Burleigh Grimes, Babe Ruth, and the Brooklyn Dodgers

Burleigh Grimes, one of the greater though least-known pitchers of the pre-WWII era, died in December 1985. The New York Times obituary said:

When baseball outlawed the spitball in 1920, an exception was made for 17 pitchers then in the major leagues who depended on the spitter for their livelihood. Mr. Grimes was one of them and he was the last legal spitball pitcher because he pitched until he was 42.

He was known as a fierce competitor, a pitcher who frightened the hitters. When he pitched, he always had a two-day black stubble on his round face.

He walked with a swagger that infuriated batters, and when he measured a hitter from the mound he would peel back his lips to show yellow teeth in a snarl. He often threw at the batters’ heads without the slightest hesitation.

Mr. Grimes managed the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937 and 1938. His immediate predecessor was Casey Stengel and his immediate successor Leo Durocher. He managed Class AAA clubs in Louisville, Toronto, Montreal and Rochester. He was also a scout for the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles until 1970.

In an interview with The New York Times last August, Mr. Grimes said he would compare Dwight Gooden, the hard-throwing Met pitcher, to Jesse Haines, another member of the Hall of Fame. When asked to compare himself to Gooden, Mr. Grimes said, ”I wouldn’t put myself in that class.”

Mr. Grimes died in Clear Lake, Wis., the town in which he was born in 1893. He is survived by his wife, Lillian, and a brother.

Not many months before his death, Jerome Holtzman recalled talking with Grimes in 1938 in Cincinnati about Babe Ruth, who was coaching with the Dodgers:

I sat down to dinner with the manager, Burleigh Grimes. Ol’ Stubblebeard. ”You know Ruth wants to play,” I said.

”And he’s not going to,” Grimes retorted sharply. ”Why not?” ”Because I’m running the club. [Larry] MacPhail called me on it. I told him: ‘If he can hit, I can pitch.’ And I know I’m too old for that.”

Holtzman added:

Of all the major principals in this scenario [of Ruth hitting for the Dodgers in 1938], the only survivor is Grimes. He lives where he was born, in Clear Lake, Wis. He is 92 years old and in failing health.

Recently, I talked to Burleigh by phone. He remembered that day in Pittsburgh as one in which Ruth ”hit two or three in the stands,” and that later he had gotten a call from MacPhail.

”He asked me if I wanted him in there,” Grimes said, ”and I said: ‘You want to put me in there too?’ ”

I suggested that Grimes, a Hall of Famer who had won 270 big league games and was then 45 years old, could probably have pitched.

”Well, I was still pitching batting practice,” he said. And then, getting back to the Babe and his days with the Boston Braves, he added: ”I knew that a few years before that, he struck out so many times, and I didn’t want that to happen to him or to me either.”

”You mean you didn’t want him to look bad?”

”I didn’t want him to look bad for the public,” said Grimes.

The rejection broke Ruth’s heart. I never saw him in batting practice again. Shortly after the team came home, he dropped out of sight. No announcement was ever made that he had retired.

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Published in: on March 6, 2009 at 12:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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