When I first started collecting baseball cards in 1972, I specifically remember seeing this card. I had never before heard of Joe Grzenda. I just wondered why he was looking skyward. I also wondered why he had so many consonants in his name. By the end of the 1972 season, he was out of baseball—and out of my personal consciousness. And I never bothered to learn a thing about him.
As we head into the second half of the summer in 2013, some 41 years later, the odd name of Joe Grzenda has once again gained my attention. It happened in early July, when I began reading the wonderful new book, Southern League, written by Larry Colton. The book, which deserves to win a few awards by the end of the year, tells the compelling and captivating story of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, the first integrated team in the history of a city riddled by racist segregation and outright racial violence. The 1964 Barons featured several future and past major leaguers, including African Americans Tommie Reynolds and Blue Moon Odom, a Latino shortstop in Bert Campaneris, and white players like outfielder Larry Stahl and pitchers Paul Lindblad and Ken Sanders.
Joe Grzenda (pronounced Greh-ZEN-duh) also pitched for that team. By then, this veteran left-hander was known as “Shaky Joe” Grzenda, a nickname that I will explain—eventually. Grzenda grew up as the son of a hardened Pennsylvania coal miner, a strict disciplinarian with little patience and even less tolerance. The senior Grzenda believed in corporal punishment to the extreme, which included frequent applications of his belt to his five children. “Today they put parents in jail for those things,” Shaky Joe said. “If they did that back then, my father wouldn’t just be in jail, he’d be under it.”
Escaping the coal mines and signing with the Tigers in the late 1950s, the young Grzenda impressed scouts as a tall, lean, hard-throwing left-hander. A highly touted prospect, the six-foot, three-inch Grzenda had a high octane fastball, a sharp curve, and unlimited potential.
In 1958, Grzenda reported to the Tigers’ affiliate in the Southern Association, which just happened to be located in Birmingham. Grzenda pitched marvelously, helping the Barons win the league pennant. Enormously popular with the fans in Birmingham, he also emerged as one of the Southern Assocation’s top prospects.
The Tigers planned to give him every chance to make their team in 1959, but during the winter, he came down with an untimely case of appendicitis. The ailment delayed his arrival for spring training; when he rushed himself in a bid to make the Tigers’ Opening Day roster, he injured his arm.
Arm woes set Grzenda back substantially. He made a comeback, but never completely regained the life on his fastball. By the time he finally made the Tigers’ roster in 1961, he was no longer a prized starter. Now struggling to hang on in the bullpen, he made four appearances in the unglamorous role of middle relief.
The Tigers sent Grzenda back to the minor leagues, where he remained for the better part of two seasons. In the middle of the 1963 season, the Tigers released their onetime phenom.
Signing with the Kansas City Athletics, Grzenda returned to Birmingham for his fourth stint with the team. It would also be a pioneering year in the city’s history. Birmingham had lost its minor league team after the 1961 season largely because of the city’s refusal to change the infamous “Checkers Rule,” a law that prevented blacks and whites from playing together, whether it be baseball, softball, football, or even a game of checkers. The law made it impractical to field a minor league team for any organization that had black players in its system.
After Birmingham sat out the 1962 and ‘63 seasons, the city’s voters finally ousted the infamously racist commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, who was one of the biggest proponents of the Checkers Rule. With Connor out of power and Birmingham now operating under a new political system that featured a mayor and a city council, the Checkers Rule was repealed. That paved the way for a new baseball team with local ownership, while also encouraging Athletics owner Charlie Finley to place his Double-A affiliate in Birmingham, now part of the newly formed Southern League.
Quiet but likeable, Grzenda started the season with the newly reincarnated Birmingham franchise. Grzenda’s teammates quickly took note of his habit of drinking two pots of coffee each day. They also noticed his chain-smoking, as he plowed through three packs of Lucky Strikes in a typical day. Sometimes Grzenda would light a cigarette and start smoking, leave it on the bench, and then work so quickly on the mound that he could return to the dugout and finish off the cigarette. A bundle of nervous energy fueled by cigarettes and coffee, he was in constant motion, sometimes to the point that he seemed to be shaking. Hence the nickname Shaky Joe.
The top left-hander in Birmingham’s bullpen, Grzenda pitched well in the spring and earned a call-up to Kansas City in May. The move upset the Barons, who were losing arguably their best relief pitcher. Grzenda would appear in 20 games for the A’s but struggled with his control before being sent back to Birmingham in the middle of July.
Upset by the demotion, Grzenda considered quitting and going home to Pennsylvania. But the prospect of working in a coal mine appealed to him about as much as giving up a grand slam. After some momentary thought, he made the best decision he could and reported back to Birmingham.
Led by players like Hoss Bowlin, Campaneris, Reynolds, Lindblad, and Sanders, the integrated Barons contended for the top spot in the Southern League. Competing head-to-head with the Lynchburg White Sox (Lynsox), the Barons engaged in one of the great pennant races in minor league history. With the two teams tied in the standings during the final week, they met each other in a season-ending, three-game series in Lynchburg. The winner of the series would claim the pennant.
Lynchburg won the first game with ease, 8-1. In the second game, amidst a flurry of racial catcalls from the fans, the red-hot Reynolds hit a 475-foot home run for the Barons, but that couldn’t prevent a 10-3 loss to the Lynsox. The Barons’ loss clinched the pennant for Lynchburg.
The Barons then won the anticlimactic finale to complete the regular season and put them just one game out of first place. Although the Barons had fallen short, they had nearly put a storybook finish to a summer of integration in the cradle of Jim Crow.
Unfortunately, outside of pitching well in a spot start late in the season, Grzenda had struggled, perhaps still dazed by his mid-season demotion. In one game against Lynchburg, he had given up four runs in a third of an inning. While Grzenda didn’t lose the pennant by himself, one had to wonder what might have happened if he had pitched as well down the stretch as he had at the outset of the season.
Grzenda’s presence on the history-making Barons would have been notable by itself, but his career would take another interesting turn later when he joined the Washington Senators. But before he joined the team in the Capitol City, he would make several additional stops on his uneven and disjointed journey.
After splitting the 1965 season between two minor league stops, Grzenda worked his way back to the A’s in 1966 and made 21 relief appearances. The following summer, he made a return trip to Birmingham (his fifth stop in the Alabama city), where he pitched beautifully, winning all six of his decisions and allowing only 51 hits in 75 innings. That performance cemented Grzenda as one of the most popular players in the history of the Barons’ franchise.
Impressed by his performance in the Southern League and his mastery of a new pitch (the palm ball), the Mets purchased his contract and assigned him to their bullpen. He put up an impressive ERA of 2.16 in 11 games.
Though Grzenda had done well in 1967, he would soon find himself on the move again. After the season, the Mets sold him to the Twins. He spent all of 1968 at Triple-A Denver, before joining Billy Martin’s pitching staff in Minnesota. Grzenda spent all of 1969 with the Twins, making a scoreless appearance in the first ever American League Championship Series.
During the spring of 1970, the Twins traded Grzenda to the Senators for outfielder Brant Alyea. Shaky Joe struggled badly, putting up a bloated ERA of over 5.00 for his new manager, Ted Williams. But then came 1971, when Grzenda found his control and his command, becoming Washington’s most effective relief pitcher. Although the Senators were dreadful, the 34-year-old Grzenda emerged as a bright spot. Displaying pinpoint control, he put up a team-leading ERA of 1.92, which helped him win five games while saving five others.
As the season moved into its final days, Senators owner Bob Short announced plans to move the team to Texas. The Senators’ days were numbered. As circumstances would have it, Ted Williams called upon Grzenda to pitch the ninth inning of the team’s last game at RFK Stadium. Protecting a 7-5 lead against the Yankees, Grzenda quickly retired Felipe Alou on a groundout and Bobby Murcer on a comebacker. Grzenda was now one out away from victory. Always a fast worker and fully aware of growing discontent among the fans in the stands, Shaky Joe shouted at the next batter, Horace Clarke, who was taking several practice swings. Grzenda told Clarke to hurry up and take his place in the batter’s box.
It was too late. By now the angry fans at RFK Stadium, furious with Short over his decision to move the team to Texas, had stirred themselves into frenzy. “I saw the dust coming up from the first base side,” Grzenda told the Washington Times. “The fans jumped the fence and kept coming.”
One fan, a large man with a full beard, headed straight toward Grzenda. The skinny left-hander thought for a moment that the bearded intruder was about to tackle him, but the man wanted no part of violence, only a chance to touch Grzenda on the shoulder. Narrowly escaping a potential confrontation, Grzenda noticed swarms of fans around him and the other Senators and decided it was time to move on. He ran off the field, to the safety of the dugout and the clubhouse.
Grzenda never did get the chance to make another pitch. With thousands of fans trampling on the field, and the grass and dirt at RFK Stadium rendered a blotchy mess, the umpires soon declared a forfeit, awarding a 9-0 victory to the Yankees. For Grzenda, there would be no save, no chance to end the final game in Senators history with a moment of triumph.
Grzenda wanted to stay in Washington and enjoyed playing for Williams, but he wouldn’t even have a chance to move with the franchise to Texas and pitch for the Rangers. That’s because the newborn Rangers traded him that winter, sending him to the Cardinals for switch-hitting infielder Ted Kubiak. Grzenda pitched the 1972 season in St. Louis before finishing out his career with two seasons in Triple-A ball.
Although Grzenda had still managed to throw the final pitch in Senators franchise history, he had done so in the most anti-climactic of ways, without recording the final out. So it was only fitting that when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005, the new franchise would invite Grzenda to participate in their first Opening Day ceremony, also slated for RFK Stadium. It was an idea that actually had been suggested by Grzenda’s son.
Despite making a mad dash off the field in 1971, Grzenda had the foresight to hold onto the ball that he had thrown for the final pitch. He took the ball home with him, put it into a large brown envelope and stuffed it in a drawer, keeping it there for the next 34 years. When the Nationals asked him to participate in first pitch ceremonies, Grzenda produced the same ball and brought it to the ballpark. Walking from the Nationals’ dugout, Grzenda made his way toward the infield and handed the ball to President George W. Bush. The handoff complete, the President then delivered the ceremonial first pitch.
The act of participating in the Nationals’ first Opening Day completed Grzenda’s long, strange and twisting journey. It was a journey that saw him make stops with six major league teams over the course of eight seasons and 12 minor league teams over 16 seasons. Along the way, there were many forgettable stops, which probably prompted Grzenda to deliver this famous quotation in 1971. “I’d like to stay in baseball long enough to buy a bus,” Grzenda told The Sporting News, “then set fire to it.”
As much as he hated those bus rides, they did deliver him to Birmingham and Washington, where he became a part of something special. Those experiences made me reconsider that 1972 Topps card, which told us so little about Grzenda, other than his strange name and that awkward pose of looking skyward..
Clearly, there was a lot more to Joe Grzenda than I initially thought.