By Marty Appel
As the career of Burleigh Grimes fades further into past, baseball fans have a shorthand recall of him: last pitcher to throw a legal spitball, and nickname of Ol’ Stubblebeard.
He was, through most photos we have of him, a pretty gruff looking fellow. His personality, it was said, matched the appearance. And the unsanitary pitch, which he last threw on September 20, 1934, was one he was proud of and willingly demonstrated for photographers. (He mixed saliva with slippery elm to lather up the ball).
He lived to be 92, passing away in 1985 after serving from 1977-1985 on the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee.
“He was outspoken, opinionated, a man who made an impression,” recalled Ed Stack, the long time President of the Hall of Fame who presided over those Veterans Committee meetings. “You knew where he stood. He was a little rough around the edges; he still chewed tobacco and spit it into a cup, but he held his own in a room of powerful personalities like Ted Williams, Bill Terry and Joe Cronin. And he was a very valuable member of the committee – he had tremendous recall on players from as far back as when he broke in in 1916. Honus Wagner was his teammate when he broke in.”
Yes, 1916 was still baseball’s deadball era. He had actually started playing minor league ball in 1912 when he was just 18, breaking in with Eau Claire, Wisconsin near his hometown of Clear Lake. He won 86 minor league games before getting to the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, (1916-17), and followed that with the Brooklyn Robins (1918-1926), the New York Giants (1927), the Pirates again (1928-29), the Boston Braves (1930), the St. Louis Cardinals (1930-31), the Chicago Cubs (1932-33), the Cardinals (1933-34), the New York Yankees (1934) and the Pirates (1934). He served in the Navy in World War I.
It was with the “Daffyness Boys” of Brooklyn where he achieved his greatest fame and success, and he later managed the team between the tenures of Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher. (1937-38). Babe Ruth was a coach under him in 1938.
He won 270 games over his 19 seasons, pitched in four World Series, and there weren’t too many National League players in that span he didn’t call teammates at some point. It would have been ironic if he had thrown his last spitball with the Yankees – in a league he barely knew – but more fittingly, he went back to Pittsburgh on August 8, 1934, and finished his career where it had begun. On that September afternoon of his final game, he relieved Waite Hoyt in the 8th inning and retired all three Brooklyn Dodgers he faced. He left the mound with a 270-212 record and was five times a 20-game winner.
Baseball had ruled the spitball illegal in 1920 but allowed 17 pitchers whose career depended on it to keep throwing it until they retired. Grimes was the last active one of the 17. He had learned the pitch as a young teen in Wisconsin and had good control of it too, although he was not a high strikeout pitcher.
After his career, he managed in the minors, coached for Kansas City, and scouted for the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles until retiring in 1971. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.