Cooperstown Confidential: Ross Grimsley and the swingin’ ‘70s

With all of the attention paid toward the best-selling biographies of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and George Steinbrenner, another worthy new book is being overshadowed. Terrifically titled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, the tome is the work of Dan Epstein, an expert on popular culture during the decade of decadence. In honor of Dan’s colorful volume, let’s put the 1970s strobe light on one of the era’s most emblematic characters.

Though lesser known than icons like Dock Ellis and Bill Lee, former big league left-hander Ross Grimsley was the consummate free spirit. He lived according to his own set of rules—and those rules supposedly included some intriguing involvement with witches and some strange choices regarding personal hygiene.

So it was with a rather large helping of irony that the offbeat Grimsley was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds, one of the most straight-laced organizations of the 1960s and ’70s. Personality quirks aside, the Reds liked Grimsley’s left arm and tall, 6-foot, 3-inch build. He threw high, hard fastballs that made him a rapid riser in the Reds organization. On the heels of winning the National League pennant in 1970, the Reds brought him to Cincinnati the following May.

Early in his major league career, Grimsley established himself as a pitcher who felt governed by more than fastballs and curveballs; he felt regulated by the laws of superstition. During his rookie season of 1971, a television reporter introduced Grimsley to a witch, believing that she could bring the struggling neophyte left-hander good luck. The witch gave Grimsley a charm—a greenish-blue stone put into a setting and linked to a chain. After receiving the charm, Grimsley pitched well and won four games in a row. He then lost the charm. Soon after, Grimsley lost his next two games. He telephoned the witch, who sent him another charm. Grimsley proceeded to lose the replacement charm; when he tried to contact the witch again, he realized he had lost her number, as well.

Grimsley’s manager, the old school Sparky Anderson, learned about the left-hander’s communications with the witch and called him into the office. Anderson advised him to forget about the charm and the witch, warning him that continued publicity about his superstition might result in him being branded by the rest of baseball. “You’re crazy,” Anderson told Grimsley face-to-face, according to an article in The Sporting News. “You’ll be known as the clown of the league once this gets around.” Grimsley didn’t care. He defended his belief in the charm. “If I think it’ll help me win,” he told The Sporting News, “why shouldn’t I keep in touch with the witch?” Remaining steadfast in his superstitions, Grimsley collected pocketfuls of lucky pennies, coins and charms of various sorts during his career.

Good luck charms aside, Grimsley enjoyed early success with the Reds. Employing a herky-jerky windup and an exceedingly slow but deceptive change-up (once clocked as slow as 42 miles per hour), Grimsley won two games in the 1972 World Series against the Oakland A’s. Yet, he didn’t feel comfortable under Anderson and certainly didn’t fit in with the corporate image preferred by the Reds’ front office. The Reds enforced strict rules about grooming, insisting on short hair, no mustaches and absolutely no beards; Grimsley preferred to wear his black hair long and curly, and he didn’t always like to shave. In general, the Reds existed as a conservative organization; Grimsley existed as a free-spirited radical. Inevitably, the two could not co-exist. After the 1973 season, the Reds traded the left-hander to the Baltimore Orioles for backup outfielder Merv Rettenmund.

With the Orioles, Grimsley sported a bushy mustache and grew his hair out. He liked to keep his locks long and greasy, perhaps for more than just reasons of fashion and habit. Throughout his career, opponents suspected Grimsley of loading up his pitches with a foreign substance that he might have been keeping in his hair and even in his eyebrows. Whether it be grease or jell or oil of some sort, Grimsley’s full head of curly hair (a white Afro, as some have called it) would have provided a comfortable hiding place.

Grimsley’s hair wasn’t his only distinctive physical trait. He also featured large green eyes—accentuated by turquoise contact lenses—which tended to bulge, giving him a piercing expression. When his face locked into a stare, other players took notice. Early in his career, baseball people began referring to Grimsley as “Crazy Eyes.”

Grimsley’s teammates probably didn’t mind his eyes, or the length of his hair. But they took notice of another one of his habits. Grimsley supposedly didn’t like to take baths or showers, or wash his hair on a regular basis. He particularly didn’t like to do so when he was pitching well, another example of his well-worn list of superstitions. According to some teammates, Grimsley left a memorable impression in the clubhouse and dugout, where quarters could be especially close. Some argued that his first name should have started with the letter G.

As his career progressed in the 1970s, Grimsley made the transition from a high-power pitcher to a change-up specialist. He threw change-ups at three different speeds: slow, slower and slowest. The style of pitching proved maddening to opposing hitters and helped him cash in on the newly created free agent system. After the 1977 season, Grimsley signed a lucrative deal with the Montreal Expos. Pitching in his first season with the Expos, he became the franchise’s first 20-game winner. In fact, he remains the only pitcher to ever win 20 games in a season for the Montreal franchise.

Grimsley could be a paradoxical figure, both in terms of temperament and relations with the media. Though known as a laid-back free spirit, he gained unwanted notoriety when he famously lost his temper with a fan. During a game in September of 1975 against the Boston Red Sox, Grimsley found himself on the receiving end of some heckling from fans while warming up in the Orioles’ bullpen. At the conclusion of his bullpen session, Grimsley acted as if he were going to make one final warm-up toss, then suddenly spun around, and fired the ball in the general direction of the Fenway Park stands. Traveling about 80 miles per hour, the ball missed its intended target, instead hitting an innocent fan standing by. Though formal charges were dismissed, the fan later sued Grimsley and the Orioles.

In general, Grimsley meshed well with the media. Friendly and talkative, he made himself an approachable figure to writers and broadcasters. Strangely, Grimsley changed his tune as a member of the Expos in the middle of the 1979 season. Without warning or explanation, he posted a handwritten sign above his locker in the clubhouse. The sign read, “STAY AWAY. THAT MEANS YOU!!” When reporters asked Grimsley about the turnaround, he said the sign was self-explanatory.

Several years later, by now retired from the game, Grimsley played a practical joke on longtime Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto. A respected writer, Pluto asked Grimsley what he was doing in retirement. Grimsley responded by saying that he owned an armadillo farm, which featured 300 of the distinctive animals. He then provided Pluto with an extensive dissertation on armadillos, discussing their habits and characteristics. Pluto wrote about the armadillo farm in his newspaper column. Upon his return to the Cleveland Indians’ clubhouse, players greeted Pluto with howls of laughter. Grimsley’s story about the armadillo farm had been a complete fabrication. He had apparently made up the entire story about armadillos as retribution for some negative remarks Pluto had written about Grimsley’s struggles with the Indians. Grimsley blamed Pluto, at least in part, for the booing he received from fans at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. For his part, Pluto pointed to Grimsley’s 6.75 ERA during his final season in Cleveland as the true motivation for the boobirds.

Given his erratic relationship with media and management, not to mention his radical grooming habits, it might come as a surprise to learn what Grimsley decided to do after his playing days. Much to my shock, the off-the-wall Grimsley became a pitching coach—and a respected one at that. Since the 1999 season, this symbol of 1970s zaniness has worked as a pitching guru for the San Francisco Giants organization. Currently stationed at Double-A, Grimsley tutors pitchers with the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

Yes, Ross Grimsley is now a Flying Squirrel! Somehow, in the wacky world of baseball that was so evident in the 1970s, that makes picture-perfect sense.

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Comments

  1. 3FingersBrown said...

    Great article. I had heard a few anecdotes about Grimsley but thank you for sharing the baseball lore. I always love stories about characters like Grimsley. I’ll be reading this book in the near future.

  2. Northern Rebel said...

    From Jim Bouten’s book Ball Four, to Jose Canseco, baseball has had it’s share of rascals.

    At least Grimsley and Lee didn’t put dead vermin in lady reporter’s pocketbooks, like Dave Kingman, who was the most unlikeable baseball player since Ty Cobb, until Barry Bonds arrived on the scene.

    Kingman hit 35 HR’s and drove in 94 runs when those niumbers meant something, (Pre-steroid, I think?) and nobody wanted him.

    There are stories about Jeff Kent being a “major league prick”, though the fact that Barry Bonds didn’t like him, puts me on Kent’s side.

    I guess I’ll take the flakes over the creeps. I wonder who outnumbers who!

    I’d enjoy hearing more about these types.

    Nice job, Bruce.

  3. Steve Treder said...

    As always, Bruce, your excellent choice of subject matter is matched only by your excellent depth of research.  Really fun stuff.

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thank you, Steve, Northern Rebel, and 3Fingers. Appreciate it.

    I’m enjoying Dan’s book on the 1970s. Characters like Grimsley make it all the more fun.

  5. Mark said...

    Excellent piece – thanks.  I always had a vague idea Grimsley was a character, but this sounds like an interesting book for anyone who grew up on 70’s baseball.

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