Burleigh Grimes

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

Burleigh Arland Grimes, who pitched in four games for the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of the 1934 season, was born on August 18, 1893, on his parents’ dairy farm about halfway between the towns of Emerald and Clear Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. (Wisconsin records indicate he was born in Emerald, but he always regarded Clear Lake as his hometown.) He was the oldest child of Ruth Tuttle and Cecil “Nick” Grimes. Soon after his birth the family moved to nearby Black Brook. His father died when the lad was quite young, and his mother struggled to support the family. When Burleigh got old enough, he went to work in a lumber camp, toiling from 4:30 in the morning until 9:00 at night for one dollar a day. Later he earned a raise to $36 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, Minnesota, 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, at the age of 18, he began his professional career with the Eau Claire Commissioners of the Class D Minnesota-Wisconsin League, but the circuit folded in midseason. He started the 1913 season with the Ottumwa (Iowa) 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 Grimes to Class A 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 Class A Birmingham Barons, who loaned him to Richmond in the Class C Virginia League, where he won 23 games. The Barons recalled Grimes on September 12. During the offseason he broke his leg, but was ready to pitch in 1915 and had a fine season with the Birmingham club. By August 1916 Grimes had a 23-11 record with the Barons when the Pittsburgh 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

By the time Grimes reached the majors, he 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 Grimes’s 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.”3 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 Grimes 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.”4

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 once 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 in 1927 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 as he was sold to the Class AA Toledo Mud Hens before being purchased by the Boston Braves late in the 1928 season.

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 brushback 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.”5

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.”6 Before the inning was over Daubert had scored on a hit by Zack Wheat, and Stengel tallied when left fielder 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 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 won five games and lost 19 in the major leagues. 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 passed over Grimes’s turn and started someone else in his place. 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.”7

In January 1918 the Pirates traded their brilliant but erratic young pitching star Al Mamaux to the Brooklyn Dodgers for the popular outfielder 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 265 additional decisions during his long career in “The Show.”

With Brooklyn, Grimes became an instant success. Reversing his 1917 stats, he won nine starts 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 (the US was by then in World War I), 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 baserunners per nine innings, fourth in innings pitched, second in opponents’ 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 Frankie 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.”8 “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.”9

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 15 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.”10 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 Brooklyn 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 baserunners per nine innings among all the circuit’s hurlers.

After Cleveland’s spitballer Stan Coveleski defeated Rube Marquard 3-1 in the World Series opener, both teams started their aces in the second game. 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 Coveleski 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 then hit the first grand slam 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 as of 2013 the only unassisted triple play ever accomplished in the World Series. 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 Coveleski. 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 Brooklyn 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.”11 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. Nevertheless, the Robins fell to fifth place and were not to win another pennant for two decades. Only once in Burleigh’s remaining six seasons 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 6 game against the Cincinnati Reds, he was hit hard. Convinced that some of the groundballs 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 drove the pitch to deep center for a two-run inside-the-park home run to climax a six-run inning. After being relieved by Mamaux, Grimes stomped to the dugout, and 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. During the 1922 season, Grimes had extreme difficulty with the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the weaker teams in the league. In four appearances against them, he was 0-3 with an 8.06 ERA, The Phillies were laying off Burleigh’s spitter and zeroing in on his fastball and curve. At first Robbie thought Philadelphia was stealing the signs from Brooklyn’s new catcher, Hank DeBerry. From the bench and the field, the Robins watched their catcher and pitcher carefully to see if they could discover the tipoff. They even suspected a spy with binoculars had been planted in the scoreboard at Baker Bowl. However, even when DeBerry’s sign delivery to Grines was altered, the Phillies continued hitting him hard. Philadelphia’s veteran shortstop, Art Fletcher, had noticed a trend by Grimes and passed it on to his teammates. Fletcher observed that 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. Early in 1923, the Brooklyn batboy finally solved the mystery. Burleigh got a cap a half size larger, and the Phillies were no problem that season as Grimes went 6-0 against them.

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 highjinks. 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.

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. On the 24th, when Grimes was scheduled to take the mound against the Chicago Cubs, who had defeated Brooklyn 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.”12

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.”13 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.”14

Grimes won the game, 6-5. 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 it up, dived for the plate, and tagged Weis just before he could score. Thus, Grimes made an unassisted putout on his own wild pitch.

Brooklyn 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 his teammate Vance for the lead in complete games, and was second to 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 he would have preferred to forget. On September 22 in a 12-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 during Game Five of 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 groundout. 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 baserunner. 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.”15 Robbie’s biographers 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 at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, his teammates came off the bench in an amazing display of pinch-hitting to save Grimes another loss. Grimes had given up ten hits and was trailing, 5-1, after the sixth inning ended. 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 groundout, 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 Grimes 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.)

Brooklyn’s 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 outfielder George Harper and catcher Walter “Butch” Henline from the Phillies in exchange for second baseman Fresco Thompson and pitcher Jack Scott. Henline was then traded to Brooklyn for Grimes. Before Philadelphia would give up Henline they insisted on getting pitcher 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 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 13 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. 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 pitcher Vic Aldridge in a straight player transaction, no cash or convoluted deals with other players involved. The newspapers said that the Pirates got the better of the deal. Once again the newspapers were right. The trade turned out to be much more lopsided than 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 Pittsburgh, leading the league in innings pitched and tying for the 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 baserunners permitted per game.

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. Even so, it was not as good a year it would have been had Grimes 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 1920.16 As years went by Grimes 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.”17 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.”18

Responding to 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.”19

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 Pirates were unable to agree on terms for a 1930 contract. The pitcher demanded a two-year contract at $20,000 per year. Club 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.”20 On April 9, 1930, the Pirates traded Grimes to the Boston Braves for pitcher Percy Jones and an undisclosed amount of cash. The left-handed 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 he had devoutly wished for. 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.”21

Grimes got his chance for glory in the 1930 World Series. According to Grantland Rice, Gabby Street, the Cardinals manager, picked Lord Burleigh to pitch the opening game against Philadelphia “[B]ecause the Athletics don’t see much spitball pitching during the season and Faber of the White Sox always gives them trouble. … 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.”22

In the opener, Grimes held the hard-hitting Athletics 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 duels of all time. 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.”23 Grimes lost the game, 2-0. In his two World Series starts (1920 and 1930) 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.”24

In 1931 Lord Burleigh won 17 games and lost only seven 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 Cardinals in the first game, but Bill Hallahan evened the series by shutting out the Athletics, 2-0, in the second game. Burleigh was Gabby 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 in the ninth inning 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 Athletics 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, Wild Bill induced Max Bishop to lift a fly to center fielder 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 losses 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 11, 1931, St. Louis dealt Grimes to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Hack Wilson and pitcher 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 other 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.”25

Grimes won his first start for the Cubs, 12-5, on May 8, 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 Cubs and signed the next day by the Cardinals. He lost his first start on this, his second tour with St. Louis, on August 9. He lasted only one-third of an inning, giving up five runs (four earned) to the Cubs in the brief stint. Hampered by injuries, he pitched in only 13⅔ innings for the Cardinals 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 released him on May 15, 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 8. Three days later Grimes was signed by Pittsburgh for his third tour of duty with the Pirates. He pitched for the last time in the major leagues on September 20, 1934, in relief of Waite Hoyt in a 2-1 loss to the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Grimes was 41 years old when he threw his last pitch in the majors. Available records do not show whether it was 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 Class B 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 1. 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 Three-I League earned Grimes a promotion to the Cardinals’ top farm club, Louisville of the American Association. The Colonels finished seventh in 1936, Burleigh’s only year with the club. On October 2, 1936, he was in the Polo Grounds watching Game Two of the World Series 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 told a story about Burleigh’s encounter with a young pitcher who had a great fastball 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…”26 He never finished the sentence as Burleigh’s fist connected with his mouth. Grimes lasted two years with the Dodgers.

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

Grimes stepped down a few rungs on the ladder of Organized Baseball in 1940, 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 Kenesaw M. 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 1945 and with Rochester in 1945 and 1946, before finishing that season with Triple-A Kansas City. His Maple Leafs won the pennant in 1943 and finished third in 1944. All of his other International League clubs of the 1940s ended up in the second division. In 1948 Grimes managed the Independence Yankees in the Class D KOM (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.

From 1947 to 1952 Grimes scouted for the New York Yankees. In 1955 he was a coach with the Kansas City Athletics. He scouted for the A’s in 1956 and 1957. From 1960 to 1971 he scouted for the Baltimore Orioles, relinquishing this assignment at the age of 77.

Even before Grimes retired from baseball, he spent some of his offseason time farming.. He had invested his savings from his baseball salary in farmland, 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 $2,600. 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 midwinter 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.27 His 230-acre stock farm was operated by six farmhands. 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. 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.28 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 hometown 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 4,086⅔ major-league innings for the Chicago White Sox, 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.

 

A version of this biography appeared in "The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals The World Champion Gas House Gang" (SABR, 2014), edited by Charles F. Faber. This account is adapted from "Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One" (McFarland & Co., 2006), by Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber.

 

Sources

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:

Faber, Charles F., Baseball Ratings: The All-Time Best Players at each Position 1876 to the Present (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006).

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

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

ancestry.com

baseball-reference.com

 

Notes

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 New York Times, December 10, 1985.

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

5 Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006), 35.

6 Anthony J. Connor, Baseball for the Love of It (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 54.

7 Gelman, Op. cit.

8 Gelman, 81.

9 Ibid.

10 The Sporting News, February 3, 1921.

11 Gelman, 61.

12 Tom Meany, Baseball’s Greatest Pitchers (New York: Barnes, 1951), 75-76.

13 Meany, 76.

14 Meany, 76.

15 Jack Kavanagh and Norman Macht, Uncle Robbie (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1999), 159-160.

16 The Sporting News, February 3, 1921.

17 Lane.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1930.

21 Lane. 

22 Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1930.

23 New York Times, December 10, 1931.

24 Ibid.

25 Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1932.

26 Meany, 84.

27 New York Times, December 22, 1933.

28 Evelyn Trimble, personal interview with Charles F. Faber, July 2, 2004.