Lefty Grove

Only one pitcher ever won 300 games in the Big League, and made the Hall of Fame, with just a fastball.

It’s accepted wisdom that, no matter how hard you throw, Major League hitters will time your fast ball and clobber it after they’ve seen you once or twice, unless they have to worry about an alternate pitch or two.

So the one Hall of Fame pitcher who only had a fastball must have been pretty fast.

Was it Smokey Joe Wood of the 1912 Red Sox, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, or Roger Clemens?  Those are the usual suspects when fans debate who the fastest pitcher of all time. was  The name Robert Moses Grove almost never comes up any more.

But in the book Baseball When the Grass Was Green, an oral history of players from the 1930s and 1940s, the answer most hitters give is Lefty Grove.  “Everybody knew just what he was going to throw every time, and they couldn’t hit it anyway,” one said.

The incompetent hitters who could not hit Grove’s fast ball when they knew it was coming included Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, all in their best years – and everybody else in between.  Grove never developed a curve or change-up because he didn’t need to, he said

Most fans today know Grove’s name, and that he’s in the Hall of Fame, but nothing else.

Between 1925 and 1941, Grove won 300 games, lost 141, struck out 2,271, walked 1,187, and averaged 3.06 runs allowed every 9 innings.  It would have been less than 3 if he had quit in 1939 instead of staying two more years trying to win 300, which only the most dominant, durable pitchers in history have done.

“How good was Lefty Grove?” George Will asked in his book Men At Work.  1930 was an aberrational season, Will said.  The National League had a batting average of .303. The American League’s batting average was 287. Nine teams batted over .3oo.  Bill Terry batted .401.  Hack Wilson drove in 190 runs, still a record.

Many believe the only possible explanation is a different ball, more tightly wound, with tighter seams, and a cork center instead of hard rubber. The lighter, livelier ball jumped off the bat, and the tight seams made the ball break less sharply, Will said.  They changed back to the normal ball in 1931, and  batting statistics fell back to normal.

In 1930, Grove won 25 games, lost 4, and allowed 2.57 runs per nine innings, Will said.

He would have won his 300 games much sooner if he hadn’t stayed in the minors for five years.  Jack Dunn, the owner of the Orioles, held onto Grove until a Major League team offered him the right price.  He bought Grove’s contract for $3,500, and sold it to Connie Mack of the Athletics for $100,000.  Grove didn’t get any of that. Another pitcher Dunn made a lot of money on was Babe Ruth.

Grove was making more money with the Baltimore Orioles in the International League than he could have on most Big League teams.  His Orioles won four International League championships and the “Little World Series” three times while he was with them.

Plus, as a Maryland native and local hero, Grove made a lot more endorsing local products than he could in other cities..

Grove pitched for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s when they were one of the greatest teams in history.  They won three pennants in 1929, ’30, and ‘31.  Then, Mr. Mack went broke in the stock market, and had to sell all his great players to survive.  Grove came to the Red Sox along with the great slugger Jimmy Foxx.

Doc Cramer, Grove’s teammate with the A’s, who also came to Boston in Connie Mack’s “fire sale,” said in Honig’s book, “I’ve seen Koufax.  You’ve got nothing today as fast.  Just one instance:  We were in New York and we had them up by a run.  They loaded the bases in the 9th inning, and Mr. Mack called Grove in to relieve.  On 10 fast balls, he struck out Ruth, Gehrig, and [Tony] Lazzeri, and we were in the locker room.  Lazzeri hit a foul.”

Any hit would have won that game.  A fly ball or a walk would have tied it, and the winning run would still be on base in scoring position.  Even an infield ground ball could have forced in the tying run.

Cramer faced Grove once, in a meaningless spring training game between the starters and the scrubs.  “I hit a home run off him.  [Catcher] Mickey Cochrane told me to be ready next time.  Sure enough, he hit me in the ribs so hard, I thought it would go through and come out the other side.  Knocked me right down.  But he wouldn’t throw at anybody’s head.”

In those days, intimidation and retaliation were part of the game.  There are rules limiting it now.  All pitchers try to keep batters on the defensive, prepared to bail out. Not all aimed below the neck as Grove did.

Grove was a hard loser, Cramer said.  When he lost, the players stayed out of the locker room to avoid the flying furniture, baseball bats, and lockers.   Why have we forgotten one of the greatest and most colorful players of all time?

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