By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 32: Grover Cleveland Alexander

“The Winning Team” is a spectacularly bad movie. It earns the “spectacularly bad” label because it has many cool, quirky features .and somehow it is still unwatchable. As you probably know, “The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting.

“The Winning Team” also features the legendary Doris Day (originally Doris May Ann Kappelhoff), who was the biggest female star in the Hollywood. That too should add some interest. There were a few ballplayers in the movie (Bob Lemon and Hank Sauer, among others), and it’s a story about an all-time great baseball player, and it’s sort of hard to believe that “The Winning Team” doesn’t at least make for some fun kitsch watching.

But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding. It is sort of like a two hour Little Rascals episode. It begins with someone shouting “Grover Cleveland Alexander, you get down here!” And then you see Alexander at the top of a telephone pole, calling his sweetheart on a party line. She wants to surprise him with the news that her father had offered a down payment on the farmhouse! That means they can finally get married! But rascally Ol Grover Alexander goes and plays ball instead! Gets paid a buck and a quarter! Much mayhem ensues!

What separates “The Winning Team”* from other terrible movies like “The Babe” and “The Scout” and “Trouble with the Curve,” is that it boldly claims to be “The True Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander.” it is not true. It has some true elements in it, but the movie in full is the opposite of truth, it is a giddy and romantic and life-affirming story about redemption for a life that had none of those qualities.

*”The Winning Team” is put in quotation marks in the opening credits, as if even the producers appreciated the irony.

A few years ago, I traveled to Elba, Neb., the little town where Alexander grew up. It was part of a package of stories I did for the newspaper — several of the greatest pitchers came from Midwestern towns. Walter Johnson was from Humboldt, Kan. Bob Feller was from Van Meter, Iowa. Carl Hubbell was from Carthage, Mo. And Ol’ Pete Alexander, as he was known, (also Alex, Alec, Dode, Alexander the Great) was from Elba.

There wasn’t much to see in Elba — the population is about 200. The only landmark I recall seeing, beside for the school, was a bar called Grover’s. If you know the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, you can feel the immense sadness of a bar called “Grover’s.”.

Walking around Elba, it was not hard to imagine a young Grover Alexander looking around for perfect rocks to throw. There are many great pitchers in baseball history who got their start throwing rocks — Satchel Paige wrote that growing up in Alabama, “We threw rocks. There wasn’t anything else to throw.” Even so, Alexander’s legacy is particularly tied to throwing rocks. He apparently would keep his pockets filled with the best throwing rocks, so much so that his pants often had holes in them. One great story passed down through the years was that when Grover’s mother wanted to cook one of the chickens, she would send Grover out to throw a rock at one.

Alexander’s father wanted Grover to be a lawyer, like his namesake Grover Cleveland, but apparently this was never in the cards. Alexander was never too serious about study. He did graduate from high school, and then he got a job digging holes for the telephone company. He played some ball, but he apparently did not see much of a future in it. He was 21 when someone named Jap Wagner (this apparently was his real name) asked Alexander if he wanted to play ball for a living, Pete apparently said: “Oh I can play with these farmers around here, but that’s about as far as I can go.”

Three years later, he was not only in the big leagues, he would set a Major League record — one that will almost certainly never be broken — by winning 28 games as a rookie. Alexander threw 367 innings that first year, and it is fun to think about what would happen today to a Major League manager who made a brilliant 24-year-old rookie pitcher throw 367 innings. I’m guessing: Hanging in a public square.

He was, by all accounts, a natural. Throwing all those rocks had shaped a relaxed but quick sidearm delivery. Pete Alexander threw hard in his early days, and he had one hell of a curveball. But the thing that separated him as the years went on — and it’s the same thing that separated Satchel Paige in the following decades and Greg Maddux in the years to follow  — was his impeccable, almost supernatural, control.  As much as people talk about control in baseball, it is still underrated. A pitcher who can throw the ball exactly in the right spot again and again and again without ever missing that spot doesn’t need great stuff.  Alexander famously aimed low and away, and he almost never missed the target.

From 1915-1917, Alexander won the Triple Crown of pitching each year, leading the league in wins (30-plus each year), ERA (1.54 collectively) and strikeouts. He had 32 shutouts in just those three years, an unprecedented run. He was ore or less the equal of Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, the greatest pitchers of the time. And then Alexander the Great went to war.

Nobody can say for sure when Pete Alexander started drinking heavily. His father and grandfather were hard drinkers. Pete certainly would drink the occasional beer in his younger days, but there is a chance that his drinking went beyond that. There were persistent rumors, for instance, that Alexander was suddenly and shockingly scratched for Game 5 of the 1915 World Series because he showed up to the ballpark drunk. Alexander denied it; he said that he had hurt his shoulder, and the pain was too great. The only real trouble with his version of the story is that he injured his shoulder a MONTH earlier in a game against the Dodgers. But he had pitched very well in Games 1 and 3 of that Series. It’s possible that the injury simply worsened before Game 5. It’s also possible that the drunk story makes more sense.

Either way, though, Alexander’s experiences during the war undoubtedly shaped the desolate turn his life was about to take. The two greatest National League pitchers of the Deadball Era, by far, were Pete Alexander and Christy Mathewson. Both were ultimately devastated by World War I.

Mathewson’s destruction happened quickly. He insisted on serving though he was closing in on 40. While in France, he was exposed to mustard gas during a training exercise. His life was hellish after that. He developed tuberculosis and spent several years fighting off a terrible cough. He died in 1925.

Alexander was drafted and sent to the front (the Phillies had dumped him in a trade in expectation of his getting drafted). The noise of war caused him to lose hearing in his left ear. He took a shell in his right ear, which eventually led to cancer. He badly hurt his right arm operating a howitzer. He dealt with shell shock.

All of the pain and confusion led unquestionably led Alexander to becoming an alcoholic. “In France, I had hard liquor for the first time,” he would say. He also had his first epileptic seizure. Nobody can say for sure when or why Alexander began to suffer from epilepsy. One theory is that it originated in 1909 when he was hit in the head by a throw (he was unconscious for 36 hours).

For the rest of his life, Pete Alexander would publicly suffer the horrors of alcoholism and privately suffer the horrors of epilepsy.

“The Winning Team” focuses quite a bit on Alexander’s remarkable 1926 World Series. It unquestionably was remarkable. By then, Ol’ Pete’s stuff was gone, but he still had that impeccable control. In June of 1926, Chicago’s manager Joe McCarthy — the same Joe McCarthy who later would win seven World Series with the Yankees — dumped Alexander on St. Louis for a few bucks. He’d had enough of Alexander’s drunkedness. The Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby reportedly told Alexander he could drink as long as he did not let it interfere with his pitching. Alexander, at age 39, was immediately the Cardinals best pitcher.

Alexander threw 148 innings for the Cardinals and struck out just 35 hitters. But he walked just 24, and he he threw two shutouts in his 16 starts. Those Cardinals scored a bunch of runs — Hall of Famers Hornsby, Jim Bottomley were all in the lineup (as was Hall of Famer Billy Southworth, but he went into the Hall as a manager) — and went 54-37 after acquiring Alexander. They went to the World Series to face the New York Yankees.

The Yankees lineup of 1926 were fundamentally the same team as the Murderer’s Row lineup of 1927. Gehrig had not quite come into his own, but he was there (Gerig led the league in triples in 1926) as was Tony Lazzeri and Earl Combs and Bob Meusel and, of course, the Babe. The Yankees won Game 4 when Ruth hit three home runs, and they won Game 5 in the 10th inning on Lazerri’s sac fly with the bases loaded. That gave the Yankees a 3-2 series lead with the last two games going back to Yankee Stadium.

Alexander started Game 6 and pitched well, throwing nine innings, allowing two runs and holding Babe Ruth hitless. All three of Ruth’s outs were harmless infield groundouts — Ol’ Down and Away Alexander had done his job. The Cardinals forced a Game 7.

Then, in Game 7, in one of the most famous moments in World Series history, the Cardinals led 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh when the Yankees loaded the bases against Jesse Haines. Hornsby pulled Haines and called for Alexander. His walk to the mound was slow and a bit uneven … the immediate suspicion was that Alexander was drunk (Hornsby told that version of the story many times). People who have done the research seem to agree that Alexander was not drunk. Hung over? Probably. But not drunk.

In any case, he faced Lazzeri, who had driven in 117 RBIs as a rookie and who had the game-winning sac fly back in Game 5. Alexander may or may not have warmed up (several accounts said he did not, Alexander himself remembered throwing a few warmup pitches). Alexander would remember walking around the mound for a minute to “let Lazzeri stew.”

The first pitch was, of course, a curveball low and away. Lazzeri took it for a strike.

The second pitch was a fastball that did an unusual thing: It caught too much of the plate. Lazzeri turned on it and crushed it to deep left field. No one can say for sure how far foul it went. Alexander would utter the classic line about it: “A few feet made the difference between a hero and a bum.”

Third pitch, Alexander threw the low and-and-away curve one more time. Lazzeri flailed at it for strike three. And the inning was over. Alexander pitched the last two innings without giving up a hit. He was on the mound when Babe Ruth inexplicably tried to steal second base — the Babe would say that it was the Yankees only shot against Alexander. Ruth was thrown out to end the 1926 World Series.

This was the crescendo for “The Winning Team,” and it makes a nice crescendo for Alexander’s remarkable pitching career. In all, Alexander is third in victories, fourth in pitcher WAR, second with 90 shutouts, and he’s one of six or seven pitchers who has a viable argument as the greatest of all time. It is all but impossible to determine how a Deadball pitcher would fare in the 21st Century, but Pete Alexander’s staggering control would undoubtedly play in the modern game.

Sadly, though, the Pete Alexander story does not end with that strikeout. Life ain’t like bad movies. Alexander lived 24 more heartbreaking years. He was arrested. He was thrown in jail. He was sued for being a “love pirate.” He divorced the one woman who loved him (Aimee (or Amy, it is spelled differently in different places), and then got back together with her and then let their marriage break apart again. He scraped for money any way he could, pitching an inning or two in exhibition games for the House of David. For a time, he made a few bucks just telling his story in a nickel theater show in New York (“I’m tired of striking out Lazzeri,” he told friends). He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.

“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.

“Used to be,” he said.

When Pete Alexander received his plaque from the Hall of Fame, he said this: “You can’t eat a tablet.”

He died a dozen years after his induction. He longed for a job in baseball, but he never got one. Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.

Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, told me about the time Pete Alexander came to talk at his school. Roberts was 14 or so at the time, and he was excited to see Ol’ Pete. Roberts was born barely two weeks old when Alexander struck of Lazerri.

But Roberts said he didn’t see the great pitcher. He saw a broken down man who looked much older than his age of 54. “I wasted the years and the money,” Ol’ Pete said sadly. “Don’t let it happen to you.”

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94 Responses to No. 32: Grover Cleveland Alexander

  1. Gene says:

    Outstanding profile, Joe, and you hit “The Winning Team” on the head – a truly horrendous movie!

  2. Geoff says:

    Invitro remains in the lead, with the top-3 separated by five points and WoC trailing by just 11!

    • DM says:

      Hi Geoff,

      Glad to see you’re still tracking the contest. Is this what you’re showing as far as the top 10?

      Rank Player Score
      1 Invitro 917
      2 AndyL 914
      3 DickAllen 912
      4 WoC 906
      5 ESPN 888
      6 MarkR 871
      6 DM 871
      8 EJM 865
      9 Geoff 864
      10 TomGilbert 859

      • Geoff says:

        Not quite, but close…I have:

        1 Invitro 917
        2 AndyL 914
        3 DickAllen 912
        4 WoC 906
        5 MarkR 871
        5 DM 871
        7 EJM 865
        8 Geoff 864
        9 Adj. ESPN 861
        10 TomGilbert 859

  3. Karyn says:

    I hate the comments focusing on copy editing Joe’s work, but this sentence just doesn’t make sense: “He longed for in baseball, but he never got one.” Longed for what? A chance to manage? A scouting job? A pension?

    • Re-read “He longed for a job in baseball, but he never got one.” It means any post-player position.

    • lostinbaltoG says:

      I don’t hate those comments and don’t understand why it’s such a bad thing to point out grammatical or spelling errors, especially in a piece like this that has so very many of them. Yeah, I know I’m not paying for this but the lack of proofreading these days is appalling. Maybe it’s the number of errors I’m seeing in newspapers that’s making me grouchy.

      • Karyn says:

        Probably the number of errors you see in newspapers. This is something Joe does in his free time, for fun. Over the years, a few folks have volunteered to proofread for free (and the chance to see a post a couple hours before the rest of us), but so far as I know, he’s never taken anyone up on it.

        I see folks nitpicking typos here as the same folks who complain about speeding on the freeway. Yes, it shouldn’t happen, but that’s life–let’s move on.

  4. Jake Bucsko says:

    I’m not happy that you called The Scout a terrible movie. I love that movie, even if it is, um, not great. Anyway, Steve Nebraska is my go to in bar arguments for the greatest movie athlete ever. He flies into game 1 of the World Series on a helicopter, into Yankee Stadium, and then proceeds to throw an Immaculate Game. Not just a perfect game, mind you. 27 up, 27 down, 27 Ks, 81 pitches, all strikes. And for good measure, he hits a home run every time he comes to the plate. I’m no Bill James, but his WAR for that game is 1.0. He literally wins by himself. This concludes my bulletproof argument that Steve Nebraska is the greatest movie athlete ever, with apologies to Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore.

  5. Peter Unger says:

    This is a great countdown series. I look forward to, and then I enjoy, every entry.

  6. Doug B says:

    Great piece, despite a number of typos and omitted words. (You can’t proofread on a computer screen, Joe.) There is a minor factual error: Mathewson died 7 October, 1925. That was the day of Game 1 of the World Series between the Pirates and Senators.

  7. ajnrules says:

    Great piece on a highly underrated pitcher. It’s interesting he ranks in the top four in pitching bWAR, but he doesn’t quite get the accolades of contemporary Mathewson.

    I went to St. Paul, Nebraska a few years back to visit the grave of the great Pete Alexander. I didn’t make 15 minute drive to Elba, but I can’t imagine it being much different. It’s interesting how many baseball greats are buried in these small towns, such as Alexander, Warren Spahn (Hartshorne OK), Tris Speaker (Hubbard TX) and more.

    • Doug B says:

      I suspect the difference in the reputations of Mathewson and Alexander has much to do with image/character. Mathewson was the “Christian Gentleman” with a college background (though he never graduated from Bucknell).

  8. Jim says:

    “He died a dozen years after his induction. He longed for in baseball, but he never got one. Among his few possessions when he died a typewriter, “

  9. NevadaMark says:

    He took a shell in his right ear? And lived?

  10. MikeN says:

    >He was on the mound when Babe Ruth inexplicably tried to steal second base — the Babe would say that it was the Yankees only shot against Alexander.

    I wonder if Alex Gordon is reading this.

    • Ruth did steal 123 bases lifetime. He had as many as 17 in a season and had 11 in 1926, which I think is the year we were talking about. His success percentage was just above 50%. So while it’s fair to say that Ruth attempting to steal a base in a key situation in the World Series was unwise, the implied characterization of Ruth as a slow, unathletic lumbering runner is inaccurate.

  11. Donald A. Coffin says:

    When Joe mentioned his control, well…Here’s Grover’s W/9IP relative to the league:

    Year Grover/NL
    1911 92.2%
    1912 95.3%
    1913 76.9%
    1914 65.3%
    1915 56.6%
    1916 49.1%
    1917 52.5%
    1918 48.9%
    1919 70.9%
    1920 69.5%
    1921 51.4%
    1922 43.1%
    1923 31.8%
    1924 50.0%
    1925 39.3%
    1926 49.8%
    1927 47.0%
    1928 45.0%
    1929 50.0%
    1930 83.7%

    Maddux may have done something like that, but this is pretty stunni

    • buddaley says:

      If we are only considering BB/9 as evidence of great control, it is important to remember that in the deadball era walks were much more rare than later. Of all the pitchers with fewer BB/9 than Alexander, most were 19th century pitchers for all or much of their careers, but in the period of 1900-1920, there were quite a few who were better or a match including Christy Mathewson, Deacon Phillippe, Babe Adams, Addie Joss and Nick Altrock. Others, like Ed Walsh and Mordecai Brown were not far off.

      Of pitchers who matched or had fewer BB/9 than Alexander, only four pitched after 1920. Dan Quisenberry, Red Lucas, Brad Radke and Bob Tewksbury. There were others who were very close, including Bret Saberhagen.

      • Dan says:

        “If we are only considering BB/9 as evidence of great control…” But we’re not. The stat is BB/9 relative to the league average in the years he pitched, showing Alexander as coming in always below the average and frequently around 50% or less. So an adjustment for the deadball era wouldn’t be necessary, it’s built right in.

    • Michael Searls says:

      Thanks for that! Very interesting! Also, no one talks about GCA’s 16 in ’16, a truly amazing record! 16 shutouts! Even with great ‘pens today, especially in NL, no staff even gets to double digits in shutouts! We will never, ever see a pitcher even sniff at 5 shutouts in a season today! Give it up for Old Pete!

  12. darneke says:

    Very nice piece! Alexander has always been a favorite of mine, originally because I saw that movie as a kid. I remember almost nothing about it and for a long time had trouble keeping the details about Alexander straight because it runs together in my memory with “The Stratton Story,” which I saw around the same time.

    BTW, the NYT had a terrific game story for Game 7 in ’26; it was included in “The Fireside Book of Baseball” and is well worth reading.

  13. Whether this story is true, I don’t know, but I’m prepared to believe it. According to Tip O’Neill, Ronald Reagan was admiring the speaker’s desk, and Tip said it had belonged to Grover Cleveland. Reagan replied that he played that guy in a movie. O’Neill replied, no, sir, you mean Grover Cleveland Alexander. Later, he told that story to colleagues and Barney Frank replied that maybe he thought Cleveland pitched for the Washington Senators between presidential terms.

    Fred Lieb wrote in Baseball As I Have Known It about Alex’s problems, and that Bill McKechnie, the Cardinals manager of the late 1920s, tried his best to keep Alex on the straight and narrow but finally had to give up.

  14. drpaulsem says:

    Joe –
    The first of two comments because my thoughts here are so varied.
    First, I loved this line: “A few feet made the difference between a hero and a bum.”
    I would love to see an article on this topic. How many “great” players or “great moments” are great because the ball was fair or foul by inches?
    What a great thought-provoking line.
    I love these baseball articles, but, of course, I love all your writing.

    • David says:

      My first thought is Armando Galarraga. My second thought is Carlton Fisk.

      Now, neither of those is quite in “hero or bum” territory, but one is a missed shot at immortality, and the other is one of the great moments in baseball history, rather than a harmless foul ball.

      • Maybe Vic Wertz. 6 inches farther and he has a triple and Willie Mays loses his signature defensive play. Maybe the Indians win game 1 instead of it going to extra innings (they probably do) and maybe the whole course of the series is changed.

        • Geoff says:

          Joe Mauer’s “foul ball” against the Yankees in G2 of the 2009 ALDS.

          • Patrick Bohn says:

            Geoff- Mauer’s really wasn’t that big. The double might have eventually resulted in a run being scored, but we don’t know how the Yankees (or Twins) approach the rest of the inning if Mauer’s on second. Also, we have no idea how the Yankees would have done in the bottom of the 11th, since we only saw one batter that inning.

            Ultimately, it might have helped the Twins win the game, but even that just ties the series at 1-1.

          • Geoff says:

            I don’t really disagree with you; obviously that game could have turned out a lot of different ways. But at least being there, it really felt like that was their chance to finally break their Yankees curse. You don’t know how things would have played out, but the next three runners did reach, so there’s a decent chance a lead off double leads to at least a run. If the Twins go on to win that game, they’re headed home even in the series, rather than having a 10-15% chance of moving on. At the moment Mauer made contact, the Twins were probably 25% to win the series. It that’s a double its probably around 35%, as they would have been what, 70-75% to win the game at that point?

          • Patrick Bohn says:


            Sure, but if we play the “everything else after Mauer’s at-bat goes the same and the next two guys single” hypothetical, we have to extend that to Texeira’s home run, don’t we? The Twins got totally screwed, but at the end of it, we’re still talking about a guy on second with no outs in a tied game of a series the Twins are already trailing. There’s a *lot* to get from that to “Twins win the series”

        • James says:

          And Wertz goes 5-for-5!

          • Edward James Almost says:

            Tony Clark’s 9th inning line shot down the rightfield line in Game Five of the 2004 ALCS. Yankees leading the series 3-1, tie score, two outs, runner on first. Clark’s ball barely bounces over the wall and into the stands for a ground-rule double. If it had hit the wall, the runner would’ve scored without a play. Instead, the runner is stuck at third, Clark at second, the Red Sox get the third out, and the rest is mythology.

        • the_slasher14 says:

          Mays actually slowed down a bit before making the catch. Six more feet, it’s a triple. Six inches — he still gets it.

    • Jarnow says:

      First example that came to my mind was McCovey’s liner to end the ’62 World Series. Men on 2nd and 3rd, bottom of the 9th, Jints down by a run. A solid single wins the Series. An out ends it. He blasted a sharp liner to short.

      I believe there was even a Peanuts strip about it.

      I saw an analysis about leverage one time, that concluded that this play was the highest-leverage play in baseball history, in terms of a single outcome affecting the ultimate WS winner.

      • Kuz says:

        It wasn’t a liner to short, it was a liner to 2nd baseman Bobby Richardson. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 12 years old and the wounds of the Maz home run were still raw. Even after the ’61 series,

  15. drpaulsem says:

    These are among the saddest words Joe ever wrote (or shared):

    “I’m tired of striking out Lazzeri,” he told friends.

    “Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked. “Used to be,” he said.

    The magic of Joe’s writing is the way he can immediately touch the reader’s heart.

  16. Cliff Blau says:

    George Bradley holds the Major League record for pitching wins by a rookie: 45 in 1876. Also, Alexander didn’t lead the NL in ERA in 1916, Ferdie Schupp did, so no “pitching triple crown” that year.

    There was nothing inexplicable about Ruth trying to steal second in game 7 of the 1926 WS. After all, he’s stolen second off Alexander the game before.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Babe Ruth stole home TEN times in his career (Lou Gehrig did it 15). I wonder how many times Mays, Aaron or Bonds stole home?

      • dshorwich says:

        It always bemuses me when people post this kind of question, since the answer can be looked up in about the same amount of time it took to post the question in the first place. 6, 2, and 1, respectively.

      • berkowit28 says:

        Jackie Robinson: 19 (none of them as part of a double steal with another baserunner stealing a base or trying to – all solo steals).

    • Doug B says:

      Schupp pitched only 140 1/3 innings, so he would not have qualified for the ERA title. Alexander’s wins would qualify as a modern record for a rookie (i.e., post-1900). Since 1876 was the first season of the National League, all pitchers that season would qualify as “rookies.” I see lists Albert Spalding’s 47 wins in 1876 as the record for victories by an NL rookie (He had already pitched five seasons in the National Association.) In 1875 Bradley pitched in the NA and notched 535 innings (!)

    • John Autin says:

      I can’t find a source that recognizes Schupp as the 1916 NL ERA champ. Both and Baseball-Reference recognize Alexander. Schupp had 140.1 innings and 8 complete games, so he met neither of the qualifications that have been used to determine the ERA champ. (Before the current one inning per team-game, the standard was 10 complete games.)

      P.S. For 1917, Baseball-Reference does recognize a competing claim to Alexander’s NL ERA crown: Fred Anderson had a 1.44 ERA with 162 IP (meeting today’s standard) and 8 CG (missing the contemporary standard). lists only Alexander.

  17. Christy Mathewson thought that Alexander had an advantage as a rookie by coming out of nowhere, rather than coming in as a bonus baby with all the hype and pressure to deal with. Young Pete had already won a dozen games before anybody started to take notice. The fact that Alexander was an unheralded 24 year old tells me that even from the beginning he didn’t have jaw-dropping stuff, just impeccable control, very much in the Greg Maddux mold.

    • We’re talking 100 years ago. No internet. No TV. Radio wasn’t even widespread until after he had started his career. Plus he lived in Bumphuck, Egypt. It’s not hard to figure out why he was overlooked. There were probably dozens, if not 100s, of players from that era good enough who were never discovered. Remember too that the money wasn’t awesome, so there wasn’t necessarily the incentive there is today for players to try to shine the light on themselves. Even today there are still players that fall through the cracks. If they are not on one of the top travel teams and on a poor HS team, they still stand a chance of not being seen by scouts. Granted, good players should know how to be seen, but if they aren’t that focused on it, it can still happen.

      • Things were different then, sure, but if anything, the network of players, leagues and scouts was stronger back when baseball was the only game in town and every village and company had its own semi-pro club and newspapers were thick as leaves with reports on every prospect. Walter Johnson, for instance, was pitching for the Weiser Idaho ballclub when a scout saw him, and he was in the big leagues at 19, the same age that Babe Ruth broke in. If you don’t believe me, I’ll let Christy Mathewson reply. From Pitching in a Pinch:

        But the ideal way to break a star into the Big League is that which marked the entrance of Grover Cleveland Alexander, of the Philadelphia club. The Cincinnati club had had its eye on Alexander for some time, but “Tacks” Ashenbach, the scout, now dead, had advised against him, declaring that he would be no good against “regular batters.” Philadelphia got him at the waiver price and he was among the lot in the newspapers marked “Those who also joined.” He started out in 1911 and won two or three games before anyone paid any attention to him. Then he kept on winning until one manager was saying to another:

        “That guy, Alexander, is a hard one to beat.”

        He had won ten or a dozen games before it was fully realized that he was a star. Then he was so accustomed to the Big League he acted as if he had been living in it all his life, and there was no getting on his nerves. When he started, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If he didn’t last, the newspapers wouldn’t laugh at him, and the people wouldn’t say:

        “$11,000, or $22,500, for a lemon.” That’s the dread of all ball players.

        Such is the psychology of introducing promising pitchers into the Big Leagues. The Alexander route is the ideal one, but it’s hard to get stars now without paying enormous prices for them. Philadelphia was lucky.

        • Scott says:

          And isn’t the fact that we wound up with the Phillies rather than the Giants, or Cubs or Red Sox also an indication of his perceived quality? In general, it seems that during the dead ball era, the differences in team resources was significantly greater, which allowed the well-run and well-financed clubs to get better players. Isn’t that a big reason why Rickey invented the farm system?

  18. LoSonnambulo says:

    Is the Spitball literary journal still around? Must be 25 or more years ago, they had a pretty good story about a fictional meeting between Alexander and Hal Chase, long after they were out of baseball.

  19. Matthew Clark says:

    Thank you Joe. Can’t wait for the book.

  20. KHAZAD says:

    My Grandfather was at the famous 1926 world series game, and he has always said that Pete pulled a flask out and took a long pull before walking to the mound.

  21. Marshall says:

    Thanks fort these great posts, Joe! I didn’t know much about Alexander before reading this.

    If I could make one suggestion, it would be to include a paragraph about Alexander’s career immediately following his service in the war. I would have assumed given the injuries and trauma Joe described that Alexander was not a particularly effective pitcher again, but in fact he had perhaps his best year in 1920.

  22. Marc Schneider says:

    This is not meant to be political but saying bad movie starring Ronald Reagan is sort of redundant. In fairness, I think most baseball movies in those days were pretty bad. “Pride of the Yankees” is considered a classic but I think it’s treacly.

    • Ironically if you look at the online IMDb reviews, the reviews aren’t all that terrible. Reading into the comments, it appears to me that the reviews are positive BECA– USE of Reagan. Not that Reagan was a good actor, he’s best known for Bedtime for Bonzo after all, but because people are favorable to his political career. It’s a heresy to conservatives to criticize Reagan.

      • invitro says:

        I’ve never heard a conservative get upset because someone criticized Reagan’s acting skills. I.e., your “heresy” remark is B.S.

        • I do often hear, on conservative talk radio, when the subject comes up that Reagan was a “pretty good” actor, underrated, etc. I’ve never heard anyone, in those public forums, say he was a bad actor. I realize his movies tended to be very low budget, but his acting certainly didn’t elevate the quality. I don’t think he was a good actor at all. I’ve never heard anyone publicly say otherwise on any of the political shows. Yeah, you can say it to your buddies, but nobody wants to go on public record saying anything negative about Reagan. There are too many people that would take offense. Even politically, Reagan’s policies wouldn’t pass muster with today’s conservatives. Yet, you’ll rarely hear anyone say that. He gets a pass because he’s Reagan.

      • John Leavy says:

        No conservative regards Ronald Reagan as a thespian for the ages. He was a reliable, perfectly adequate B-movie star. If he were around today, he’d probably be playing the kind of roles Bill Pullman gets.

        He was never nominated for an Oscar (and didn’t deserve to be), and he was never a big star, but he was a steadily working actor for decades, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

        And except for “Bedtime for Bonzo,” none of his movies merited the “Mystery Science 3000” treatment.

        • MikeN says:

          Even though there are no great movies on his resume(many say King’s Row is one but I disagree), Reagan was a very good box office draw. So the real comparison is to George Clooney, only George gets critical acclaim for some of his dull movies.

          • I think MikeN and John Leavy captured my point. Reagan gets a lot of credit for his acting that’s undeserved. He was popular, of course, or he wouldn’t have received roles. But his acting was not good, even by the standard of his day and the reams of B movies that were cranked out. To compare him to George Clooney is laughable. Although Clooney started out as another pretty face, he turned into a very good actor (not just pretty good) with a lot of range. Granted, not all of his work is exemplary, as with any actor. Where I turned on Clooney towards thinking of him as a good actor was when they did the live ER episode. Clooney and Anthony Edwards carried that episode. A lot of the other “stars” were limited greatly and did poorly in their small appearances.

            I think, btw, that Reagan was a great politician. He was always underestimated by his opponents, and maybe that was by design. But he ended up doing lots more than most any other politician out there.

          • MikeN says:

            Most people think to compare Reagan to Clooney is laughable, but I think that is just because people are aware of Clooney today, and not aware how popular Reagan was back then.
            Clooney is a top draw, but he is not the top tier.
            I also think his movies are overrated(he seems to win awards by taking a bad movie and playing it at half speed). There aren’t very many that stand the test of time. Even Oceans Eleven may end up being relegated behind the Frank Sinatra one.

  23. AaronB says:

    Alexander has always been a favorite of mine for some reason. I think it was because 1926 was also the year the Cards officially won their 1st World Series and stopped being a doormat. They’d been a 2cd division laughing stock for most of their existence in the National League up to that point.

    One Card’s history book I’ve read mentioned that the owner, Sam Breadon, thankful for what Alexander had done for those ’26 Cards, actually tried to help Alexander out for the rest of his life. He’d send Alexander money from time to time until Alexander died. Supposedly Alexander never knew Breadon was doing this out of pocket, he had thought Breadon was sending the money as part of Alexander’s “baseball pension”, which of course didn’t exist.

    One other quick thought, don’t let the fact that he debuted at 24 trick you into believing his stiff may not have been good. When you live in the middle of nowhere, especially 100 years ago, it may take awhile to be discovered. Especially for someone who didn’t take baseball seriously.

  24. AB says:

    Thanks. When I think of G.C.A. now I will immediately think of “control.”
    -Love the list.
    -Love the way it is being told.
    I was glad too reading “war undoubtedly shaped” because less people serve in the modern day so they pay it little attention. Also, since their war was the “war to end all wars” it greatly demonstrates how advanced and smart we have become.~

  25. Rick Crouthamel says:

    Has there ever been a good biography written about Alexander? Thanks!

  26. Michael Searls says:

    Alexander’s impeccable control might have been able to make him very successful in the modern age. Look how well and how long Rick Reuschel, a journeyman, pitched because of his great control! So, Alexander may, indeed, have had success in the live ball era especially as hitters became more and more free swingers.

    • buddaley says:

      I am not sure how you are using the term “journeyman”. I take it to mean something like ordinary or mediocre. If you mean his “stuff” was ordinary, I can’t quarrel-because I don’t know for sure. But if you mean his career was ordinary, I dispute you. In fact, there are some who think his career is worthy of HOF consideration. He did have an ERA+ of 114 and an FIP better than his ERA, and he has over 68 WAR by BB-Ref figuring. That WAR puts him slightly ahead of Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, Ted Lyons, John Smoltz, Vic Willis and Bob Feller as well as other HOFers. He did not strike out many, and you are certainly right that his control was a big factor in his success, but he was no journeyman. He was legitimately a terrific pitcher. (Maybe “unspectacular” would be a better description.)

      • Michael Searls says:

        Yeah, I wasn’t clear about “journeyman”! Sorry, about that. What I meant was Reuschel’s stuff wasn’t blazing fast, electric. His success was with pinpoint control because his fast ball topped out in the upper 80’s. He was a fine pitcher who cried when the Cubs traded him.

  27. NevadaMark says:

    I saw that movie as a young teenager. I liked it. If memory serves it had some good baseball scenes, especially the Lazzeri foul ball and strikeout. There was also a neat scene where Grover recites all his lifetime statistics.

  28. Brad says:

    Trouble with the curve a bad movie? Maybe I’m a tasteless chump, but I kinda liked it. Smug GM and obnoxious, smarmy high school star get their righteous comeuppance. Plus the incomparable Amy Adams strips to her panties!!? What’s not to like?

  29. MCD says:

    Whether its music, movies, or television, I always say that taste is indisputable. If you like a song, than to you it is good. If you find sitting thru a movie to be onerous, than to you, it is a bad movie, regardless of how many awards it has won, or millions it may have made at the box office. All that being said, I get the feeling Joe hasn’t had the misfortune of sitting thru very many truly awful movies. IMO, his examples of “terrible” range from merely “bad” to “meh” and the general consensus of both Rotten Tomatoes audience score (no RT critic score is available) and IMDB ranking position “The Winning Team” as an average movie. That doesn’t necessarily mean that is *is* an average movie, but I think it is a pretty reliable barometer that isn’t “spectacularly bad”.

    But still a great piece about “Ol’ Pete”.

    • I haven’t seen the movie, but you’re right about the reviews. Still, movies like that don’t really ever play well today. Those types of low budget movies aren’t really out there today in theaters. TV, especially Cable TV, and NetFlix has limited the number of movies you see these days & increased the budgets for most. In order to be called “Average” movies of this era have to be reviewed by people who enjoy old movies. Younger people wouldn’t last five minutes, I’m quite sure, watching most of the low budget movies of this era.

  30. shagster says:


    One of your finest.

    Thank you.

  31. Rob Edelman says:

    FYI: Back in 2006, I researched and wrote a piece titled “THE WINNING TEAM: Fact and Fiction in Celluloid Biographies.” It is in Issue 26 of “The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History,” a publication of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

  32. […] No. 32: Grover Cleveland Alexander ( […]

  33. Ketih says:

    I’m 54 years old, and I’m wondering if I’ll still be alive when the list is finally completed…

  34. val says:

    Say it ain’t so Joe. This list is dead 🙁

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