Don Gross had a 13-year career in professional baseball as a left-handed pitcher, including a brief spell with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the beginning of the 1960 season. He pitched in 1950-1952 and 1954-1963, with time out in most of 1952 and all of 1953 while in military service). For much of his time he was hampered by arm trouble that might have been alleviated by modern-day advances in sports medicine.
Donald John Gross was born on June 30, 1931, in Weidman, Michigan, a tiny community in the central part of the state. According to the 1940 US Census, his father, Charles Gross, was an Illinois native who worked as a painter, busy with interior painting for houses and painting oil tanks for Pure Oil Co. His mother was Agnes Gross, a native of Michigan. Charles and Agnes had six children as of that census year: Virginia 12, Patricia and Donald, both 8, Marilyn 6, Joan 4, and Robert 3.
Gross wasn’t always a left-hander. “I was right-handed as a young boy,” he said in 1956. “At the age of 7, I caught my arm in a washing machine and broke my arm. I switched to the left and have been throwing and batting that way ever since.”1
Gross said in a 2012 interview that his interest in baseball was simple: “I played it in high school and I just wanted to pursue it.”2
The 5-foot-11, 186-pound Gross was scouted by Frank Nelspaugh, a bird dog from St. Louis, Michigan.3 He signed with the Cincinnati Reds after his freshman year at Michigan State and was assigned to the Reds’ Muncie farm team in the Class D Ohio-Indiana league. There the teenager posted the most wins in his professional career, going 15-7, pitching 187 innings, and winding up with a 3.13 earned-run average. He capped off his strong year on the mound by hitting .330 in 88 at-bats, a feat he was never able to duplicate.
In 1951 Gross was on the move, playing first for the Welch Miners in the Class D Appalachian League, where he pitched 21 innings and posted a 2-1 won-lost record. The Reds promoted him to Charleston in the Class A Central League, where he fell to 1-3 with a 5.68 ERA. Probably sensing that they had moved Gross up too quickly, the Reds sent him to Ogden in the Class C Pioneer League, where he finished the year with his best career ERA, 1.11, on the way to a 10-4 record in 15 games.
Instead of having a chance to build on the strong finish to his 1951 season, Gross was drafted – “I was a damn foot soldier in the infantry” – and spent the 1952 and 1953 seasons in the Army. Though the war in Korea was on in earnest, Gross spent his time at Fort Riley, Kansas. “I was fortunate enough to play ball in the Army,” he said. “Some damn officer was a jock and kept us there. I tended bar in the Officers Club and they had to make me a sergeant to have that job. I should have been a damn private, but it goes with the territory.”
Back from the service, Gross spent the 1954 season with Columbia in the Class A South Atlantic League, compiling a 12-9 record with a 3.14 ERA in 189 innings. Season highlights included a 5-0 shutout of the Macon Peaches on June 19 and an appearance on the winning Sally League All-Star team against Jacksonville. At the end of the season he moved up to the Tulsa Oilers, but pitched only eight innings. After the season Gross pitched winter ball for Vanytor in the Colombian League. In one outing, pitching a one-hitter through seven innings, he was hit by a baseball and taken to the hospital. He must not have been injured seriously, since no further mention of the injury was noted in The Sporting News.
Gross started the 1955 season with the Reds, although he didn’t count against the reserve list due to his military service.4 Eventually he was sent down to Nashville of the Double-A Southern Association, where he won eight games and lost two with a 3.69 ERA. He was named to the Southern Association All-Star team. In July the Reds called him up and he made his major-league debut on the 21st at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. He started the game and went five innings, giving up two runs, but was not charged with the Reds’ loss. In all, Gross made 11 starts (two complete games) and six relief appearances. His first complete game, on August 17 at home, was a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs, in which he gave up two home runs to Hank Sauer, accounting for all three runs. His second complete game was a four-hit (all singles), 4-0 shutout over St. Louis on August 21. Gross finished 4-5 with an ERA of 4.14.
As hopes soared for Gross in the offseason, catcher Smokey Burgess said that Gross “has a good curve, a good fastball and a whale of a changeup, and it’s the last named pitch which makes me think he’s going to be a winner. He can get right-handers out with that changeup on the count of 3-2 and that’s one reason I like his chances of becoming a top-flight hurler.”5 But in a precursor of things to come, Gross was sent home from Licey of the Dominican League with arm trouble.
After one appearance for the Reds in April, Gross was sent on May 1 to the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League. In 54 innings with Havana, he had a 3-2 won-lost record with a stellar 1.67 ERA. Again the Reds noticed, recalling him at the end of June. In his first appearance, on July 1, he held the Cardinals to seven hits in a 7-1 victory. (Stan Musial’s home run was the only blemish.) Overall, he pitched in 20 games (seven starts) and went 3-0 with a spectacular 1.95 ERA.
Gross again played winter ball following the 1956 season, this time joining the Estrellas Orientales of the Dominican League. Echoing a different era in baseball, Gross began to seek different offseason work. A co-worker in an automobile assembly plant in Cincinnati – one with 20 years on the job – had cut off a finger while working. “I need all my fingers for pitching,” Gross said.6
The 1957 season started off with a lot of promise. Gross was included in The Sporting News’ list of the “best young pitchers” in the National League. In his first 56 innings pitched, he limited his foes to 11 earned runs and 37 hits, finishing four complete games in five starts for a 4-1 record. His performance fell off, however, and he finished the season with a 7-9 record and a 4.31 ERA. Still, that season gave Gross what was most probably the most memorable moment of his career. On May 28 at Milwaukee County Stadium, he held the powerful Braves lineup hitless through 7? innings, until Joe Torre singled and Bobby Thomson tripled, making the score 1-0. When the Reds failed to score in the top of the ninth, Gross was a 1-0 loser to Warren Spahn.
In his three starts after the Spahn game, Gross was belted freely by the Cubs, Phillies, and Pirates, yielding nine runs and 17 hits in less than eight innings. He didn’t win again until September 2, against the Cardinals in ten innings. It was his first win since May 23. He had lost nine games in a row.
During the winter, Gross again pitched for Licey of the Dominican League. He also became engaged and planned a February 1958 wedding.
On December 9, 1957, Gross was traded to the Pirates for Bob Purkey. The trade turned out to be a great one for the Reds, as Purkey blossomed into a three-time National League All-Star, winning 103 games for Cincinnati in seven seasons, including a 23-5 record with a 2.81 ERA in 1962. By 1962, Gross had been plagued with arm problems and had only one more year left in his then minor-league, injury-riddled arm. Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown later called the Gross/Purkey trade the worst of his career.7
Gross was considered a disappointment, having gone from 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 1956 to a 7-9 record with a 4.32 ERA in ’57. He won his first game as a Pirate when he downed the Reds on April 26 in relief. In fact, he pitched ten innings in relief without allowing a run while giving up only four hits. On May 5 he shut the door on a nine-run Giants rally that preserved an 11-10 Pirates victory. On May 13 Gross turned in his seventh consecutive impressive relief job to save a victory over the Reds for Ron Kline. After pitching in relief in 11 games with a 0.78 ERA, Gross failed in his first start, being KO’d by the Cubs in the eighth inning on June 7. (The Bucs won the game in the tenth.) In his first season in Pittsburgh, Gross was 5-7 in 75 innings, but with a serviceable 3.98 ERA. After the season he was awarded a full share of the Pirates’ second-place money, $1,507.04.
The 1959 season marked the beginning of the end for Gross. He had arm troubles in spring training, and then a sore shoulder. He was examined by Dr. George Bennett in Baltimore who advised rest. Plagued by arm trouble, Gross pitched only six innings for the Pirates and was sent to the Triple-A Columbus Jets on May 29. The Pirates brought him back in July. In the midst of the disappointing season, on August 26, 1959, Gross became a father for the first time when his wife gave birth to a son, Donald Martin Gross.
Trying to pitch through his arm troubles proved difficult, and Gross had perhaps the worst inning of his career on August 27 in a game against the International League All Stars; he gave up seven hits and nine runs (eight earned) while walking two and striking out no one. He then blew a save on September 26, giving up two runs in the ninth and costing debuting starter Jim Umbricht his first major-league win. This was Gross’s last save opportunity. In his career he had 10 saves and three blown saves. Gross was able to pitch only 33 innings for the Pirates that season. His record was 1-1 with a 3.55 ERA.
Arm problems continued into 1960. Though The Sporting News said Gross “appeared to be free of injuries and may be the southpaw needed to work in relief,” it did not come to fruition.8 Gross was forced to miss the first two weeks of spring training and didn’t do much pitching, but somehow made the Pirates’ Opening Day roster. He nursed slight injuries to his right ankle and little finger on his left hand, hurt while bunting against automatic pitching machines. It was to be his final stint in the big leagues and lasted only 37 games into the season. Having pitched only 5? innings in five games, Gross was released outright to Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League on May 28, the same day that the Pirates traded for Vinegar Bend Mizell. Pitching 117 innings for the Bees, Gross won five games and lost six, but had a respectable 3.46 ERA. He received a cash grant of $250 from the Pirates’ World Series money.
In 1961 Gross was listed as starting the season with the Columbus Jets, but he was placed on the disabled list on April 18 and allowed to remain with the boy. On May 23 he was sent to the Macon Peaches of the Double-A Southern Association. His career wound down with an 11-4 record in 119 innings and a 3.02 ERA.
In 1962 Gross signed with the Syracuse Chiefs but threw only four innings; he was released on May 16. He began to pitch for a northern Kentucky softball team, but even then had to leave a game with arm trouble. His professional baseball career ended in 1963 – again with the Columbus Jets – where he was 1-1 in 17 innings with a 3.71 ERA. He had played 13 years with 12 minor-league and two major-league teams.
As a minor leaguer Gross was 68-39 with a 3.07 ERA. In the major leagues he won 20 and lost 22, with a 3.73 ERA. In 145 major-league games, he started 37, with one shutout and ten saves. He must have had good baseball genes; a nephew, Todd Benzinger had a nine-year big-league career. Gross didn’t really have a direct influence on Benzinger. “He’s my wife’s sister’s boy. When he was in high school, I had a sporting-goods business in Cincinnati and I used to go over and see the baseball coach.”
After baseball Gross became a partner in a sporting goods business in Cincinnati, selling to schools and colleges in the area. His oldest son, David, signed a letter of intent to play baseball for the University of Missouri, and when he went off to college, Don moved back home to Michigan. Dave Gross, a right-handed pitcher, played four years at college, then signed with the Minnesota Twins and played one year, 1982, in the minor leagues. “My other son played four years at Michigan State,” Don said. “A couple of grandkids might be going on when they get out of high school, too.”9
Ultimately, Don Gross had a chance to be a very successful major-league hurler, but was limited by injury. One wonders if later advances in medicine could have fixed what ailed him.
Don Gross died at home in Weidman, Michigan on August 10, 2017, with family at this side. He was 86 and had been preceded in death by his wife June, three brothers, and three sisters. He was survived by his three children – David, Deron, and Judi.
Thanks to Nate Schneider of Michigan Newspapers. Thanks also to Don Gross for his February 2013 comments on this article.
1Washington Post, March 18, 1956.
2 Interview with Don Gross by Bill Nowlin on December 18, 2012.
3 Gross 2012 interview.
4 New York Times, October 14, 1954.
5 The Sporting News, January 25, 1956.
6 The Sporting News, December 26, 1956.
7 See, for instance, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of May 8, 2003, where Purkey said, “Joe Brown always said trading me [for Don Gross] was the worst deal he ever made.”
8 The Sporting News, March 9, 1960.
9 The December 2012 interview with Don Gross is the source of the quotations in the last few paragraphs.