Cooperstown Confidential: Stories of Bobby Grich

Earlier this month, longtime baseball historian John Thorn raised a ruckus on the Internet when he suggested that too much of today’s baseball writing focuses on statistics and sabermetrics and not enough concentrates on the colorful stories of the game’s past.

“For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players,” Thorn writes, “stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else.” As one of the leading statistical researchers of the last three decades, Thorn takes some of the blame himself, so it’s not as if he’s just pointing the fingers at others.

Thorn is not alone in presenting these ideas. At Baseball Think Factory, researcher and author Mark Armour posted the following thoughts in direct reaction to the Thorn article.

Were one to survey your favorite baseball blogs looking for articles about anyone who played “in the past,” I think you would discover that they are dominated by the “How good was he?” question. I have read dozens of stories advocating Bobby Grich for the Hall of Fame, a case I support by the way. But is there anyone writing about Bobby Grich in any other way? What he was like as a player, stories about him, anything? He was once the best prospect in baseball, and had to hit .380 with power in Triple-A before he got called up. When Dave McNally found out that Grich had been sent down again, he told the press that he felt sorry for general manager Harry Dalton, because Grich was likely going to start throwing punches.

I think Armour and Thorn are on to something. There are a few people writing about baseball history from a standpoint other than “statistical evaluation”—and I guess I’m one of those people, along with our own Steve Treder—but they are generally outnumbered by those who specialize in sabermetric analysis. Now maybe it’s just the law of supply and demand at work here, and that’s fine, but as someone who loves baseball history, I personally appreciate those articles that mix a heavy helping of colorful stories with smaller dashes of statistical insight.

So let’s get started. And let’s use Armour’s excellent suggestion as our starting point: the career of Bobby Grich. First off, I agree with the consensus of sabermetric thought that Grich is one of the most underrated players of the last 40 years and also one of the best players, along with Ron Santo and Ted Simmons and Alan Trammell, on the outside looking in when it comes to the Hall of Fame. A brilliant defensive second baseman who had the range of a shortstop, Grich could hit with power, draw walks, and steal an occasional base. And he did all of that with a number of winning teams in Baltimore and California. What’s not to like about all of that?

Now for the rest of the story. Or at least part of it. Born in Michigan, Grich moved with his family moved to Long Beach, Calif. As a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, Grich kept some notable company. He played on the same team as another future major leaguer, shortstop Ed Crosby, the father of Bobby Crosby. Grich’s schoolmates at Wilson High also included Jeff Burroughs, who was two years behind him but would make the major leagues the same season as Grich (1970). Recognizing his power and defensive skills and hopeful that he would bypass a college football scholarship as a quarterback, the Orioles drafted young Bob Grich in the first round in 1967.

Grich’s name provided some intrigue during his minor league days. Throughout the minor leagues and even during his early big league career, he was usually referred to as “Bob.” All of his Topps cards listed him as Bob, even though he would eventually become known as “Bobby.” Grich also picked up a couple of nicknames in the minor leagues. He was alternately called “Bird” or “Lizard,” for reasons that remain unknown to this writer.

As Armour indicated, Grich’s climb along the minor league ladder was anything but brief or uncomplicated. Beginning his pro career as a shortstop, he played parts or all of five minor league seasons before finally receiving a midseason call in 1970. To do that, he had to hit .383 for Triple-A Rochester.

So why the delay that led Dave McNally to worry about the health and safety of GM Harry Dalton? Grich had the misfortune of coming up in the wrong organization for middle infielders. At the time, the Orioles already had Mark Belanger manning shortstop and Dave Johnson (he wouldn’t become “Davey” until later) playing second base. No room there. Under the circumstances, the Orioles might have moved Grich to third base, but they had an even better player there in the form of the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” Brooks Robinson. So there was simply nowhere for Grich to go.

Hugely intense, Grich also felt the effects of Earl Weaver’s platoon tactics. In one game, Weaver put Grich in as a pinch-hitter. The opposing manager switched to a right-handed pitcher to face Grich. So Weaver responded by sending left-handed hitting catcher Elrod Hendricks up as a pinch-hitter for Grich. The move left The Lizard livid. Grich marched back to the Orioles dugout and screamed at Weaver, “How do you expect me to hit when you’re up there swinging for me all the time?” Seeing how enraged his rookie infielder had become, Weaver thought Grich might throw a punch at him.

With All-Star caliber veterans ahead of him everywhere, Grich settled for duties as a utilityman, which put him in the same company as Orioles supersub Chico Salmon. Grich played sporadically—and hit poorly. Yet, he remained confident. One day, he and an Orioles teammate could be heard talking about hitting. Frank Robinson happened to eavesdrop on part of the conversation. “What does a rookie like you know about hitting in the big leagues,” F. Robby needled his young teammate. Grich didn’t hesitate in applying his own needle, this one with a little more sharpness. “Tell you something, pal,” Grich said without missing a beat. “I’ll be hitting for 10 years around here after you’re gone.” Ouch.

Grich would be proven right (he would retire in 1986, 11 seasons after Robinson), but in the short term, he would have to give in to the logjam of talent around the infield and take a demotion to Triple-A Rochester in 1971. Grich didn’t sulk; he accepted Weaver’s advice to become more aggressive and try to pull the ball for power. In fact, the slick shortstop played so well that he earned The Sporting News’ selection as Minor League Player of the Year, Yet, he didn’t earn a recall to Baltimore until mid-September, by which time the Orioles had clinched the American League East in a runaway. Resting Belanger, Weaver put Grich at shortstop for the better part of a week and a half and watched his rookie middle infielder put up a .400 on-base percentage in 35 plate appearances.

It was not until 1972 that Grich received regular playing time, albeit it at different positions. He accumulated over 500 at-bats while filling in at all four infield spots, even spelling Boog Powell on occasion at first base. Grich played so well at shortstop as a replacement for the injured Belanger that he made the American League All-Star team as a last-minute injury replacement.

With Grich obviously overqualified for a utility role, the Orioles decided to include Johnson in a major trade during the winter of ‘72. They packaged Johnson with veteran starter Pat Dobson, rookie right-hander Roric Harrison, and platoon catcher Johnny Oates, sending them to the Braves for the hard-hitting catcher Weaver craved, Earl Williams.

While Johnson laid waste to National League pitching to the tune of 43 home runs, Grich stepped in and played capably. Although he was built rock solid at 6-foot-2 (making him an oversized middle infielder for that era), he gave the Orioles additional range and speed at the second base position. The switch from Johnson to Grich made Baltimore’s infield defense even more airtight.

Another switch involved Grich’s appearance. As a younger Oriole, Grich kept his hair short and his face clean-shaven. By 1973, Grich had gone the route of some of his Oakland A’s rivals. He started to grow his hair long, accompanied by a mustache that some have compared to Tom Selleck’s during his “Magnum P.I.” days. That would become the look by which most fans would remember Grich.

Grich didn’t hit spectacularly in ‘73—his OPS actually fell by 13 points—but he played all 162 games and drew 107 walks, a total he would match two years later. In 1974, he cracked 19 home runs, giving the O’s the kind of power they had come to expect from Johnson. From 1972 to 1976, Grich put together a half-decade of brilliance for Baltimore. He won four Gold Gloves, made three All-Star teams, and succeeded Rod Carew as the American League’s best second baseman. He also earned a reputation for grittiness, as evidenced by a uniform that was often encased in dirt.

With the end of the 1976 season came the advent of free agency. Grich’s expired contract allowed him to try the open market. Though Reggie Jackson captured most of the headlines, Grich drew nearly as much interest, with nearly half of the 24 existing teams frothing over his combination of power and defense. While most teams targeted him as a second baseman, the Yankees and Angels actually looked at him as a shortstop, his original position.

As a Yankees fan, I found myself salivating over the chances of watching a shortstop who could actually hit, a pleasant possibility after seeing too much of Fred Stanley and Jim Mason in recent years. Unfortunately, negotiations between Grich and the Yankees did not go well; according to Grich, George Steinbrenner actually “threatened” him during the failed talks.

The Yankees offered him the most money, but Grich took his talents to the other coast. He signed a five-year, $1.35 million deal with California, which added him to a free agent stable that also featured Joe Rudi and Don Baylor.

With such an impressive haul of talent, the Angels became the fashionable pick to win the AL West. Instead, they flopped, finishing fifth. Grich landed on his belly, too. Just prior to the start of spring training, Grich tried to lift a heavy air conditioner. He hurt his back and was immediately put into traction; the back problems limited him to 52 games at shortstop and a .392 slugging percentage. He continued to struggle with back pain the following season, giving Angels fans ample reason to consider him a flat-out bust.

With his career at the crossroads, Grich worked his way to a comeback. After undergoing successful spinal disk surgery—and after moving back to his accustomed position at second base—he played in 153 games. He reached career highs with 30 home runs and 101 RBI. Becoming the backbone to an improved Angels team, Grich led the 1979 Haloes to the AL West title. Designated hitter Don Baylor received most of the popular vote in the MVP sweepstakes, but the league honor should have gone to the more well-rounded Grich.

Grich never matched his triple crown numbers again, but he remained an effective percentage player. During the strike-shortened season of 1981, he led the league in home runs (22) and slugging percentage (.543) and reached a career high in OPS at .921. He would make a total of three All-Star Game appearances with the Angels, and would not begin to show significant slippage until his final two seasons, in 1985 and ‘86. After a heart-wrenching Game Seven loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS, Grich tearfully announced his retirement. He admitted to being disappointed by his overall performance in the latter stages of the season, and to feeling overmatched against Roger Clemens in Game Seven.

In 1992, Grich became eligible for the Hall of Fame. The Baseball Writers Association gave him a paltry 2.6 per cent of the vote, which resulted in his automatic removal from the ballot. He is now eligible to be elected through the Veterans Committee, but didn’t even make the final ballot this past winter.

Although the National Baseball Hall of Fame has eluded him thus far, Grich did become the inaugural member of the Angels Hall of Fame in 1988. He also remains in touch with the game’s history in another critical way. The Angels offered him the opportunity to start up the team’s alumni association; Grich accepted the offer and now regularly places phone calls to ex-Angels players to inform them about reunions and possible guest appearances.

So, yes, there is more to Grich that just his gaudy statistics. By all accounts, he seems to be a genuinely good guy who overcame the roadblocks of a deep organization and career-threatening back problems. Nowadays he’s happy to talk to any and all former Angels, and perfectly willing to sign autographs for fans.

A great player to begin with, Bobby Grich has become even more likeable.

References & Resources
The Sporting News, Phil Jackman beat column, 1972

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Comments

  1. Craig Tyle said...

    The O’s, despite their success in the late 60s – early 70s, were a small budget team, and could not compete in terms of keeping players like Grich.  It would be interesting to see a Steve Treder piece on how they would have done with Grich and Decinces in the infield.

    Another angle is Grich and Baylor—both had difficulty breaking in with the O’s, and were eventually re-united in Anaheim. 

    I was a kid in Rochester, and the ‘71 Red Wings were a dominant team.  Grich led the IL in batting average and homeruns, but was nosed out in RBI’s by his teammate Baylor.

  2. Ron said...

    The more I read about Bobby Grich’s case for the Hall of Fame, the more I agree he has been overlooked much like Lou Whitaker.

  3. Currey said...

    Just eyeballing his numbers, it seems like he had a lot fewer runs than a guy with his on-base percentage would have. Especially in his later years. Was that a function of batting order or the Angels not being good at driving him in?

  4. mike said...

    I think Grich belongs in the Hall of Fame—-so maybe i am biased a bit here—but the fact that he received such little support in his first year on the writers’ ballot and was no longer eligible to be on that ballot shows that something is fundamentally wrong with the HOF election process.  I understand the arguments against his election, but surely he was good enough to merit a serious discussion.

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    Currey, my recollection with Grich is that he usually batted down in the order—sixth or seventh—and was therefore ahead of some of the weaker hitters in the lineup. That might account for some of his lower runs scored totals.

  6. Jim G. said...

    Another great article, Bruce. I think much of the statistical tunnel vision is in thanks to the rise of fantasy sports. Too many “fans” nowadays deem a player worthless if they are worthless in fantasy leagues. (The David Eckstein effect. (We won’t get into the Jim Mason effect…))

    @YAMOMG – don’t forget Kiko Garcia. Rich Dauer was a solid player. His was great defensively (at 2nd AND 3rd) and was a prototypical #2 hitter. Nowhere near the power of Johnson or Grich, but a good overall player.

  7. Currey said...

    Thanks Bruce, I just looked up the stats for players from 1970 to 1986 and it looks like Grich scored at about the same rate as Yastrzemski, Gary Matthews, Amos Otis and Cesar Cedeno. I guess I’m used to modern scoring levels when I look at that sort of thin.

  8. You'reAMeanOneMrGrich said...

    Letting Grich go was a rare but serious misstep for the O’s brass at the time. I have to think that keeping his bat and glove in an already-potent lineup from ‘77-‘83 (rather than the anemic melange of Billy Smith, Rich Dauer and Lenn Sakata) might’ve made the difference between 1 championship and a dynastic run. (And to take it a step further, had they followed Earl’s advice and brought Ripken up as a SS, they could’ve had fielded an infield of DeCinces-Ripken-Grich-Murray throughout the early thru mid-80s. Yowzah.)

    (You might note, too, that Grich was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1998.)

    Great article. Thanks.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    I took a look at some of the boxscores from Grich’s terrific 1979 season and it looks like he usually batted seventh or eighth for the Angels. Given his numbers that year, he probably should have been batting fifth or sixth, at the lowest.

  10. John Shreve said...

    I appreciate statistical analysis but cannot abide SaberSnobs.  I prefer text supported by numbers to numbers supported by numbers.

  11. Bruce Markusen said...

    John, I think that there are examples of both kind of writing out there, but the sheer volume of statistical analysis far outweighs the volume of the storyline approach at what I would call the “power” baseball sites like Baseball Think Factory, Prospectus, Tom Tango, MGL, ESPN, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, and The Hardball Times (if that doesn’t sound too arrogant to include in the power listings). Some sites are doing both well, like THT (where we have Treder and Jaffe) and Prospectus, (especially with Lauria’s historical interviews and Goldman’s increasing presence), but at others, there is an imbalance.

    Now those sites might argue that there is no money in the stories and the history, that everything needs to be centered on Sabermetrics and Fantasy ball and baseball today. And I can certainly understand that. People need to make money.

    But when people contend that the quality sites are doing an equal number of history/story articles as they are stats/analysis articles, well that’s just not the case.

    And I guess I’m one of the people trying to fill that void, or at least narrow the gap a little bit.

  12. Cliff Blau said...

    Good article, Bruce.  If you’ll excuse a little statistical analysis, I would say that Grich’s runs scored were only significantly low in 1979 and 1980, which I’d guess were a result of hitting low in the order.

  13. Cliff Blau said...

    I remember the Orioles’ farm system was really loaded in the early 70s. Besides Grich and Baylor they had guys like Roger Freed (http://sabrpedia.org/wiki/Roger_Freed_(10aa)) and Mike Reinbach (http://sabrpedia.org/wiki/Mike_Reinbach_(59f1)) who looked like they were going to be good.  Not to mention Merv Rettenmund, who couldn’t get a regular job despite hitting .320 a couple of times.  For a while, it looked like the Orioles were going to win 100 games a year forever.

  14. PJM said...

    Bobby used to entertain the fans before spring training games in Palm Springs by doing an ANGEL spellout. He would contort his body in an amazing way to spell each letter. One of the all time great Angel characters.

  15. J Larick said...

    I remember when Grich first joined the Angels. One of the cool things back then was that the Halos trained at Holtville for a couple weeks before going to Palm Springs.  They were out in the middle of nowhere with 4 baseball diamonds next to each other, no media around, and fans could go stand behind the batting cages and actually talk to the players.

    I talked to Grich and Joe Rudi and they would take a couple swings, chat with fans about the upcoming season and take a couple more swings.

    It was the coolest thing ever to a young fan and, of course, could never happen nowadays.

  16. Bruce Markusen said...

    Not surprised to hear about Rudi doing that, J. He’s a great guy, very much the gentleman. Grich is a bit more intense, but also seems like one of the good guys.

    It is too bad we have reached the stage where players and fans have such little contact. I think it’s a two-fold problem: the autograph craze (which results in stampedes of players at ballparks) and the high salaries of players making them celebrities who feel little bond with fans.

  17. metsilverman.com said...

    Bruce,
    Great piece. John Thorn is right (as usual). Baseball is a numbers game, but it is played by people, people who are filtered through scouts, coaches, minor league coordinators, managers, and GMs. Sometimes they have pretty good stories about what happened to get them there.

  18. mike said...

    I would agree that the rise of fantasy leagues has distorted fandom to the point of endless, arcane reams of statistics which really have contributed in some small way to the waning of my enjoyment of today’s game. It contributes to the overlooked status of many a player who wouldn’t show up in stats but who do unsung things to win ballgames. So many of the players I followed in the 60s and 70s wouldn’t get a second look today due to not being 6′ 5″ or not hitting 40 dingers in a season or not throwing 100 mph. And that’s really too bad. Lastly, I wonder if Mr. Grich ever thinks, ‘Dang, if only I hadn’t tried to lift that air conditioner!’

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