Photo credit: Baseball Hall of Fame
Happy MLB Opening Day! Today we celebrate baseball’s first pitch of the season with Allegany County’s very own baseball Hall of Famer (1947) and arguably the finest left-hand pitcher in history, Lefty Grove. In fact, you can really honor Lefty Grove today by visiting his gravesite in Frostburg’s Memorial Park; strolling the streets of Lonaconing, MD, where Lefty grew up and returned (be sure to check out the George’s Creek Regional Library where his memorabilia is on display); or
raise a glass in his honor at 1812 Brewery as they serve up an MLB Opening Day Lefty Grove Party with the cover charge being donated to the Lefty Grove Memorial Committee.
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Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove was born on March 6, 1900. in the Charlestown suburb of Lonaconing, Maryland. His father John Grove was a coal miner. Lefty’s mother was Emma Catherine Beeman. The family’s surname was spelled “Groves” at the time. The “s” was dropped from Lefty’s last name in the early days of his professional baseball career.
The story of Lefty’s early baseball experiences at “First Field” in Charlestown are chronicled in part one of Ruth Bear Levy’s two-part article entitled “Recollections of Lefty Grove: Baseball’s Greatest Left-Handed Pitcher.” The article was published in the Maryland Historical Magazine in the summers of 1987 & 1988. The article is posted on the Western Maryland Historical Library website – www.whilbr.org.
Life in the impoverished coal town of Lonaconing did not allow luxuries like real bats and baseballs. According to Ruth Bear Levy’s article, baseballs were usually homemade from a piece of cork, wound with yarn, and wrapped with tape. A fence paling was often called into service as a bat. The local youngsters would flock to First Field when Lefty pitched. A former Lonaconing native, interviewed for Levy’s article, remembered that Lefty’s fastball was like a “shot out of a gun.” Years later, major league scouts came to the same conclusion. Ford Christopher Frick, who served as the 3rd Commissioner of Baseball, later said that Lefty Grove was the fastest pitcher who ever lived.
Lefty played in his first organized league as a member of the Midland team in 1919. Beginning as the first baseman, Grove was soon moved to the pitcher’s mound, when they saw how hard he could throw. After hurling a no-hitter against the powerful B&O team at the end of the year, Grove’s ascent to greatness began.
Lefty was hired by the B&O in 1920, but before he could play a game for them, he was recruited by the Martinsburg Mountaineers of the Class D Blue Ridge League. Grove played only six games for Martinsburg before his contract was purchased by Jack Dunn of the International League Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles won the league pennant each year during Lefty’s tenure. In 1923, Lefty set a league record of 330 strikeouts, that still stands today. The International League is currently the governing body over all of the minor league teams on the east coast.
In 1925, Lefty’s services were acquired by Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, for a record sum of $100,600. This was more than the New York Yankees paid for Babe Ruth. Lefty experienced the only losing season in his career during 1925, winning 10 games, while losing 12. This left many to wonder if Connie Mack’s expectations for Grove were unrealistic.
In 1926, Grove began to find the control to go with the speed of his fastball. In 1927, Lefty began a string of seven consecutive 20 win seasons, including an incredible two-year record of 59 wins and nine losses in 1930 & 1931. Lefty’s 31-4 record in 1931 earned him the very first American League MVP trophy that was ever awarded, beating Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the process. The Athletics won two consecutive World Series titles in 1929 and 1930. They nearly won a third, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game series in 1931.
After suffering an arm injury in 1933, Lefty developed a curveball and a forkball, to compensate for the loss of velocity on his fastball. In 1934, Lefty was traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he played for eight seasons. Remarkably, Grove won four of his nine American League ERA titles during his stint with the Red Sox, after his career-changing arm injury. On July 25, 1941, Lefty Grove got his 300th win, in a game against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Of the 24 pitchers who have won 300 or more games, Grove still has the highest winning percentage.
Lefty retired on December 7, 1941. Consumed with the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation paid scarce attention to Grove’s departure. Coupled with the misfortune of playing in an era before games were televised, Lefty seemed to be consigned to an obscure legacy.
Awards bestowed after his retirement revived Grove’s legacy. Lefty was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947. During baseball’s centennial celebration in 1969, he was named the left-handed pitcher on the All-Time All-Star Team. In 1999, Lefty was named to baseball’s All-Century Team. His nine ERA titles still stand as a record today.
In Bill James’ book Historical Baseball Abstract published in 1985, James rated Lefty Grove as the greatest pitcher of all time. In the newer version of the book, released in 2001, James reversed the order of the first two pitchers and ranked Grove’s hero Walter Johnson first, and Lefty second. Either way, Grove would surely have been flattered just by the comparison to Walter Johnson.
Even though some pitchers posted better numbers than Grove, Bill James gave particular emphasis to the fact that Grove played in an era that predated the existence of specialized relief. In the era when Lefty played, the starting pitcher was also expected to be available to pitch in relief. Lefty has 55 saves, in addition to his 300 wins. Grove completed 48% of his major league games, which is 50% more than modern pitchers Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, combined. Bill James also ranked Grove 19th among the greatest of all baseball players in history.
In a testament to the accuracy of Bill James’ calculations, the 2002 Oakland Athletics employed James’ statistical model to build a team that won 20 consecutive games. At the end of the 2002 season, the Boston Red Sox hired James as a player analyst. Two years later, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Robert Moses Grove – MVP trophy – 1931. Photo credit: Western Maryland’s Historical Library
Grove never relinquished his residency in Lonaconing during his professional baseball career. He returned to Western Maryland each year during the offseason. Lefty supported youth baseball in Lonaconing, and he donated his 1931 American League MVP trophy to his hometown. The trophy is now displayed behind bullet-proof glass, in a specially designed $25,000 showcase, at the Lonaconing Public Library.
To quote Bill James, in his book Historical Baseball Abstract: “what argument, if any, can be presented against the proposition that Lefty Grove was the greatest pitcher who ever lived.”
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Guest Author: Bucky Schriver
Bucky Schriver of the Lefty Grove Memorial Committee visits the late pitcher’s gravesite. Photo credit: Cumberland Times-News.