Lefty Leaves the League
Two of baseball’s greatest accomplishments happened in 1941: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and of course, Ted Williams batting .406.
Lost in the glare of these feats was the final season for one of the game’s great pitchers, Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove.
When the season began, Grove was 41 years old and had 293 wins under his belt, and wanted the year to conclude with him winning his 300th game (or more). On September 28 of that year, Grove would end his career where it began, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, pitching for the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics.
The A’s owner/manager Connie Mack had made a bold prediction in 1924, when he paid $100,600 to acquire Grove; he said the hurler, who possessed a blazing fastball, was the piece the team needed to win the pennant.
He backed up that claim by naming Grove the opening day starter for the 1925 season.
The son of a miner from Maryland, Grove had four great years pitching for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, but at times he was impatient – and prone to getting rattled when he fell behind.
The Orioles played in the “Little” World Series against the winner of the American Association for all four of Grove’s seasons with them, but was just 3-8 with nearly eight walks a game in the post-season. Grove also had a terrible temper, something that would plague him in his first seasons in the majors.
Lefty Grove unleashes a fastball.
In the Athletics locker room at Shibe Park, Grove suited up on April 13, 1925 for his major league debut. He was probably nervous, lasting only 3 and 2/3 innings, giving up five runs, six hits and four walks. The A’s won the game when Grove’s future battery mate, Mickey Cochrane, helped the A’s win it in the 10th inning. Grove did not talk to reporters after that game, or any game for that matter.
He pitched badly in his first six starts, losing three. Fans started referring to him as “the $100,000 Lemon.” Mack began using Grove in relief, where he pitched effectively.
Veteran catcher Cy Perkins took steps to help Grove settle down, such as having him step off the rubber between pitches, and even counting to 10 before throwing the ball. It helped. Grove finished the year 10-12, the only losing season in his career. He led the league in strikeouts, but also in walks. The next year, Grove was 13-13, leading the league with a 2.51 ERA. Mack also used him in 12 games in relief.
In 1927, the older and wiser Grove went on to win 20 games – the first of seven consecutive 20-win seasons — while also making 23 relief appearances. As he improved, so did the A’s, with players such as Cochrane, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Max Bishop and pitcher George Earnshaw leading the way. After finishing a close second to the Yankees in 1928, the A’s blew past them the following year, and defeated the favored Chicago Cubs in six games in the World Series. The A’s again won the World Series in 1930, but lost the fall classic in 1931.
“One writer once wrote, ‘Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.’ That was no more.”
By that year, Grove had established himself as one of – if not the best – pitcher in the game. Starting in 1927, his four-year record was 103-36, culminating with a 31-4 record in 1931, and he was named the league’s most valuable player.
However, the Great Depression was having its effect on baseball. Fewer fans bought tickets, and Mack was supposedly losing money on his team.
In 1932, the A’s finished 13 games behind the Yankees for the pennant. Attendance had dropped again, from 900,000 in 1929 to 700,000 in 1931 to 400,000 in 1932 – in which, incredibly, they finished with the third highest attendance in the AL that year.
Mack had a history of dealing with financial crises.
In 1914, after winning four pennants and three World Series, Mack was also facing economic trouble. The upstart Federal League was offering higher salaries to major leaguers. Rather than lose his players to the competing league, Mack sold them. In 1916, two years after winning the pennant, the A’s lost 117 games.
After the 1932 season, Mack again began selling off his star players. In 1933, he sold Grove to the Boston Red Sox for $125,000.
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak overshadowed Grove's quest for 300 wins in 1941.
When he started with the Red Sox, Grove was not the pitcher he’d been in Philadelphia. In his first year with the Red Sox his blazing fastball was now ordinary, he complained of arm soreness and missed time with other medical maladies. He finished 8-8 with a 6.50 ERA.
One writer once wrote, “Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.” That was no more. Grove also possessed a solid curve ball, and in Boston he developed a fork ball, and subsequently became a “pitcher,” getting hitters out by relying on location and control.
Over the next seven years, Grove won 98 games and four ERA titles, while pitching about once a week from 1938 on. At the end of the 1939 season, Grove had 286 victories. He struggled in 1940, going 7-6.
As his career was winding down, it was acknowledged that he was one of the best ever to play the game. But his swan song of 1941 was overshadowed by the feats of DiMaggio and Williams. (Grove started the 11th game of the streak, and DiMaggio went 1 for 4.) As Grove approached his 300th win, Boston was more caught up with Ted Williams’ quest to hit .400.
He managed six wins by July 2, but getting that magic 300th win was an elusive endeavor. He pitched 16 innings in a game he lost 6-5. He lost another game on July 18 when a teammate made an error in the 10th inning.
On July 25, he started a game against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway, and Grove was not sharp. The game was tied 6-6 in the eighth when the Red Sox scored four runs. Grove retired the side in order of the ninth for the victory, becoming the 12th pitcher in history to win 300 or more games.
He could have hung up his spikes then, but Grove not only finished out the season, he did not rule out coming back the following year. His final start of 1941 was September 28, a date that’s become infamous in baseball history, but not because of Grove’s participation. The Red Sox and A’s were playing a season-ending doubleheader in Philadelphia.
Lefty Grove and Ted Williams sit together in the Red Sox dugout, May 19, 1958. (Photo by Paul Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The big news that day was Williams. A story now part of baseball’s lore, Williams entered the day hitting .399.5, which, under baseball rules was rounded up to .400. Williams could have sat out the games, but he felt he wasn’t really hitting .400, and he got into the lineup.
Prior to the games, Mack told his pitchers not to walk Williams, who collected four hits in the first game, going above .400, but he chose not to sit out the final game.
Before the second game, there was a ceremony to honor Grove by the A’s, and his former coach Ira Thomas handed him a silver chest.
Grove started game two, and lasted only one inning, giving up four hits and three runs. Williams collected two more hits, finishing the season at .406.
In December, two days after Pearl Harbor, Grove announced his retirement. While that final inning on September 28 was overshadowed by Ted Williams, it nevertheless was the final appearance of one of the greatest pitchers in the game’s history.