 111 games while striking out a minor league record 1,108 batsmen. (During an exhibition series versus a team of big leaguers, Grove fanned Babe Ruth nine times in eleven at-bats.) Upon joining the Philadelphia A’s in 1925, the erratic hurler struggled to the tune of a 4.75 ERA, though his 116 Ks (and 131 walks) paced the American League. Much like a young Koufax some three decades later, Lefty’s command was a work in progress. “Catching him was like catching bullets from a rifleman,” declared Mickey Cochrane, then in his rookie season as well. Philadelphia’s veteran backup catcher, Cy Perkins, was also impressed, calling Grove’s heater “the fastest ball in existence.”

Embarrassed by his lackluster ERA and lack of control, Grove – never one to rest on his laurels – spent the off-season honing his craft. “I’ll show ’em something next year,” he insisted. True to his word, Lefty dominated in 1926, pacing the majors with a 2.51 earned run average (his first of a record nine ERA titles) and 194 strikeouts. “Now he has wide, bending curves [and] better control . . . and he’s the speediest pitcher in baseball,” noted Yankees skipper Miller Huggins, who had called Grove a “dud” a year earlier.

The 1926 season was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak: Grove embarked upon a seven-year run (1927-33) that saw him compile an MLB-best 2.75 ERA and average 25 wins per season while capturing two pitching Triple Crowns and an MVP title along the way. According to baseballreference.com, Grove paced American League hurlers in various positive pitching categories 93 times during the span. Given the historically high run-scoring environment, it’s easy to conclude that no pitcher in MLB history was ever more dominant than Lefty at his peak. “I’ll tell you about Grove,” rhapsodized Connie Mack. “When I sent [him] in to pitch, I could be almost positive we would win the game if we gave him a run or two; you can’t say that of many pitchers.”

The 1934 season – his first with the Red Sox – marked a turning point for Grove’s career in more ways that one. At age 34, still relying heavily on his fastball, the once inextinguishable ace felt something snap in his left elbow that spring. Though the papers called it a “sore arm,” it’s more likely that Grove tore his UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) – an injury that ended many a career in the days before Tommy John surgery. Undaunted, Lefty went about business as usual, stubbornly throwing one painful “fastball” after another. The end result: an astronomical 6.50 ERA and a long stint on the disabled list. That off-season, just as he did following his rookie campaign a decade earlier, Grove set out to reinvent himself, developing a slow curve to go along with a formidable forkball. The venerable hurler later explained: “A pitcher has time enough to get smarter after he loses his speed.”

The new approach paid immediate dividends, as Grove enjoyed his eighth 20-win season while pacing the American League in ERA (2.70) and finishing fourth with 121 Ks. Amazingly, the resilient 36-year-old wasn’t done: Lefty captured ERA crowns in three of the next four seasons (1936-39). “He has learned to think,” Connie Mack explained. “He [now] relies on his pitching brain.” Incidentally, 1936 was Bob Feller’s first year in the majors. Though only 17-years old, the sublime “schoolboy sensation” would soon unseat Grove as baseball’s preeminent strikeout artist and moundsman extraordinaire. Though that gent kneweth not of baseball, p’rhaps William Shakespeare putteth t most wondrous: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

On June 27, 1938, Grove, sporting an MLB-best 11-2 record, squared off with Feller – who at age 19 was leading the majors with 84 Ks – for the first time. Though it had the makings of an epic pitching duel, the game would turn into a lopsided affair as youth reigned supreme. Feller hurled a complete game, allowing two runs while fanning 10 hapless batsmen; conversely, Lefty looked as though he were throwing batting practice that day in Cleveland. All told, the 38-year-old was rocked for 13 hits and six runs before being mercifully removed in the seventh inning. In its coverage of the contest, The Washington Star wrote that “over 10,000 turned out to see Bobby Feller hand it to Lefty Grove.” Though Lefty would go on to capture another two ERA titles, for all intents and purposes, the baton had been passed – a new king had ascended the throne. In baseball, as in life: the beat goes on. ~ BK2

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” — Graham Greene