Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitball pitcher in the majors. In a 19-year career that ended in 1934, he often faked the spitter to keep batters guessing.
Grimes never shaved on days he pitched, because the slippery elm he chewed to increase saliva irritated his skin. His growth of stubble added to his ominous mound presence and led to his nickname, Ol’ Stubblebeard. The belligerent pitcher never permitted a batter to dig in at the plate. It was said Grimes’s idea of an intentional pass was four pitches at the batter’s head.
During the 1920s, Grimes was a standout, twice leading the league in victories and five times topping the 20-win mark. He was durable, leading the league four times in starts and three times in innings pitched. After five straight winning seasons for Brooklyn, his 19 losses in 1925 topped the NL. Following a 12-13 mark in 1926, he was traded to the Giants and was 19-8 in his one season for New York. He peaked as a 25-game winner for Pittsburgh in 1928.
Grimes carried his cantankerous ways with him as manager of the Dodgers, though the team was rarely in a game long enough to make battling tactics pay off. He took over a bedraggled club that had frustrated Casey Stengel in 1937. His chances of developing a winner were undermined when new boss Larry McPhail brought shortstop Leo Durocher to the team. Grimes and Durocher were both battlers, but Durocher was brash and charming, while Grimes was simply pugnacious. Grimes was also frustrated when McPhail signed Babe Ruth as a first base coach and batting practice attraction. Ruth would belt ball after ball over the screen into Bedford Avenue, but his attention span would lapse in the first base coaching box. By 1939 Burleigh and the Babe were gone. Durocher began his managerial career and a new era came to Brooklyn.
A decade of minor league managing followed for Grimes, during which he never ceased his aggressive baseball behavior. Although he was a genial companion off the field, he raged at every close decision against his team. He was suspended in 1940 while managing Grand Rapids (Michigan State League) for an altercation with an umpire. He died of cancer at age 92, twenty-one years after the Veterans Committee selected him for Cooperstown.