Card Corner: Hardworking Jerry Grote
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
With the New York Mets back in the World Series for the first time since 2000, I inevitably find myself thinking about the first time that the Mets ever ventured into the territory of autumn glory. Those Mets of 1969 pulled off one of the top five upsets in the history of the World Series, defeating a Baltimore Orioles team that had the overwhelming talent of a dynasty.
In thinking about those Mets of ’69, the epic efforts of Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan in the postseason come to mind, as do the home run heroics of midseason acquisition Donn Clendenon and the game-saving World Series catch by an atypically acrobatic Ron Swoboda. It was all beautifully orchestrated by the imposing Gil Hodges, a manager who was both loved and respected, perhaps in equal amounts, by his overachieving band of players.
There is a tendency, however, to forget about the contributions of some of the 1969 Mets, some of whom were role players and some who remain downright obscure. Perhaps at the top of the former list is an old-school catcher named Jerry Grote, who will never be confused with Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, or even Todd Hundley when it comes to hitting a baseball. But in the more nuanced and subtle areas of defense and baserunning, the toughened Grote was just as responsible as the more famous Mets for making world champions out of a recent also-ran.
Of all the baseball cards that Topps has ever produced, none epitomizes the player on it more than Jerry Grote’s 1971 card. This was the first year that Topps used live game action on its cards -- and none of the action shots are any better than the Grote image. We see him playing in a game, almost certainly during the 1970 season, at Shea Stadium. Grote and the Mets are taking on the St. Louis Cardinals, as evidenced by the presence of Redbirds personnel in the third base dugout. (That is veteran coach Dick Sisler, the son of Hall of Famer George Sisler, wearing No. 5 in the background.)
Moments after making contact with a pitch from an unknown Cardinals pitcher, we see Grote busting his way out of the right-handed batter’s box. His head down, his arms pumping furiously, Grote is running as though this were Game 7 of the World Series, not a midsummer game lost to time and memory.
“[Jerry Grote is the] toughest catcher in the league to steal on.”
With Grote extracting the most of a youthful pitching staff, the Mets rallied to overtake the Chicago Cubs and win the National League East. Grote delivered key hits in Game 2 and Game 4 of the World Series, with both blows setting up important rallies. Grote played a subtle role in the Mets’ unexpected world championship.
Grote remained the Mets’ starting catcher through the next two seasons; the 1971 campaign was highlighted by his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That same year, Hall of Famer Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals paid Grote the ultimate compliment, referring to him in the Sporting News as the “toughest catcher in the league to steal on.”
Then came the tragedy that affected all of the Mets in 1972: The unexpected death of the beloved Hodges during Spring Training. Shortly after Yogi Berra assumed command as manager, he demoted Grote to a backup role and made Duffy Dyer the No. 1 catcher. Some Mets observers speculated that Berra preferred Dyer because he hit with more power than Grote, but the new manager was actually protecting his veteran catcher. Grote was struggling with several bone chips in his throwing elbow, a condition that would require surgery in September.
The following spring, Grote returned to his role as starting catcher, but an errant fastball from Pittsburgh reliever Ramon Hernandez broke a bone in his right forearm and sidelined him for two months. Once again, Grote had to work his way back, eventually lifting his average from the .170s to the .250s. Grote and the Mets made a return to the postseason and eventually the World Series, before losing to the powerhouse Oakland A’s in seven games. As he did in 1969, Grote caught every inning of the 1973 postseason.
In 1974, Grote earned selection to his second All-Star Game, but he continued to suffer injuries that summer and ended up splitting time with Dyer. With the Mets increasingly concerned about the wear and tear on Grote’s body, they brought six catchers to Spring Training in 1975. Dyer was now out of the picture, having been traded to Pittsburgh, but veteran Jerry Moses and impressive rookie John Stearns had arrived to crowd the catching situation.
Just when Grote appeared to be losing his grip on the catching gear, he beat back the competition. The Mets sold Moses to the Padres, ensuring a place for Grote in the catching rotation. Playing through back problems, Grote batted .295, led all National League catchers in fielding percentage, and picked off six baserunners.