- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

The star pitcher roared into the Philadelphia Athletics’ clubhouse at ancient Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis and began his own tour of destruction.

Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove shredded the wooden partitions separating lockers. Then he ripped off his uniform shirt and stomped on it. Finally he began hurling “everything I could get my hands on - bats, balls, shoes, gloves, benches, water buckets, whatever was handy,” he told author Donald Honig decades later.

The date was Aug. 23, 1931, and Grove had lost to the hapless Browns 1-0 in his bid to win an American League-record 17th consecutive game. Worse, he lost because substitute left fielder Jimmy Moore misjudged a line drive hit by Oscar Melillo that allowed the only run to score in the third inning.

Moore, a journeyman known as “Handsome” because of his movie star looks, was in the second and final season of an otherwise unremarkable baseball career. He was playing only because star left fielder Al Simmons was in Milwaukee being treated for an infected ankle, and Grove’s postgame tirade targeted Simmons rather than his replacement.

“If Simmons had been here, he would have stuck that ball in his back pocket,” Lefty ranted. “What in the devil did he have to go to Milwaukee for?”

After his teammates took the field for the second game of a doubleheader, Grove proceeded to methodically rip out all the shower heads in the clubhouse. Presumably, the chronically impoverished Browns sent the A’s a bill.

Grove’s temper was well-known around baseball. A dour Marylander whose nickname was “Old Man Mose,” he stood in dramatic contrast with Connie Mack, the team’s gentlemanly owner and manager. But Mack put up with “Robert,” as he always called him, because Grove was the best pitcher in baseball and this was his best season.

During the 16-game winning streak, which tied the AL mark established by Washington’s Walter Johnson and Boston’s Joe Wood in 1912, Grove pitched complete games in 13 of 14 starts and won twice in relief. As the A’s won their third consecutive pennant that season, he finished with a 31-4 record and a 2.06 ERA. In the 78 years since, only two others have won 30 or more games: Dizzy Dean in 1934 and Denny McLain in 1968.

Over a 17-year career in the bigs, the fireballing Grove went 300-141 with the A’s and Boston Red Sox. He spent no fewer than six seasons with the minor league Baltimore Orioles, not reaching the majors until he was 25. Starting in 1927, his third season, he won between 20 and 31 games for seven straight years until arm trouble turned him into a still-formidable once-a-week starter.

Nowadays it is almost inconceivable that a pitcher of Grove’s talents could have stayed in the bushes that long. But there were no farm systems in those days, and Orioles owner Jack Dunn turned down several offers for his star until Mack waved $100,500 in his face - at that time the biggest price ever paid for a minor leaguer.

As a rookie, Lefty was only 10-12 because of injuries. He first won 20 in 1927 and followed with 24 in 1928. Grove was only warming up. He was an otherworldly 79-15 as the A’s collected three pennants in a row from 1929 to 1931.

And of the 141 games he lost in his Hall of Fame career, none was more painful than the one aided and abetted by Moore’s blunder. When that game ended, Mack - fully aware of Grove’s explosive nature, urged Moore to remain on the bench for a bit before going to the clubhouse.

“Now, James, you’re going to feel bad,” Mack told the culprit, “but I’ve seen [Ty] Cobb miss balls easier than that. … We’re going to be in the World Series, and I don’t want any fights or anybody getting hurt.”

Years later, Moore recalled the play in an interview with the Boston Globe.

“If I’d stood still, I’d have caught it,” he said. “If I’d been sitting on a chair, I’d have caught it. But I moved in two steps, the ball was hit harder than I thought and it just nipped off the end of my glove [for a double as a runner scored from second].”

That evening at the team hotel, Mack reminded Grove, “[Dick Coffman of the Browns] pitched a great game, and if we had played them all night we still probably wouldn’t have scored.”

Grove, chomping on a cheap cigar, merely grunted. Which, for Lefty, amounted to good sportsmanship - or as close as he could come to it.

That winter, Grove even sent Jimmy Moore a Christmas card. But he never forgave Al Simmons.

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