This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Ewell Gross was tall for a shortstop in his day (6 feet even), a native and high-school graduate of Mesquite, Texas, who spent almost his entire career in Texas – even the 1924 spring-training season in San Antonio when he first worked out for the Boston Red Sox, the one major-league team for which he played. His was a short career in the big leagues (nine games), but he had a successful 11-year career in minor-league ball.
He was born on February 21, 1896, to Alfred “Doc” Gross, a house carpenter, and Doc’s wife, Mary. All four grandparents came from Tennessee. Young Ewell started work early, noted in the 1910 census at the age of 14 as a bootblack working in a barber shop. His professional baseball career began in 1915 and 1916 with the Paris, Texas, club in the Western Association. The 1915 team was called the Paris Red Snappers, then changed to become the Paris Survivors in 1916. Gross hit .246 the first year and .248 the second, playing in 97 and 78 games respectively.
In 1917 and 1918, the World War I years for the US, and in 1919 he was out of baseball, serving 21 months in the Army. The 1920 census found him working as a superintendent in a cotton gin. It had perhaps become a family profession. His brother Daniel, two years younger, was working as an assistant bookkeeper at the gin and their father was working as a ginner. In June 1921 Ewell married Novella Brown.
Then followed five years in a row with the San Antonio Bears (Texas League) from 1920 through 1924. He played a full schedule all five years and hit for a very consistent average: .282, .246, .291, .291, and .289. The right-handed hitter was listed at 165 pounds.
After his back-to-back .291 seasons, and considered perhaps the best shortstop defense in the league, Gross worked out with the Red Sox in spring training (which was held in San Antonio that year), but the Red Sox had him go back to the Bears for the 1924. He was fairly fleet afoot, stealing 17 bases that year.
During the early December meetings of the National Association in Hartford, the Red Sox made a move to acquire Gross, trading third baseman Danny Clark to the Bears in one of the more important-seeming deals of the sessions. He’d been considered “the leading shortstop of the Texas League for the last two years.”i Clark had enjoyed a solid season at third base in 1924, but shortstop was where the Red Sox felt they needed help the most, and Gross had led the Texas League in fielding for two years.
The Red Sox trained in New Orleans in 1925. Several players were injured during the springtime, perhaps leaving a bit more of an opening for a few newcomers, and Gross’s play impressed writers, who said his early play “shone in the field.”ii Returning shortstop Dudley Lee was the leading candidate for the job, though coming off a season in which he’d injured his hand, but Gross offered some real competition. “Gross is going to make the going hard for Lee,” wrote Mel Webb in the Boston Globe, “unless all the coaches here in camp are guessing wrong on a player who is all action and has been showing not only a fine pair of hands, but general ability and cleverness in playing his position in accordance with the pitching.”iii A follow-up note in the next day’s newspaper said, “Seldom does one witness such a battle for one major league position as that promised between Dudley Lee and Ewell Gross for the post of Red Sox shortstop this season. Both men have their followers, and each believes he is the man for the place. May the better player win!”
Within a couple of weeks, Gross had pulled into the lead, showing an edge over Lee with the bat. Manager Lee Fohl let it be known that he wasn’t sure Dud Lee was quite ready yet, and it would be he who would have to dislodge Gross rather than the other way around – though Gross hammered a foul ball off his foot and missed several days at the end of March and into early April.iv He came back with a bang, having a 4-for-5 day on April 6. Sports columnist Ford Sawyer wrote, “This year Gross feels his real opportunity has arrived, and he’s bound it won’t escape him if he can prevent it. His work this spring has been one of the features of the Red Sox training work.”v
Gross played on Opening Day and had a good game – the best of his short career. He was 1-for-3 at Shibe Park, the hit a fifth-inning triple to deep left field; he came in on Billy Rogell’s sacrifice fly. Before that, in the second inning, he had been hit by a pitch and came around to score. Unfortunately, his wide throw to first base pulled Joe Harris off the bag; it wasn’t ruled an error, but it let Sammy Hale reach first base. The Athletics scored twice in the bottom of the ninth and tied the game, winning it 9-8 in the 10th.
The two runs Gross scored in the opener were the only two runs he scored as a major leaguer, because two weeks later to the day, the April 28 game was his last one.
A solid single in the first inning of the game on the 16th gave Gross his first run batted in. He had another one at Yankee Stadium two days later. Those were his only two RBIs. In his next 16 plate appearances, he couldn’t get a hit, couldn’t draw a walk, and didn’t even get hit by a pitch. Mel Webb had apparently already noticed that when it came to regular-season play, he was a little overwhelmed. “The young middle infield which showed so much promise down South this Spring needs a whole lot more seasoning. It has made a lot of real difference for Ewell Gross and Billy Rogell to play under big league pressure, and both of these youngster [sic], who looked so good and who were so sure of themselves in New Orleans, have found that there’s a lot of difference between playing in the majors from playing in the minors.”vi A few days later Webb added, “No one could guess that Ewell Gross, who did so well in the short field, would blow up, or rather fade away, as soon as the pressure of the league racing was applied.”vii
Though perhaps no surprise by the time it happened, Gross rated his biggest Globe headline on May 1: “RED SOX LET GROSS GO TO MINNEAPOLIS. Shortstop Released Outright.” He wasn’t sent out on option; he was released, “Manager Lee Fohl having made up his mind that ‘Turkey’ could not make the grade in the big league.” He let Gross go before either Buddy Connolly or Dud Lee was quite ready to take over at shortstop.
Gross persevered with Minneapolis and appeared in 31 games, hitting .255, but was brought back into the Texas League by the Dallas Steers in time to get into 93 more games (he hit .274). In 1926 and 1927, Gross played full seasons at short for the Steers. It seemed that the Texas League (a Single-A circuit) was the place for him to play.
And things came full circle for him in 1928; he started the season with Dallas and playing later in Beaumont and in Paris – now in the Lone Star League and under yet another team name (or maybe two in the one season, the Paris Colts/Rustlers.) He managed part of the season in Paris, as he had in Dallas part of the year in 1927.
In 1930 the census recorded Gross living with his wife Novella, working as the operator of a skating rink. His last work in professional baseball came in 1931 when he managed the Kilgore Gushers for a full season of East Texas League play. When Gross died of pyelonephritis on January 11, 1936, in Dallas, he was working as a druggist in Mesquite – and not quite 40 years old.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Gross’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i See, for instance, the December 4, 1924, Hartford Courant and the Boston Globe of February 6, 1925.
ii Boston Globe, March 9, 1925.
iii Boston Globe, March 12, 1925.
iv Boston Globe, April 1 and 2, 1925.
v Boston Globe, April 9, 1925.
vi Boston Globe, April 21, 1925.
vii Boston Globe, April 24, 1925.