SABR

Jerry Grote

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

In the summer of 1985, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote realized he had a problem. Between games of a twin bill in Columbus, Georgia, the supply of healthy players with catching experience was nil. His two catchers were beset with injuries (Papo Rosado had a bad shoulder and Steve Eagar had aggravated a thumb injury while playing in the first game). The only other player with catching experience on Birmingham’s roster was nursing an ailing leg. Since it had rained the day before, making the field unplayable, Grote saw no need to risk further injury. Grote placed a call to general manager Al Clarkson to discuss the situation and ask that he be activated for the second game. The request was granted and the 42-year-old first-year manager, who hadn’t played in a game in four years, became the starting catcher for the nightcap.

“To me it was no big deal,” said Grote. “In the minor leagues, you never have enough help. You end up doing a lot of the work yourself.” Grote, who had become accustomed to warming up pitchers in the bullpen or catching batting practice, did not get a hit in the game. But he walked once and laid down a successful sacrifice bunt. After the game, he was promptly deactivated. Grote understood that his age was against him as far as playing at the major-league level was concerned, commenting that “everybody’s got their mind made up. You’re that old, you can’t do the job anymore.”

Gerald Wayne Grote was born on October 6, 1942 in San Antonio, Texas. Jerry was the oldest of three children, with sisters Iris and Debbie, born to Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Grote. Jerry attended MacArthur High school and was a three-sport, star excelling in cross-country, track and field, and, of course, baseball. Grote caught, pitched, and played third base during his high school days. Grote threw a one-hitter and a no-hitter while at MacArthur. (He lost the no-hitter because of two errors by the second baseman.)  

After graduating from high school in 1961, Grote was offered a contract to play for the expansion Houston Colt .45s. Grote turned down the offer and instead enrolled at nearby Trinity University. At Trinity, Grote both pitched and caught, leading the team in batting average (.413), home runs (5) and triples (5). He was tutored in the finer points of catching by Trinity coach Del Baker, who had caught for Detroit from 1914 to 1916. Baker was a manager and coach for more than 25 years in the major leagues, taking Detroit to the World Series in 1940. “One person I owe a lot to as far as baseball is concerned is Del Baker,” said Grote. “He helped me a lot, both in hitting and catching.”  

Houston scouts Red Murff and Andy Andrews again made an offer for Grote’s services in 1962, and this time he accepted their offer over five other teams bidding for the young catcher. “I feel that I have a better opportunity of getting up there (to the major-league level),” he explained of his decision to sign with expansion Houston.

Grote reported to the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League in 1963. Just before the season began,  the Missions, keeping to the beat of the parent club in Houston, changed their name to the Bullets. The Bullets won the Alamo City’s first Texas League pennant since 1908. Grote contributed with a .268 batting average, .300 in his last 200 at-bats for the season, while hitting 14 home runs. Grote was honored by the Houston Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America as the minor leaguer from Texas who is considered to be the best major-league prospect.

Grote was called up to the parent club at the end of the 1963 season. In his debut, on September 21, Grote replaced John Bateman as the catcher in the fifth inning, and got his first big league run batted in by way of a sacrifice fly off Dallas Green. On the 27th, Grote singled in the sixth inning against Met Al Jackson for his first major league hit.

In an effort to improve his hitting, Grote constructed a batting cage on his parents’ farm in San Antonio. The cage, made of chicken wire and reinforced by carpeting, took some beating as Grote pounded every pitch thrown by “Iron Mike,” the pitching machine he and his friend Larry Fulbright, who played college ball at Southwest Texas State, rigged up in the 60-foot batting cage.

Jerry split time behind the plate with John Bateman in 1964 and started 88 games for Houston. He hit only .181, but was superb behind the plate; throwing out the first seven of eight would-be basestealers. During the offseason, Houston changed its name from the Colt .45s to the Astros, and moved its home games into the nation’s first indoor baseball park, the Astrodome. As the season began, Ron Brand, a Rule V draftee, and Bateman handled the caching duties for the Astros and Grote was sent to Oklahoma City of the Pacific Coast League. Eventually Bateman was also sent down to the 89ers to hone his catching abilities. Grote moved to third base for the rest of the season as the 89ers won the PCL pennant.  

Although 1965 may have seemed like a setback in Grote’s professional career, his biggest break was yet to come. On October 19, he was shipped to the New York Mets for pitchers Tom Parsons and Gary Kroll. Red Murff, the scout who signed him for Houston, had moved on to the Mets and recommended picking up the catcher. For his part, Grote was eager to be back behind home plate for the Mets, commenting that the team drew big crowds “and the fans were behind you.”

Over the next three years, the fans really got behind the man in the mask. From 1966 to 1968, Grote threw out 44 percent of attempted basestealers, and averaged more than 620 putouts and 59 assists per year. Grote’s defensive mastery prompted St. Louis stolen base legend Lou Brock to remark, “For quickness in getting rid of the ball and accuracy, I have to pick Grote.” Brock said that when Grote was behind the plate, he tried to take bigger leads off first base and take advantage of the pitcher to give himself an edge on the bases.

All was not so rosy for Grote and the Mets during these years. Despite the promising pitching staff and some pieces of the puzzle falling into place, New York still found itself battling with Houston for last place in the National League. Grote, who was often characterized as cantankerous and ill-tempered to sports writers, snappish to teammates, and argumentative to umpires, demonstrated this attitude in a game at Los Angeles on July 27, 1967. The situation arose when Mets manager Wes Westrum had only 21 players available for the game. Grote entered the game as a pinch runner in the top of the seventh inning and went behind the plate in the bottom of the inning. Irritated with home-plate umpire Bill Jackowski’s calls, Grote shouted uncomplimentary remarks at Jackowski after returning to the dugout, and threw a towel onto the field from the dugout. Jackowski ejected Grote. Outfielder Tommy Reynolds was pressed into service behind the plate even though he had never caught before. Leading 5-3 when Grote was ejected, the Mets went on to lose to the Dodgers, 7-6 in 11 innings. Westrum fined Grote $100 for his umpire baiting and general manager Bing Devine chewed out Grote for his irresponsibility in getting tossed from the game with no suitable replacement at catcher. The fact that he was hitting .194 at the time—an average that increased only one point the rest of the year—made him sit there and take the deserved berating from a GM known for making trades.

In 1968, Grote rebounded with his finest offensive season to that point. He batted.282 in 124 games and was the National League’s starting catcher in the All Star Game. New manager Gil Hodges worked with Grote on his hitting. “Gil got me to shorten my stride and showed me how to be quicker with the bat. It has helped me to no end,” Grote said later.

As spring training broke in 1969, Grote predicted big things for the Mets. “We’re a young team. We’re just coming,” insisted Grote. “We all played together last year and we’re together again this year. When you play together a few years, you get to know each other and things improve. Yes sir, there’s a different feeling on the team this year. There’s more togetherness. There’s more pride. We’re a close-knit team.” His words proved to be prophetic.

One difference in 1969 for Major League Baseball was the realignment of the American and National Leagues. Each league gained two new expansion teams with San Diego and Montreal in the National League, and Kansas City and Seattle in the American League. Each league split into two divisions, East and West. At the conclusion of the season, a Championship Series between the division winners determined the pennant winners. The Mets were in the National League East Division along with the Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies, and Expos.

The Cubs led the NL East for most of the summer, enjoying a 10-game lead over the Mets as late as August 15, but New York kept chipping away and after a two-game sweep of Chicago at Shea Stadium on September 9, the gap was closed to a half-game. The Mets went 18-5 the rest of the campaign, while the Cubs went 8-12 to finish the year and the Mets won the division title by eight games, clinching on September 24 with a 6-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at home.

Pitching and defense steered the Mets to the title. Hodges platooned at first base, second base, third base, and right field, but Grote caught 112 games, even with capable backups J.C. Martin and rookie Duffy Dyer on the squad.

Grote’s batting average dipped 30 points, to .252 in 365 at-bats, but he had career bests with six home runs and 40 RBIs. His defense was sparkling: a superb .991 fielding percentage, 718 putouts, and 40 of 71 runners thrown out trying to steal. Grote was given as much credit for the pitching staff’s success as the pitchers themselves. “He’s the best catcher a pitcher could want to throw to,” said ace Tom Seaver (25-7, 2.21 ERA).

Grote caught every inning of the team’s fabled postseason run in 1969. He hit just .167 in the NLCS victory over Atlanta, but the rest of the club’s bats and a solid bullpen effort carried the club to a sweep of the Braves in three games. Awaiting them in the fall classic were the heavily favored Orioles. Baltimore, which swept Minnesota in the ALCS, was a formidable team with two 20-game winners, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, and 16-game winner Jim Palmer. The team hit for power and average and was superb defensively.

Game One featured a pitching matchup of the ages as Seaver opposed Cuellar. Each received the Cy Young Award for their work that season (Cuellar as co-winner with Denny McLain in the AL). Cuellar won, 4-1, and the oddsmakers appeared to be right. But then the Mets reeled off four wins in a row—allowing just five runs in those games—to claim the world championship, with Koosman winning twice. Grote hit .211 for the Series, with two doubles, a run scored, and one driven in. Two of Grote’s four hits helped set up winning rallies. His single in Game Two kept the ninth inning alive and Al Weis followed with the tiebreaking hit. With Game Four tied, Grote doubled to start the 10th inning when Orioles left fielder Don Buford had trouble with the ball in the sun. Pinch runner Rod Gaspar scored the winning run when an errant throw hit J.C. Martin on the wrist. A day later, Grote and Gaspar combined to douse New York Mayor John Lindsay with champagne in the jubilant Mets clubouse.

Grote led the league in putouts the next two years, with 855 and 892 respectively. On April 22, 1970, he set a major league record with 20 putouts in a game. Tom Seaver notched 19 strikeouts against San Diego that day, and set his own major-league mark with 10 consecutive strikeouts. Grote commented that he didn’t even bother to call pitches after the eighth inning that day, and just held out his glove to catch Seaver’s unhittable fastball.

Following the death of Gil Hodges just before the 1972 season, new manager Yogi Berra wasted little time in replacing Grote with Duffy Dyer. The young Dyer gave the team more of a threat with the long ball, but it was a mystery to many of the Mets faithful as to what had happened to Grote. Had the Mets given up on him? Was he on the trading block? The mystery was solved when Grote had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow in late September. Berra had been saying that he wanted to take a look at Dyer, keeping under wraps the secret of Grote’s injury.

In May 1973, Grote was hit on the right forearm with a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Ramon Hernandez, breaking a bone and sending Grote to the disabled list. He missed two months, but he returned in mid-July. His batting suffered after his return, dipping to .178 by August 2. Yet three weeks later he was up to .256 as the Mets made their move from last place to claim the lead in the National League East. The Mets were in fifth place on September 11 and 10 days later were in first place. They took the title in a makeup game the Monday after the season ended, with Grote’s two-run single opening up a 1-0 contest.

The Mets disposed of the Cincinnati Reds in five games to claim the pennant. The highlight was a fight in Game Three between the Reds’ Pete Rose and Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson at second base. The bench-clearing brawl took several minutes to clear, with neither combatant getting thrown our. Grote wound up hitting .211 the upset of Cincinnati.

The World Series pitted the Mets against the Oakland A’s, who like Baltimore in 1969, were heavy favorites. Grote hit .267 for the Series, but his passed ball in the 11th inning of Game Three put the winning run in position for the A’s. With Ted Kubiak at first base, a fastball from Mets pitcher Harry Parker glanced off of Grote’s mitt and sailed to the backstop. Bert Campaneris singled home Kubiak for the winning run. The A’s won the Series in seven games, the second of three straight world championships for Oakland.

As is custom for the home team, five dozen baseballs were provided to the umpiring crew so that they could be rubbed in mud to take the shine off the balls. According to an article in the New York Daily News in 1974, Mets officials had made complaints to the league office that an inordinate amount of baseballs given to the umpires before the game, were missing after each game. The Mets placed a team official in the stands to account for every ball, fair or foul or a ball that was tossed out of the game. The Mets officials suggested that the umpires were pocketing baseballs.

On May 20, 1974, in a home game against Chicago, home plate umpire Bruce Froemming sent some baseballs to the Met clubhouse with a note: “Here’s your five dozen baseballs. Count them.” In the eighth inning, a pitch from Parker got by Grote and hit Froemming. Froemming later charged that Grote had deliberately let the pitch get by him. “It was a bush league stunt, strictly out of Class D,” the umpire said. While Berra and Grote insisted that Grote was crossed up on the pitch, Froemming replied that Grote had not moved his glove and did not go out to the mound to talk to Parker, which often happens when a catcher is crossed up. “All I consider is where the accusations came from,” said Grote. “That article about the missing baseballs really must have hit home.”

Grote was named to the National League All-Star team in 1974, but he wound up splitting time with Dyer due to continued injuries, and appeared in only 97 games. Grote missed the final month after a foul ball off his hand left him unable to catch. The Mets stumbled to fifth place.

The Mets brought six catchers to camp in 1975. Dyer was traded to Pittsburgh and Jerry Moses was brought in for some veteran experience and added depth. John Stearns became Grote’s backup and the heir-apparent to the catcher’s position. Despite more back problems and a strained shoulder, Grote hit .295 and led the league with a .995 fielding average and six pickoffs, playing in 111 games behind the plate, his most since 1971. Manager Berra was fired that season and replaced on an interim basis by Roy McMillan as the Mets finished in third place, 10 games behind the Pirates.

Joe Frazier took the reins for the Mets in 1976, and again New York finished in third place. Playing in 95 games, Grote had a .993 fielding percentage while hitting .272. He started just four games in the final month of the season because of his now chronic back problems.

With Stearns nine years younger and a better hitter than the 34-year-old Grote, the veteran catcher considered his future with the club and in the game. At first he said he planned to retire but soon reconsidered.

In 1977 spring training, Grote, for the first time in his Mets tenure, was clearly not the first option behind the plate. “I am here to help [Stearns] and fill in for him on the days he needs a rest,” Grote said. Though the Mets had two capable catchers—along with third-stringer Ron Hodges--they were thin in other places as the club struggled in 1977. Grote played third base 11 times that season, making only two errors at the hot corner. A third baseman in high school, he had played the position in only seven games during his dozen years in the majors.

Joe Torre, who took over for Frazier at the end of May, switched recently-acquired Lenny Randle from second to third base and returned Grote behind the plate, though Stearns still caught the majority of the games. “Grote is a catcher who hits,” said Torre, “while Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons are hitters who catch.”

Grote did not catch much longer with the Mets. With Tom Seaver traded and the team sinking, the Mets dealt Grote to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers. Los Angeles had a firm grasp on first place in the National League West. Grote played in 18 games for the Dodgers and batted .259. He appeared in both the NLCS against the Phillies and the World Series against the Yankees, his third Series played in New York. The Dodgers lost the fall classic in six games.

Grote returned to Los Angeles in 1978, playing in a minimal role for the Dodgers after suffering a fractured left wrist. The Dodgers bested the Phillies in the League Championship Series once more, but in the World Series LA again lost to the Yankees in six games.

Yankees president Al Rosen made an offer to Grote for 1979, with an option for the following year. He would play in no more than 40 games a year as a backup to Thurman Munson. But Jerry refused, opting to stay home in San Antonio and spend more time with his family. He stayed retired until 1981, when a recommendation from Kansas City Royals pitching coach Billy Connors, a former Mets teammate, got him back in the game with Kansas City, the defending AL champions.

“I’d retired to be with my wife and kids. Last November, she filed for divorce, so I decided to get it back together again,” Grote said at spring training. With John Wathan and Jamie Quirk nursing injuries, manager Jim Frey looked for Grote to make contributions to the team beyond being a third-string backup. “I’m thinking of a guy who can pinch hit and fill in in other ways,” said Frey.

On July 3, 1981, Grote drove in seven runs in a game, a team record that has been tied but never surpassed through 2008. In a 12-9 win over Seattle, Grote went 3 for 4 with a home run, a double, a stolen base, and a run scored. The big blast was a grand slam in the fifth inning off Ken Clay. “The older the violin, the sweeter the music,” said Grote. “It just happened to be there tonight.”

The grand slam was his only home run of the year and he knocked in just two more runs in his other 21 games as a Royal. Though Grote was hitting .304—his highest mark of any season—he was released on September 1. He was picked up by the Dodgers, played in one game, and was released at the end of the season.

Through 2008, Grote ranked among the career leaders for catchers in games played (1,348), putouts (8,081), and fielding percentage (.991). Three decades after his final game as a Met, he had still caught more games than anyone else in club history (1,176), and his 1,235 games overall as a Met stood third all-time behind former teammates Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson. Grote finished just shy of 1,000 hits as a Met (994). Grote has been honored for not only his major league accomplishments, but also his amateur career. He has been inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame (1992), the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame (1991), and the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame (1998).

In retirement, Grote spent his time owning and operating many businesses near San Antonio, including a stint as sales manager at a real-estate company, and running a meat market and a cattle ranch. Grote and his wife, Cheryl, took up residence in San Antonio. Jerry had three children from his first marriage, daughters Sandra and Jennifer and son Jeffrey. He has been a favorite instructor in Mets fantasy camps, reporting few physical problems despite the countless squats he endured behind the plate.

Sources

The New York Times.

The Sporting News.

The San Antonio Light.

The San Antonio Express.

www.retrosheet.com

www.sabr.org

www.jerrygrote.com

http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/

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