Burleigh Grimes

Burleigh Grimes

Ol' Stubblebeard
August 18, 1893
5' 10"
175 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-10-1916 with PIT
Hall of Fame:

Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitball pitcher in the majors. In a 19-year career that ended in 1934, he often faked the spitter to keep batters guessing.

Grimes never shaved on days he pitched, because the slippery elm he chewed to increase saliva irritated his skin. His growth of stubble added to his ominous mound presence and led to his nickname, Ol' Stubblebeard. The belligerent pitcher never permitted a batter to dig in at the plate. It was said Grimes's idea of an intentional pass was four pitches at the batter's head.

Grimes was born in Emerald, Wisconsin. Burleigh made his professional debut in 1913, in Ottumwa, Iowa, for the Ottumwa Packers in the Central Association. He made his major league debut on September 10, 1916, for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 1920, when the spitball was banned, he was named as one of the 17 established pitchers who would be allowed to continue to throw the pitch. The 26-year-old Grimes made the most of this advantage, and over the course of his 19-year career, won 270 games and pitched in four World Series. At the time of his retirement, he was the last of the 17 spitballers left in the league.

Grimes played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1916 - 1917), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1918-1926), the New York Giants (1927), the Pirates again (1928-1929), the Boston Braves (1930), the St. Louis Cardinals (the rest of 1930 and 1931), the Chicago Cubs (1932 and part of 1933), the Cardinals again (the rest of 1933 and part of 1934), the Pirates again (1934), and the New York Yankees (the last part of 1934).

During the 1920s, Grimes was a standout, twice leading the league in victories and five times topping the 20-win mark. He was durable, leading the league four times in starts and three times in innings pitched. After five straight winning seasons for Brooklyn, his 19 losses in 1925 topped the NL. Following a 12-13 mark in 1926, he was traded to the Giants and was 19-8 in his one season for New York. He peaked as a 25-game winner for Pittsburgh in 1928.

According to Baseball Digest, the Phillies were able to hit him because they knew when he was throwing the spitter. The Dodgers were mystified about this; first they thought the relative newcomer of a catcher, Hank DeBerry, was unwittingly giving away his signals to the pitcher, so they substituted veteran Zack Taylor, to no avail. They suggested that a spy with binoculars was concealed in the scoreboard in old Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, reading the signals from a distance, but the Phils hit Grimes just as well in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. A batboy solved the mystery by pointing out that Burleigh's cap was too tight. It sounded silly, but he was right. The tighter cap would wiggle when Grimes flexed his facial muscles to prepare the spitter. He got a cap a half-size larger and the Phillies were on their own after that.

Grimes carried his cantankerous ways with him as manager of the Dodgers, though the team was rarely in a game long enough to make battling tactics pay off. He took over a bedraggled club that had frustrated Casey Stengel in 1937. His chances of developing a winner were undermined when new boss Larry McPhail brought shortstop Leo Durocher to the team. Grimes and Durocher were both battlers, but Durocher was brash and charming, while Grimes was simply pugnacious. Grimes was also frustrated when McPhail signed Babe Ruth as a first base coach and batting practice attraction. Ruth would belt ball after ball over the screen into Bedford Avenue, but his attention span would lapse in the first base coaching box. By 1939 Burleigh and the Babe were gone. Durocher began his managerial career and a new era came to Brooklyn.

A decade of minor league managing followed for Grimes, during which he never ceased his aggressive baseball behavior. Although he was a genial companion off the field, he raged at every close decision against his team. He was suspended in 1940 while managing Grand Rapids (Michigan State League) for an altercation with an umpire. He then remained in baseball for many years as a minor league manager and a scout. He managed the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League from 1942 to 1944, and again in 1952 and 1953, winning the pennant in 1943.He died of cancer at age 92, twenty-one years after the Veterans Committee selected him for Cooperstown.

Babe Ruth, Baker Bowl, Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, Burleigh Grimes, Casey Stengel, Chicago Cubs, Committee on Baseball Veterans, Ebbets Field, Hall of Fame, Hank DeBerry, New York Giants, New York Yankees, Ol' Stubblebeard, Ottumwa Packers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Spitball, St. Louis Cardinals, Zack Taylor
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