J. D. Thorne

Burleigh Grimes, Major League Baseball’s Last Legal Spitball Pitcher

At the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame walk on 4th Street and Kilbourn in Milwaukee visitors will find a bronze plaque honoring Wisconsin native son Burleigh Grimes.  Like characters out of the imagination of a writer like Charles Dickens, it is almost too perfect a name for the last legal spitball pitcher in major league baseball.  You can also visit his bronze plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Born in 1893 in Clear Lake, his career in the major leagues began with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1916.  During his career Burleigh was dubbed by the sportswriters of the time “Ol’Stubblebeard” because he never shaved on days he pitched.  This was because the slippery elm he chewed to increase saliva for the pitch irritated his skin.  This added to his ominous mound presence.  He was a belligerent hurler who never let a hitter dig in at the plate against him.  It was said his idea of an intentional walk was four pitches aimed at the batter’s head.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

His plaque in Cooperstown reads:  “One of the great spitball pitchers, won 270 games, lost 212 for 7 major league clubs.  Five 20 victory seasons.  Won 13 in row for Giants in 1927.  Managed Dodgers in 1937 and 1938.  Lifetime E.R.A. 3.52.”

There is more to the story.

Burleigh Grimes earned his reputation as a great “money” pitcher.  That is, when the game was important, the manager wanted “Ol Stubblebeard” on the mound to pitch it.  Gruff and swashbuckling, he was one of the most aggressive competitors ever.

After a dismal rookie season winning only 3 games and losing 16, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he blossomed into a winner.  He posted 202 victories over the next 11 years, including 23 for the 1920 Dodgers World Series champion squad.  He twice led the league in victories.  Durable, he led the National League four times in starts, and three times in innings pitched.  After “off” years for him in 1925 and 1926, he came back to a season of 19 wins against just 8 losses for the Giants.  He peaked for the Pirates in 1928 winning 25 games.  Cantankerous as ever, he played for the Cubs in the 1932 season, heckling the Yankees and Babe Ruth from the bench in the World Series which in part led to the Babe’s famous home run in game three in Wrigley Field when the Babe “called his shot” pointing to center field.  (See archived “On Baseball” column, “Trash Talking Traditions in Major League Baseball” from 11/22/2011)

According to the entry on him in the book, The Ballplayers, (Arbor House William Morrow, New York, 1993), “Grimes carried his cantankerous ways with him as manager of the Dodgers, though the team was rarely in a game long enough to make battling tactics pay off.  He took over a club that bedraggled Casey Stengel in 1937.  His chances of developing a winner were undermined when new boss Larry McPhail brought shortstop Leo Durocher to the team.  Grimes and Durocher were both battlers, but Durocher was brash and charming, while Grimes was simply pugnacious.” He lasted one year, with Durocher starting his managerial career taking over in 1939.

A decade of managing in the minor leagues followed for Grimes, but he never ceased his aggressive baseball behavior.  Although he was a genial companion off the field, he raged at every close decision against his team.  He was suspended in 1940 while managing Grand Rapids in the Michigan State League for an altercation with an umpire.

He died of cancer at age 92, twenty-one years after his election to Cooperstown.  Go see the Bronze Plaque of Burleigh Grimes there or at the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.

I wonder if any Brewer pitcher compares to him in competitiveness?