#CardCorner: 1969 Topps Joe Grzenda
While his name might not be one that falls into the household variety, some of Joe Grzenda’s images on Topps cards are quite memorable – and perhaps best epitomized by his appearance in the 1969 Topps set.
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On this card, Grzenda’s facial features are so thin that his cheek bones seem to be protruding, accentuating the hollow look to the sides of his face. His long neck is also quite apparent, as is a close-cropped haircut that would have suited him to a stint in the military. There is also a trace of sweat on Grzenda’s face, an indication that he has just completed a workout on this day, sometime in the mid-1960s, at an unknown ballpark
Given his distinctive looks, it should come as no surprise that Grzenda’s nickname was “Shaky Joe.” He was known for being a whirl of nervous energy, a pitcher who seemed to be in perpetual motion. During his playing days, Grzenda drank two pots of coffee a day, and also had a reputation as a chain smoker, one who could plow through three packs of “Lucky Strikes” cigarettes in a 24-hour span.
The latter habit was most evident on days when Grzenda pitched. Sometimes he would light a cigarette in the dugout and start smoking, then leave the lit cigarette on the bench as he returned to the mound. Working at a frenetic pace that would have made Jim Kaat proud, Grzenda would try to finish off the opposing hitters as quickly as possible so that he could return to the dugout and finish the task of smoking the cigarette. Given all of this activity, it was no wonder that Grzenda sometimes appeared to be visibly shaking, even as he was catching a few breaths in the dugout.
Grzenda’s nervous exterior becomes more understandable when we examine his upbringing. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the son a coal miner. His father was a strict disciplinarian, a man who showed little patience with others and who often applied corporal punishment to his son.
Emerging from that difficult upbringing and those coal mines of the 1950s, Grzenda’s talents as a pitcher attracted the attention of several teams, including the Detroit Tigers. Not only was Grzenda a left-hander who threw hard, but he possessed a strong curve ball. He also had the kind of long, lean build preferred by most scouts.
After signing with the Tigers in 1955, Grzenda (pronounced Greh-ZEN-duh) struggled in his professional debut, but improved markedly in 1956 and ’57. By 1958, he was deemed ready for Double-A ball, pitching for the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. Adjusting quickly to Double-A and becoming popular with the fans of Birmingham, he went 16-7 with a 3.19 ERA and helped propel the Barons to the Southern Association pennant.
Still only 27, Grzenda would find work with the Kansas City Athletics in February of 1964. The A’s assigned him to Birmingham, his original team. By coincidence, that season marked the return of professional baseball to Birmingham, which had gone without a team in 1962 and ’63. Birmingham had essentially lost its franchise after the ’61 season because of the city’s infamous “Checkers Rule.” It was a local by-law that prohibited black and white citizens from playing any sport or game together while within the city limits. The restriction included baseball, softball, football, basketball, dominoes, card games, and yes, even checkers.
In 1961, major league baseball had mandated that every minor league must be integrated. Given the enforcement of the Checkers Rule, it was impossible for Birmingham to comply with the new standards of Organized Ball.
Upset by the demotion, Grzenda considered quitting and going home to Pennsylvania. But the prospect of following in his father’s footsteps and working the coal mines did not appeal to him. Grzenda mulled the situation further, before electing to stick with baseball and return to the Barons.
In 1965, Grzenda moved up to Triple-A and split his time between Vancouver and Oklahoma City, the latter team an affiliate with the Houston Astros. (In the 1960s, it was common for minor league players to be loaned out to other organizations for parts of the season.) The following year, Grzenda worked his way back to the A’s and appeared in 21 games, pitching effectively as a reliever.
Strangely, the 1966 season saw Grzenda back in the minor leagues. He made a return trip to the Southern League, this time pitching for the A’s new affiliate located in Mobile, Ala. Thanks to the addition of a new pitch, the palm ball, Grzenda allowed only 51 hits in 75 innings and finished a perfect 6-0.
Grzenda’s performance didn’t earn him a promotion to Kansas City, but did catch the attention of another major league team. The Mets, looking for relief help, purchased Grzenda from Finley and brought him to New York. He pitched in 11 late-season games out of the Mets’ bullpen, forging an ERA of 2.16.
Strangely, Grzenda’ late-season audition did not keep him in New York long-term. That winter, the Mets sold him to the Twins. He spent all of 1968 at Triple-A Denver, the Twins’ top affiliate in the American Association.
Grzenda reported to the Twins’ camp in the spring of 1970, but he would end Spring Training with a different organization. On March 21, the Twins traded Grzenda and another pitcher to the Washington Senators for slugging outfielder Brant Alyea. Grzenda pitched poorly for his new team, putting up a bloated ERA of 5.00 in 84 innings. But then came 1971, when Grzenda would rediscover both his control and command, becoming the team’s most effective relief pitcher. Although the Senators were a bad team in 1971, the 34-year-old Grzenda stood out as a bright spot. Displaying precise control, he posted an ERA of 1.92, won five games, and saved five more.
Grzenda provided some intangibles for the Senators, as well. He counseled some of the younger Senators pitchers, including a touted but nervous rookie named Pete Broberg, who was making his first appearances in the major leagues.
“Joe came to my aid, calmed me down,” an appreciative Broberg told writer Chic Feldman of The Scrantonian.
With the Senators holding a 7-5 lead against the New York Yankees, Grzenda entered the game in the ninth. He retired Felipe Alou on a routine grounder and then handled Bobby Murcer, who bounced back to Grzenda. He was now one out away. A fast worker to begin with, Grzenda also sensed that there was discord among the fans in attendance at RFK Stadium. So he yelled out to the next Yankees batters, Horace Clarke, telling him to hurry up and assume his place in the batter’s box.
“He took a lot of practice swings,” Grzenda told the Washington Times in recalling the moments leading up to Clarke beginning his at-bat. By now the angry fans at RFK, some of whom had hung Short in effigy during the game, had reached a state of frenzy. Some of the Washington fans started to make their way onto the playing field. “I saw the dust coming up from the first base side,” Grzenda told The Times. “The fans jumped the fence and kept coming.”
One of the fans, a very large man sporting a full beard, made a beeline toward Grzenda. For a moment, Grzenda thought the oversized intruder was preparing to tackle him, but when he arrived at the mound, the fan only wanted to touch the left-hander on the shoulder.
In the meantime, Grzenda noticed that a crowd was developing around the Senators’ first baseman, the 6-foot-8 Frank Howard.
“I remember seeing three people on Frank Howard’s back,” Grzenda told The Scrantonian. I don’t know how they got there. He just dumped them and kept on moving.”
Even amidst the chaos, Grzenda was wise enough to hold onto the ball that he had thrown for the final pitch. He took the ball home with him and placed it in a drawer with some other memorabilia, keeping it there for nearly three and a half decades.
After the ’71 season closed out, Grzenda hoped to remain with the relocated franchise, in part because he enjoyed playing for Ted Williams. “Ted kept us loose,” Grzenda told the Washington Times. “I loved playing for him. You’d sit there and listen to his stories.”
Against his wishes, Grzenda’s association with Williams would come to an end. After Grzenda went home to resume his offseason job as a deputy sheriff in in Daleville, Pa., he received a call from St. Louis Cardinals general manager Bing Devine. “Welcome to the club,” Devine told Grzenda, informing him that had just been traded to the Cardinals in exchange for utility infielder Ted Kubiak.
In the spring of 2005, the newly relocated Washington Nationals tried to rectify the situation. Fresh off their move from Montreal, the newly minted Nationals invited Grzenda to participate in their inaugural Opening Day ceremony, scheduled for the old RFK Stadium. It was an idea that had been suggested by Grzenda’s son. Both the Nationals and the elder Grzenda agreed to the suggestion.
When the Nationals asked him to participate in ‘05, Grzenda produced the ball from the 1971 finale and brought it back to RFK. Grzenda walked from the Nationals’ dugout toward the infield, handing the ball off to President George W. Bush, who was in attendance for the Nationals’ opener.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame