The obstacles a rookie follows to become a major leaguer are daunting. Add to that the pressure of being described as a can’t-miss prospect or the next Joe DiMaggio and that process can be overwhelming. Johnny Groth faced such a situation with the Detroit Tigers in the spring of 1949. He would become and remain a starter for years, playing all or part of 15 seasons in the majors and retire with a respectable batting average of .279 and a fielding average of .987 which at the time, ranked among the best in the game. Yet, because of the tremendous expectations placed on Groth early on, his performance disappointed the baseball world. Bill James described the situation succinctly in his Baseball Abstract, naming Groth the 1950s “flameout.” i
John Thomas Groth, of German descent, was born on July 23, 1926, to William and Marie Groth who resided on Chicago’s North Side. His birth rounded out the family to five, joining older brother William, then seven and Sister Dorothy who was five. The senior Groth was an electrotype salesman; electrotypes involving a then-existing chemical replicating process. Despite living only five blocks away from Wrigley Field, the family had little interest in baseball or sports of any kind.
Groth recalled his father as a lukewarm Chicago White Sox fan and even that was to spite neighboring Chicago Cubs fans. He later noted, “The only time I saw ballgames was when I picked up papers at Wrigley Field before the gates opened. The kids who helped clean up the grandstand were allowed to stay for the game, but I don’t remember doing it often even though the park was practically around the corner.” ii Groth’s athletic potential did not manifest itself until he went with neighboring boys to try out for a boys’ football team. They would play during the halftime of Chicago Bears games to entertain fans. Tryouts called for boys 100 pounds or less. Despite having only played touch football, and competing against hundreds of others, Groth made the team. It did not take more than two practice sessions for him to emerge as quarterback. At the same time Frank Rokusek, former All-American and then football coach at Chicago Latin School, saw Groth’s play and immediately recognized tremendous athletic ability.
Rokusek offered Groth a scholarship to the renowned school, which, founded in 1888, had become one of the most prestigious private schools in the Midwest. The opportunity to obtain a top-flight education at a place that would boast such alumni as future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II, Senator Adlai Stevenson III, and first lady Nancy Reagan overwhelmed Groth and went counter to family plans that he attend a parochial high school. Nevertheless, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “My father finally accepted the scholarship because it opened up educational advantages and social contacts he never could have afforded to give me.”
Chicago Latin’s athletic endeavors had been indifferent until Groth came along. He quarterbacked the team to an Illinois prep-school state title. In the deciding game against an unbeaten opponent, Groth ran for two touchdowns, threw two touchdowns and made three points after touchdowns.
He also excelled at basketball making the all-city team, won the local private schools doubles tennis championship and came in second shot putting at an all-city meet. Latin’s baseball program was meager, although Groth threw several no-hitters and hit “something in the six hundreds.” He did not concentrate on the game as one who was serious about pursuing the sport might. Instead, he spent much of his time as a summer camp counselor for boys. Along the way, Groth gained a reputation as a clean player, not given to the big head gifted athletes often get.
Upon graduating from Latin, college beckoned. Schools from the Big Nine (forerunner to today’s Big Ten), as well as Notre Dame and the U.S. Naval Academy, courted Groth. Basketball and football — not baseball — were their collective interests in having him attend their school. Under normal circumstances, Groth would have gone, most probably, to Yale.
However, these were not normal times. The nation was at war. Groth, having turned 18 in 1944, became eligible for the draft. In February 1945, he joined the Navy, attending boot camp at the Great Lakes Training Center. At that time, the center regularly held athletic events to improve the morale of the recruits. iii Top-notch athletes or coaches managed the teams including Paul Brown, who ran the football program and — just off active duty in the Pacific — Bob Feller who ran the baseball operation. Groth responded to Feller’s call for tryouts. His athletic prowess immediately caught Feller’s practiced eye. Groth made the squad — the only player on the roster who did not have professional experience. On a team that included the likes of Walker Cooper, Pinky Higgins and Ken Keltner, Groth more than held his own as their center fielder. iv For the season, Groth hit .341, attracting scouts from a half-dozen major league teams. Groth attributed much of his success to Feller’s tutelage: “He was swell to me. He always was arranging to give me extra hitting practice and he spent hours teaching me the finer points of the game.” v
Feller extracted a promise from Groth that Cleveland would get first pass at him when discharged from the service, but Feller did not count on the determination of Pinky Higgins’ efforts on behalf of the Tigers. Detroit, determined to improve their team under owner Walter O. Briggs had a history during the 1940s of aggressively pursuing young prospects. In 1941, they had paid out $52,000 and given a custom-built car to outfield prospect Dick Wakefield, and in 1948 they paid a $75,000 bonus and provide two cars to catching hopeful Frank House. vi
Thus, when Groth was discharged from the Navy he did honor his commitment to Cleveland — they made an offer. However, the Tigers, based on Higgins’s strong recommendation to Wish Egan, Detroit’s chief scout, made an all-out push with Tigers owner Walter Briggs to sign Groth. Briggs, agreeing with Egan’s assessment, gave the go-ahead to make a deal.
As was later recounted, Egan met with Groth and his father. Knowing Cleveland had made an offer, Egan said, “I know you have an offer from Cleveland. I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to know. All I want you and your dad to do is figure how much money you want.” Groth and his father conferred and came back requesting a $30,000 bonus and a three-year contract for $5,000 a year. Like a flash, Egan agreed to the terms only asking one question, “You got any use for a Cadillac?” vii Signed too late for assignment to a minor-league team in 1946, Groth stayed with the Tigers the remainder of the season and appeared in four games going hitless in nine at-bats.
Assigned to Williamsport in the Eastern League in 1947, Groth quickly impressed all with his defensive and offensive ability. Although his game still needed to be refined, throwing errors, base running mistakes needing correction, Groth played well. He hit .319, among the top ten in the league, led in triples and exhibited a great deal of range in the outfield. The only thing that marred his season was a sprained ankle keeping him out of the lineup for several weeks.viii While Groth did join Detroit the final weeks of the 1947 season, the Tigers, resisting pressure to make him a regular the upcoming season, announced he would be assigned to Buffalo.ix As in 1946, Groth appeared in a few late-season games and on September 15, he got his first hit, singling to right against Washington and scoring on a subsequent Hoot Evers single.
As the 1948 season began, critics continually pressured the Tigers to keep Groth with the club. Despite being considered the best defensive Detroit outfielder, with obvious hitting potential, he went to Buffalo as originally planned. The Tigers astutely decided his play, while spectacular, needed polishing, particularly on the basepaths.x
Groth proceeded to tear up the International League. He led the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples and total bases, hit .340 (second in the league) and was selected rookie of the year. He once again came up to the Tigers after the International League season ended. With Detroit, he collected eight hits in seventeen at-bats including his first home run, a two-run shot against the St. Louis Browns on September 28. Plans called for Groth to start the season at center field for Detroit in 1949. Expectations were high.
Egan, high on Groth’s potential, was concerned that the buildup to his joining the team would prove detrimental to his play. Groth was routinely being linked to the immortals of the game on a regular basis: “His main handicap is all this wild publicity.” Seeking to downplay expectations, Egan went on to praise his ability but cautioned the 22-year-old was still developing and, despite success in the minors, had rough edges. xi Egan’s efforts to dampen enthusiasm for Groth went for naught.
Groth unintentionally undermined Egan’s argument by starting fast in 1949. On Opening Day, he hit two home runs against the White Sox; the next day he added another. By the end of April, he was hitting .449. If Groth had received a great deal of attention before, it paled in comparison to the coverage he now received. Beginning in March Groth was profiled in Colliers, Life, Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post and Time.xii Typical of the commentary in these articles was a description of his potential in Life: “a potential Joe DiMaggio and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” This was further qualified into “everyone is counting on him to become another Joe DiMaggio.”xiii The Sporting News contained an article on Groth titled “Groth, Detroit’s Biggest Rave Since Cobb.” xiv By now, Egan was caught up in the publicity. Egan described Groth as “the type a scout dreams about finding just once in a generation.” And this from a scout who had discovered the likes of Barney McCosky, Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout. By now, that Groth would be Rookie of the Year in the American League was a foregone conclusion.
For a while, Groth lived up to expectations. Through the end of May, he was over .300, but then a severe slump set in. Pitchers had found a weakness and were beginning to exploit it. Rolfe asked to comment on Groth’s slump noted, “It is more an imperfection in his swing than a basic weakness. … When we get back to our own park we can remedy it. … But mark my word, once he gets straightened out he’ll be a splendid ballplayer.”xv By mid-July, Groth had slumped to .254, thanks in part to a 0-for-19 streak. Tired, his confidence shaken, Groth was removed from the lineup by Tigers manager Red Rolfe for several days to collect himself.
Rolfe’s handling of Groth worked, his play improved, and by August 19 Groth’s average improved to near .300. On that day while beating out a bunt, he ran into Browns infielder Johnny Sullivan and fractured his wrist. Groth’s season was over. At the time of his injury, he was sixth in the league in runs batted in, his slugging average among the top ten and he had a .294 average.xvi When Groth went out his performance was equal to that of the eventual Rookie of the Year winner, the Browns’ Roy Sievers. The premature end to his season fatally hurt Groth’s chances to gain the award.
Groth had performed well, his late surge before being injured lent encouragement to his potential and there was a positive anticipation for the upcoming 1950 season. Before play resumed however, Groth took a major step of importance in his private life, marrying Elizabeth Ann Stoll on October 8, 1949. Stoll the daughter of a family prominent in Chicago financial circles met Groth while in high school; he at Latin, Elizabeth at Sacred Heart. They would make their home in Chicago.xvii
Detroit’s performance in 1949 augured well for the upcoming season. They had improved from fifth to fourth and finished strong, playing nearly as well as first place New York the last month of the season. During the winter, they made a major trade to shore up their infield by obtaining second baseman Jerry Priddy from the Browns.
They made a solid run for the pennant in 1950. In first place most of the season, as late as September 15; they finished just three games behind the Yankees. George Kell, Hoot Evers, Johnny Lipon, Jerry Priddy and Vic Wertz had career or near-career seasons. Art Houtteman, Fred Hutchinson and Hal Newhouser anchored the pitching staff with Houtteman enjoying the best year of his career. An early injury to pitcher Virgil Trucks, sidelining him most of the season, most probably made the difference in the pennant race.
Groth had the best season of his career. He started fast, at one point in April making eight straight hits. Playing every one of Detroit’s 157 games (including three ties), Groth hit .306, scored 95 runs, drove in 85, striking out only 27 times. His play in the field was solid. As described in The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers From 1870 to Today, “He (Groth) wasn’t quite Joe DiMaggio, but projected from that point in his career, he looked very much like a Hall of Fame centerfielder.”xviii
Few might have guessed it, but Groth’s career had peaked. Never would he perform near as well as he did in 1950. While numbers reflect him hitting near .300 the next few seasons, closer study reflects a shift from a power to a singles hitter. This shift seems to have started late in the 1950 season. On August 28, he homered against the Philadelphia A’s. His slugging average at that point was a solid .488. Groth would not hit a home run until July 21 the following season. His slugging average in future seasons never surpassed .400, usually the mark of one not content to hit for singles.
Rolfe, part of the explosive Yankees lineup of the 1930s had continually pushed for more power in the lineup even as the 1950 season had begun. “We need the long ball,” he had preached and his push for home runs continued during the season. Groth’s lack of power exasperated Rolfe, who at one point expressed concern that Groth was not pulling the ball enough. xix It was a concern that would grow over time.
The year 1951 opened with the Tigers expecting to contend for the pennant again. It was not to be. Houtteman was drafted into the Army, and other key members the pitching staff, including Hutchinson and Newhouser, experienced off-years. The offense went into decline as every player’s performance declined — especially Evers, whose average dropped 99 points. The Tigers fell below .500, into fifth place. Groth’s average fell off just seven points to .299, but it was deceptive, as his drop in power was substantial. He ended the year with a paltry three round-trippers. Even before the season began, however, Groth had lost Rolfe’s confidence. In an article by beat writer Dan Daniel concerning the Tigers, Daniel observed that Rolfe had soured on Groth as a hitter, presumable for his lack of ability to hit for extra bases. xx Rolfe began to platoon Groth as well as Wertz in an effort to bolster the team’s offense. It was an unsuccessful experiment.
As the 1952 season began, Groth was no longer being written up as a coming superstar, but rather as one “who has not quite lived up to club expectations.” xxi Midway through the season Detroit fired Rolfe as their play continued to be sluggish. George Kell, Johnny Lipon and Vic Wertz were traded off. The Tigers finished last, 45 games behind the Yankees, the first time a Detroit team had finished in the cellar. While Groth led the Tigers starters in hitting with a .284 average, it was devoid of power.
The only highlights of the season for Detroit were Virgil Trucks’ two no-hitters, these despite his enduring a 5-19 season. Groth was instrumental in helping Trucks to achieve the first, a 1-0 win over the Washington Senators on May 15. Forty years later Trucks recalled the game, “There were several good catches in that ballgame. Irv Noren hit a slicing ball into left center field and Johnny Groth made a backhanded catch of it. And some other pinch-hitter hit an additional ball and Groth made a good catch of it.” xxii
Good fielding notwithstanding, Detroit’s patience with Groth was gone. His lack of ability to pull the ball with power, a sore point with Rolfe, also disappointed Fred Hutchinson, Rolfe’s successor as manager.
On December 4, 1952, Detroit traded Groth to the Browns in a seven-player swap. Essentially the trade revolved around Groth for Bob Nieman, a slow-footed outfielder who hit occasional home runs; epitomizing the classic 1950s version of baseball where power trumped speed and defense.xxiii Groth was going from a last-place team to a seventh-place team experiencing severe economic problems. Bill Veeck, owner of the Browns, had been looking to obtain Groth for several seasons, as he felt the fleet-footed Groth would shore up defense in the outfield and hoped that he would regain his batting eye.
When Groth left the Tigers, he had compiled a respectable .296 average. His defensive ability was unquestioned. His potential to regain stature as a star player in the big leagues was still possible. But it never happened.
During his stay with the Tigers, there were comments in the press that Groth’s occasional slumps were due to lack of confidence – Rolfe observed this when Groth was a rookie. George Kell, Groth’s teammate while with Detroit, alluded to this when interviewed in We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era 1947-1964. Of Groth, Kell observed, “He showed in those first two years that he had the talent to become a star. However, he did not seem to want that. He underestimated himself and after hitting .290 and .300 underachieved the rest of his time with the Tigers and for the rest of his career. I think he was afraid to be in the spotlight.”xxiv Kell’s observation is intriguing. When all the magazine articles on Groth’s potential and emergence as a major leaguer came out in the spring of 1949, virtually every one noted his good manners, decency and modesty – as well as an innate shyness. Did this shyness include not wanting to be the focus of attention?
Perhaps it was a lack of desire to be in the limelight as Kell suggested, perhaps it was the unique challenges presented when playing for an inferior team, regardless, Groth’s sole season with the Browns proved to be his worst. He hit a career-low .253 for the cellar-bound Browns in their last season at St. Louis.
Virtually everyone on the team had subpar years, including Wertz, with whom Groth was reunited. Once it became clear that Veeck was trying to move the team out of St. Louis the players became the target of fans’ wrath; performance on the field clearly suffered from their displeasure.xxv As if the season was not dismal enough, Groth was beaned in August by White Sox pitcher Billy Pierce. The blow caused dizziness and a concussion, keeping him out of the lineup for several days. Various accounts then and later suggest the lingering effect of this beaning adversely affected Groth’s hitting ability.
Years later, Virgil Trucks, in recalling this incident, felt it was “the end of Johnny Groth’s career. He could never stand in the batter’s box any more after that.”xxvi Trucks’ observation seems to have some merit. The Sporting News over the next few years alluded to Groth’s beaning and a falloff in his hitting; it was mentioned as a factor in his subsequent trade to the White Sox.xxvii Whatever the effect, Groth did get back into the lineup and was on hand for the final game of the St. Louis Browns franchise, becoming the answer to a baseball trivia question: Who scored the last run in St. Louis Browns history? The answer was Johnny Groth, scoring the sole run in a 2-1 loss against Chicago on September 27, 1953, on the last day of the season.
In May 1955, Sport published an article rating American League players and described Groth as one who “lacks necessary hitting ability to be a standout centerfielder.”xxviii The time for realizing his potential had passed. Several years later, a similar rating took place; by then Groth was regarded as a part-time outfielder.
At the time of the Sport article, he was in the midst of what would be five trades in five years. During that time, his role was diminishing from a starter to part-time player. He played for St. Louis in 1953, the White Sox in 1954, and then to Washington in 1955, the Kansas City A’s the same year and back to Detroit in 1957. While welcomed back to Detroit where he was always popular, he now played behind the likes of Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn and Charlie Maxwell. Groth served as a late-inning defensive replacement, filling in when someone was injured or as a pinch hitter. In this role, he did well for several seasons. He achieved a personal milestone on June 6, 1958, when he singled against the Senators for his 1,000th career hit.
His defensive skills had not eroded; The Sporting News described a game between Detroit and Boston in August 1959 when, with the game on the line, Groth made a leaping catch with the bases loaded to save a Tigers victory.xxix Groth stayed with Detroit through the summer of 1960. His last game came on July 28 that year, entering the game as a pinch-hitter. With his consent a few days later, Groth was optioned to the Denver Bears in the American Association where he played out the season. Groth finished his 15-year career in the majors with a .279 average and a .987 lifetime fielding average. At that time it was among the best all-time in baseball history.
Groth’s assignment to Denver had been accompanied by a promise that he would be considered for a managerial slot in the Detroit organization. Detroit honored the promise and in 1961, he was named manager of the Tigers’ Decatur Commodores of the Class D Midwest League, where he managed future major leaguers Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley. In 1962, he guided the Montgomery Rebels in the Alabama-Florida League, also in Class D, managing, among others, Pat Dobson and Rich Reese.
Neither team did especially well. The feeling within the Tiger organization was that Groth “couldn’t get tough enough” with his players. He was considered too nice a person — a reputation consistent with how all felt about him beginning when a young boy gained a reputation for athletic prowess in Chicago some twenty years before.
Groth’s baseball experience was too good to lie fallow. Almost immediately, after the Tigers let him go, he hooked on with the Atlanta Braves organization as a scout, a position he held for 27 years before retiring in 1990. He now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife Betty. They had seven daughters before his first son John Jr. was born. Three more children followed; as of 2004, they had given John and Betty 28 grandchildren.
These details were included in an article done on Groth and his family by Michele Dargan of the Palm Beach Daily News that same year. (Groth and his kin declined to be interviewed for the purposes of this essay.) Dargan’s interview portrayed a man who, despite being away from his family during much of his baseball career was a devoted father.xxx Whether making breakfast, singing the children to sleep or organizing an impromptu family band, Groth was active in the lives of his children as they grew up. He and Elizabeth had been married for 63 years as of 2012.
Groth’s professional baseball career, from one perspective, is shrouded in disappointment. Subject to a massive publicity buildup, he would have had to perform at a superhuman level to meet expectations. Take away the hype and what remains is the record of a major leaguer who performed well as a defensive player with a solid .279 lifetime average. Of greater importance be it surmised through descriptions in newspapers, magazine articles or perceived in speaking with his daughter one has the sense that he was, and is a decent person who never let his head be turned by overwhelming praise or disappointment; a rare commodity in the world of professional sports.
i James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: The Classic – Completely Revised. New York: The Free Press, 2001. 228.
ii Frank, Stanley. “Nice Kid in the Big Leagues.” Collier’s, June 18, 1949, 18. Much of the detail concerning Groth’s early life and career comes from this article.
iv “Scouts Scan Youth, but He Eyes College.” The Sporting News, August 16, 1945. 13.
vi “Tigers Again Tops in Bonuses: Pay $75,000 to Young Catcher.” The Sporting News, August 11, 1948. 11.
viii “Eastern League.” The Sporting News, August 6, 1947. 31.
ix “Eastern League.” The Sporting News, August 27, 1947. 31.
x “Groth, Detroit Gem, Wields Potent Bat in Bison Debut.” The Sporting News, May 5, 1948. 19.
xi “Looping the Loops.” The Sporting News, November 17, 1948. 2.
xii See “Rookie.” Time, March 28, 1949, 40; “Baseball: $45,000 Bargain,” Newsweek, May 2, 1949, 74; “Scout’s Dream,” Life, May 30, 1949, 41, “Rookie of the Year,” Saturday Evening Post, June 11, 1949, 27; and Collier’s.
xiii “Meany Profiles Groth.” The Sporting News, June 15, 1949. 34.
xiv “Groth Detroit’s Biggest Rave Since Cobb.” The Sporting News, May 4, 1949. 3.
xv Williams, Joe. “Rolfe Admits Rookie Groth Has Weakness.” Undated, unsourced clipping from Groth’s from Hall of Fame file.
xvi Groth is “officially” recorded as hitting .293 in 1949. Per email correspondence on October 20, 2012, with Dave Smith of Retrosheet, there is an error in the official statistics for a game on June 19, 1949, which credits Groth with one more at-bat than is correct.
xvii Dargan, Michele. “Dad ‘Can Do It All’; ‘Life Is an Education’ for Island Father of 11.” Palm Beach Daily News, 20 June 2004. 1A.
xviii James, Bill. The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today. New York: Scribner, 1997. 193.
xix “Tigers’ Junior Set Taking Up Slack Left by Newhouser.” The Sporting News, May 3, 1950. 17.
xx Daniel, Dan. “Rolfe Getting Tough Breaks.” Undated, unsourced clipping from Groth’s Hall of Fame file.
xxi “Bengal Brass Joins Team in Backing Rolfe as Pilot.” The Sporting News, May 21, 1952. 14.
xxii Moffi, Larry. This Side of Cooperstown: An Oral History of Major League Baseball in the 1950s. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. 23.
xxiii “Detroit Fans Bewildered as Veeck Completes Haul of Tiger Outfield,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1952. 11.
xxiv Peary, Daniel, ed. We Played the Game:65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era: 1947-1964. New York: Hyperion, 1994. 132.
xxv “Brownies Find There’s No Place Like Home for Losses and Boos.” The Sporting News, August 5, 1953. 10.
xxvi Moffi, 29.
xxvii See for example, “Ehlers Takes Flier on Fleet Diering in Center for Orioles,” The Sporting News, February 17, 1954, 16; “Groth Gives Ringling Reply to the Big Time Bell-Tollers.” The Sporting News, June 8, 1955, 4.
xxviii “Secret Ratings of American League Players.” Sport, May 1955. 83.
xxix “American League.” The Sporting News, August 19, 1959. 24.
xxx Dargan, Michele. “Dad ‘Can Do it All; ‘Life is an Education’ for Island Father of 11.” Palm Beach Daily News, June 20, 2004. A1.