Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove is one of only 24 major-league baseball pitchers to win 300 games or more, and he reached the 300 win plateau in fewer games than any pitcher in history.
In his 17 major-league seasons (nine with the Philadelphia Athletics and eight with the Boston Red Sox), Lefty had a lifetime winning percentage of .680.
Lonaconing, Maryland’s favorite son was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947, earned a spot on Major League Baseball’s All Century team and is rated by the Sporting News as the 2nd greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, behind Warren Spahn.
Lefty Grove was born to John and Emma Grove on March 6, 1900. His father and older brothers preceded him into the Lonaconing coal mines, but a 15 year old Lefty quit after two weeks, saying, “Dad, I didn’t put that coal in here, and I hope I don’t have to take no more of her out.”
The teenager drifted into other jobs before he found his stride in baseball: as a “bobbin boy” working spinning spools to make silk thread, as an apprentice glass blower and needle etcher in a glass factory, and as a railroad worker laying rails and driving spikes.
In his spare time, he played a kind of baseball using cork stoppers in wool socks wrapped in black tape, and fence pickets when bats weren’t available. He taught himself to pitch, throwing rocks “at anything, moving or stationary,” according a Baltimore Sun article. “Sometimes the targets were squirrels and birds, but mostly they consisted of the glass insulators on the telegraph poles.”
He did not play genuine baseball until 17, nor genuinely organized baseball until 19, when Dick Stakem, proprietor of a general store in nearby Midland, began using him in town games on a field sandwiched between a forest and train tracks.
“Bobby never pitched a game [for Midland] until Memorial Day, 1919,” Stakem told the Philadelphia Bulletin’s John J. Nolan. “He pitched a seven-inning game which was ended by rain. He fanned 15 batters, walked two men, hit two, and made a wild pitch.
“Bob’s best game was a postseason series against [the Baltimore & Ohio railroad team in] Cumberland, the big team around here…. We went down there with Bobby and he held them hitless, fanned 18 batters, and the only man to reach first eventually got around to third. The reason he got there was because Bobby told me he let him steal second and third as he was so sure he could fan the next batters and the runner wouldn’t steal home. The score was 1 to 0, the other pitcher allowing just one hit.”
The B & O manager supposedly wanted Grove, and the next year Bob was cleaning cylinder heads of steam engines for B & O in Cumberland, MD. Before he could put in a baseball season there, a local garage manager named Bill Louden, who managed the Martinsburg, WV, Mountaineers team of the Class C Blue Ridge League, offered him a princely $125 a month, a good $50 more than his father and brothers were making.
With his parents’ blessing, Lefty took a 30-day leave from his job, signed a contract on May 5, got a roundtrip rail pass from his master mechanic and was driven across the mountains in a large car supplied by the Midland team.
Young Grove didn’t know what a curve was; but boy was he fast. By the time Grove had pitched 60 strikeouts in 59 innings, word reached Jack Dunn, owner of the International League Baltimore Orioles (and the man who had discovered Babe Ruth just a few years earlier.) Dunn sent his son Jack Jr. to watch Grove.
In early June, after Grove had pitched seven games, Dunn made an offer for him. According to Suter Kegg, the Sports Editor of the Cumberland Times-News, a storm had leveled the outfield fence in Martinsburg, so Dunn, to get Grove, agreed to pay the price of a new one – which meant Grove went to the Orioles for $3500, or the price of a fence. “I was the only player,” Grove said later, “ever traded for a fence.”
Grove broke into the team’s pitching rotation at midseason, but finished 1920 with a 12-2 record. Dunn kept Groves’ contract from 1920 through 1925, during which time Lefty won 108 minor-league games. In 1925, Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, paid Dunn $100,600 to get Grove, topping the record $100,000 the Yankees had paid the Red Sox for Babe Ruth.
The A’s made it to three consecutive World Series behind the pitching of Lefty Grove (1929-1931), winning two of them (’29 and ‘31). From the middle of 1930 until the end of 1931, his win/loss record was an amazing 46-4, which is the best 50 game stretch of any pitcher in history. In 1931, Lefty’s record was 31-4. He captured the first ever American League Most Valuable Player honors awarded by the Baseball Writers Association of America that year, when he won the pitcher’s triple crown for the second consecutive season.
Today, the MVP Trophy that Lefty Grove received in 1931 can be seen on display in Grove’s hometown of Lonaconing. Although the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame would love to have it, Grove entrusted it to the care of former Valley High School Coach, John Meyers, so more Lonaconing residents would get to enjoy it. Thanks to John Kruk, a former first baseman with the Phillies, it is now housed in a special showcase as part of the George’s Creek Regional Library’s collection.
Sources: Lefty Grove: American Original, by Jim Kaplan (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2000)
High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time, by Tim Wendel (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010)