Lefty Grove had a blazing fastball and a temper to match. By the time he had pitched 17 seasons, eking out a 300th win in his last appearance, both were gone. He arrived with a reputation for wrath, and led the American League in strikeouts seven consecutive years, victories four times (including 31 wins in 1931), ERA nine times (no one else ever did more than five), and winning percentage five times. Grove also led in shredded uniforms, kicked buckets, ripped-apart lockers, and alienated teammates.
Grove tested the saintly patience of Connie Mack, a placid patriarch who won his last three pennants mostly by handing Grove the ball. Eventually, Grove gained control over himself and the ball. As a rookie, he led the league in walks as well as strikeouts. Later, he learned to win with pinpoint control and guile. Connie Mack explained, “Groves was a thrower until after we sold him to Boston and he hurt his arm. Then he learned to pitch.”
Mack called his star “Groves,” for that’s how Lefty’s name appeared in box scores while pitching for Baltimore in the International League. He arrived there in the midst of a string of seven consecutive pennants, and Baltimore was not required to sell its stars to the majors. Grove was 25 before he could reach the Athletics, after Mack paid $100,600 for him, topping the flat $100,000 the Yankees had paid the Red Sox for Babe Ruth.
The nine seasons Grove pitched for Philadelphia were his best. The team won three pennants, but crowds dwindled, tiring of victory and pinched by the ongoing Depression. Grove was sold to the suddenly rich Red Sox, whose new owner, Tom Yawkey, was buying up star players. Though Grove had led the league with 24 wins in 1933, his first year with Boston, 1934, was a sore-armed struggle. He bounced back in 1935 with his final 20-victory season, but won by craftily working hitters.
Grove had largely overcome his uneasiness with strangers. He came, with a limited education, from a hard life in the bituminous hills of western Maryland. It took him time to adjust to being a national celebrity. When he had a rubber stamp made with his facsimile autograph, so as to accommodate as many fans as possible, he was branded an illiterate who couldn’t write his name. If there was one thing he could write, it was his signature; it appeared on a string of lucrative contracts, first with Mack, then topped by Yawkey.
Grove went home between seasons to the hardscrabble town of Lonaconing, MD, and opened a bowling alley that became the social center of the region. He retired to become a genial townsman, his hair turning white, weight added to his 6’3″ frame. He would smile when reminded of stories of his once-terrible temper. He’d shake his head when someone spoke of the game he lost while trying for an AL record-breaking 17th consecutive victory in 1931. The A’s failed to get him a run, and, after the game’s only hit (a bloop single), a substitute outfielder misjudged an ordinary line drive, and the winning run scored. In later years, Grove would have forgiven the player who misjudged the ball, if he could have remembered his name. He never forgot, or forgave, star fielder Al Simmons, who had taken the day off to visit a doctor. Despite missing that record, Grove left behind a bevy of honors, including a batting record: he fanned 593 times, the most ever by a pitcher. His ultimate honor came with his 1947 induction into Cooperstown.