Lefty in Beantown: Grove’s Red Sox Years

R318-Helmar Hey-Batter! Lefty Grove #252

The Sporting News announced the deal on December 21, 1933:

“The news of Grove’s purchase came literally as a bombshell to most Boston baseball followers …”

Which goes to show you that even literary folks back in the 1930s didn’t know what the word “literally” meant.

No, there weren’t any bombs or firestorms in Boston when Lefty Grove became a member of the Red Sox at the annual winter meetings in 1933. But his acquisition was a big deal for a franchise that hadn’t sniffed a pennant in more than a decade.

The purchase of Grove (still commonly referred to incorrectly as “Groves” by some newspapers) was one in a flurry of deals by Eddie Collins, the Boston general manager.

Collins was an astute baseball man who almost played forever. He spent more than a quarter of a century in uniform as one of the game’s greatest second basemen, learning at the heels of Connie Mack and later, Charles Comiskey.

Collins was raised in the Philadelphia A’s dynasty, a team that built their fortune on superb pitching. That fact was never lost on the big-eared Collins, who saw Grove as a lynchpin.

The Many Battles of Lefty Grove

If there was ever a one-man army on a ballfield, it was Robert Moses Grove, the long-limbed southpaw from Lonaconing, Maryland. When things went well for Grove on the pitching mound, he was quiet and gruff. When things didn’t go well, he was destructive.

Once after his regal manager, Connie Mack, removed Grove from a game with several runs having already crossed the plate and the bases loaded, Grove hurled the baseball into the stands. When his skipper got back to the dugout, the furious pitcher looked at the old man and barked “To hell with you, Mr. Mack!” To which the usually docile Mack replied, “And to hell with you, Mr. Grove.”

Decades before Chris Sales took sheers to his team’s uniforms, Lefty had an epic tantrum that practically destroyed the visiting clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.

“It was an epic tantrum,” teammate Bing Miller said. “He broke every stool, destroyed the toilet, and ripped every uniform apart. There were buttons all over the floor.”

Sore loser, indeed.

Luckily for Grove, he won more than twice as often as he lost. Even after he became a member of the Red Sox, with lesser teammates on his side, Lefty kept winning at a legendary pace.

Four ERA Titles in Beantown

In four of his first six seasons with Boston, Grove paced the league in ERA, despite frequent arm problems. In his mid-thirties and with miles (and miles and miles) on his famous left shoulder, Grove needed more tender care as he grew older. No longer could he pitch between starts as often as he did with Philly. In his first year with the Sox, Lefty tossed only 109 1/3 innings. But in 1935 he was back in form.

From 1935 to 1939, Grove went 83-41 in a five-year stretch for Boston, solidifying his place among the elite pitchers in baseball history.

“Most pitchers his age are sitting on the porch in a rocking chair,” said catcher Gene Desautels. “But Lefty has speed and cunning still.”

In Boston, Grove turned more to his sweeping breaking ball as his “out pitch.” Unable to throw his heater past most big league hitters, he developed a 12-to-6 curve that ranked with the best in the game.

“When he [throws his] best curveball, I just drop my bat and walk back to the dugout,” said Earl Averill, a future Hall of Famer who batted a modest .261 with only two homers in nearly 200 plate appearances against Grove.

The Last 300-Game Winner?

By the time Lefty was in his forties, baseball had changed drastically from the days when he first started and diamonds were still roamed by Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. In 1941, when the 410-year old Grove began the season with 293 victories, it was thought that the 300-game winner might be going extinct. Many teams were using five starters in their rotations, and the 300-inning pitcher was a distant memory.

But Grove marched on, using his hooking curve and sneaky fastball against opposing batters, some of whom were born after the left-hander had made his professional debut. In the third game of the season, the veteran pitched seven brilliant innings against the A’s, allowing just two hits, but he got a no decision.

He picked up three wins in May, all via the complete game. Then he went 10 innings on June 8 at Comiskey Park in Chicago to win his 297th career game. On July 3, again facing his former team, Grove got his 299th victory, in a game where young teammate Ted Williams hit a home run.

On July 25, after two failures to notch his 300th, Grove started against Cleveland at Fenway Park. It didn’t begin well: Lefty surrendered seven hits and a walk in the first three innings, putting the Sox in a 4-0 hole. But, Teddy Ballgame eventually came to the rescue. In the fifth, facing Cleveland’s Mel Harder, Williams blasted a two-run homer deep into the right field seats and tied the game. The barndoor was open: Jim Tabor hit two homers, Jimmie Foxx cleared the bases with a triple, and the Red Sox stormed their way to 10 runs.

In the ninth, there was Old Man Grove, still on the rubber. He faced Cleveland shortstop Lou Boudreau with two outs, and retired the future Hall of Famer on a lazy fly ball to center fielder Dominic DiMaggio.

#300 in the books.

Grove never won another game. He never helped Boston to a pennant, but he became a respected star and a favorite punching bag for Boston’s prickly media. Late in the 1941 season after his final victory, Lefty was honored by the Red Sox between games of a doubleheader. His former team, the A’s were also in the ballpark.

“All he used to have was a fastball and a mean disposition,” said former teammate Bob Johnson.

But Connie Mack, his first major league manager, was kind in his tribute. “I took more from Grove than I would from any man living. He said things and did things — but he’s changed. I’ve seen it year by year. He’s got to be a great fellow.”

When he retired to Maryland, Lefty would usually make one trip into Boston each season to see Eddie Collins and his old teammates. He was elected police chief of Lonaconing, and later operated a bowling alley, where Jimmie Foxx would toss a ball on occasion.

Grove died on May 22, 1975 at his daughter’s home in Ohio. The Hall of Fame left-hander was 75 years old.

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