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Grover Cleveland Alexander

Chronology, Career Statistics, Related Biography: Catcher "reindeer" Bill Killefer, The Winning Team


American baseball player

Grover Cleveland Alexander serves as an icon for his generation of professional baseball players. While perhaps not the model or disciplined athlete—in fact, by most accounts, he was far from that—Alexander was a product of the times in which he lived. His adult years spanned two World Wars, the first, in which he served as an army sergeant in France. He lived through Prohibition, two marriages and divorces from the same woman, the Great Depression, and ill health due to epilepsy, alcoholism, and in later life, cancer. He was described as a soft-spoken yet cantankerous man who did not appreciate having rules dictated to him. Above all, Alexander was a phenomenal pitcher with an attitude, who, despite personal demons that haunted him throughout most of his adult life, established major-league records, many of which still stand today. He was a personality on and off the field, and until age, poor health, and his way of living took their toll, Alexander was a force to be reckoned with.

Grover Cleveland Alexander

Alexander was born on February 26, 1887, in Elba, Nebraska, a rural community just outside of St. Paul, Nebraska. He was the youngest of thirteen children (twelve boys and one girl). According to Jack Kavanagh, author of Ol' Pete: The Grover Cleveland Alexander Story, the famous pitcher's father, William, attributed his son's skill with deadly curveballs to "his great ability as a corn husker," bragging that "Dode," as Alexander was known at home, husked as many as 1,300 bushels of corn in thirteen days. It was from such ambitious corn-husking that Alexander developed his ability to pitch effortlessly and tirelessly, suggested Mr. Alexander.

Baseball, however, was mostly an interesting past time for Alexander until 1909. He intended to follow his parents' dream for him to attend law school like his namesake, the former president. Although Alexander worked for a time as a telephone lineman for the Howard Telephone Company, he managed to play on local teams for the fee of five silver dollars. He then began playing baseball for independent clubs nearby. His abilities were quickly noted, and he signed his first contract in 1909 with the Galesburg Boosters, in Central City, Nebraska. Alexander demonstrated his talent by pitching a no-hitter against Pekin and a 1-0 shutout that first year. He made $50 a month—not a bad salary for a former telephone lineman. Apparently, however, it was not a much safer vocation; Alexander received a nearly fatal baseball beaning to the head that left him unconscious for two days. Alexander recovered from the injury, but he suffered double

Grover Cleveland Alexander

vision for many months afterwards, making him a liability as a pitcher. Galesburg soon sold the afflicted player to the Indianapolis Indians, but this relationship ended almost before it began when the vision-challenged pitcher accidentally broke three of the manager's ribs with his first pitch. He then was sold to the Syracuse Chiefs, but by the time the season began, Alexander's vision was clear. In that 1910 season, Alexander had twenty-nine wins along with fifteen shutouts for the Chiefs.

Alexander was twenty-four when the Philadelphia club bought his contract in 1911. The freshman pitcher from rural Nebraska wasted no time wowing his teammates, his opponents, or his fans. His first season, Alexander set a major-league record. His twenty-eight wins set a record for a rookie pitcher, a record that stood untouched for sixty years.

Alexander continued to play well for Philadelphia, and over the next six years pitched a total of 329 games, of which 219 were complete games. Baseball is a business, however, and team owner William Baker traded both Alexander and his personal catcher and close friend, "Reindeer" Bill Killefer, for $55,000—this, after Alexander had led the Phillies to their first pennant and World Series in 1915. Baker admitted that the trade was purely a business transaction rather than a strategic move. Killefer and Alexander made their new home in the windy city, playing for the Chicago Cubs in the 1918 season. In June of that year, Alexander married Aimee Arrant.

Fate forced Alexander to take a slight detour from his career that same year. Alexander was drafted into the Army after only playing three games for the Cubs. He served in France as a sergeant for the 342nd Artillery. According to Kavanagh, the shelling Alexander was exposed to during his service and which caused Alexander to lose his hearing in one ear was possibly the trigger of his epilepsy, which showed its first symptoms shortly thereafter. Another theory suggested that it was the serious head injury Alexander incurred early in his career that was to blame. Whatever the cause, Alexander's life was forever changed. After Alexander's death, his ex-wife Aimee defended Alexander's seemingly wild behavior while promoting The Winning Team, a film based on Alexander's life, starring Ronald Reagan and Doris Day.

Mrs. Alexander attributed the pitcher's wild reputation to a misunderstanding of her former husband's physical illnesses, which included "spells of epilepsy" and shell shock (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Claimed the widow, Alexander's drinking "was just an outlet for his physical miseries." In fairness, Alexander did struggle with epilepsy, and due to the lack of effective drugs of those days, the disease was nearly impossible to control. There were a few tricks to staving off seizures, however. As Kavanagh put it, "Alexander was subject to seizures during a ballgame as well as away from the field. He discovered that by sipping ammonia from a small bottle, he could forestall a pending attack." In Alexander the Great: The Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jerry E. Clark and Martha E. Webb wrote that Alexander also used alcohol in an attempt to control his disease: "To compensate for the seizures, he drank alcohol to excess, and this itself became a debilitating weakness."

Alexander was discharged in 1919, and he returned to Chicago to pick up from where he'd left off. Alexander's year away from the sport that he loved and his new physical challenges seemed to have little effect on the pitcher's skill, and he continued to devastate the hitters who faced him. Alexander's first season back was a warm-up, and he pitched twenty complete games out of thirty games played, and had sixteen wins with eleven losses.

By 1921, it was fairly common knowledge that Alexander had a serious drinking problem. Alexander's drinking began to affect his performance on the field, and it exacerbated his already rebellious and moody nature. Still, Alexander played better than most, and he continued to play for Chicago until his addiction and ill health became troublesome.

Alexander was admitted into a sanitarium for dual treatment of the effects of alcoholism and epilepsy after the season in 1925. He would be admitted again in 1929 as his career and personal life began to fall apart, and from this, he would not recover as well. The 1926 season rolled around, and the club's new manager, Joe McCarthy, "had strict rules against the consumption of alcohol on the team," wrote Clark and Webb. Alexander's drinking was a problem. Alexander's attitude, his consistent violation of training rules, and his addiction to alcohol overrode the pitcher's asset to the team, and the choice became clear for McCarthy. Alexander remained with the Cubs until mid-season, 1926. Ironically, the fans, who adored the troubled pitcher, presented Alexander with a car just prior to Alexander's final game with Chicago. He then was waived to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Any baseball fan familiar with the important games of 1926 has to wonder if Chicago regretted its decision. Alexander played extremely well for the Cardinals for the first two seasons. Perhaps the shock of being traded was just what he needed. The Cardinals were the third major-league team Alexander played for, but they would not be the last team. Although Alexander only played a little over three seasons with the Cardinals, it is the team with which his name will always be most associated. On Oct. 10, in the seventh inning of the seventh and deciding game of the 1926 World Series, a great pitcher sometimes dubbed "Old Pete" or "Alex the Great" became a legendary, baseball folk-hero. Despite any past or future feats Alexander achieved or would achieve, it was that day that defined him in the history books and baseball stories.

The game itself had all the quality ingredients for myth making. The opposing team was the New York Yankees, who had already lost to the Cardinals the previous day, with Alexander pitching. The Yankees featured players who were already legendary themselves, such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, and neither team was giving an inch. This was, after all, the deciding game. The score was 3-2, with the Cardinals leading. The bases were loaded, and power-hitter Tony Lazzeri was up next. At this point, Alexander was roused from his nap in the bullpen and told to warm up; he was coming in as a relief pitcher. Alexander struck out Lazzeri in four pitches, and then he held the Yankees scoreless for the rest of the game, thus winning the Series for the Cardinals. It was the Cardinals' first World Championship.

Alexander had one more good season with the Cardinals. The following season was perhaps the pinnacle of achievement for Alexander. He received a raise to $17,500, his top salary. Also in 1927, Alexander's twenty-first win made him the second player in National League history to win twenty games for three different teams. This would not occur again until 1978, when Gaylord Perry would be named the third. Ironically, while setting a record, the 1927 season would also mark the end of an era for Alexander, as he never topped the twenty-win mark again.

The following season in 1928, Alexander had only sixteen wins and played his final World Series. The year 1929 was the beginning of the end for Alexander professionally and personally. It was this year that he and Aimee first divorced, and drinking became increasingly problematic. Alexander was traded back to the Phillies, but his glory days were clearly over. For the first time in the pitcher's career, he had more losses than wins. Alexander officially was released by the club on June 3, 1930, bringing his major-league career to a sad end.

In 1938, Alexander was notified by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) that he'd been selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. According to Charles C. Alexander, author of Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era, when Alexander was informed that he been selected, he was quoted as saying, "The Hall of Fame is fine, but it doesn't mean bread and butter. It's only your picture on the wall."

The Baseball Hall of Fame is a sign of outstanding achievement in a player's career and is taken a bit more seriously by today's members than by its earlier inductees. Sports writer Bud Poliquin commented that Alexander "grudgingly participated in Coopertown's first induction ceremony." However, Alexander was not the only player of his day to feel little sentimentality about the honor. Ty Cobb, for instance, "boycotted that inaugural induction ceremony in '39 because of a feud with the commissioner," stated Poliquin. Poliquin also recounted when Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove, and Carl Hubbell were all inducted in 1947 at the same ceremony, none of them showed up.

This attitude was not as ungracious as it might seem, but merely reflected the reality of the times. By this time Alexander had been away from the majors for nearly eight years. He continued to pitch for a time, and played very briefly for Dallas, a semiprofessional club of the Texas League. Alexander also pitched for the well-known House of David club (Benton Harbor, MI), from 1931-35. Ever the rebel, the Baseball Hall of Fame's "Alexander" web page revealed that "a clean-shaven 'Pete' Alexander pitched for the House of David baseball club comprised of players whose religion dictated that men neither shave nor cut their hair." Alexander pitched as long as he could find a team to take him and as long as he was able. When he could no longer pitch, Alexander worked a variety of odd jobs, including selling tickets at a racetrack and working as a greeter in a bar. While working in a sideshow on 42nd Street in New York City, in a low, soft voice, Alexander would captivate his audiences with tales of the glory days of baseball.

That a former professional baseball player would work at such seemingly demeaning jobs was not so un-usual for retirees of Alexander's generation. Unlike today, baseball in those days offered little if any retirement security. Pensions were unheard of in Alexander's day. Some players like Waite Hoyt were fortunate enough to become sports announcers or radiocasters. Others became managers or coaches if possible. But a greater number of former players had to take what they could find. Charles C. Alexander quoted Hoyt as stating that one of the downsides of choosing baseball as a career was that "it takes the player's best years and trains him for nothing else."

Kavanagh and others have described Alexander's glory days, but there is a strong undercurrent of sadness as the increasing obscurity that defined Alexander's post-National League years becomes apparent. When he could no longer play baseball due to his health, Alexander took what odd jobs he could find. During the war years of the 1940s, Alexander worked for a time in a Cincinnati airplane factory. When his health worsened to a nearly disabling degree, a small pension was arranged by the Baseball Commission at the urging of Aimee Alexander. Towards the end of his life, Alexander's health problems increased, adding heart disease and cancer to his list of ailments. On Nov. 4, 1950, the once-great pitcher was found dead of heart failure in a small room he rented from Mrs. Josie Nevrivy, in St. Paul, Nebraska. The fact that he died alone, suffered from poor health, and was nearly destitute seems to permanently seal his status as tragic baseball hero. However, Alexander's personality and career achievements, despite his unlucky personal circumstances, also bespeak an irrepressible spirit that is the stuff of which baseball legends are made.

Sketch by Tricia R. Owen

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