“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.”