Born in rural Wisconsin in 1893, Burleigh Grimes wound up developing one of the game’s most devastating spitballs as well as one of the game’s a reputation as one of the games toughest players.
The son of a farmer, Grimes went to work at a young age at a lumberyard, where an accident almost cost him his life. He had a large pile of lumber fall on him, but he somehow emerged relatively unscathed. At 13, while attending a minor league baseball game in St Paul, he was enamored by a spitballer playing for Minneapolis, and was determined to replicate the pitch. In 1912, he signed with Eau Claire in Class D baseball, but the league folded. He moved to Ottumwa in 1913, and was signed by the Detroit Tigers. He was quite successful in the next few seasons, moving from Chattanooga to Birmingham, and in 1916 his contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He completed 4 of his five starts with Pittsburgh, and expectations were high. However, in 1917, he had a rough season, going 3-16. Pittsburgh dealt him to Brooklyn in the off-season, and that was where Burleigh Grimes became one of the best pitchers in the National League.
In nine seasons with Brooklyn, he won 20 games 4 times and fell one win short in a fifth. In 1920, Brooklyn won their first pennant as Grimes went 23-11 with a 2.22 ERA. He was not as effective in the World Series, winning one game but losing two, including the seventh and deciding game. He also gave up a grand slam to Cleveland’s Elmer Smith, the first slam in World Series history.
After a couple of mediocre seasons, Brooklyn dealt Grimes to the Giants. Grimes went 19-8, but was at odds all season long with McGraw, who was as strong-willed and rough-and-tumble as Grimes. He was dealt back to Pittsburgh in 1928, where he enjoyed two of his best seasons (25-14, 2.99 ERA in 1928, and 17-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 1929). However, Grimes’ personality allowed Grimes to wear out his welcome, despite his overall effectiveness. From 1930 to 1934, he went from Pittsburgh to Boston to St Louis to Chicago back to St Louis to the New York Yankees and back to Pittsburgh. In 1934, at the age of 40, Grimes was released and his career ended with 270 wins.
Grimes legacy consists of two aspects: his spitball and his toughness. Using slippery elm, his spitball would break 6-8 inches when he has it going on. He went to his mouth on every pitch so hitters wouldn’t know when to expect it, but he also had a decent repertoire of other pitches to complement it. In 1919, major league baseball decided to outlaw the spitball, and 22 pitchers, including Grimes, were permitted to throw the pitch legally for one for season, and after that season, would have to rely on other pitches. Grimes and another spitballer, Bill Doak, petitioned the powers-that-be to allow them to continue to use their bread-and-butter pitches for the remainder of their career. After the 1920 season, 17 pitchers, with Grimes and Doak among them, were permitted to throw the spitball until the retired. Grimes, upon his retirement in 1934, was the last major league pitcher to legally throw a spitball.
Grimes toughness as a competitor is legendary. He would not shave for two days before a start, giving him a dark and sinister scowl that intimidated almost every batter who stepped into the box. He was known for throwing at players, either at their head, behind their head, or at any other part of the body he felt okay to do so. He had a long-running feud with Frankie Frisch, which started when Frisch spiked Grimes in a play at first base in 1919. Every time those two faced each other for the next 10+ years, Frisch knew he was getting at least two pitches thrown at his head.
After his playing days ended, Grimes moved quickly into managing. He managed in the minor leagues before getting a job at the helm of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937, where he managed through 1938. Grimes toughness and temperament were still with him as a manager, indicated in an incident in 1938 when he was giving a critique to young Brooklyn pitcher, stating that he thought the youngster lacked confidence when getting in a jam. The young hurler got snippy, telling Burleigh that if Grimes “wasn’t such an old man”, he would…. well, the kid’s comment was interrupted by Grimes’ fist.
He would never return to manage in the big leagues again, but managed around the Midwest in the minor leagues through 1954, with a few interruptions filled with scouting duties. He scouted for the Yankees, Athletics and Orioles through 1971, when he retired.
Grimes was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964. He wisely invested his salaries from his playing days, and was a very successful rancher and farmer, owning a 230 acre farm near St Louis for years, before moving a little further north in Missouri to a 545 acre farm. He returned to Wisconsin to live out the remainder of his days, and died in December of 1985 at the age of 92 after suffering from cancer. He had no children and was survived by his fifth wife, Lillian (33 years his junior).
I always enjoyed reading about Grimes, and the stories of his toughness are legendary. Despite his mean disposition on the diamond, his teammates, opponents, friends and neighbors all had nothing bad to say about him off the field. He was a very friendly and good-hearted man by all accounts. I was always fascinated by Game 5 of the 1920 World Series, the game in which Grimes not only gave up the grand slam to Elmer Smith but also the first World Series home run by a pitcher (Jim Bagby). The game also featured an unassisted triple play by Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss. I have stated time and time again that if I could hop on a time machine and witness one game, that would be the game. I had corresponded with Grimes and Wambsganss on and off for a couple of years in the early 1980’s. I remember the news of Grimes’ death like it was yesterday. It was a cold Michigan evening, and my father and I were coming from somewhere, listening to the news on the car radio. They gave a teaser that two of baseball’s legends had died, and then went to commercials. We sat in the car, waiting for the commercials to end to get the names. My dad guessed one had to be Roger Maris, who was suffering from cancer. I somehow just knew it was Grimes and Wamby. I was right. Both had died just two days apart. This really saddened me, because they both were such great men, and the more-notable 1920 World Series participants had been passing away in recent months (aside from Grimes and Wamby in December of ’85, Joe Wood had passed that July, and Elmer Smith and Stan Coveleski the year before). To this day, I find the 1920 World Series to be one of the most compelling. (For what it is worth, Maris did die later that same week.)
The Autograph: Despite his crankiness, Grimes was a great signer through the mail. I got him more than a few times. He always had a nice bold signature, not as shaky as you would expect from a guy with his advanced age and illness. He eventually did shorten his signature to the “B.A. Grimes” that you see on the card above, but most of my samples have the complete “Burleigh A. Grimes”.