This article was written by Charles F. Faber
Although he helped the Cincinnati Reds win a National League pennant, Lee Grissom is remembered (if at all) for things unrelated to his exploits on the mound. Baseball fans remember him vaguely as the brother of Marv Grissom. Newspaper readers of a certain age may remember a photograph of two ballplayers in a rowboat. Comic book aficionados surely remember the first appearance of Superman, but do they remember that Lee Grissom was depicted in the same issue? Others may remember him for fights on and off the field, one of which resulted in a fatality.
Lee Theo Grissom was born on October 23, 1907 in Sherman, Grayson County, Texas, about 80 miles north of Dallas and not far from the Red River that separates Texas from Oklahoma. He was the fourth of the ten children of Margaret Evaline “Maggie” Curtis and Ulysses Bennett “Ula” Grissom. While Lee was an infant the family moved to northern California. During most of Lee’s childhood, Ula was a grain and fruit farmer in the Red Bluff area of Tehama County, near the site of the Lassen Peak National Monument.
Unlike most major leaguers, Lee never played baseball in high school. He couldn’t, because he quit school after the eighth grade and went to work on his father’s farm. Around 1930 a Farm Bureau Baseball League was proposed if enough farm boys could be recruited to play. An organizer approached Ula. Pointing to Lee, he said, “That boy you’ve got over there is big enough to play.” Ula explained that Lee had never had a baseball in his hands, but the recruiter was persistent, and Lee agreed to try out for the Los Robles club. He made the team.1
According to one source, in 1933 Lee was pitching in the Farm Bureau League, where he was “discovered” by a former minor-league player and manager named Gene Valla, who signed him to a professional contract with the Mission Reds, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the Class AA Pacific Coast League.2
He never appeared in a game for the Missions. In fact, Valla did not sign him to a professional contract: He gave Lee a job in his tire shop, instructed him in some of the finer points of the game, and gave him a chance to play semipro ball in San Francisco.3
Grissom was recommended to the Cincinnati Reds by that multi-talented college professor and scout, Charles E. Chapman and signed to a contract by general manager Larry MacPhail. He went to spring training with the Cincinnati club in 1934 and made an impressive showing. As he had no minor-league experience, he was sent to Beckley, West Virginia, the Reds’ farm club in the Class C Middle Atlantic League for seasoning. After splitting 20 decisions with the Black Knights, he was called up to The Show.
Lee Grissom made his major-league debut on September 2, 1934, at the age of 26. The six-foot-three, 200-pound lefty entered the second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field in the seventh inning and finished the game allowing two hits, two bases on balls, and one earned run, while striking out three Pittsburgh Pirates. Grissom made his first major-league start at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on September 11 and couldn’t get anyone out. He gave up two hits, walked one, and allowed three runs. He was tagged with the loss in his only major-league decision of the year.
In 1935 Grissom was back in the minors, pitching for the Fort Worth Cats in the Class A Texas League. He had a live fastball, but only a mediocre curve. Under the tutelage of manager John Heving, he developed an excellent breaking ball. In his first home game at Fort Worth he racked up 16 strikeouts. He split 26 decisions for the Cats, before being called up to Cincinnati, where he started three September games, with one win, one loss, and one no-decision.
The Reds had great plans for Grissom in 1936. They viewed him as a truly bright prospect and even hoped to turn Lefty Grissom into another Lefty Grove. Before departing for spring training in Puerto Rico, manager Chuck Dressen and pitching coach Tom Sheehan spent many hours together planning how they would work on Grissom to hasten the development of his technique on the mound so he could take full advantage of his natural ability. They agreed that Grissom needed a lot of work both on the mechanics of pitching and on the mental side of the art. They wanted him to receive all the coaching possible.4
So his manager and coach were greatly disappointed when Grissom held out in a salary dispute with the club, and didn’t make the trip to Puerto Rico. He didn’t make the second phase of spring training in Tampa either. However, he came to terms and was on board when the season started. Misfortune befell the lefty that season. He won only one game for the Reds in 1936. In May he was hospitalized with a case of the flu. He was not healthy all season. In July he was optioned to Nashville, where he was used very sparingly by the Volunteers of the Southern Association. He won four of five decisions in Music City, and went home to California.
In January 1937 the Reds called him back to Cincinnati to undergo some medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. That is why he was in the Queen City when the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 inundated the city.
It was the greatest flood ever to hit Cincinnati. Crosley Field was not immune to the flood waters. Water rose up over the tops of the high outfield fences, covered almost every seat in the lower grandstand, flowed into the club offices and press box, and buried the playing field under 21 feet of dirty water.
Someone procured a rowboat and induced Reds pitchers Gene Schott and Lee Grissom and groundskeeper Matty Schwab to row the boat over the outfield fences and onto the lake covering the playing surface. Of course, the Reds arranged to have photographers present for the event. In the photographs that were published Grissom is sitting in the middle of the boat, manning the oars, while Schott and Schwab are seated at the ends of the craft. Some critics charged Grissom with pulling the stunt to draw attention to himself, but he was blameless. The instigators of the event were members of the Reds front office, who saw it as an opportunity for a publicity bonanza.
By this time Grissom was fully recovered from the illness that had plagued him during the previous season. When the Reds opened their spring training camp in Tampa, he was ready to go. He had earned a reputation in the minor leagues for being too ready to fight, and he lived up to that repute in the majors. Within the first four days of 1936 spring training Grissom had decked two overmatched foes. The first was Pete, the clubhouse boy, who somehow drew Lefty’s ire. The second was a taxi driver who Grissom thought had tried to overcharge him. Dressen warned the pugnacious pitcher that any more fisticuffs would result in a hefty fine.5 The remainder of spring training was free of fighting.
Grissom posed for a stunt photograph in Tampa, dressed in a cook’s outfit. Members of the Cooks and Waiters’ Union in Cincinnati were so pleased with the publicity that they voted him an honorary membership in the union and promised to hold a big Grissom Day event in Cincinnati in the coming summer.6
The Sporting News described Grissom as tall, powerful, cocky, and armed with a crackling fastball. Dressen worked with him all during spring training 1937, helping him overcome his one evident weakness – lack of control. The paper reported that the lefty had made rapid strides toward gaining control and was the sensation of the Cincinnati training camp.7
The description of Grissom as cocky was inspired by his bragging to sportswriters at Tampa. According to The Sporting News, his talk reminded the scribes of Dizzy Dean. “If Lefty can live up to what he says, as Ol’ Diz does, the writers will forgive him, but they are inclined to believe that he is quite a distance from the Dean class,”8
Opening Day of the 1937 season arrived in Cincinnati on April 20. The Reds lost to Dizzy Dean and the St. Louis Cardinals, 2-0, one of the 98 losses they would suffer that season. Lefty Grissom didn’t play in the game. Nevertheless, April 20 was a big day for him. He got married that evening.
Grissom told Tom Swope of the Cincinnati Post that the bride was a girl he met in a restaurant during the flood.9 It was rumored that the couple were doing flood relief work when they met. Grissom denied that story, and Swope said it was undoubtedly wrong. At that time Grissom was under a doctor’s care, taking daily treatments and was in no condition to undertake flood relief work (although he could pose in a rowboat). The courtship must have been brief. The Reds left for spring training about a month after the flood and returned only three days before Opening Day.
Swope never identified the bride’s name, nor the Cincinnati suburb where the wedding took place. No marriage license has been located. If the story is true, the bride was probably Lucy Rush, a 33-year-old Kentucky native, who was the mother of 11-year-old Evelyn Rush. Some family trees posted on the Internet mention her, but none provide any details of a wedding. Most do not refer to her at all. None of the standard biographies of Grissom mention either of his wives. (Lucy Grissom lived for several years with Lee in Tehama County, but they had separated before he registered for the Selective Service in 1942. She died in her native Monroe County, Kentucky, on March 29, 1972, the same county in which Ula Grissom had been born nearly 100 years earlier. Lee Grissom married Ruth Irene Gibbons in Reno, Nevada, on November 1, 1974.)
Grissom made his first start of the 1937 season at Pittsburgh on April 23, losing to Waite Hoyt and the Pirates, 4-3. Less than a month into the season, Grissom engaged in fisticuffs again. According to The Sporting News, “This contest was punctuated by one of the fiercest rough and tumble fights ever witnessed on the soil of Forbes Field. Late in the game, Catcher Al Todd took Southpaw Pitcher Lee Grissom to task for alleged ‘dust-off’ pitching. Todd’s rebuke caused the young pitcher to swing at the Pirate and in an instant the multitude saw the pair of 200-pound, well-conditioned athletes rolling around the infield in a terrific tussle. President Ford Frick fined the belligerents $25 each, but suspended neither.”
The 1937 season turned out to be by far the lefty’s best year in baseball. It was the only time he ever lived up to his potential. Pitching both as a starter and reliever he led the league in shutouts, was second in strikeouts per innings pitched, and third in saves. He still hadn’t mastered control, ranking second in the league in wild pitches and fourth in bases on balls. He was selected for the All-Star Game by manager Bill Terry. If the fans had voted on the players, Grissom probably would not have made the team, as he was not well known among fandom, but Terry had faced him and appreciated the hurler’s ability. He entered the game in the fifth inning and struck out the first two batters he faced – Lou Gehrig and Earl Averill. He then gave up consecutive doubles to Joe Cronin and Bill Dickey, before retiring Sam West on a fly ball to end the inning. That was his only appearance in a major league All-Star Game.
Grissom had high hopes for 1938, but misfortune befell him. Early in the season he broke an ankle in a stolen base attempt and was out for the season. Baseball historian Jack Kavanagh wrote, “The loss of the brother of ML pitcher Marv Grissom might have cost the 1938 Reds a pennant.”10 He won only two games that season.
The highlight of the year for Grissom came with the first issue of Action Comics in June, which introduced the character Superman and started a superhero craze. In the last section of the comic were cartoons depicting sports heroes. Included were four baseball players – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Sam Leslie, and Lee Grissom. Grissom was featured because of his expressed desire to pitch both ends of a doubleheader, a feat he never accomplished in the major leagues. The first issue of the comic book has become a highly-prized collectors’ item. In a 2011 auction it sold for $2.16 million.11
In 1939 the Reds got off slowly, going 11-10 to start the season. Then they reeled off 12 straight wins between May 16 and May 27, with Grissom getting three wins in the streak, which moved the Reds into first place. They stayed there the rest of the season. During 1939, Grissom won nine games while losing seven. It was the only major-league season in which his wins exceeded his losses. Those nine victories helped the Reds win their first pennant in 20 years. In Game Three of the World Series against the New York Yankees, he relieved Junior Thompson in the fifth inning with the Reds trailing, 7-3. With the bases empty and two out, he walked George Selkirk, then retired Joe Gordon on a fly to deep left field. He set the Yankees down in order in the sixth and was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth. He never played another game for Cincinnati.
On January 4, 1940, Grissom was traded to the Yankees for star reliever Joe Beggs. He appeared in five games for the Yankees and allowed no earned runs in 4.2 innings pitched, but was put on waivers. He was picked up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, won two and lost five in the majors, and was sent to the Dodgers farm club, the Montreal Royals, in the Class AA International League, where he won five and lost four. On May 6, 1941 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Vito Tamulis. The Phillies were a terrible team that year, and Grissom could win only two games against 13 losses. He made his final appearance on September 24, 1941, at the age of 33. He pitched 7.1 innings in relief against the New York Giants and gave up no earned runs, but to no avail. The Giants had knocked starter Si Johnson out of the box in the first inning, so the game was effectively lost before Grissom took the mound. The Giants won the game, 4-1, behind the pitching of Prince Hal Schumacher, sending the hapless Phillies down to their 108th defeat of the season. They lost three of the remaining four games on the schedule to set a franchise record of 111 losses in a season.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was in World War II. On June 6, 1942, Grissom enlisted in the army at San Francisco. He was assigned to the infantry at Fort Rucker, but was soon transferred to the Army Air Force and stationed at Fort Buckley in Denver at the headquarters of the Second Air Force. He pitched for the base team, managed by a former major leaguer, Burgess Whitehead. He received permission to pitch for a semipro team 75 miles away in Colorado Springs, for which he was paid $100 per game.12
Grissom was discharged from the air force in September 1945, with the rank of private first class. He was nearly 38 years old and had not played professional baseball for four years. He decided not to try to make it back to the major leagues. He returned to California to work on farms and ranches. However, he did continue pitching for semipro teams in the area.
Lee Grissom had been out of the major leagues for several years before his brother Marvin made his big league debut, so the brothers never faced each other in a major-league contest. The younger brother compiled a better record than Lee. In a 10-year major-league career, Marv won 47 and lost 45, for a winning percentage of .511, with an earned run average of 3.41. In his eight years, Lee had a record of 29-48 .377 and 3.89. The difference in their pitching records was not nearly so great as the difference in the amount of publicity that each attracted, probably because Marv spent the majority of his career in New York, the media capital of the sports world. The discrepancy was so great that an entry about Lee in one book did not even mention his name in the text, referring to him only as the brother of Marv Grissom.13
On July 30, 1950, Lee Grissom was sitting in a tavern in Tehama County, when a truck driver named Warren Shermmer entered the bar and offered to buy a round of drinks for everybody. Turning to Grissom, he said, “I’ll buy you one, too, Lee.” Grissom replied, “You talk too much, Arkie.” The two men tangled. Shermmer fell to the floor and died ten minutes later. A coroner’s autopsy held that death was from cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a blow. Grissom was arrested and charged with manslaughter.14
After being delayed for more than a year by a series of appeals, trial was held in Red Bluff, California, on August 3, 1952. It took the Superior Court jury less than three hours to acquit Grissom of the charges. He returned to farming and ranching in the area.
Lee Theo Grissom died in Tehama County on October 4, 1998, at the age of 90. He was buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Corning, not far from his last residence at Payne’s Creek. His aunt and uncle, Evadne and Samuel Hubert Grissom, are buried in the same cemetery. When Lee’s widow, Ruth, died three years later, her remains were interred in Sunset Hill.
Perhaps there is more to be remembered about Lee Grissom than is in the consciousness of the average fan.
In addition to those cited in the notes, the following sources were useful:
1 The Sporting News, July 15, 1937.
3 The Sporting News, op. cit.
4 Ibid., February 20, 1936.
5 Ibid., April 8, 1937.
6 Ibid., April 15, 1937.
7 Ibid., April 1, 1937.
8 Ibid., March 18, 1937.
9 Ibid., July 15, 1937.
10 Jack Kavanagh, “Lee Grissom (Lefty),” in Mike Shatzkin, The Ballplayers, New York: Morrow, 1990, 420.
12 Baseballinwartime, op. cit.
13 Kavanagh, op. cit.
14 The Sporting News, January 16, 1952.