"Kid, when you kick a water bucket, never kick it with your toes. Always use the side of your foot." Lefty Grove, giving a rookie some big league advice.
When Lefty Grove pitched for the A's he could bring the heat, whether it was his blazing fastball striking out Babe Ruth or his fiery temper striking at helpless lockers after the rare loss. His speed led one sportswriter to remark that "Grove could throw a lambchop past a wolf."
Born Robert Moses Groves in Lonaconing, MD, Grove was a shy country boy, the second youngest of eight children of a coal miner. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, so Grove worked in the coal mines and on railroad crews, hunting in his free time. When he was 17, he began playing baseball for the first time, for a local factory team. At 6' 3" with a fastball that could race a bullet, word of Grove reached Jack Dunn, the man who discovered Babe Ruth and ran the Baltimore Orioles of the International League.
Dunn gave Grove the opportunity to pitch and he didn't disappoint, winning 108 games for Baltimore. However, Dunn also held Grove hostage for five years, refusing to sell him to the big leagues until Connie Mack ponied up a then record $100,600 for Grove's services. In 1925, as a rookie, Grove led the league in strikeouts, walks and shredded uniforms. Once he calmed down and concentrated on throwing more strikes and less tantrums, Grove dominated the American League. He led the circuit in wins for four years, in ERA for nine years, strikeouts for seven years straight (1927-1931), won the MVP award during his glorious 31-4 season in 1931 and was named to the very first All-Star team in 1933.
Grove also led the league in orneriness, tearing up the locker room in 1931 after a teammate missed a fly ball, bringing his sixteen-game win streak to an end. "I used to pitch batting practice," Grove recounted to historian Donald Honig. "You know, take my turn at it in Philadelphia. Those guys, Doc Cramer and them, used to hit one back through the box and they knew damn well when they did they'd better get out of there, 'cause I'd be throwing at their pockets. They'd try to hit one through the box their last swing, those guys, just to rile me up. Yessir, boy, I was just as mean against them as I was against the others."
After leading the A's to two World Championships in 1929-30, Grove was sold to the Red Sox after the 1933 season, as Connie Mack was hit hard by the depression. At 34 with a burnt out are, Grove went 8-8 as the Red Sox losing woes continued. However, Grove reinvented himself as a control pitcher. Now relying on an improved curve ball and huge doses of experience and guile, Grove made the All-Star team from 1935-39 and won 105 games and four ERA titles with Boston.
In 1941, Grove's 17th season, he won his 300th and last game as a major league pitcher. He retired to Lonaconing, opened a bowling alley and elected as police chief for several years. In 1947 he took his rightful place in baseball history, as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Grove continued to take part in Old Timers Games, banquets and HOF related events.
Sixty-years after he retired, Grove is still considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time, voted to the All-Century Team in 2000. His .680 lifetime winning percentage is eighth all-time, but none of the seven men ahead of him won more than 218 games. His lifetime ERA of 3.06, when adjusted for the hitters' parks he played his entire career in and the era in which he played, is the best of any pitcher in history, except for Pedro Martinez. Grove pitched for twenty-two years, and despite his temper, baseball was the joy of his life. He once said, "The truth was, I would have played for nothing. Of course, I never told Connie Mack that."
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