He looked mean, had this scowl, and he was tall and rangy and rawboned, looked like a buzzard on that mound.
He had that aura, a big vulture, and he awed you.
The Big Lefty
By Murray Franklin as told to Dell Franklin
It was common knowledge Lefty Grove was the meanest man in baseball, and there were a lot of mean bastards around who’d cut your throat for any kind of edge. Grove’s own teammates feared him, because if you booted one and cost him a game, or a shutout, he’d give you a look that would kill, and there were those who said Grove hated to lose more than he liked to win.
He was the best pitcher in baseball for nearly 10 years, winning 30 games one year and leading the league in strikeouts and everything else year in and year out—a “stopper.” He looked mean, had this scowl, and he was tall and rangy and rawboned, looked like a buzzard on that mound, and I guess he came up the hard way on the railroads in some dirt-poor mountain town near the Maryland-West Virginia border. He hated all hitters, and you didn’t mess around with him up at the plate.
Now even though he had this reputation of being tough on teammates, if you made a big play for him, or got a big hit in a tight game, he’d give you a nod of approval, and that little nod meant more than all this hugging and kissing you see with these modern players. And if you were his teammate and somebody on the other team knocked you down, Grove was the first guy to retaliate, and word was — “nobody messed with Grove.” He was a special case.
The first time I faced him was in spring training. Grove was an old man by then, around 40. Had snow-white hair, had put on weight.
He was used by the Red Sox mostly as a spot starter and reliever. He no longer threw hard enough to scare people, but still, he had that aura, a big vulture, and he awed you. He acted like he owned the field, owned the game, and you were some interloper, and everything he did on the mound was effortless grace and perfection, like Williams hitting. A legend.
A couple of my teammates told me Grove had been washed up for years and couldn’t get off the mound anymore. “Get yourself a hit, kid,” Schoolboy Rowe told me. “Bunt him.” Jim Tabor was at third for the Red Sox, and he was slow as an ice wagon, and Jimmy Foxx was at first, looking like death from a hangover, needing a shave, a mess. So I stepped in there. Lefty glared in, looking bigger than I Imagined. He threw me a fastball and I dragged it down the third-base line and ran like a bat out of hell down the line. As I crossed first base, Foxx never made a move toward the bag. He stood there, arms folded, watching me fly past. When I got back to the bag there was a hush on the field and in the stadium. Our first-base coach wouldn’t look at me. Foxx sidled up, arms still folded, stinking like a distillery, with those big arms, biggest arms in baseball. He talked to me out of the side of his mouth. “Jesus, kid, what the hell you doing?” Over at third, Tabor stood near the bag, the ball sitting untouched between home and the bag, a perfect drag bunt. He was staring at me, too. Foxx told me, “Nobody bunts Grove, kid. It ain’t done.” Now I had to look at Grove. He was halfway between first and the mound, scowling right through me. He growled and turned around and finally took the ball from Tabor, who shook his head, as if to say, “Boy, is that kid stupid, a real rock.” All the guys in our dugout were having a big time falling all over themselves, and the guys in the Boston dugout were quiet and grim, like they were waiting for somebody to stick my head in a chopping block.
“You’re hittin’ a thousand off Grove, Franklin,” Dizzy Trout yelled from the dugout. He and Rowe, pitchers, were jostling each other. I kept my head down, took a small lead, while Foxx toed the bag and smacked his glove. “Lefty don’t forget,” he said. “Better hope he’s gone before you get up again.”
Sure enough, they left him in there and I came up again, and there’s Lefty, glaring at me when I stepped into the batter’s box. I played it meek and kept my eye on him, knowing I was going to get knocked down and deserved it for being stupid and listening to guys like Rowe and Trout, pitchers playing a trick on an ambitious rookie. So I braced myself to take one on the backside and Grove floated in a slow curve, down the middle. Strike one. Well, he’ll get me now, I thought, he’s setting me up.
“Hey bush!” somebody yelled from the Boston dugout. “Drag another bunt!”
“Dummy!” yelled another guy.
I got ready to duck again and he floated me another slow curve down the middle. Everybody in both dugouts were laughing. I got out of the box, stared out at Grove. To hell with him, I thought, I don’t give a damn what he does, I’m hitting. Next pitch he comes in tight with a tailing fastball and I rip it off the fence in left and pull into second base with a double. I stand on second, proud as a peacock, and Lefty’s got the ball back. He steps off the mound and gives me that tiny nod, no smile.
“Thattaway to swing that bat, kid,” he growled. “You don’t need to bunt.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.