Cooperstown Confidential: Stories of Bobby Grichby Bruce Markusen
March 25, 2011
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 and Resources
The Sporting News, Phil Jackman beat column, 1972
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.