SABR

Bobby Grich

This article was written by John McMurray.

Bobby Grich was one of the best second basemen in baseball over a 17-year major-league career that began in 1970. During his first season, Grich played with the Orioles primarily as a utility infielder. Known for his sharp fielding and consistent hitting, Grich became a regular in 1972 and played in his first All-Star Game that season. In 1974, writer Larry Eldridge made this observation about the 25-year old Grich: “Grich is one of those rare ballplayers who excel in every aspect of the game—a strong hitter, a slick fielder, and a steady performer whose day-to-day contributions can carry a team almost single-handedly. He’s the driving force for the Baltimore Orioles now in their down-to-the-wire race with the New York Yankees, and he may well be the most valuable player in the American League, even though somebody else with more glamorous statistics will undoubtedly get the award.”1

Robert Anthony Grich was born on January 15, 1949, in Muskegon, Michigan. Grich spent most of his childhood in California, where his father was a clerk in the shipping industry in Long Beach for 35 years. Grich’s mother was a waitress for a few years at a fine-dining restaurant in Long Beach before staying at home. Shortly after moving to California following World War II, Grich’s father had been an amateur boxer who compiled a career record of 40-2-2, and Grich recalled that “Everyone I ever met who saw him fight said he was a terrific fighter with fast hands.”2

Grich’s father had objected to his “skinny” son playing baseball. Still, his mother coaxed Grich to play, even against older children. Grich played both baseball and football at Woodrow Wilson High School, and he had to decide which sport to pursue in college and professionally. Football coach Tommy Prothro of the University of California at Los Angeles was recruiting Grich to play there, and one newspaper account later said that Prothro “practically guaranteed [Grich] a clean shot at the Heisman Trophy his senior year.”3

Even though Grich signed a letter of intent to play at UCLA, the Orioles drafted him in the first round of the 1967 amateur draft and Grich accepted the offer. At 6-feet-2 and 190 pounds, Grich said, “I figured I was too small to make a career out of pro football. I would have liked to have given pro football a shot, but I figured I could play pro baseball during the summer and work on my degree during the offseason.”4 Grich went on to study at Fresno State College.5

The right-handed-hitting Grich broke in as a shortstop and initially struggled in the minor leagues, hitting .254 with Blufield in 1967, then .228 with eight home runs for Stockton in 1968. Moving up to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1969, the 20-year-old made some adjustments, beginning to hit more to right field, and raised his average to .310. His improved hitting, coupled with his great glove at shortstop, made him a top prospect. In changing his style from a singles hitter to one who drove the ball with power, Grich credited Baltimore hitting instructor Jim Frey. “[Frey] made me into a hitter by teaching me to punch the ball into right field during the 1968 season,” said Grich. “[In 1970], I concentrated less on hitting to the opposite field and more on going for the long ball.”6

Grich excelled for the rest of his time in the Orioles’ minor-league system. He was leading the International League in hitting with a .383 average and nine home runs at Rochester when he was called up to the major leagues on June 29, 1970. After batting only .211 in 30 games for the Orioles, however, Grich did not get to play in the 1970 World Series.

In spite of his offensive struggles with Baltimore, Grich remained confident. Pitcher Dave McNally even remarked about how sorry he felt for Harry Dalton, the team’s general manager: “When the time comes for Harry to tell Bobby he’s going to Rochester, I’d advise him to have someone else in the room. Grich is liable to start throwing punches.” Writer Phil Jackman recounted that Frank Robinson came by when Grich was talking about hitting and remarked: “What does a rookie like you know about hitting?” Grich replied to Robinson: “Tell you something, pal. I’ll be hitting for ten years around here after you’re gone.”7

Grich indeed was sent back down to Rochester to start the 1971 season, and remarked at the time that it may have been a fortuitous move: “I don’t like to sit and watch other people play ball,” said Grich. “The Orioles sent me to Rochester to play a season at shortstop and improve my stroke at the plate.”8

At Rochester in 1971, Grich won the International League Most Valuable Player Award in 1971 with a .336 batting average and 32 home runs. Had he not batted in the second position in the lineup, he might have challenged for the RBI title as well. (Grich, who knocked in 83 runs, was behind league-leader Richie Zisk, who batted in 109). Grich also showed signs of being a superb fielder. “People are always comparing me with [Orioles shortstop Mark] Belanger, and I think my own fielding is underrated,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in my fielding, and I work hard at it.”9

Pitcher Dave Leonhard concurred: “Belanger may have a shade more range, but the difference is hardly noticeable. They can both throw well, too. The big difference is in their bats. Bobby has so much more power.”10 In the International League managers’ poll, Grich was chosen as the best player, best defensive infielder, and best thrower in the league, and he shared the Silver Glove award with Charlotte’s Charles “Buck” Guth, since they both had .974 fielding averages.

As one writer noted in August 1971, “In Bobby Grich, the Orioles have one of the most coveted youngsters in the whole minor-league galaxy, a sort of Brooks and Frank Robinson rolled into one.”11 After he retired, Grich said in a 1987 interview, “I played out of my head [in 1971]. It was a storybook season. It couldn’t have been any better.”12 Grich played in seven games for the Orioles at the end of the 1971 season, hitting the first of his 224 career major-league home runs.

Grich played frequently for the Orioles in 1972, appearing primarily at shortstop and second base. The 23-year-old Grich batted .278 with 12 home runs and 50 RBIs in his first full season. Even the MVP voters took notice, as he finished in 14th place in the American League’s voting.

The Orioles finished in third place in the American League East in 1972, and Grich stated that he felt the team had underperformed. He was also critical of his own play in the field: “I am disappointed with my defense this year,” said Grich, who made 20 errors in 133 games. “There was a July and August stretch when I seemed to do okay at short. The rest of the year, I haven’t been too good, though. Considering what [manager] Earl [Weaver] was trying to accomplish, he had no other choice. I haven’t done my job as well as I should have.”13

As Grich began to become an offensive force, he earned Weaver’s praise. Late in Grich’s first season, his manager said, “Grich has Hall of Fame potential as a hitter and fielder.” Yet Grich never forgot his first encounters with Weaver as a rookie: “I’d just flown in. I was 21 years old and nervous as can be. I felt I’ve got to tell Weaver I’m here. The door was open to his office. I knocked on the side of the doorway. He looked up from his desk. He said, ‘What do you want?’ Just like that. I was kind of taken aback. I said: ‘I just wanted you to know I’m here.’ He said: ‘Is that all?’ That was my greeting to the big leagues.”14

When he became a regular, Grich earned Weaver’s respect. “I admired Weaver as a manager, I learned a lot from him that most of the game is fundamentals, fundamentals are what consistently win ballgames, that defense is a bigger part of the game than offense.” Even so, Grich said, “Weaver and I never talked. He just wasn’t a guy who’d talk to you. If he wanted you to adjust, he’d send one of his coaches over. You could never be sure where you stood with him...After I started playing for Weaver, doing a good job, he started joking with me a little more. Unless you’re playing good ball for him, he really doesn’t give a can of beans for you. It was like: ‘You’re a good player, oh yeah, Bob, how’s the wife and kids?’ But I didn’t forget how he treated you when you were a peon.’”15

By 1973, Grich had established himself as a regular with Baltimore and as a budding star. The team had even traded incumbent second baseman Davey Johnson to make room for the younger Grich, who was able to settle in full time at one position for the first time. Grich welcomed the change: “Now that I can settle in at second base ... maybe I can perfect four or five [different kinds of pivots]—crossing the bag with either foot, straddling the base, the jump throw, and moving back. Also, coming across the base on the move.”16

Grich won his first of four consecutive Gold Glove Awards at second base in 1973. Since shortstop Mark Belanger also won a Gold Glove Award in every year from 1973 through 1976 as well, the Orioles had the strongest middle-of-the-infield defensive combination in baseball during that time. In 1973 Grich also played in all 162 games and duplicated his 12 home runs and 50 RBIs from the year before. That season ended in disappointment, however, as the Orioles lost the American League Championship Series to the Oakland Athletics in five games, with Grich getting only two hits in 20 at-bats and driving in only a single run on a solo home run.

Still, Grich continued to improve his play. In 1974, he tied his career high set the year before with 17 stolen bases. Near the end of that season, in which Grich finished ninth in the league in the MVP voting, writer Larry Eldridge made this analogy: “Leo Durocher once said of Eddie Stanky: ‘He can’t hit, he can’t run, and he can’t throw, but I wouldn’t trade him for any second baseman in the league.’ Imagine what he would have given for Bobby Grich, who provides the same kind of leadership qualities that made Stanky valuable and can do all those other things too.” Eldridge even noted that Weaver commented that “Grich has more range than any other second baseman in the league.”17 Although Grich improved his batting average to .250 in the 1974 ALCS, the Orioles lost to the Oakland Athletics for the second season in a row.

Off the field, Grich expressed a desire to skydive—though he never did it it—and he was taking flying lessons in the hope of flying solo around the world. “Maybe [I’ll] take a long voyage and explore remote areas,” said Grich in August 1974. “I’ll need an estate of about $2,000,000,” he said. “If I get that, with some wise investments, I should never have to work. If I can get a 10 percent return, that would give me $200,000 a year, enough to do almost anything I want. …To get $200,000, I need home runs, RBIs, and a good average. I’ve got to be a good offensive player. A defensive player won’t make a lot of money. I learned that during arbitration last winter.”18 (Grich was able to fulfill his desire to travel, having visited all 50 states and Europe five times, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland.)19

During the next two seasons with Baltimore, Grich was near his best. He finished in the top 10 in the American League in on-base percentage in both 1975 and 1976 (as he had the previous two seasons), and he continued to show a good eye at the plate, finishing third in the league in walks during each year as well. He did, however, get caught looking on a third strike on June 1, 1975, to become the final out in Nolan Ryan’s fourth no-hitter.

The Orioles finished in second place in the American League in both 1975 and 1976, and on November 1, 1976, Grich was granted free agency. After having acquired Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman, the Orioles were expected to overhaul the team completely, and there had been rumors during the 1976 season that Baltimore was trying to trade Grich.20

Since he was a California Angels fan growing up, Grich fulfilled a longtime dream by signing with the team. While the New York Yankees had pursued Grich hard in free agency, Grich commented after signing a $1.35 million contract with the Angels: “I had better offers, but you can’t put dollar signs on what Southern California has to offer.”21

Things had been going well for Grich: As writer Dick Miller recounted, “He was living the good life. At 29, he was single and with the rugged good looks of the Marlboro man.”22 Yet Grich’s transition to the Angels was interrupted by injury. During the offseason before the 1977 season, Grich injured his back lifting an air-conditioner. “I spent three weeks of spring training in traction, but the season was getting close so I came back. I guess I forced the pain out of my mind, but I never felt right. My body ached every day.” After hitting a game-winning home run on June 8, Grich knew that he could not continue playing with the injury. “When I touched second base, I began to feel the pain,” he said. “I knew if I could feel the pain after hitting a game-winning home run, I was hurting.”23 Grich had surgery on his ailing back less than a month later, on July 3, to remove a herniated disk. He was limited to 52 games that season, the fewest of his major-league career after he became a regular.

Even when Grich came back in 1978, he was not the same player. He drove in only three runs in July and three in August. For the season, Grich hit only six home runs in 144 games and stole merely four bases. “I knew it would take [Grich] a full season to come back from the operation, but people wanted results faster. I didn’t want to ruin Grich’s mental approach,” said his manager, Jim Fregosi. As Grich struggled, Fregosi tried holding him out of the lineup. Grich tried adjusting his batting stance before settling on a new approach: “I raised my hands around my head and took the loop out of my swing. Before, I was coming underneath every pitch. Finally, my swing was level.”24

In the offseason, Grich became an even more devoted weight-lifter. “But instead of lifting two or three times a week, I was lifting five or six. I felt like I might be slipping a bit, on my way down, but I was going to work hard. Besides, [my strong performance in] September [1978] showed me I still had some ability.”25

Grich’s recovery led him to have perhaps his best overall season in 1979. That year, he hit a career-best 30 home runs, batted in 101 runs, and batted .294 for the American League West-winning Angels. Remarkably, Grich achieved these impressive statistics while batting eighth in the lineup. That 1979 team included several familiar faces, as Grich was reunited with former Baltimore teammates Don Baylor, Larry Harlow, and Merv Rettenmund. Grich received his fourth career All-Star selection in 1979, and he was voted by both United Press International and the Associated Press as the top second baseman in the American League.

“I read The Power of Positive Thinking once and one thing I remember is that you have to have a mental picture of yourself being a success before you can get there,” said Grich. “I pictured myself having a year like ’79. To have the people in the American League recognize me as the best second baseman in the league. It was one of the goals I set for myself.”26 From May 31 through June 19, Grich hit safely in 20 consecutive games, the second longest hitting streak in California Angels history. On July 15, with the Angels trailing by a run, he hit a game-winning two-run home run to right field to give California an improbable 5-4 comeback victory over the New York Yankees.

Unlike the stability at shortstop that Grich enjoyed playing alongside Mark Belanger in Baltimore, the Angels did not have an established shortstop after Grich arrived. Among others, he played with Dickie Thon, Rance Mulliniks, Bert Campaneris, Jim Anderson, and Fred Patek. “If I just watch them a few times, I know how the shortstop is going to come to me,” said Grich. “It’s no big deal playing with a number of shortstops. Really, it’s not that difficult.”27

Grich remained a top performer for the Angels and was a key member of their division-winning teams in 1979, 1981, and 1986. In 1979, the Angels lost the ALCS to the Orioles in four games. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, Grich hit 22 home runs, tying for the American League home-run title with Tony Armas, Dwight Evans, and Eddie Murray. In so doing, Grich become the first American League second baseman to win or share the title since Napoleon Lajoie in 1901 and the first major-league second baseman in all of baseball to win or share his league’s home-run title since Rogers Hornsby in 1929. Still, Grich’s performance in the postseason was never up to the level he displayed in the regular season; he batted .154, .200, and .182, respectively, in the Angels’ three ALCS losses.

Grich’s contract with the Angels was due to expire after the 1981 season, and his future was a source of constant debate in the press. His hot bat also made him very marketable as a potential free agent. After the 1981 season resumed following the strike, Grich in one week got 12 hits in 24 at-bats, with five home runs and eight runs batted in. “If I’m not the player of the week,” he said, “I’d like to shake the hand of the man who is.”28 Ultimately, Grich signed a new four-year contract with the team. “I want very much to finish my career with the Angels, and hopefully, I will contribute to a pennant or two,” he said after signing the new contract.29

After the 1982 season, Grich was unable to play as consistently due to injury and was often replaced by Rob Wilfong. Grich also played more of a utility role, as he had done earlier in his career, appearing periodically at first base and third base. On November 26, 1985, he re-signed with the Angels after his contract expired for a second time.

In 1986, while Grich split time at second base with Wilfong, the Angels won the American League West title. The team was on the verge of advancing to the World Series, leading the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-seven ALCS three games to one. In the sixth inning of Game Five, Grich hit a home run to put the Angels ahead 3-2. The Angels lost that game, however, and ultimately lost the ALCS to the Red Sox in seven games. It was the fifth time that one of Grich’s teams had failed to advance to the World Series.

After that playoff loss in 1986, Grich announced his retirement in the Angels’ locker room. “That series was an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved,” he said. “I thought we had it. I had been thinking about retiring for a while, but when we lost, I’d had enough. It was time to try something else.”30 Grich’s retirement was accelerated by an injury he sustained early in the season: “[I] blew out my thumb the first game at home that season and was out six weeks. That’s when I figured that [1986] would be my last year.”31 Grich finished his 17-year major-league career with 1,833 hits, 320 doubles, 864 RBIs, and a .266 batting average.

Grich married his second wife, Zetta, in 1992. His stepson, Brandon Lodge, played for the UCLA baseball team. and he also raised a daughter, Brianna. In retirement, Grich helped to produce an instructional video working with several former major leaguers, including Gary Carter, J.T. Snow, Mike Schmidt, Rod Carew, and Rollie Fingers. As of 2010 he was working on an instructional device called Thro-Trac, which he described as “help[ing] young boys baseball players and young girls softball players throw properly over the top with their arms up.”32

Grich also worked for six years with Fidelity National Title Insurance Company, where he sold commercial real estate title insurance. An avid golfer with a 2.5 handicap, Grich said that he had played 89 of the top 100 golf courses in the United States (according to a 1989 list published in Golf Digest). He also was assistant general manager of the Mission Viejo Vigilantes of the Western Baseball League. Grich in 1988 became the first inductee into the California Angels Hall of Fame.

Grich has also worked in the marketing and sales department for the Anaheim Angels, where, he said, “I had sold five suites and numerous ads over the past eight years.”33 He also worked with the team’s speaker’s bureau, appeared at many of the team’s fantasy camps and devoted time to many charity events, including some for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

 

Notes

1 Larry Eldridge, “Grich—he can beat you in so many ways,” Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 1974, 13.

2 Bobby Grich, e-mail correspondence with author, August 20, 2009.

3 Arthur Daley, “Man With a Vowel Shortage,” New York Times, August 6, 1972.

4 Curt Gowdy, title, date, and publication illegible. Clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

5 Robert Matthews, “Grich Was Best in Minors; Will He Get Shot With O’s?”, December 4, 1971. Clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

6 “Bobby Grich,” Unidentified clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

7 Phil Jackman, “O’s Have Real Hardnose in Infielder Bobby Grich,” The Sporting News, February 5, 1972.

8 Matthews, “Grich Was Best in Minors.”

9 Matthews, “Grich Was Best in Minors.”

10 Matthews, “Grich Was Best in Minors.”

11 “Dynasty Started with Frank Robby,” Unidentified clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

12 Bob Matthews, “Old times high times for Grich,” Albany Times Union, July 1987.

13 Lou Hatter, “Grich Shrugs Off Tributes—Points to Flaws in His Play,” The Sporting News, October 14, 1972.

14 Mark Heisler, “Old Orioles: Four Angels with ‘scars’ from Baltimore,” Dallas Times Herald, October 2, 1979, 4-D.

15 Heisler, “Old Orioles.”

16 Lou Hatter, “Grich Ready for ‘Super Job’ as Second Baseman,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1973.

17 Larry Eldridge, “Grich—he can beat you in so many ways.” The Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 1974, 13.

18 Doug Brown, “Grich, With Itch To Travel, Turns on his Power Switch,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1974.

19 Grich, e-mail.

20 Jim Henneman, “O’s May Peddle Unsigned Grich,” The Sporting News, May 29, 1976.

21 Dick Miller, “Star-Kissed Angels Rejoice With Grich,” No publication or date given. Clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

22 Dick Miller, “’Never Be as Good as I Was’—Grich.” No publication given. March 31, 1979. Clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

23 Tracy Ringolsby, “Bobby Grich From Pits to Peaks,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1979, 21-22.

24 Ringolsby, “Bobby Grich.”

25 Ringolsby, “Bobby Grich.”

26 Bobby Grich—Best Year Ever,” California Angels Spring Training Scorebook, 1980.

27 Grich Is Going for Gold,” California Angels Yearbook, 1980.

28 “Angels: Grich Streaking.” No publication or date given. Clipping from Grich’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

29 “Bobby Grich Is Happy with Angels Contract,” New York Times, November 8, 1981.

30 Paul Gutierrez, “Bobby Grich, California Angels infielder, October 20, 1986,” Sports Illustrated, May 18, 1998, 10.

31 Grich, e-mail.

32 Grich, e-mail.

33 Grich, e-mail.

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