Burleigh Grimes

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

Burleigh Arland Grimes, oldest child of Ruth Tuttle and Cecil “Nick” Grimes, was born August 18, 1893, in northwestern Wisconsin on his father’s dairy farm about half way between Emerald and Clear Lake, near the Polk-St. Croix county line. (Wisconsin records indicate Burleigh was born in the town of Emerald, but he always regarded Clear Lake as his home town.) Soon after his birth the family moved to Black Brook, near Clear Lake, in Polk County. When Burleigh got old enough, he went to work in a lumber camp, toiling from four-thirty in the morning until nine o’clock at night for one dollar a day. Later he earned a raise to thirty-six dollars a month. For four winters he worked in that camp. It was hard, dangerous work. Once a heavy load of logs tipped over on him, but fortunately, he lived to tell about it. Years later he related the story to a sportswriter:

“I can remember that little episode as though it happened yesterday. I was driving the sled. There were seven tiers of logs, two footers at the butt, sixteen feet long. The load was fourteen feet wide. There were four horses, and I was guiding them down a steep grade through the snow. We struck a stump and the load pitched forward. The thought flashed through my mind to jump clear of the load, but I hadn’t time. The upper logs slid right over me. Every log on the sled pitched off except one. That was the one I had my back braced against. For some unknown reason it caught on something and held. There was just enough space for me to lie there while the logs pitched and rolled over me. It took a crowd of husky lumber jacks several minutes to dig me out. It was a close shave.”[1]

When Burleigh was 13 years old, he attended a baseball game in St. Paul and was so impressed by the spitball offerings of Minneapolis Millers pitcher Hank Gehring that he went home and practiced the damp delivery until he mastered the pitch. In 1912 he began his professional career with the Eau Claire Commissioners of the Class D Minnesota-Wisconsin League, but the circuit folded in mid-season. He started the 1913 season with the Ottumwa Packers of the Central Association, where he was so effective that the Detroit Tigers purchased his contract for $400. After a week the Tigers shipped him to Chattanooga without his ever having put on a Detroit uniform. He had only moderate success with the Lookouts. In 1914 he was the property of the Birmingham Barons, who loaned him to Richmond in the Class C Virginia League, where he won 23 games. The Barons recalled him on September 12th. During the off-season he broke his leg, but was ready to pitch in 1915 and had a fine season with the Birmingham club. By August 1916 he had a 20-11 record with the Barons when the Pirates bought his contract and called him up to the majors. One report asserts that over a six-game stretch in July and August, Grimes five times lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning. Another account gives a slightly different version of this story: “Burleigh never pitched a no-hit game in the majors, but five times he went into the ninth without having allowed a safety. Once, against the Phillies in 1918, there were two out in the ninth when Fred Luderus connected for the first hit.”[2]

But the time he reached the majors, Grimes chewed slippery elm in order to better load up the ball. He sliced the bark right off the tree, and put the fiber from inside on the ball. However, he said the juice from the wood irritated his sensitive skin, so he refrained from shaving on the mornings of the days he was scheduled to pitch (and perhaps on the day before as well). The dark growth of stubble on his face gave rise to his nickname, Ol’ Stubblebeard. It also added to his menacing appearance, The New York Times reported that he was a pitcher who frightened the hitters. “When he pitched,” the Times reporter wrote, “he always had a two-day black stubble on his 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.” Someone once said that Burleigh’s idea of an intentional walk was to throw four straight fastballs at the batter’s head. He had first earned his reputation as an ornery battler at Chattanooga and his actions throughout his career served to magnify that perception.

Years later Burleigh explained his willingness to brush back hitters as an economic necessity. “When I was a teenager, I decided that the best I could make back home was thirty-five dollars a week driving horses in a lumber camp. Baseball was my answer….There was only one man standing between me and more money, and that was the guy with the bat. I knew I’d always have to fight that man with the bat as if he were trying to rob me in a dark alley.”

On good days his spitter would break six to eight inches, four or five when he was not so effective. Unlike other spitball pitchers, who gripped the ball loosely, Grimes habitually held it tight and on one occasion he broke his thumbnail when he released the ball. Burleigh wet the ball more than most spitballers did. Fielders complained that a sloppy wet ball was hard to handle and could cause a wild throw. Babe Ruth told of the time that Heinie Mueller was playing outfield for the Giants when Grimes was pitching for that club. Heinie had been warned about the sloppy ball and he was taking no chances. When a line drive was hit to him, he deliberately wiped the ball dry on his shirt while the runner scored from third base. Ruth said the blunder cost Mueller his job with the Giants, and the next year Heinie was back in the minors. Actually Mueller was with the Boston Braves the following season, which perhaps was just as bad as being in the minors, given the caliber of team the Braves had at the time.

One account of how Grimes pitched reads as follows: “All eyes were on the man on the mound. Stocky and muscular, he had a day’s growth of stubble and a scowl on his face. He brought the fingers of his right hand to his mouth and covered them with his gloved hand, so the batter could not see whether he wetted them or not. Then he delivered the pitch, a high hard one, up and in. The batsman hit the dirt to avoid being struck by the pitch. Then came an assortment of pitches, another brush back, a fast ball on the outside corner, a spitter in the dirt. Next the batter thought he saw a fast ball coming right down the middle of the plate. When the ball reached its destination, the bottom fell out of the pitch. The batter swung, topping the ball, causing it to roll harmlessly back to the mound where the hurler picked it up and threw it to first base, easily retiring the batter. This sequence, or something like it, was repeated hundreds of times in the pitcher’s career. The brush back was an important part of his arsenal, and he never hesitated to use it. Was it a crucial game in a World Series or a mid-season contest between two second division clubs with no bearing on the pennant race? It mattered not. For the man on the mound was Burleigh Grimes, as fierce a competitor as any who ever played the game, a battler who gave it his all every time he toed the rubber.”[3]

Grimes made his major league debut with the Pirates on September 10, 1916, and picked up the victory over the Chicago Cubs in relief. In his first major league start four days later, he pitched well but was the victim of some poor fielding by his teammates. Through five innings the rookie held the Brooklyn Robins scoreless on only three hits. With one out in the top of the sixth of a scoreless game, Jake Daubert was on first base and Casey Stengel was at the plate. Honus Wagner came to the mound to settle the young pitcher down. “Make him hit it to me, Kid,” the great shortstop said. Sure enough, Stengel hit a hard grounder right to short—a made-to-order double play ball. Grimes was proud of himself and figured old Honus would be impressed. Horrors, the ball bounced off Wagner’s foot into the outfield. Wagner came over to Grimes with his head down and said. “Those damn big feet of mine have always been in the way.” Before the inning was over Daubert had scored on a hit by Zack Wheat, and Stengel tallied when leftfielder Bill Hinchman was unable to catch a fly hit by George Cutshaw, giving Brooklyn a 2-0 lead. The Pirates tied it up in the seventh. With the score tied 2-2 and two out in the ninth it appeared the game was headed for extra innings. Brooklyn’s Ivy Olson was on second base and pitcher Larry Cheney was at the plate. The Pittsburgh management motioned for the outfielders to move way in toward the infield with the weak hitting pitcher at bat. Cheney lifted a high fly to left field that Hinchman could have caught easily had he been playing in his usual position. The ball bounced to the fence and Olson scored the winning run. Once again the Pirate defense had let the rookie pitcher down.  

Baseball lore abounds with stories about Burleigh Grimes. Some of these tales are true; others are questionable; and still others are demonstrably untrue. One of the latter ilk refers to the spitballer’s rookie season. According to this yarn, Grimes reported to the Pirates for his first big league trial while the club was in Cincinnati. He found his assigned hotel room was occupied by Larry Doyle of the New York Giants, who were just preparing to leave town. Doyle treated the rookie with such kindness that when Grimes first faced Laughing Larry in a game, he grooved one and Doyle hit it out of the park for a home run. As Lee Allen pointed out, Grimes was hardly the type to groove one for anybody, but the clincher was that Allen checked the record books. He found that the first time Grimes faced Doyle was in 1917. Doyle hit six home runs that season, none of them off Grimes. In 1916 Grimes won two games and lost three for the Pirates. The next season was worse. He lost 13 straight during a 3-16 campaign. By the end of his sophomore year, Grimes had a major league record of five wins and 19 losses. Despite his minor league success there was some question about whether the burly right-hander could survive in the majors. In the midst of the 13 game losing streak, manager Hugo Bezdek skipped Burleigh’s spot in the rotation. As the Pirates were returning by train to Pittsburgh after the game, Grimes protested to the manager. In his reply Bezdek implied that the pitcher’s problem might be that his competitive spirit was not strong enough. Wrong thing to say. As writer Steve Gelman related the story: “He hardly had the words out of his mouth before Grimes was on him like a wildcat. Up and down the aisle of the Pullman the two battled for the better part of an hour. It wasn’t in the Marquis of Queensbury tradition, but strictly lumberjack style. The combatants each had the same fundamental idea—to choke the life out of the other. And neither was above biting when a bite would help. Eventually the other players…pried them apart.”[4]

In January 1918 the Pirates traded their brilliant but erratic young pitching star Al Mamaux to the Brooklyn Dodgers for the popular Casey Stengel and aging second baseman George Cutshaw. Pittsburgh also gave up Burleigh Grimes, described as another pitcher, and Chuck Ward, an infielder, but Mamaux was clearly the headliner in the deal. During the remainder of his major league career the main man Mamaux won a total of 27 games. In contrast, the throw-in Grimes won 270 during his long career in “The Show.”

With Brooklyn, Grimes became an instant success. Reversing his 1917 stats, he won nine in a row at one stretch in 1918. He won 19 and lost only 9 for the Dodgers (or the Robins as they were frequently called during Wilbert Robinson’s reign as their manager from 1914 through 1931.) Although Grimes and teammate Rube Marquard both enlisted in the Navy during the season, they were assigned to a recruiting station in Chicago and allowed to continue pitching for Brooklyn. In an arrangement that defies explanation Grimes’s naval duties cost him almost no playing time, as he led National League pitchers in game appearances with 40 in 1918. He tied for third in wins, ranked fifth in winning percentage, fourth in base runners per nine innings, fourth in innings pitched, second in opponent’s batting average, third in opponents’ on-base average, and fifth in ERA.

In 1919 Grimes came out of the Navy and won 10 games, despite having a sore arm. It was in this season that his memorable feud with Frank Frisch began. The Fordham Flash bunted and apparently spiked Grimes on a close play at first base. A verbal battle escalated to fisticuffs and the feud was on. “For the next ten years I aimed at least two balls at Frankie every time I pitched to him,” Grimes said. “He was equally tough with me every time we came in contact on the base paths.”[5]

“He only gets three shots at me, and then the so-and-so must pitch,” Frisch would growl. But once Grimes really crossed up his rival. He threw four dusters at Frisch, and the fourth really took the batter by surprise. He dropped to the ground so quickly that he literally fell from under his cap, which drifted slowly to the ground after him. “It was one of the few times in baseball that I was really scared,” said Frankie, “and Burleigh just stood there and laughed at me.”[6]

On February 9, 1920, the joint rules committee of the major leagues outlawed the spitter. Twenty-two pitchers were exempted for the 1920 season; after that no one was to be allowed to use the pitch. Bill Doak spearheaded a campaign to modify the rule so established spitball pitchers could continue using the pitch. Burleigh Grimes became one of the more eloquent spokesmen for the proposed modification. He maintained that it took him ten to fifteen years to develop a big league caliber spitter. The muscles in a pitcher’s arms develop according to the way the arm is used, Burleigh claimed, and it is physiologically impossible for a mature adult to change from his customary style of delivery. “If all spitball pitchers, including myself, are called upon to discard the moist ball next spring, I am sure that in the spring of 1923 there will be a large number of ex-major league pitchers pounding the pavements in seeking an honest living. When a man has given his whole life to developing himself in a particular baseball specialty it is impossible for him to give up that specialty in his prime and yet retain his effectiveness and his drawing power. Nor is it fair to expect him to change.”[7] The pleas of Doak, Grimes, and others prevailed and the rule was modified. Seventeen pitchers, including Grimes, were granted lifetime exemptions from the ban.

In 1920 Grimes pitched the Brooklyn club to the National League pennant. He led the league’s pitchers in winning percentage, held opponents to the second lowest batting average and second lowest on-base percentage, tied for second in strikeouts, ranked third in wins, earned run average, and innings pitched; tied for third in complete games, and allowed the fifth fewest base runners per nine innings among all the circuit’s hurlers. His Weighted Rating was the best in the league, while the Faber System ranked him as the circuit’s second best hurler, behind only Grover Cleveland Alexander.

After Cleveland’s spitballer Stan Coveleski defeated Rube Marquard 3-1 in the series opener, both teams started their aces in the second game of the World Series. It was 31 game winner Jim Bagby against 23 game winner Burleigh Grimes. Both hurlers pitched well, but Grimes was more effective in the clutch and shut out the Indians, 3-0. The first two games of the series had each been won by a spitball pitcher. Cleveland started spitballers in the third and fourth games, Ray Caldwell losing the third to Sherry Smith of the Dodgers, 2-1, and Coveleskie defeating Leon Cadore in the fourth, 5-1.         

With the series tied two games each, the Robins started Grimes against Bagby in the fifth contest, one of the most memorable games ever played in World Series history. The first two Cleveland batters led off with singles, and when Grimes fell down while attempting to field Tris Speaker’s intended sacrifice, the bases were loaded. Up to the plate stepped Elmer Smith, who hit the first grand slam home run in World Series history. In the fourth inning the Indians hit another historic home run. Jim Bagby hit the first fall classic round-tripper by a pitcher, this one with two runners on base. With the bases loaded in the Brooklyn half of the fifth inning spitballer Clarence Mitchell, who had entered the game in relief of Grimes, was at the plate and hit a line drive that Bill Wambsganss speared and turned into the first triple play in World Series history. It remains the only unassisted triple play ever accomplished in the fall classic. Cleveland won the game, 8-1, and the next, 1-0, as Duster Mails pitched a masterful three-hit shutout to victimize Sherry Smith. Cleveland now led the best-of-nine series four games to two.

The seventh game was spitballer versus spitballer—Grimes against Coveleskie. Burleigh pitched well, but Stan outdueled him, tossing a five-hit shutout for his third win of the series and Cleveland’s first ever World Series championship. Grimes blamed his loss on everyone but himself. He told an interviewer that three or four of the team’s key players had violated curfew and did not show up in the best of shape to play ball. He also found out later that Pete Kilduff, the Brooklyn second baseman, had been giving his pitches away. Grimes used the spitball as a decoy, faking it on almost every pitch. Kilduff would pick up a little handful of dust and put it in his glove every time the catcher called for a spitball. This was so the ball would not be slippery when it was hit to him and he had to throw it. Burleigh said that wasn’t too bright. None of the other fielders thought it was necessary. But Kilduff did it and the Indians knew when the spitter was coming and laid off it because they knew it was his best pitch. Grimes blamed Detroit scout Jack Coombs for giving him bad advice that enabled Elmer Smith to hit the grand slam. As the Dodgers had not scouted the Indians, Grimes relied on Coombs, who told him to give Smith high fastballs. So Burleigh threw a high, hard one and Elmer gained immortality. When he was 90 years old, Grimes still waxed emotional about the 1920 World Series.

Even though the Dodgers had lost the World Series, Grimes had fashioned a great season and he expected to be paid accordingly. When his 1921 contract came from Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, Burleigh sent it back unsigned. Ebbets fired back a letter, demanding that the pitcher sign. Grimes wrote back that he would stay home all season rather than pitch for the money that was offered. The owner responded with a telegram: VERY WELL. STAY THERE. The Dodgers went to spring training without Grimes. The day before the season opened, Grimes still had not reported, and no one in the Brooklyn organization had heard from him in months. Manager Wilbert Robinson went to Ebbets and said, “I don’t care how you get him. All I say is get him.” The owner yielded to Uncle Robbie’s plea and agreed to Grimes’s terms, which were not announced publicly.

In 1921 the burly spitballer won 22 games, tied for the most by any National League moundsman. He led the league in complete games and in strikeouts. He ranked third in innings pitched and fifth in earned run average. The Faber System ranked him as the best pitcher in the senior circuit. Palmer and Gillette honored him with their ex post facto Cy Young Award for 1921, the first of three they were to bestow upon him. Nevertheless, the Robins fell to fifth place in the league standings and were not to win another pennant for two decades. Only once in Burleigh’s remaining years with the club did they finish in the first division.

Despite pitching for a poor team, Grimes had a good year by most standards in 1922. He won 17 games and lost 14, but he did not like to lose any. With the Dodgers entering their Daffiness phase, Burleigh was too fierce a competitor to accept lax play behind him. In an August game against the Cincinnati Reds, he was hit hard. Convinced that some of the ground balls hit off his spitter should have been fielded and turned into inning-ending double plays, burly Burleigh boiled over. Disgusted, he threw a pitch right down the middle of the plate to Jake Daubert, who promptly knocked it over the fence to climax a six-run inning. As Grimes stomped to the dugout, Robinson was waiting for him. The two laced into each other verbally. Robbie’s biographers wrote that the manager had learned his cuss words with the old Baltimore Orioles, but Grimes invented his own. Ebbets fined Grimes $200 and issued a public reprimand. He instructed the pitcher to apologize to the manager and to refrain from future swearing.

In 1923 Grimes again won 21 games, but his 18 losses were hard for the spitballer to stomach. He led the league in complete games and in innings pitched, ranked third in strikeouts, and tied for fourth in wins. He had difficulty with the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the weaker teams in the league. The Phils were laying off Burleigh’s spitter and zeroing in on his fastball and curve. At first Robbie thought the Phils were stealing the signs from catcher Zach Taylor. When the signs were changed, the Phils continued hitting. Robbie sent Hank DeBerry in to catch Grimes, and the spitballer was still not a mystery to the team from the City of Brotherly Love. From the bench and the field, the Dodgers watched the catcher and pitcher carefully to see if they could discover the tip-off. They even suspected a spy with binoculars had been planted in the centerfield bleachers. At last one of the Dodgers solved the mystery. The spitballer’s cap was tight fitting. When Grimes faked the spitter, the peak of his cap never moved. When he actually moistened the ball, however, the peak wiggled slightly. Burleigh got a cap a half size larger and the Phils were no problem from then on.

In 1924 the Dodgers rebounded and found themselves in a pennant race for the first time since their championship year of 1920. With Dazzy Vance coming into his own, the Dazzler and Grimes won 50 games between them. The Daffiness Boys that year were a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, high-living crew, but they combined good baseball with their hi-jinks. Grimes did not live as high or drink as much as some of the others, because he always kept himself in top notch physical shape. Of course, he fought as hard as anyone and occasionally he shared in their extracurricular fun.

One Sunday night the Dodgers boarded a midnight train in New York for a trip to Boston to play the Braves. They discovered the Braves, who had played in Philadelphia that day, were on the same train. Grimes and two teammates cut eyeholes in pillowcases, slipped them over their heads, and rushed to the Pullman car where the Braves were sleeping. They looked like Ku Klux Klan members or aliens from another planet as they awakened the Boston players screaming, “Tell us your signs.” The frightened Boston catcher revealed the signs, and the Daffy trio retreated to their own car.

But when crunch time came, Burleigh was all business. In September the Robins were in danger of falling out of the chase for the pennant. One afternoon, when Grimes was scheduled to take the mound against the Chicago Cubs, who had defeated the Brooklyn team the previous day, the sturdy pitcher addressed his teammates in the clubhouse. “This is what I have to say to you fellas. This will be the toughest game you ever played in. Anybody who can’t take it can get out now. Is that clear? You’ll be thrown at, you’ll be knocked down and they’ll try to spike you. It’s up to you to be ready.”

Brooklyn catcher Zack Taylor said it was the most harrowing day he spent in baseball. “I had a hunch what was coming, but I never thought it was going to be that rough. I figured Burleigh might throw at Grantham and at Hartnett because of the homers they had hit the day before, but I wasn’t prepared when Grimes cut loose with the first pitch at the first Chicago hitter, a kid named Art Weis, who was just up from the Texas League. …Bam! The first pitch sails past the kid’s ears and he’s in the dirt…. I felt sorry for him. I didn’t dare sympathize with him or Grimes might have come charging at me.”[8] Weis was not the only Cub to hit the dirt that afternoon; they all did. Burleigh threw behind them and at their feet. When the opposing pitcher Grover Alexander came to the plate, Burleigh’s pitch came in right behind Alexander’s neck. “When Alex got up,” Taylor said, “he had the strangest look on his face, like a person who finds himself locked in a room with a madman.”

Grimes won the game, 5-4. In the fifth inning he made one of the strangest plays ever seen at Ebbets Field. Weis was on third base when one of Burleigh’s spitters broke into the dirt in front of home plate and caromed off Taylor’s shin guards. Seeing the ball get past the catcher, the speedy Weis headed for home. Grimes was quickly off the mound. The ball rebounded in front of the plate and the spitballer scooped up the ball, dived for the plate, and tagged Weis just before he could score. Thus, Grimes made an unassisted putout on his own wild pitch.

The Dodgers did not win the pennant in 1924 but their second place finish was the closest they would come for many years. Grimes led the league in innings pitched, tied for the lead in complete games, and was second to his teammate Vance in both wins and strikeouts.

Grimes failed to win as many games as he lost during either of the next two years.

The most memorable event of the 1925 season was one that he would have preferred to forget. On September 22 in a twelve-inning, 3-2, loss to the Chicago Cubs, Grimes pitched well enough but was woeful at the bat. In his first three trips to the plate he brought about seven outs, which matched the record for futility (responsibility for seven outs in three times at bat) set by Clarence Mitchell in the 1920 World Series. Burleigh ended the third and sixth innings by hitting into double plays, and outdid that by hitting into a triple play in the eighth. With runners on first and third, Grimes grounded to the shortstop, who tossed to the second baseman, who rifled the ball to the first baseman, who heaved the ball home to catch the runner trying to score from third. That game was not indicative of the Wisconsin native’s ability with the bat. The burly one was a good batter and was used occasionally as a pinch hitter. Pinch hitting one day, Grimes hit a double and moved to third on a ground out. The next batter hit a routine fly to the outfield. Grimes did not tag up and attempt to score. The next batter made the final out of the inning. Robbie raged at the pitcher, “Why didn’t you tag up and score on that fly ball?” Heatedly, Grimes answered his manager, “Because I’m not a fast base runner. You should have put in a pinch runner for me. When you asked me to bat, I did and I got a hit. You should have replaced me then.” Robbie’s biographer wrote that the battle raged on, down the clubhouse steps and into the locker room, each man cursing the other violently.

In 1926 Burleigh won 12 games and lost 13. On September 9 of that year at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia his teammates came off the bench in an amazing display of pinch hitting to save the burly one another loss. Grimes had been knocked out the box in the sixth inning and left the game trailing 5-1. In the seventh inning after Johnny Butler’s double, three straight pinch hitters—Zack Wheat, Jack Fournier, and Jerry Standaert--each singled to drive in two runs. The Phillies added another run in the bottom of the inning and went into the ninth leading 6-3. In the top of the final inning Butler led off with a double, and Dick Cox pinch-hit safely, driving in Butler. After Hank DeBerry popped out, Moose Clabaugh collected a pinch double. Then came three hits and two bases on balls, along with a ground out, and Cox came to bat for the second time in the inning. He hit another single, his second pinch hit of the inning and Brooklyn’s sixth pinch hit of the game. Before the carnage was over the Dodgers had won the game 12-6, getting Burleigh off the hook. (Under present rules Cox would be credited with only one pinch hit, as he would be considered batting for himself the second time around and would no longer be a pinch hitter.)

The Dodger management thought that perhaps at the age of 33, Burleigh was losing his effectiveness. Besides they were tired of constantly bickering over his salary. In a complicated deal that was consummated on January 9-10, 1927, the New York Giants obtained George Harper and Walter Henline from the Phillies in exchange for Fresco Thompson and Jack Scott. Henline was then traded to Brooklyn for Grimes. Before the Phils would give up Henline they insisted on getting Alex Ferguson from the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. The Phillies sent two players to Buffalo, the Giants agreed to option two players to the Bisons and the Robins agreed to do the same with a pitcher, these players to be named at the conclusion of spring training. Sportswriter James B. Harrison wrote that baseball men were inclined to agree that the Giants got the better of the deal.

Events proved the baseball men were right. The spitballer signed a contract with the Giants for $15,000 a year, considered a rather good salary at the time. Grimes won 19 games, including 14 wins in a row and lost only 8 during the 1927 season. He had the third best winning percentage of all National League pitchers and ranked fourth in strikeouts. His Faber System ranking was fourth best in the circuit. He continued to ask and give no quarter. He snapped and snarled at his teammates if they failed to give their best. Once he came to blows with Rogers Hornsby in the clubhouse after a game, charging that the Rajah was bungling things in relaying McGraw’s signals from the bench. But Ol’ Stubblebeard rubbed McGraw the wrong way. The Little Napoleon’s dictatorial methods and the fierce independence of the man from lumberjack country very likely were incompatible. At any rate the Giants benefited from Burleigh’s spitball tosses for only one season.

On February 11, 1928, the Giants traded Grimes to Pittsburgh for Vic Aldridge in a straight player transaction, no cash or convoluted deals with other players involved. The newspapers reported that the Pirates got the better of the deal. Once again the newspapers were right. The trade turned out to be much more lopsided that the scribes had predicted. In the remainder of his major league career Aldridge was to win only four games while losing seven. On the other hand Grimes, at the age of 34, still had some of his best years ahead of him.

In 1928 Grimes won 25 games for the Corsairs, tying for the league lead in wins. He also tied for first in complete games, had the second lowest opponents’ on-base percentage in the circuit, and ranked fourth in strikeouts and in base runners permitted per game. He had the fifth highest strikeout total. His Weighted Rating and Faber System rankings both placed him third in the league. Palmer and Gillette awarded him their ex post facto Cy Young Award.

 In a July 20, 1929, game against the Giants, Grimes fired a fastball toward the plate. Bill Terry lined it back to the mound like a bullet. The smash was too hot to handle, but Grimes instinctively put up his hands. The ball struck the thumb of his pitching hand, then caromed off. Grimes picked up the ball and threw to first, then walked off the field. With 16 victories already under his belt, he had hoped to win 30 that year for the first time in his career. Those hopes were gone; he won only one more game in 1929. He finished the year with a record of 17-7 for a winning percentage of .708, third best in the league, and his earned run average of 3.13 was second best in the NL. He had the fifth lowest opponents’ batting average. His Faber System ranking was third in the National League for the second straight year. He was named by Palmer and Gillette as their ex post facto Cy Young Award winner for the second consecutive year. Even so it was not as good a year it would have been had Burleigh avoided Terry’s line drive.

In his early years Burleigh had relied so much on his spitter that Billy Evans feared he would not be nearly so effective if he was not allowed to continue using it after 1920. As years went by he developed a wide repertoire of pitches, all thrown with an almost straight overhand motion. He still faked a spitter on every pitch, of course, and threw a lot of spitters, but Burleigh had a live fastball for most of his career, developed a good curve, and had excellent control. He said, “The spitter, which has always been an ace in the hole for me is supposed to be one reason for my success. No doubt it is. But the spitter has its drawbacks. When I’m pitching, I chew slippery elm all the time. I don’t like it, but it’s the only thing that I can chew that gives me satisfaction.”[9] Most pitchers of that era had three pitches in their arsenal, fastball, curve, and change-up, called a slow ball in those days. The slider was thrown by only a few, among whom Burleigh Grimes was the most successful. Thus, Ol’ Stubblebeard had five pitches in his assortment, even though he was starting to lose a little off his fastball by 1929. In addition, he had many years of experience. As he put it, “I haven’t as much stuff as I used to have, but I’m a better pitcher. I know the batters. I know myself. I understand better what I can do myself and what the opposition is likely to do. A pitcher is like a good oak log. He needs seasoning. I work hard. I bear down all the time….I’ve hurt my arm more than once by exerting it. I’ve hurt it by throwing a fast ball. I’ve hurt it several times by throwing a spitter. Any ball will hurt your arm if you put everything you have behind it. But, after all, spitters and fast balls are easy deliveries compared with curve pitching.”[10]

Regarding the statement that at 36 he was growing old for a ballplayer, Grimes said: “They call me an old pitcher. Why should I be old? One of these physical culture experts told me that a man reached his prime, in physical strength, at thirty, but declined very little until he was forty or older. That’s my schedule…. I weigh 190 pounds, in condition. During the season I lose perhaps ten pounds….At season’s end I’m a little stale, a little tired. So I go to a camp I have up in Wisconsin, where I spend the winter. I tramp miles every day in the snow with my gun. I breathe crisp, frosty air many hours out of the twenty-four. I eat a lot of wholesome, well-cooked food. I go to bed early and sleep like a badger in a burrow. And next season I’m fit for whatever deviltry the batters can invent.”[11]

For two years with Pittsburgh, Grimes was arguably the best pitcher in the league, but after the thumb injury he was not quite the same again. He still had a few good years left, however, even if they did not match his seasons of greatness. Grimes and the Buccaneers were unable to agree on terms for a 1930 contract. The pitcher demanded a two-year contract at $20,000 per year. President Barney Dreyfuss announced that club policy was against giving more than a one-year contract to any player. Grimes replied that unless Dreyfuss gave him the salary he wanted, he would ask to be traded or sold. “If he turns me down I will spend this year hunting and fishing in Wisconsin.”[12] On April 9, 1930, the Pirates traded Grimes to the Boston Braves for Percy Jones and an undisclosed amount of cash. The lefthanded Jones won nary a game for Pittsburgh and disappeared from the major league scene. Grimes did not fare well in Beantown. Although he won his first game for the Braves by a 13-4 score over Philadelphia on April 27, he won only two more games for Boston. He was hit on the ankle by a line drive and was placed on the invalid list for a while. On June 16 the Braves sent Lord Burleigh to St. Louis in return for hurlers Fred Frankhouse and Bill Sherdel, a former spitball pitcher who had long since given up the moist delivery. This trade worked wonders for Grimes, as he compiled a 13-6 record with the Cardinals, giving him a total of 16 wins for the year.

Best of all, the trade to the Cardinals gave him another shot at the World Series, an opportunity for which he had devoutly wished. As he had told F. C. Lane in his lengthy interview the previous year. “I hope before I hang up my uniform for the last time, that I can pitch at least one more World Series game. I got a taste of the Big Series back there in 1920. But they told me afterwards that the Cleveland coaches tipped off the batters (about when the spitball was coming) when I was in the box. At that, I pitched at least one pretty good game against them, but I didn’t cover myself with any glory. Now I’m older and a bit wiser and I think I’d make a better record. At least I’d like the chance to try.”[13]

Grimes got his chance for glory in the 1930 World Series. Gabby Street, the Redbird manager, picked Lord Burleigh to pitch the opening game against Philadelphia “because the Athletics don’t see much spitball pitching during the season and Faber of the White Sox always gives them trouble.” Grantland Rice wrote: “The A’s are more concerned about Burleigh Grimes than anyone else. Grimes is a strong money pitcher, and he is a spitball pitcher when few are left.”[14]  

In the opener, Grimes held the hard-hitting White Elephants to only five safeties, but two of their hits were home runs. Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane each connected for a round-tripper and the Mackmen, behind Lefty Grove, prevailed, 5-2. Grimes had another chance in the Game Five. This time he matched up with George Earnshaw in one of the great pitching duel of all times. Inning after inning the two fought in a scoreless deadlock. According to John Drebinger, writing in the New York Times, “Throughout the struggle, Grimes tormented the A’s unmercifully. Every time Mickey Cochrane came up, Burleigh would stick his thumbs in his ears and wiggle his fingers, admittedly a rather inelegant thing to do to a man whose ears protruded slightly. When Simmons came up he mimicked Al’s mannerism of flecking dust from his shirt and trousers. For Foxx he saved the gesture of a man feeling his throat in a moment of great fright. Cochrane was furious, but the more good-natured Foxx gave his comrades the last laugh. In the ninth inning, with Mickey on base, Jimmy blasted a tremendous home run into the left-field bleachers.” Grimes lost the game, 2-0. In his two 1930 Series starts Ol’ Stubblebeard had pitched two complete games, giving up five hits in each game, and had two losses to show for it.

Few men ever hated to lose more than Grimes did, yet Drebinger wrote: “But no sooner had he hopped into his street clothes than Grimes confounded the Athletics by jauntily breezing into their dressing room to make his peace with them. He assured them that now the battle was over he had meant nothing personal by his tactics and even offered to go on a vaudeville tour with Cochrane, Simmons, and Foxx.”[15]

In 1931 Lord Burleigh won 17 games and lost only 9 as he helped the Cardinals win another flag. The Redbirds again faced the mighty Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Connie Mack’s team of powerful sluggers were favored to win their third straight Fall Classic, something that had not yet been accomplished since the Series was inaugurated in 1903. Lefty Grove, the dominant pitcher of the times, defeated the Cards in the first game, but Bill Hallahan evened the series by shutting out the Mackmen 2-0 in the second game. Burleigh was Street’s choice to start the third game and he went up against Grove, a 31-game winner who had led the American League in wins, winning percentage, earned run average, strikeouts, and almost every other pitching category. Grimes pitched a two-hit masterpiece, giving up two runs on a home run by Al Simmons, and winning the game, 5-2. He even contributed two runs batted in to the cause. Earnshaw came back with a two-hit shutout in the fourth game to even the series at two games apiece. Hallahan won his second game for the Cardinals, 5-1, and Grove won his second, 8-1, to give each team three victories. The world championship was riding on the seventh game.

In the deciding game of the series, Grimes was again matched up with Earnshaw and turned in one of the gutsiest performances in the history of baseball. During the final weeks of the season, the ex-lumberjack’s appendix had become inflamed, but he refused to take time off for an operation. As Game Seven of the 1931 World Series progressed, the appendix began acting up. He took more and more time between pitches. Ice packs were applied between innings. He was obviously pitching in great pain, but he was pitching brilliantly. He shut out the White Elephants for eight innings. Going into the ninth, the Cardinals had a 4-0 lead. Grimes lost the first batter, Al Simmons, with a base on balls. Then Foxx fouled out, and Bing Miller forced Simmons at second base. Ol’ Stubblebeard had to get only one more out to register a five-hit shutout and bring the world’s championship to the banks of the Mississippi. Pitching in intense pain and showing it in every gesture, Grimes could not finish the job. A walk and two hits plated two runs and left the tying runs on base. Street brought in Hallahan, and Wild Bill induced Max Bishop to lift a fly to centerfielder Pepper Martin for the final out, and the championship belonged to the Cardinals. Grimes shared with Hallahan and Martin the role of star of the series. The veteran spitballer’s two wins avenged his unfortunate lossesd in previous classics. 

Despite Burleigh’s heroism, he was expendable. The Cardinals were overstocked with pitchers and needed to make room for Dizzy Dean, the sensational young pitcher who had been burning up the Texas League.    On December 9 the Birds dealt Grimes to the Chicago Cubs in a straight trade with no cash involved for Hack Wilson and Bud Teachout. According to the Associated Press, in acquiring Grimes the Cubs obtained the one pitcher who had ruined more games for them than any two pitchers combined in the National League.

Grantland Rice wrote: “When Burleigh Grimes rounds into form and begins pitching his spitter across the plate with all the fire and pugnacity of a veteran gamester, the Chicagoans will have still more to rave about. Grimes has always been an eyeful. He pleases the new men in the game because he has the stuff, and he’s a favorite of the oldsters because he still sees a baseball game as a hard, zestful fight. He’s been all over the circuit, but once the game starts he pitches to win, no matter what team he happens to be boosting. Incidentally, while Grimes has been pictured as passing into the shadows every year for the last half-dozen, it is true that of the four exponents of the famous spitball delivery, which was scotched some time ago, Grimes is the youngest. Clarence Mitchell, Red Faber, and Jack Quinn, all still active, are older than Grimes.”[16]

Grimes won his first start for the Cubs. 12-5, on May 12, 1932, but never had a winning season in Chicago, posting a 6-11 record in 1932 and a 3-6 mark in a portion of the 1933 season. On July 30, 1933, the veteran spitballer was released by the Wrigleys and signed the next day by the Cardinals. He lost his first start on his second tour with the Gashouse Gang on August 8th, as three errors by the Cardinal infield in the seventh inning led to three unearned runs. Hampered by injuries, he pitched in only 13 2/3 innings for the Cards in 1933 and was involved in no more decisions.

By the spring of 1934 it was clear that the major league career of one Burleigh Grimes was winding down. But the old spitballer was not yet ready to hang up his spikes. Nor were all clubs ready to give up on him quite yet. The Cardinals gave him his unconditional release on May 15, 1934. Two weeks later he signed with the New York Yankees for his first venture into the American League. He appeared in only ten games for the Bronx Bombers, winning one and losing two. The Yankees released him on August 8th. Three days later he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates for his third tour of duty with the Corsairs. He pitched for the last time in the major leagues on September 20, 1934, in relief of Heinie Meine in a 9-4 loss to the Dodgers at Ebbets Field., a game that was already lost when the Lord of Burleigh took the mound. Grimes was 41 years old when he threw his last pitch in the majors. Available records do not show whether it was or was not a spitball.

After his major league playing career ended, Grimes remained active in baseball for another 35 years.

In 1935 Branch Rickey wanted Grimes to be the playing manager of the Cardinals’ farm team at Bloomington, Illinois, in the Three-I League. A problem developed as Rickey and the Bloomington officials wanted Grimes to pitch, using his spitball, as well as manage. John Butler, manager of the Decatur club, withheld his consent to use of the spitball until April 1st. As soon as Butler relented, Grimes was appointed manager. As a pitcher Grimes had a record of ten wins and five losses, while as a manager he led the Bloomers to the league championship

His success in the Class B Three-I League earned Grimes a promotion to the Cardinal’s top farm club—Louisville of the Class AA American Association. The Colonels finished seventh in 1936, Burleigh’s only year with the club. On October 2, 1936, Grimes was in the Polo Grounds watching the World Series game between the Yankees and Giants when Tony Lazzeri hammered a Dick Coffman fastball for a home run with the bases loaded. Ol’ Stubblebeard no longer held the unenviable distinction of being the only pitcher to yield a World Series grand slam. On that same day Grimes was approached by officers of the Brooklyn club to see if he would be interested in managing the Dodgers.

Grimes accepted the job. He was back in the major leagues, back in Brooklyn. The Dodgers were no longer the Daffiness Boys of the 1920s, but they had much less natural talent. They had finished in seventh place in 1936 under Casey Stengel, who was fired at the end of the season. They showed little improvement under their new manager, finishing in sixth place in 1937 and seventh in 1938. If they did not win, it was not for lack of trying by the manager. Grimes fought with the umpires, with his coaches, and with his players. The Dodger ownership brought in Babe Ruth, ostensibly as a coach, in reality as a box office attraction. The Bambino entertained the crowds with hitting mammoth home runs in batting practice, but Grimes thought the Babe was derelict in his duties as a first base coach. Tom Meany tells a story about Burleigh’s encounter with a young pitcher, who had a great fast ball but had not achieved much success with the Dodgers. Grimes decided the reason for the kid’s failures was that he tended to give up on himself whenever he was in a jam. When Burleigh shared his opinion with the hurler, the young man became indignant. He started to say to the 43-year-old manager, “Why, if you weren’t such an old man…” He never finished the sentence as Burleigh’s fist connected with his mouth. Grimes lasted two years with the Dodgers.

In 1939 Burleigh was back in Double A ball, managing the Montreal Royals of the International League. Another season, another seventh place finish.

In 1940 Grimes stepped down a few rungs on the ladder of Organized Baseball, clear down to the Class C Michigan State League where he took the helm of the Grand Rapids Dodgers. While in this league, his natural combativeness got the best of him on one occasion when the old spitballer apparently spat in the wrong place. On July 31, he became engaged in a shouting match with home plate umpire Robert Williams over a close call. According to Williams, Grimes spat in the umpire’s face. Burleigh was ejected from the game and suspended by the league for a full season. After several months of testimony and investigation by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues and some intervention by Commissioner Landis, Grimes’s penalty was reduced to the remainder of the 1940 season.

The problems in the Michigan State League did not end Grimes’s managerial career. From 1942 through 1946 he was back in the International League—with Toronto from 1942 through 1944 and with Rochester in 1945 and 1946. His Maple Leafs won the pennant in 1943. The Leafs finished third in 1944. All of his other International League clubs of the 1940s ended up in the second division. In 1948 he managed the Independence Yankees in the Class D Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri League for part of the season. In 1952 and 1953 he again managed the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was his third time in the International League, and it met with moderate success, the Leafs posting identical 78-76 records in the two seasons he held the managerial reins.

Between 1947 and 1971 Grimes often served as a scout for one or another major league club—the New York Yankees from 1947 to 1952; the Kansas City Athletics in 1955 and 1956; and finally the Baltimore Orioles from 1960 to 1971. When he relinquished his scouting assignment for the O’s in 1971, he retired permanently from professional baseball at the age of 77.

Even before Grimes retired from baseball, he spent some of his off-season time farming.. He had invested his savings from his baseball salary in farm land, first in Ohio and then in Missouri. Grimes was a hard-nosed negotiator with his baseball employers, which sometimes led to his being traded away, but also led to his making a higher salary than most players of his era. As a rookie, he earned $2600. By the time of his retirement he was reported to be making $25,000 a year, among the highest salaries in baseball.

Grantland Rice wrote that Grimes had given mid-winter interviews at his flourishing farm near New Haven, Missouri, just west of St. Louis in Franklin County, where members of the Corps of Discovery had received land grants after completing the Lewis and Clark Expedition. According to Rice, Burleigh’s oriental rugs and grand piano were not what one would find in a typical farmhouse parlor. His 230-acre stock farm was operated by six farm hands. For recreation, there were sleek saddle horses, a pony for the children of the farm workers, and a trained horse, Crystal Lady, that could waltz, march and do other circus tricks. Later Grimes raised horses, mules, and prize hogs, and farmed 545 rich acres near Trenton, in north-central Missouri, where he lived with his third wife Inez in a large ranch-type house with one room devoted to his baseball souvenirs. He built his house facing away from the blacktop road and looking down across the fields to the Thompson Fork of the Grand River below. Although his neighbors were aware of his reputation from his baseball days as a rough and tough character, they found him to be a very nice man, and he was well-liked in the neighborhood. One neighbor said she never heard an unkind word said about him. In the 1940s the local high school built a new baseball field and named it Burleigh Grimes Field in honor of the old spitballer.

When Grimes returned to northwestern Wisconsin, his home town honored him by naming an athletic field in his honor and placing a sign at city limits proudly proclaiming Clear Lake to be the home of Burleigh Grimes. Best of all he shares with statesman Gaylord Nelson the distinction of having a special room in the village’s historical museum. Among the many items on display in the room is a letter from Richard Nixon on White House stationery informing Grimes that the president had included him on his all-time team.

In 1964 Burleigh Grimes and Red Faber became the first two grandfathered spitballers to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. As Faber was the best exempted spitballer in the American League and Grimes the best in the National, it seems altogether fitting that they were the first of their ilk to be enshrined in the Hall and that both were inducted in the same year. In contrast to Faber, who pitched every one of his 4,088 major league innings for the same club, Grimes toiled for seven different teams during his 19 years in “The Show.”

Ol’ Stubblebeard was married five times. In 1913 he married Florence Ruth van Patten in Memphis. They were divorced in 1930, following a series of court battles. Grimes filed suit for divorce on Christmas Eve, 1929, in Canton, Ohio, charging that Florence interfered with his profession by accompanying him to spring training camps in violation of league rules. The judge ordered Grimes to pay temporary alimony of $200 per month until a hearing on the divorce petition was held. After a long trial the divorce was denied in the spring of 1930. In October Florence sued Burleigh for divorce, claiming that he was cruel, displayed no affection, and received endearing and passionate letters from other women. This time the divorce was granted. In 1931 Grimes married Laura Virginia (surname unknown). This marriage lasted until 1939. In 1940 he wed Inez Margarete Martin, who died in 1964 after 24 years of wedlock. In 1965 Grimes married Zerita Brickell, widow of his former Pirate teammate Fred Brickell. She died in 1974. On October 17, 1974, the 81-year-old Grimes married 48-year-old Lillian Gosselin Meyer. There were no children from any of these marriages.

On December 6, 1985, at the age of 92, Grimes died at Clear Lake, Wisconsin, after a long struggle with cancer. His survivors included his wife Lillian and a brother. Memorial services were held in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Clear Lake. Grimes is buried in a cemetery in Clear Lake under a stone that includes a small Hall of Fame symbol.


This account is adapted from the chapter on Burleigh Grimes in Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

[1] F. C. Lane, “The Ace of National League Hurlers, Baseball Magazine (October 1929): 76.

[2] Lee Allen and Tom Meany, Kings of the Diamond: The Immortals in the Hall of Fame (New York: Putnam, 1965), 72.

[3] Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 35.

[4] Steve Gelman, The Greatest Dodgers of Them All (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 81.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Sporting News, February 3, 1921.

[8] Tom Meany, Baseball’s Greatest Pitchers, (New York: Barnes, 1951), 76.

[9] Lane, op. cit.,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1930.

[13] Lane, op. cit.

[14] Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1930.

[15] New York Times, December 10, 1931.

[16] Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1932.


In addition to the sources cited in the text and endnotes, the following friends of Burleigh Grimes were helpful to the writer through personal correspondence or interviews: Loma Hurst, John Rice, and Evelyn Trinkle.

Also useful were:       

Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette, The Baseball Encyclopedia, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.)

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel