Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Born in rural Wisconsin in 1893, Burleigh Grimes wound up developing one of the game's most devastating spitballs as well as one of the game's a reputation as one of the games toughest players.
The son of a farmer, Grimes went to work at a young age at a lumberyard, where an accident almost cost him his life. He had a large pile of lumber fall on him, but he somehow emerged relatively unscathed. At 13, while attending a minor league baseball game in St Paul, he was enamored by a spitballer playing for Minneapolis, and was determined to replicate the pitch. In 1912, he signed with Eau Claire in Class D baseball, but the league folded. He moved to Ottumwa in 1913, and was signed by the Detroit Tigers. He was quite successful in the next few seasons, moving from Chattanooga to Birmingham, and in 1916 his contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He completed 4 of his five starts with Pittsburgh, and expectations were high. However, in 1917, he had a rough season, going 3-16. Pittsburgh dealt him to Brooklyn in the off-season, and that was where Burleigh Grimes became one of the best pitchers in the National League.
In nine seasons with Brooklyn, he won 20 games 4 times and fell one win short in a fifth. In 1920, Brooklyn won their first pennant as Grimes went 23-11 with a 2.22 ERA. He was not as effective in the World Series, winning one game but losing two, including the seventh and deciding game. He also gave up a grand slam to Cleveland's Elmer Smith, the first slam in World Series history.
After a couple of mediocre seasons, Brooklyn dealt Grimes to the Giants. Grimes went 19-8, but was at odds all season long with McGraw, who was as strong-willed and rough-and-tumble as Grimes. He was dealt back to Pittsburgh in 1928, where he enjoyed two of his best seasons (25-14, 2.99 ERA in 1928, and 17-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 1929). However, Grimes' personality allowed Grimes to wear out his welcome, despite his overall effectiveness. From 1930 to 1934, he went from Pittsburgh to Boston to St Louis to Chicago back to St Louis to the New York Yankees and back to Pittsburgh. In 1934, at the age of 40, Grimes was released and his career ended with 270 wins.
Grimes legacy consists of two aspects: his spitball and his toughness. Using slippery elm, his spitball would break 6-8 inches when he has it going on. He went to his mouth on every pitch so hitters wouldn't know when to expect it, but he also had a decent repertoire of other pitches to complement it. In 1919, major league baseball decided to outlaw the spitball, and 22 pitchers, including Grimes, were permitted to throw the pitch legally for one for season, and after that season, would have to rely on other pitches. Grimes and another spitballer, Bill Doak, petitioned the powers-that-be to allow them to continue to use their bread-and-butter pitches for the remainder of their career. After the 1920 season, 17 pitchers, with Grimes and Doak among them, were permitted to throw the spitball until the retired. Grimes, upon his retirement in 1934, was the last major league pitcher to legally throw a spitball.
Grimes toughness as a competitor is legendary. He would not shave for two days before a start, giving him a dark and sinister scowl that intimidated almost every batter who stepped into the box. He was known for throwing at players, either at their head, behind their head, or at any other part of the body he felt okay to do so. He had a long-running feud with Frankie Frisch, which started when Frisch spiked Grimes in a play at first base in 1919. Every time those two faced each other for the next 10+ years, Frisch knew he was getting at least two pitches thrown at his head.
After his playing days ended, Grimes moved quickly into managing. He managed in the minor leagues before getting a job at the helm of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, where he managed through 1938. Grimes toughness and temperament were still with him as a manager, indicated in an incident in 1938 when he was giving a critique to young Brooklyn pitcher, stating that he thought the youngster lacked confidence when getting in a jam. The young hurler got snippy, telling Burleigh that if Grimes "wasn't such an old man", he would.... well, the kid's comment was interrupted by Grimes' fist.
He would never return to manage in the big leagues again, but managed around the Midwest in the minor leagues through 1954, with a few interruptions filled with scouting duties. He scouted for the Yankees, Athletics and Orioles through 1971, when he retired.
Grimes was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964. He wisely invested his salaries from his playing days, and was a very successful rancher and farmer, owning a 230 acre farm near St Louis for years, before moving a little further north in Missouri to a 545 acre farm. He returned to Wisconsin to live out the remainder of his days, and died in December of 1985 at the age of 92 after suffering from cancer. He had no children and was survived by his fifth wife, Lillian (33 years his junior).
I always enjoyed reading about Grimes, and the stories of his toughness are legendary. Despite his mean disposition on the diamond, his teammates, opponents, friends and neighbors all had nothing bad to say about him off the field. He was a very friendly and good-hearted man by all accounts. I was always fascinated by Game 5 of the 1920 World Series, the game in which Grimes not only gave up the grand slam to Elmer Smith but also the first World Series home run by a pitcher (Jim Bagby). The game also featured an unassisted triple play by Cleveland's Bill Wambsganss. I have stated time and time again that if I could hop on a time machine and witness one game, that would be the game. I had corresponded with Grimes and Wambsganss on and off for a couple of years in the early 1980's. I remember the news of Grimes' death like it was yesterday. It was a cold Michigan evening, and my father and I were coming from somewhere, listening to the news on the car radio. They gave a teaser that two of baseball's legends had died, and then went to commercials. We sat in the car, waiting for the commercials to end to get the names. My dad guessed one had to be Roger Maris, who was suffering from cancer. I somehow just knew it was Grimes and Wamby. I was right. Both had died just two days apart. This really saddened me, because they both were such great men, and the more-notable 1920 World Series participants had been passing away in recent months (aside from Grimes and Wamby in December of '85, Joe Wood had passed that July, and Elmer Smith and Stan Coveleski the year before). To this day, I find the 1920 World Series to be one of the most compelling. (For what it is worth, Maris did die later that same week.)
The Autograph: Despite his crankiness, Grimes was a great signer through the mail. I got him more than a few times. He always had a nice bold signature, not as shaky as you would expect from a guy with his advanced age and illness. He eventually did shorten his signature to the "B.A. Grimes" that you see on the card above, but most of my samples have the complete "Burleigh A. Grimes".
Below: Mr. and Mrs. Grimes at home.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Gus Suhr was born in San Francisco in 1906, and shortly afterwards moved to Millbrae, California, where he would call home for 65 years. He was signed by the San Francisco Seals of the PCL in 1925, and quickly became one of the league top hitters. Originally a second baseman, Suhr lead the PCL with 64 doubles in 1926. In 1929, he batted .381 with 51 home runs and 177 RBI (the PCL played more games than their Major League counterparts). On the strength of this season, Suhr, now a first baseman, was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After an outstanding rookie season in 1930, Suhr slumped in '31 and was benched. He returned to in 1932 and stayed there, embarking on a consecutive-games played streak that would reach a then-record in the NL of 822 games before his mother's death forced him to miss a game. Over this stretch, Suhr was a solid first baseman both at the plate and in the field. Possessing decent power and a good eye, Suhr's best season was 1936, when he bated .312 along with 118 RBI and 112 runs scored, being named to the National League's All-Star team. He batted .294 for Pittsburgh in 1938, and halfway through a 1939 season that saw him hit .304, Suhr was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Max Butcher. After a poor start and limited action in 1940, Suhr called it quits and returned to California. During World War 2, he joined up again with the Seals in the PCL, playing three more years. His major league totals include a .279 lifetime batting average and 1446 hits. He, at the time of this blogging, still holds the Pirate record for most games at first base.
After his playing days ended, Suhr operated a liquor store in Millbrae. He moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1990, and was a frequent attendee to spring training games there. In 2002, he appeared at a Piitsburgh Pirate game at PNC Park where the Pirates honored the surviving Pirates who were All-Stars. Suhr happily spent the day enjoying the game and signing autographs. Suhr died in 2004 just a few weeks past his 98th birthday.
The Autograph: Nothing rare about this one at all. 98 years is a long life, and he was in good health and always signed. I do like how Suhr crossed out the incorrect sentence on the back of the card.
Walter "Buck" Leonard was born in 1907 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was unable to attend high school as black were not allowed to in the South at that time. His father, John, died in the influenza epidemic, and Buck was forced to go to work to support his family. He went to work in a textile mill and later as a railroad station shoeshine boy. He played some semi-pro baseball at this time, but when he lost his railroad job, he signed with the Brooklyn Royal Giants in the Negro Leagues. From there, he moved to the legendary Homestead Grays where he became the greatest first baseman in the Negro Leagues. He was a teammate of Josh Gibson, and the two sluggers were dubbed "The Thunder Twins" and were compared to their white Yankee contemporaries, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During World War 2, Leonard lead the Grays to four-consecutive Black World Series appearances.
In the years before Jackie Robinson's days with the Dodgers, Leonard, along with Gibson, was approached by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith about signing with the AL team. Griffith wound up getting cold feet about being the first team to sign black players, and relented. Shortly after Robinson's debut with Brooklyn, St Louis owner Bill Veeck offered a contract to Leonard, but at 40 years of age, Leonard turned him down, claiming he was to old to play in the Major Leagues.
After the Grays disbanded, Leonard played from 1951-55 in the Mexican League, interrupted by a brief appearance with Portsmouth in the Piedmont League. This stint was Leonard's only appearance in organized baseball. (The Negro Leagues, with its haphazard scheduling and record keeping, is not recognized by professional baseball as "organized").
After Leonard's final game in Mexico at 48 years of age, he returned to Rocky Mount, where he worked as a truant officer and later a gym teacher. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1972. Leonard suffered a stroke in 1986, and he was forced to learn to write with his other hand. He was a regular fixture at Negro League events through the 1980's and 90's, and enjoyed years of recognition and adulation (including being the honorary captain for the NL in the 1994 All-Star Game) before dying in 1997 at the age of 90.
The Autograph: This is a good example of his post-stroke autograph. Pre-stroke autographs are not hard to find, but they are definitely not as common as the later versions. He did a lot of card shows over the years, and also was very generous in his through-the-mail habits.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Born in 1903 in Carthage, Missouri, Carl Hubbell came to the major leagues later than most star players, but when he arrived, he made an impact on the game the few would ever make.
Hubbell was a star pitcher in high school, as the left-hander had a good fastball and curveball. After graduation, he pitched in the Oklahoma State League for a few years, and after 1925 his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers. By this time, he was developing a pitch that broke the opposite way as a conventional curveball. The pitch, now known as the "screwball" but in earlier years made famous by Christy Mathewson as the "fadeaway," was thrown by twisting the wrist in the opposite direction. Ty Cobb, the player/manager for the Tigers at the time, forbid the youngster from throwing the pitch, claiming he would hurt his arm. Without his best pitch, Hubbell faltered in spring training and was shipped out by the Tigers to the minor leagues.
While pitching in Beaumont, Texas, Hubbell was permitted to throw the screwball, and he quickly became a dominant pitcher in the league, and was purchased by the New York Giants and John McGraw. Hubbell joined the Giants in mid-1928 at age 25, and quickly made an impact, winning 10 games and posting a 2.83 ERA. In the next four seasons, he won no less than 14 games in a season, and quickly became the ace of the Giants. In 1933, he won 23 games and posted a 1.66 ERA, winning the NL MVP award and leading the Giants to a World Championship. This was the first of 5 consecutive seasons of 20 wins, including 1936 when he lead the Giants to another pennant with a 26-6 record and a 2.31 ERA, winning his second MVP award. The Giants returned to the World Series in 1937 as Hubbell went 22-8. In 1938, Hubbell was slowed by arm trouble, having bone chips removed from his elbow. Now 35, his career was in decline, but still showed occasional signs of brilliance, including a few one-hitters. Hubbell's career, 16 years in all, came to an end in 1943 at the age of 40. He won 253 games with a .622 winning percentage, and a career 2.98 ERA.
After his retirement, Hubbell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He became the director of the Giants farm system until a stroke in 1977. He retired to Arizona, where he lived the remainder of his life. He died in November of 1988 as the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident. Carl Hubbell, the "Meal Ticket," was 85.
Of course, it would be tough to discuss Hubbell without mentioning the 1934 All-Star Game. King Carl turned in one of the most memorable performance in baseball history, striking out five of baseball's legendary players in succession: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. This single event is what makes Carl Hubbell's name familiar to casual fans of the game today.
In 1985, my parents dispatched me across the country from Detroit to Phoenix to visit with my best friend, whose family moved out there a few years earlier. At 14, it was fun to travel by myself. I felt very adult. While in Phoenix, me and my friend Paul tried to contact Carl Hubbell to see if we could stop by and visit (helived in nearby Mesa). I spoke to him on the phone, but he said he didn't feel up to accepting visitors. Oh well, worth a shot.
The autograph: Hubbell autographed everything. As I overheard some autograph hound claim, in jest but probably in truth as well, Hubbell "would sign toilet paper if you sent it to him."
Below, Hubbell throws out the first pitch at the 1984 All-Star Game. Below that, Hubbell stops by the locker room to talk with Juan Marichal.