Grover Cleveland Alexander, Old Pete

Old Pete Finally Gets One

Grover Pete Alexander is one of the best pitchers ever to play the game. He won 373 games. He had an ERA of 2.56. He won 30 games in a season 3 times and won 20 games six other times (I know wins are an antiquated stat, but I do think there’s some meaning to them for pitchers when they were finishing games themselves quite frequently, plus there’s a nostalgia to enjoying a pitcher’s W/L stat) but for most of his career, he never won anything.

He started with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1911 at the age of 24. In his first season in the majors, he went 28-13. In 1915, a year he went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA, the Phillies went to the World Series, where they lost 4-1 to the Boston Red Sox. This was his only appearance in the fall classic until 1926.

Alexander served in World War I; the amount of major athletes in the sport who served in both World War II is crazy to me and is something we’ll likely never see again in American sports. (A mishap in World War I led to the death of another candidate for greatest pitcher of all time, Christy Mathewson.)

Old Pete, Grover Pete Alexander
Credit: When We Wore Fedoras Facebook Page

Both wars also impacted the league on the field in at least 1918, 1943, 1944, and 1945, where the top stars of the game missed time due to service. From this war, he developed a drinking problem that plagued him for most of his career. It was this drinking problem that caused him to be sold for next to nothing from the Chicago Cubs (he was traded to the Cubs in 1917) to the St. Louis Cardinals.

At the age of 39 he was still a solid pitcher, that year he had a record of 3-3, a 3.46 ERA, and an ERA+ of 112 but the Cubs had grown tired of him. With St. Louis, He pitched a bit better with a 2.91 ERA and a 9-7 record and ultimately helped the Cardinals to the pennant, which was actually their first ever.

In this series, the St. Louis Cardinals faced off vs the New York Yankees, and while, if this series had taken place today, it would have been a battle between the only two teams with double-digit World Series wins, the Cardinals had yet to win and the Yankees had only won one championship. (That championship the Yankees had captured in 1923 vs the New York Giants.)

In that series, Alexander won games 2 and 6 with complete games. The game 6 victory was important as it forced a game 7. In that game 7, the very next day after his complete game victory in game 6, Alexander is called in from the bullpen after starting pitcher Jesse Haines walks Lou Gehrig to load the bases in the 7th inning. He comes in to face Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri (who granted, was in his rookie season, but he was a solid hitter his rookie year with an .800 OPS.)

Old Pete, Grover Cleveland Alexander
(ca. 1915) Grover Cleveland Alexander. , ca. 1915. Sep. 20. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2001704359/.
It’s a 3-2 score, and this is the New York Yankees one year before the 1927 season which they are considered to be the greatest team ever. It’s Yankee Stadium during one of their most popular time periods ever, the place had to have been roaring, and he strikes out Lazzeri to end the inning and the threat. After retiring the Yankees 1-2-3 in the 8th he comes out to pitch the 9th, where he ultimately gets the last three outs (with an assist from Babe Ruth getting thrown out trying to steal to end the game), and that’s it. The Cardinals, who didn’t have a great history up to this season, won their first-ever championship, and a big part of it was due to an old pitcher who was cast off the team’s arch rival.

I’m trying to think of what sports even to compare this to. I feel that it’d be like if Dan Marino had become an alcoholic after serving in Desert Storm, then joined the New York Jets or Patriots and actually won a Super Bowl but in reality, I think it kind of gets lost in the history of sports stories and I think this happened for a few reasons.

First of all, it happened almost 100 years ago, so there’s no video of it to capture the moment, so it’s one of those things that gets lost. In fact, it seems that almost every non-New York Yankees moment from the early 20th century has been forgotten. Actually, this series does seem to get remembered for how it ended, with Ruth getting caught stealing, but this is disappointing as Old Pete’s performance is worth remembering way more than a blunder from a guy who is the best baseball player ever and the series as a whole was very, very good.

(I am currently going through the play-by-play of every World Series ever, and through 1944 I have this as the 3rd best series of all time.) It feels like in old time baseball blunders get remembered more than successes, and this is one of my favorite individual success stories in baseball history (even though it’s a positive for the St. Louis Cardinals….if you haven’t been paying attention…I’m a Cubs fan but I suppose it’s been almost 100 years since this series so I can get over it.)

Feature image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

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