Grover Cleveland Alexander

Pete had difficulty with everything in life except pitching. He was a solitary man and said little, and that in a small, whispery voice. His teammates respected him, and his longtime catcher, Reindeer Bill Killefer, was his friend.

Alexander’s alcoholism was well known even before Ronald Reagan portrayed it in the movie “The Winning Team.” But in spite of rumors of his pitching drunk or badly hung over, alcohol had no discernible effect on Alexander’s performance until late in his career. He also suffered from epilepsy, which was sometimes mistaken for drunken behavior. The disease first appeared in 1918 during his service in France with the artillery, which partially deafened him. Despite his problems, Alexander was one of the most successful pitchers in ML history.

Many of his minor league experiences were inauspicious. Playing for Galesburg, IL, of the Central Association in 1909, he tried to break up a double play and took the shortstop’s relay directly in the head. Unconscious for two days, he awoke with double vision. Galesburg sent him to Indianapolis (American Association), but, still disoriented, he broke three of the manager’s ribs with his first pitch. Indianapolis sent him home and sold his contract to the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League over the winter. By spring, his vision had cleared and he won 29 for the Chiefs, including 15 shutouts.

The Phillies acquired Alexander for $750 in 1911. As a rookie, he led the NL in wins (28), complete games (31), innings pitched (367), and shutouts (7). Four of the shutouts were consecutive; one was a 1-0 win over Cy Young, then in his final season.

Alexander’s greatest years were in Philadelphia (1911-17), despite a right-field wall in the Baker Bowl that was only 272 feet from home plate. He won 190 games (one-third of the team’s total for the period), won 30 or more three straight years, 1915-17, and led the NL in every important pitching statistic at least once. His 16 shutouts in 1916 is still the ML record.

Traded with catcher Bill Killefer to the Cubs in 1917 for a battery of considerably lower caliber and $55,000, Pete won another 128 games for Chicago. But when Joe McCarthy took over as manager in 1926, he sent his drinking pitcher to the Cardinals for the $6,000 waiver price.

Alexander was ungainly, with a shambling walk; his uniform never seemed to fit properly, and his cap looked a size too small. Yet his pitching motion was economical, apparently effortless, and marvelously graceful. His windup was minimal, his stride short, his delivery three-quarters overhand. His right arm swung across his chest and the ball seemed to emerge from his shirtfront. He warmed up quickly. On the mound, he was deliberate but without wasted time or motion.

He had a live fastball that moved in on righthanded hitters and a sharp-breaking curve. He had no changeup as such but could change speeds on both the fastball and the curve to achieve the same effect. He kept the ball low and on the outside of the plate. His control was extraordinary (career: 1.65 walks per 9 innings), and batters who tried to wait him out usually fanned.

His most famous victim was Tony Lazzeri of the Yankees. In the seventh inning of the final game of the 1926 WS, with the Cardinals ahead 3-2, the Yankees had two out, and the bases loaded. Alexander, who’d won two games, including a complete game the day before, relieved for St. Louis. On four knee-high pitches, he struck out Lazzeri, then pitched two more hitless innings to wrap up the World Championship.

After his 1926 heroics, Alexander got his best contract ever: $17,500. He responded with 21 wins in 1927, but he was 40 years old. The whiskey and age were taking their toll. After leaving the majors, he pitched in demeaning circumstances with touring teams until he was 51. He retired believing his 373 wins placed him one ahead of Christy Mathewson for the most career NL victories, but later statistical research added another win to Matty’s total.

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