SABR Nine: Eli Grba

At the height of his professional baseball career from 1959-1963 as a Yankee reliever and starter for the Angels, Eli Grba at 6’2″ and 200 lbs was known as a hard throwing right-hander with a good fastball.  Whether pitching in the majors or the minors, one gets the impression that Grba had a good time in whatever city (or country) he took the mound.  After being sent down from the Yankees to the Richmond Virginians to work on his control problems, a June 1st, 1960 Sporting News article by Laurence Leonard wrote:  “Grba is one minor leaguer with his own fan club.  ‘Let ’em fly, Eli’ has become a Parker Field slogan when he pitches.”

Grba, a SABR member since 2003, is currently working on his memoirs.  He shares some of his good times and tribulations in this issue’s SABR Nine.

1.  What was it like playing in the Panama League in the 1950’s?

I thoroughly enjoyed Panama, although the political atmosphere was a bit rank.  I met some great people plus it gave me some good experience.  Took a tour of the Canal which was fantastic and fished for Snapper.  Would have served my 2 years there had a certain Army Colonel had his way – took my physical there but my orders were on the way to Panama while I was on my way back to the States.

2.  Of your stint with the Richmond Virginians in the International League, what experiences stand out the most?
The different cities; you would play games in Toronto and Montreal then go home for a bit and then go to Miami and on to Havana, which was a gas.  Great food and great people.  How much better can it get?  The people in Richmond were super.  Remember, I also had a pretty good year there too – in fact two good years.  Pitching a two hitter against Montreal – had a no-hitter into the seventh inning.  Tommy Terrific Lasorda was the manager.

3. When you were called up by the Yankees, who was the most influential in helping you make the transition?
I would have to say Don Larsen.  He took me to certain places and introduced me to some people – for instance Danny’s Steakhouse.  He was more like me – didn’t go too much for the bright lights, we like the little bars (smile).  There was no coddling in those days.  They threw you to the wolves right away.  They expected you to be ready.  [It was a] tough city to break in with.

4.  You were the first player drafted by the Angels on December 14, 1960, and credited with the franchise’s first ever win, what were some memorable moments from that inaugural year that aren’t commonly known?
How Sports Illustrated had us listed as misfits and minor leaguers that wouldn’t win 40 games.  We proved them wrong.  The absolute camaraderie we had with ALL the players.  We all drank and ate together.  No, we didn’t share our dates.  Other memorable things that struck me was the difference in the sports reporting from East to West – more laid back atmosphere.  Of course winning the first game, then saving a game against the Yankees for Ryne Duren and getting to know Gene Autry.

5.  Wrigley Field (CA), Dodger Stadium or Yankee Stadium, which was better to pitch in?
I loved Yankee Stadium.  Keep the ball away from left handed hitters and you survived.  I didn’t itch too badly at Wrigley Field and that in itself is a profound statement since it was so small.  Maybe I concentrated more there.  Dodger Stadium I detested.  I had a hard time with the lights behind home plate – I wore glasses and there was a light pole that shone right on the mound and drove me nuts.

6.  Who was easier to work for, Casey Stengel or Bill Rigney?
Casey was easy, as long as you did your job you were fine.  He didn’t have too much to say to you whereas Rigney, was more of a showoff type – believe it or not.  Casey’s was legit, Rigney’s was a put on.  Rig was a showman by force and Casey – well it came natural.  Rig was tough on pitchers.  He also kept a grudge.  Rigney mentioned that if Art Fowler hadn’t gotten hurt in 1962 we had a chance at the pennant.  If Rigney had paid attention to what he had in the bullpen he would and should have known that I grew up in higher baseball as a relief pitcher and thrived on the added work and pressure.  Plus Tom Morgan did a helluva job for us and Rig didn’t like him.

7.  As a pitcher for the Angels, you faced the Yankees several times including Roger Maris hitting two home runs off you in his historic 1961 season.  In your opinion, is there an advantage or disadvantage pitching to former teammates?
Where did Roger hit the homers?  I think both were at Wrigley Field.  I don’t think it is relevant at all.  He looked for a pitch and got it.  But one thing; they know – or think they know your stuff so what you try to do is go against protocol.

8.  Which teammate impressed you the most?
Mickey.  I used to go up to him and look at his arms and compare mine to his – I would tell him “Hell, I am stronger thanyou, how in the hell can you hit a ball 500 feet and I can’t?”  He loved it.  Plus he used to get taped up everyday and still played.  Great competitor.

9.  What was your career after pro baseball?
Ha?  Tried to drink all the booze in every state I lived and worked.  Didn’t work though.  After my release by the White Sox in 1967 I went back to Ironworking – a rodbuster.  Sold Insurance but mostly back to working as an ironworker.

Originally published: March 18, 2004. Last Updated: March 18, 2004.