Up to Washington: Bob Groom’s Early Life in Baseball

This article was written by Catherine Petroski

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)


Knowing and living in the same household with my grandfather Bob Groom was an accident of fate but a gift of immeasurable value. His was and remains the strongest presence in my life. What I remember of him are the deeply felt, simple memories of a child, so discovering who he was to others took some work. Fortunately, he played in the Deadball Era, when oceans of ink covered sports pages, satisfying baseball fans’ curiosity about their favorite teams and players. Today’s electronic databases of that written record make it possible to learn things about him that I would never have guessed. Yet statistics and sports pages tell only part of the story. Ballplayers, however obscure or famous, are first and foremost people: sons, brothers, cousins, husbands, fathers—roles that affect their careers in ways that the public might never guess.

When “Grandma Kate,” Bob Groom’s wife, died just before I was born, my grandfather persuaded my parents to come and live with him in the big brick house that stood at the corner of 19th and West Main in Belleville, Illinois. Bob Groom’s house will always be the place I envision when I hear the word home. It was built in 1903 by my great-grandfather John Groom for his wife, Mary Catherine, to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1904.

My room was on the west side of the second floor and looked out into the branches of a large pear tree. Under the steeply pitched slate roof upstairs was my favorite haunt: an attic full of mysterious treasures. Its one large room had windows on the west and north, and in one corner was the remaining machinery of an elevator that had run from basement to attic and was installed because of my grandmother’s weak heart. My mother saw the elevator as a hazard in a household with a small child and insisted it be removed. A huge double cedar-lined wardrobe held Grandpa’s Knights Templar uniform and Grandma Kate’s beaded dresses for Eastern Star events, and hat boxes held a derby, a top hat, and feathered, flowered, and veiled ladies’ hats. On the other side of the wardrobe hung grey woolen baseball uniforms. Two massive brass-bound steamer trunks held a jumble of baseball caps, long wool socks, shoes with metal spikes, and baseballs— some so scuffed and dirty they were practically black and others, yellowing with age, with writing all over them.

Across the room stood a long bookcase with glass doors filled with scrapbooks of baseball clippings that my grandmother had kept, along with letters, photographs, and telegrams. Long before I could read anything, the photos began to tell me many things, including how different our house looked when it had a curved front porch decorated with Victorian spindles along its top edge. I saw my father, a curly-headed boy of four, standing with his cousin from San Francisco in front of what was in those days his grandfather’s house.

There were pictures of my great-grandparents, whom I never knew, and my grandfather’s brothers and sister, whom I knew well and loved. But though much was familiar, there was much the pictures didn’t tell.

Of my grandfather’s other life in baseball, no one in the family talked very much, perhaps because, as I would come to realize, my grandfather’s “high profile” was a problem to my father. I learned of the baseball life indirectly. “Are you related to the ballplayer?” people would ask upon hearing my last name. Belleville people treated Grandpa with great respect, and I would come to understand that it was not just because of his major-league career. He was a rather prepossessing figure: tall, slender, uncommonly erect in posture and always very dignified in demeanor. I gathered hints of his baseball days from the visits and phone calls from friends who were baseball people: the St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, and the baseball radio announcers Gabby Street and Dizzy Dean, who would mention visiting Grandpa in Belleville during their broadcasts. Grandpa treasured his lifetime pass to the players’ box at Sportsman’s Park, and brought me a milk-glass souvenir bank in the shape of a baseball from a game in the 1944 World Series.

Still, I wanted to know more about the members of Grandpa’s family whom I would never know in person. In one picture from the 1880s, my great-grandparents are a young couple standing on either side of two children; here, in the mid-1890s, a sober-looking Bob poses in front of his willowy (and probably pregnant) mother one Sunday afternoon, his father’s devilish expression so different from the faces of his serious wife and son.

I wanted to understand better where the Grooms fit into this town fifteen miles southeast of St. Louis. Belleville was a coal-mining center, and Bob’s father and his grandfather were mine managers and eventually mine owners. As the county seat, Belleville was a political and banking center, and in my grandfather’s day, the town’s trolley tracks intersected at the Belleville public square. After 1902, the “electric train” (as the trolley was also known) ran several times a day from Belleville across the Mississippi River via the Eads Bridge and all the way to St. Louis in less than an hour.

Bob’s baseball journey literally began on that trolley, which which carried local teams of coworkers (and some semipro teams that paid their best players) to their games in the “Trolley League.” Bob had a curve and was working on a blazing, if sometimes wild, fastball, and as his reputation as a pitcher grew, he was probably one of those who was paid. As a Senator in 1911, Bob recalled his Trolley League days:

I didn’t have much but a wide curve, but oh, how it used to f[a]ze those lads trying to hit it. During the entire season before I entered organized ball, I averaged fifteen strikeouts to a game. I was billed as one of the Groom brothers battery, and people used to come to see us work. Alec Groom and Bob Groom got their names in the papers with great regularity. But Alec Groom wasn’t my brother. He was my cousin; however, few ever knew that, and we passed for a long time as the Groom brothers battery.1

Bob’s baseball odyssey would start in 1904, the year all eyes were on St. Louis, and everyone was singing, “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the Fair.” That March a well-known St. Louis baseball man, Jake Bene, signed a promising nineteen-year-old right-hander from Belleville named Groom to play for the professional Fort Scott, Kansas team in the Class D Missouri Valley league—the bottom rung of organized ball. The family coal business was slower anyway during the summer, and Bob signed his first contract for $60 a month for that summer. He was on his way.

His rookie season must have been a test of will for Bob and his team; it’s a wonder he didn’t quit or get fired, with a dismal record of 25 losses and just 8 wins.

Then, in the fall after that dispiriting season, his beloved mother died suddenly at 44. The family landscape was undergoing major changes: Bob’s older sister Mayme had married, but then died in childbirth in 1902. That left the widower John in the new “anniversary” house with his daughter Annie and sons Bob, Bill, and Ollie, the “caboose” born in 1898. It must have taken grit to continue the journey Bob had started, but in March 1905 he was traded to Springfield, Missouri, a better team in a better Class C league, the Western Association. In two seasons as a Springfield “Midget,” lanky Bob’s two seasons of 20 or more wins caught the attention of the legendary Walter McCredie, and in 1907 Bob signed with the McCredie family’s Portland, Oregon, team in the elite Class A Pacific Coast League. More than the cross-country trip, the move to Portland marked a new departure in Bob’s baseball journey. Despite the Beavers’ losing season, Bob gave the Beavers their first-ever no-hitter, beating the league-leading Los Angeles Angels 3–0 on June 16. “Declared by all the batters of the league to be the hardest twirler on the Western Slope to hit,”2 Bob next posted a 29–15 record for 1908 to lead the PCL in wins.

After July rumors about big league scouts and the Cleveland Indians looking to sign him, Bob signed with the Washington Senators in September 1908, and he would be followed by PCL pitcher “Dolly” Gray, a Los Angeles southpaw. Walter Johnson, with whom Bob would drive back to the Midwest after the close of seasons, had whetted Washington fans’ appetite for winning, and the two West Coast pitchers were hailed as promising new Senators. The Washington Post persisted in describing Bob Groom as “the elongated Californian who is showing up well in practice games,” but, rookie baseball cards and occasional heroics aside, Bob Groom’s first major-league season resembled his first in the minors. After a disaster of a debut and a string of early-season losses, he won a trio of games in early June but reverted to losing until the 7–6 win over Boston on July 5 3 that for many years was inexplicably listed as a loss.

The disheartening string of defeats that began after July 5 had one memorable hiatus. On July 16, Groom earned the nickname that would follow him through his career: “Long Bob,” which referred not to height but stamina. Though Deadball pitchers were expected to pitch complete games and Bob could go the distance, July 16 called for a bit more. In an 18-inning scoreless marathon against Detroit, he pitched the last 9 2⁄3  innings after his PCL compatriot Dolly Gray pulled a muscle in his back early in the ninth. The game wore on and on. Despite players’ protests, the umpires called the game at 0–0 in the 18th because of darkness, and it appears to have stood as the longest scoreless tie until the advent of lighted parks. Gabby Street, who caught the entire game for Washington, called it the most memorable game of his long career. But after that game the losses continued until late September, adding up to a very shaky rookie season.

In 1910, Jimmy McAleer took over the Washington managing job from Joe Cantillon, and Bob began to get his bearings. In a game early that year in Detroit, he sat the great Ty Cobb down three times on strikeouts, two of them called. The sportswriters dubbed Bob “Tiger Tamer,” and Ty took a cordial dislike to him. Throughout their overlapping careers, Groom and Cobb seem to have respected the other’s fierce competitiveness, and Cobb named Groom to his list of toughest pitchers to face. Another name the writers had for Bob, “Sir Robert,” seems to have come from his authoritative, serious demeanor on the mound, for it literally made news when he smiled.

The 1910 and 1911 seasons saw Washington “rebuilding,” and Bob’s baseball journey was far from finished. In 1910, the Senators were called “awful,” compiling a 64–90 record and finishing seventh, which was not much to smile about. But Bob embarked on other important journeys during those two years. In 1910 he entered the St. Louis School of Medicine, and at the end of the 1910 season, on November 19, he married his Belleville sweetheart, Katie Birkner. My father, named Robert John for his father and grandfather, was born in Belleville the following September.

Kate and young Robbie would live in Washington during the 1912 and 1913 seasons, traveling back to Illinois when the Senators took western swings to play St. Louis and Chicago. Having a family in tow, however, was not necessarily such a good idea: Bob was scheduled to start the May 1, 1913, first game in a series in Boston, but Tom Hughes took over after the twenty-month-old Robbie decided to exit the Groom apartment via a window. The Post reported Bob caught up with the team via the Federal Express and that fortunately his son had not been so badly injured as first thought.

Many players pursued an education during the off-seasons, and for two years Bob played ball and studied medicine. But by 1912, he had reached the point when he was required to spend a solid year as an intern. That year the Senators had hired a young manager named Clark Griffith away from the Cincinnati Reds, and it was obvious that Bob could not intern and play ball at the same time. The road he was on was diverging, and he had to make a choice. He chose baseball, and his 1912, 24-win season would be his best. That August, the team president, Thomas C. Noyes, died unexpectedly, and the team posed in groups of two and three players for a panorama photograph.4

Washington sportswriters had early on discerned two notable things about the lanky Bellevillean: that he usually got the better of Detroit and Chicago, and that he pitched much better ball on the road than at home. About the first, they had no real explanation, but about the second they noted that Washington fans were vociferously behind only one pitcher: Walter Johnson. They reported that Washington fans rode other pitchers for not equaling the awesome Big Train, and their taunts were something Bob took to heart. On the road, away from the bugging of the hometown fans, he was just fine, and on many occasions much better than just fine. Billy Evans, arguably the era’s most respected umpire and a Hall of Famer, said that Bob never got full credit for his ability. “He happened to be on the same team as Walter Johnson, who overshadowed everyone,” said Evans. “If he had been with some other club, I dare say Groom would have been regarded as a speed marvel.” Evans went on to say, “He had an overhand curve ball, the kind we called an out-drop when we were kids. I don’t believe there is a pitcher around today with the same type of curve. George Uhle is the last one I remember.”5

In 1912 and 1913, Washington was indeed out of the doldrums, finishing second in the league in both years—their first appearance in the first division. But it was not a surprise to learn that, after five years of playing second banana, Bob Groom would leap at the chance to play for a St. Louis club, where his home-stands would literally be at home. Joining a team in the “outlaw” Federal League was a gamble, but Bob wasn’t the only pitcher to see opportunities there. Walter Johnson’s dalliances with the St. Louis and Chicago teams are well documented, and in the end Clark Griffith only managed to keep the Big Train in Washington by buying out Johnson’s contract with the Chicago Whales, using money supplied by Charles Comiskey, who didn’t want the Washington star pulling crowds from his White Sox’s games.

Perhaps because Bob was usually among the last to send back his contract each year, stories published at the time of his defection attributed his move to the Federal League’s higher salaries. I suspect that this was not the real reason, since baseball was not his only (and probably not his primary) source of income, and that Bob’s perennial salary and contract pas de deux with Washington had as much to do with his medical studies and family situation as wanting to get a bit more from the notoriously tight-fisted Griffith. His eventual move to the St. Louis Feds really had to do with his knowing who he was and where he belonged. Bob’s brothers, my great-uncles, were kind, generous men, but my great-grandfather knew that the running of his coal company would have to be done by Bob. A man who could face the bats of Cobb and Shoeless Joe would be uniquely equipped to face the miners’ union bosses and run a growing business. Young Robbie, at four, had already become the handful he would continue to be all his life, and though Bob Groom had literally played ball from coast to coast, Belleville would always be home to him.

In 1914, Bob would turn 31 years old and, looking back, one might say that his best baseball years were behind him. His best playing years, perhaps— but baseball would always be a part of his life: managing Belleville’s White Rose team in the 1920s and then helping run the Trolley League, from which he’d graduated, and founding the Belleville American Legion team in the 1930s. And finally taking a grand-daughter to those Hilgards Legion games and explaining the Cardinals’ games as Harry Caray and Gabby Street broadcast them into the hot Illinois summer nights.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to express her gratitude to SABR member John Stahl for his important work on the Bob Groom biography in Deadball Stars of the American League and on the BioProject article on Bob Groom.

 

Notes

1 “Battery of Brothers Were Really Cousins, but the Fans Didn’t Know,” Mansfield (Ohio) News, 15 July 1911, and several other newspapers.

2 From a Portland program, courtesy of Brian Campf.

3 See Boston Daily Globe and Washington Post, 6 July 1909.

4 In addition to Walter Johnson—who, alas, had not been cloned to produce Groom or Gray—the 1912 picture also includes a tough-looking customer named Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” linchpin.

5 Billy Evans’s quote is from the article “Fame of Bob Groom: His Death Recalls Record Game in Detroit,” by Sam Greene and dated 19 February 1948, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame clipping file on Bob No further bibliographic information is provided in the file.

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