Lefty Grove: An American Original
by Jim Kaplan
Society for American Baseball Research, 2000.
315 pages, paperback. $16.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
“I have come to know, in a manner of speaking, many pigeon shooters across the country in the past almost three decades,” Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi posted below the recent ANIMALS 24-7 article Charges against pigeon killer recall humane & labor movement landmarks.
“I have never met a single one,” Hindi continued, “who was not a cowardly, narcissistic animal serial killer, devoid of compassion, dignity or even the most basic sense of right and wrong. A pigeon shooter is not kind. He or she may be intelligent, but pigeon shooters are utterly immoral. Don’t turn your back or entrust anyone you care about whatsoever to a pigeon shooter.”
Hindi’s assessment of pigeon shooters might also have been an accurate scouting report on the mental makeup of Lefty Grove (1900-1975), who as a major league pitcher from 1925-1941 compiled a 300-141 won/lost record from 1925 to 1941 and nine times had the best earned run average in the American League.
Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947, Grove by most accounts would also have been a first-ballot Hall of Fame jerk, had a Hall of Fame for jerks existed. Grove may have spent five years in the minor leagues before going up to the majors, compiling a 111-39 pitching record, in part because major league teams were leery of his already problematic reputation
Lefty Grove, before, during, and after his professional pitching career, was an inveterate pigeon shooter, as author Jim Kaplan often mentions in Lefty Grove: An American Original (2000), considered the definitive Grove biography.
Despite repeatedly noting Grove’s predilection for pigeon shooting, however, Kaplan failed to discuss what this pursuit may have signified about Lefty Grove, the man, whose behavior and temperament Kaplan otherwise discussed almost as much as his playing field performance.
Character issues are unavoidable in considering Grove, even in the most favorable possible light. Grove bullied umpires and teammates, intimidated sportswriters, at times drank to excess, alternately sulked and threw tantrums and, as statistical analyst Dick Thompson eventually demonstrated, enjoyed a superior record to longtime rival and midcareer teammate Wes Ferrell, chiefly because Ferrell took his pitching turn against everyone while Grove tended to duck the toughest teams–especially the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig Yankees.
Bad behavior in Boston
While Grove pitched the Philadelphia Athletics into the World Series in 1929-31, it has been argued that his personal conduct after a mid-career trade to the Boston Red Sox contributed to the failure of several impressive Boston teams to win anything.
Kaplan held that much of the criticism of Grove’s performance in Boston might have been unfair. Despite chronic arm trouble, Grove pitched almost as well for the Red Sox as for Philadelphia. Though he no longer relieved between starts, he handled a respectable workload. Had Grove been any other pitcher, his Boston record would have disappointed no one, and if he had only pitched as well as he did for Boston while still in Philadelphia, he should still be a Hall of Famer, at least for his on-the-field performance.
But if any one player’s attitude poisoned the Red Sox, Grove was the sole evident longtime culprit, while other suspects came and went. Among the other Boston stars of Grove’s time, the young Ted Williams, whom Grove introduced to pigeon shooting at Fenway Park, was considered a bit intense but was soon enough accepted for the perfectionist he was, and was known for his helpful attitude toward teammates who sought his help to improve their own skills. Big Jimmy Foxx, a natural first baseman, cheerfully butchered third base and even caught when necessary to help the team. Wes Ferrell and his brother, Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell, were also considered consummate team players.
Grove shot pigeons, and not just in the manner of Williams and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who were several times nearly prosecuted by the Massachusetts SPCA for shooting at ballpark resident pigeons. The pigeons Williams and Yawkey shot at were free flying and able to escape––as most of them did. Shooting them may have been inhumane, but it was about as “sporting” as any other form of bird shooting.
Pigeon shooting as Lefty Grove usually did it was an altogether different matter, not to be confused with hunting for meat or for predator or pest control, or indeed with hunting at all, since it bears no more resemblance to stalking game than hitting off a tee into a net does to facing major league pitching.
In fact, Grove’s style of pigeon shooting had already been outlawed in many states as both unsporting and inhumane before Grove was born. The last public pigeon shoot of the type that Grove favored, held at Hegins, Pennsylvania, was shut down in 1999 by action of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, belatedly enforcing a Pennsylvania humane law that had been on the books before Grove’s father and mother were born.
(The Pennsylvania law, however, has not been enforced against pigeon shoots on private property since 1890, hence the decade of SHARK protests outside the Philadelphia Gun Club bringing the events recounted in Charges against pigeon killer recall humane & labor movement landmarks.)
“Flew to Australia”
The Hegins pigeon shoot became a cause celebre in part because it persisted long enough to become almost as much an anachronism as Fenway Park, opened in 1912.
When the Hegins pigeon shoot began, however, in 1934, it was only one of hundreds following a format standardized by 1881, when the New York State Association for the Protection of Fish & Game hosted the massacre of 20,000 passenger pigeons, a species extinct since 1914, as a fundraising event at Coney Island. The leading pigeon shoot supplier, W. W. Judy Company of St. Louis, was unable to obtain passenger pigeons after 1893, when published rumor had it that “the pigeons have all flown to Australia.”
Common street pigeons (rock doves) were successfully substituted, however, and the killing went on, even becoming a featured event at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. Appalled humanitarians ensured that animals were never again targets at the Olympics. Even after that, though, pigeon shoots persisted for decades in parts of the U.S., especially in the Appalachian coal country.
By custom last open to public view at Hegins, the 5,000 to 10,000 pigeons shot at each event were netted days or weeks before the shooting began, were kept in darkness, were starved for at least three days before they were shot to prevent fecal deposits from accumulating at the shooting site, and were returned to daylight only seconds before being sprung from a cage in front of shotgunners at a distance so close that, at Hegins, even protesters who registered to shoot with the intention of missing on purpose, so as to let some pigeons fly free, were at times charged with inadvertently effecting kills.
Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan was a major presence at pigeon shoots in Lefty Grove’s youth and indeed commonly sponsored pigeon shoots on major holidays. Robed Klansmen were still openly recruiting at Hegins right to the end of it; I photographed the Klan contingent there in 1992.
As the Klan operated much more openly and ubiquitously in Grove’s time, it is almost certain that whether or not Grove himself was a Klansman, he knew the sort of people he was associating with. But even if Grove did not know the Klan for whom they were, his enjoyment of such blatantly sadistic events speaks volumes.
Jim Kaplan argued that Lefty Grove was, at worst, a product of his time and place. This may be have been true, but Lefty Grove also enjoyed more opportunity than most of his peers to get out and about. He should have felt less need than most to vent his frustrations on the helpless.
Uninfluenced by examples
Grove had ample exposure to teammates and managers who at least sometimes exemplified more savory forms of sportsmanship.
Ted Williams, for example, though still shooting ballpark pigeons as late as 1957, in 1959 memorably welcomed and stood up for the first black player on the Red Sox, the late Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. Williams in his 1965 Hall of Fame induction speech argued successfully that the best black players who played before major league baseball was integrated should join him in the Hall of Fame.
Grove nonetheless seems to have made his only odd, awkward gestures toward behaving decently toward others––of any species––relatively late in life. Even then, his social and familial relations tended to be difficult. Grove was a man whom no one seemed to love.
“The evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” ––William Shakespeare
In general, the character defects of great athletes recede into history while their statistics remain. For Grove, the case is the opposite.
Except toward pigeons, it may be said that Grove never was quite as mean as Ty Cobb at his reputed worst, nor was he as boorish as Babe Ruth on a bender, nor was he ever accused of throwing ball games, as Shoeless Joe Jackson allegedly did in the 1919 World Series. (Though acquitted of related charges, long lost but recently rediscovered affidavits from Jackson and others indicate that he was almost certainly guilty.)
It would be difficult to argue, therefore, that Grove had the worst character of any great player of his era. But, even though Jim Kaplan mades every effort to give Grove the benefit of the doubt, without ignoring history, it is equally difficult to find any record of Grove saying, doing, or representing anything in any way that could enable anyone to describe him as admirable.
A small boy reputedly begged Joe Jackson, on the steps of the Chicago courthouse, to “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
No small boy would ever say to Grove, upon hearing a recitation of his alleged sins, “Say it ain’t so, Lefty.”
(See also Cockfighters in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)