Lefty GroveRobert Moses Grove
Inducted to the Hall of Fame in: 1947
Primary team: Philadelphia Athletics
Primary position: Pitcher
There was a time, a few years back, when the Boston Red Sox' then-spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., included a hallway adorned with a collection of framed black-and-white photos devoted to the team's many legends.
We're talking serious eye candy for the serious fan, from Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr to Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, except that one of the photographs was a real stumper.
The old-timey image showed a left-handed batter in his follow-through, seemingly taking the ball the other way, as good hitters will do. Given that it was a photo of one of the team's all-time greats, you'd have thought people would instantly identify the player's name.
The problem, alas, is that it was a trick photo of sorts: The Hall of Famer shown taking the ball the other way was a .148 career hitter whose real contribution to baseball is that he was, and remains, perhaps the best left-handed pitcher in history.
His name was Robert Moses Grove. Or, as he's better known, Lefty Grove.
And many will proclaim Grove the best left-handed pitcher in history.
He didn't win as many games as Warren Spahn or emerge as a national phenomenon after baseball had moved into the television age, as was the case with Sandy Koufax, and he wasn't an annual World Series fixture, as Whitey Ford was, but Grove was so good at what he did that even his status as a 300-game winner seems underwhelming when one takes a closer look at his numbers.
Grove pitched just 17 seasons in the big leagues, nine of them with the old Philadelphia Athletics, eight of them with the Red Sox. He broke in with Connie Mack's Athletics in 1925 and, though at times injured and at times erratic and at times even considered overrated, he led the American League in strikeouts. He would go on to lead the AL in K's his first seven seasons. He had the lowest ERA in the American League in nine of his 17 seasons, and in seven of those seasons he was a 20-game winner – not counting 1931, when he went 31-4.
During a six-season stretch from 1928 through 1933 he went 152-41, and in two of those seasons (1930-31) he won a pitching Triple Crown by leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
Grove, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947 and passed away in 1975, went 300-141 for his career – a .680 winning percentage, the highest among members of the 300 Win Club.
Yet Grove is sometimes overlooked in history, unless the looking is being done by hardcore fans or serious academics. Part of the reason might be that, though he could be moody and tantrum-fueled, he lacked the oversized personality of Ruth, Dizzy Dean and other stars from the Roaring Twenties and beyond, As Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England, notes, “He was universally respected on the field, but off the field it was as though he was the professor of the pitching department. He smoked a pipe and looked like someone who would be at home in the university faculty lounge.”
But Grove's legacy also suffers for the simple fact that he had his finest seasons for a team that no longer exists: The Philadelphia A's were relocated to Kansas City after the 1954 season, and then on to Oakland after the 1967 season.
Grove did have some fine seasons with the Red Sox: He won four ERA titles in his eight seasons, and he was wearing a Sox uniform on July 25, 1941 when, at age 41, he pitched Boston to a complete-game 10-6 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park for his 300th win. Future Hall of Famer Ted Williams, playing in his third big-league season, hit a fifth-inning home run to help the fading Grove achieve his milestone victory, which turned out to be the last of his career.
“There's a wonderful segue there,” Richard Johnson said. “Just as Lefty Grove's career is ending, Ted's is starting. You had arguably two of the greatest 20 players who ever played the game, one handing the baton off to the other.”
Just as we'll never know what kind of numbers Ted Williams might have put up had he not lost three full seasons and parts of two others to military service, we can never know how many more games Lefty Grove would have won had he not been held out of the big leagues until he was 25. In Grove's case, it was because in his early years he logged five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League at a time when the O's were not affiliated with any major-league team. Grove went 108-36 in those five seasons before Orioles owner Jack Dunn finally sold his contract to Connie Mack and the A's.
Had Grove been in the big leagues at an earlier age, maybe he wins another 50 or more games. As Johnson points out, “If it had been with Connie Mack, who was a great manager to play for and was a former catcher who developed great pitchers, yes. If he had played for the Yankees, yes.”
He may also have landed with a creaky team with bad coaching. In that spirit, then, let's limit our discussion to actual historical events and not trifle with alternate time lines. And the fact is that Grove was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics, and that on April 25, 1925 he made his major-league debut against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. He started the game and lasted just 3 2/3 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) and not registering a strikeout, but by summertime he was an established big-leaguer. In a Fourth of July doubleheader against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, he engaged veteran left-hander and future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock in a scoreless tie that went to the bottom of the 15th inning before the Yanks pushed across the deciding run in a 1-0 victory. Each pitcher went the distance.
The Pennock-Grove pitcher's duel still finds its way into print from time to time, usually in one of those “On This Day in History” logs. It's also a checked-off item in any list of classic Fourth of July moments at Yankee Stadium, joining Lou Gehrig's “Luckiest Man” speech in 1939 and Dave Righetti's no-hitter against the Red Sox in 1983.
As a stand-alone, it was the day the baseball world took notice that Grove might be one of the great ones.
Year Inducted: 1947
Primary Team: Philadelphia Athletics
Position Played: Pitcher
Birth place: Lonaconing, Maryland
Birth year: 1900
Died: 1975, Norwalk, Ohio
Philadelphia Athletics (1925-1933)
Boston Red Sox (1934-1941)
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