Grove, Robert Moses ("Lefty")

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GROVE, Robert Moses ("Lefty")

(b. 6 March 1900 in Lonaconing, Maryland; d. 22 May 1975 in Norwalk, Ohio), baseball player who won an unprecedented nine earned-run-average (ERA) and five winning-percentage titles and is considered by many the greatest pitcher of all time.

Grove, one of eight children born to miner John Groves and homemaker Emma Beeman in the Maryland panhandle, stayed in school only through the eighth grade before taking on a series of jobs. Like all his male siblings, he spent time in the mines, but after two weeks he resigned, announcing to his father, "Dad, I didn't put that coal in here, and I hope I don't have to take no more of her out."

Adding the nickname "Lefty" and dropping the "s" from his last name along the way, Grove began playing organized baseball at the late age of seventeen. He pitched for town teams in Midland and Cumberland, and at age twenty signed with the Martinsburg, West Virginia, team of the Class C Blue Ridge League. After he struck out sixty batters over fifty-nine innings in just a month, he was signed by the Double-A, International League Baltimore Orioles. What followed was perhaps the most enjoyable part of Grove's career. During four and a half relaxing seasons with the Orioles, probably history's greatest minor league team, he won 108 games, lost thirty-six, pitched .750 ball, and fanned a minor league record of 1,108 batters. Why did Grove remain in the minors until age twenty-five? Because there was no major league draft from the International League at the time, and Baltimore owner Jack Dunn had a meal ticket in his star left-hander.

Following the 1924 season, Dunn sold Grove to the A's for a record $100,600, the last $600 thrown in to make it the richest signing of a minor leaguer in history and $600 more than the down payment the Yankees parted with for Babe Ruth. After a shaky 10–12 rookie season, Grove took wing. He won 195 games, one Most Valuable Player award, and the undisputed title of baseball's best pitcher by the end of his nine years in Philadelphia.

A teammate once described Grove as a man with "a fastball and a mean disposition." The description fit perfectly for much of his career. While pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1925 to 1933, he threw a high fastball that seemed to rise as it approached the hitter. In baseball argot, it "handcuffed" them. He pitched differently for the Boston Red Sox from 1934 to 1941, but the depiction lingered. A small-town guy who could be generous with his friends, Grove grew defensive and uncooperative in big cities. He often refused to sign autographs or conduct interviews and berated everything from inanimate objects to teammates.

The quintessential moment of his career was 23 August 1931, in St. Louis, Missouri. En route to his greatest (31–4) season, Grove stood at the peak of his powers. He had won twenty-five games, losing only two, and tied the American League record with sixteen consecutive wins. His opponents that afternoon were the St. Louis Browns. After the Browns' Fritz Schulte reached base on a two-out single in the third inning, Oscar (Ski) Mellilo hit a line drive directly at the left fielder. Unfortunately, the regular left fielder, Al Simmons, was in Milwaukee getting treatment for an ailing ankle. His substitute, a rookie named Handsome Jimmy Moore, misjudged the drive, which tipped off his glove for a run-scoring double. Grove allowed no more St. Louis runs, but his obscure mound opponent, Dick Coffman, shut down the Athletics completely.

Following the 1–0 loss, the A's headed for a grubby clubhouse with peeling paint and wooden lockers to await Grove's inevitable tantrum. He responded with perhaps the most complete clubhouse demolition in history. Raging at Simmons for his absence and at manager Connie Mack for not insisting that Simmons play, Grove attempted to tear off the clubhouse door, shredded the wooden partitions between lockers, and ripped off his uniform with both hands, the buttons flying three lockers down. "Threw everything I could get my hands on—bats, balls, shoes, gloves, benches, water buckets, whatever was handy," Grove proudly told author Donald Honig.

Claiming he was strapped for cash, Mack, who doubled as A's owner, sold Grove to the Boston Red Sox after the 1933 season. As any woebegone Red Sox fan could have predicted, Grove immediately hurt his arm and wasted the 1934 season. Dismissed as a "lemon," he rebuilt his arm and refashioned his repertoire in perhaps the greatest resurrection of any pitcher ever. Spotting his fastball and relying on what he called "curve and control," Grove won four ERA titles between the ages of thirty-five and thirty-nine. He also granted enough interviews, signed enough autographs, and showed enough good humor to rebuild his reputation. Alas, Grove's retirement was lost in the news from Pearl Harbor, costing him the tribute he deserved.

Back home in Lonaconing, Maryland, and later near his son Bobby in Norwalk, Ohio, Grove had a bittersweet retirement. He had an affair, divorced his wife Ethel (Gardner)—an act both partners later regretted, according to relatives—had a distant relationship with his daughter Doris, and endured the death of his son. Despite this personal turmoil, Grove enjoyed gardening and golf and coached an integrated youth team. Grove died peacefully in a rocking chair while watching a soap opera at his daughter-in-law's house.

His teammates never protested Grove's antics. For one thing, they knew his rage fueled an uncompromising will to win. For another, they knew he was a winner. While starring for three pennant winners and two world champions, he had a 300–141 record for an otherworldly .680 winning percentage, won seven straight strikeout titles, and eight times won twenty or more games, all during a "lively ball" period more friendly to hitters than pitchers. In an epoch when all starters were expected to relieve, he pitched better out of the bullpen than any of his peers. Though other pitchers won more often and fanned more batters, baseball historians like Bill James and Daniel Okrent consider Grove the greatest ever. They reason that because pitching statistics vary by era, the only true standard for excellence is dominance. Grove's nine ERA and five winning-percentage titles are unmatched, and Total Baseball rated his "adjusted" ERA of 148 points first on the all-time list.

The only full-length biography is Lefty Grove: American Original (2000) by Jim Kaplan. Statistical information and a brief biography are in all editions of Total Baseball. Harold Kaese's 1942 article in the Saturday Evening Post provides an excellent short profile. Obituaries are in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe (both 23 May 1975).

Jim Kaplan