Cooperstown Confidential: Two different left handersby Bruce Markusen
May 20, 2011
Over at the Hall of Very Good (http://www.hallofverygood.com), they’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the major league debut of Ross Grimsley, one of the great free spirits of the expansion era. With his white “Afro,” a set of bulging eyes, and accompanying tales of witchcraft, Grimsley cut an unusual swath during the 1970s.
Grimsley made his first appearance in 1971 for the Reds, the team that had originally selected him in the first round of the 1969 draft. If the Reds had known from the start how offbeat Grimsley was, they might have taken a pass. At the time, the Reds were just about the most conservative organization in the game. They demanded that their players keep their hair short, their faces clean-shaven, and their mouths shut. These were practices that Grimsley had little interest in maintaining.
Yet, Grimsley had what the Reds wanted—a live left arm with an ability to blow high fastballs by over-matched hitters. He also had the ability to change speeds. Not surprisingly, he moved up quickly within the organization, forcing his way onto the roster of the powerhouse Reds, the defending National League champions, early in 1971.
Grimsley did not fare well in his early starts with Cincinnati. Believing that the struggling rookie could use a boost, a TV reporter introduced him to a local witch. (This stuff cannot be made up.) The witch gave him a charm—a greenish-blue stone put into a setting and linked to a chain. After receiving the charm, he pitched well and won four games in a row. He then lost the charm. Soon after, he lost his next two games. He telephoned the witch, who kindly 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 phone number.
The Reds weren’t thrilled by the publicity attached to the story of the witch. Grimsley eventually bristled at the Reds’ squeaky clean approach. He wanted to grow his hair out and unveil a mustache, but the staid Reds’ front office would allow none of it. As the disagreements escalated, the Reds decided that a change was mandated, and made one of their poorer deals of the decade, sending Grimsley, who had been effective for three straight seasons, to the Orioles for outfielder Merv Rettenmund during the winter of 1973-74. Rettenmund had already seen his best years in Baltimore, while Grimsley would become a reliable starter for the Orioles.
While with the Orioles, Grimsley lost some speed off his fastball, but he continued to refine his change-up and curveball. Aided by a herky-jerky delivery, Grimsley put up ERAs below 4.00 in three of his seasons with Baltimore.
A far more open-minded organization than the Reds, the Orioles let Grimsley do what he wanted. He grew his black curly hair out, sporting what some referred to as a white man’s Afro. He also unleashed a bushy black mustache that would have made Tom Selleck proud. Grimsley had unusually large green eyes, which at times appeared to bulge out from below his forehead and earned him the nickname of “Crazy Eyes.“ With the eyes, the hair, and the mustache, Grimsley looked like he should be playing guitar for the Grateful Dead rather than pitching for the Birds of Baltimore.
While with the Orioles, Grimsley also carved out a reputation for unusual hygiene. Though some of his defenders claim that the reports were exaggerated, Grimsley allegedly did not bathe as frequently as decent society would dictate. With his long and supposedly dirty hair, he became known as “Scuzz.”
Though he’s best known as an Oriole, Grimsley actually had his best season after signing a free agent contract with the Expos in 1978. Remarkably, he struck out only 84 batters in over 263 innings, but the lack of power didn’t matter. He won 20 games for the only time, put up a career-best ERA of 3.05, and basically gave fits to National League batters who screwed themselves into the ground trying to time his slow change-up.
The season’s workload might have taken its toll, however. He would never match that level of success again, and would find himself out of baseball by 1982, at the age of 32.
Several years after his retirement, Grimsley played a trick on noted Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto. The veteran writer asked the flaky southpaw what he was doing in retirement. Grimsley proudly told him that he owned a growing armadillo farm, which featured 300 of the distinctive critters. He then provided Pluto with an extensive portfolio on armadillos, discussing their habits, characteristics, and probably their breeding habits.
Given Grimsley’s quirky nature, it all seemed very plausible to Pluto, who wrote about the armadillo farm in his newspaper column. Upon his next visit to the 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 as revenge for criticism Pluto had leveled at him during his days with Cleveland.
A farm of armadillos? Even a great writer like Pluto can be fooled by the man with the crazy eyes.
Paul Splittorff could not be categorized as a flaky left hander in the mold of a Grimsley. Yet, he was a similar style of pitcher and one who had more consistent success. Sadly, Splittorff’s name came into the news this week; according to reports out of Kansas City, the 64-year-old Splittorff is hospitalized due to oral cancer and melanoma, and is apparently close to death. This is especially sad news for Royals fans 35 and older who remember Splittorff’s annual presence throughout the late '70s and early '80s. (By coincidence, Splittorff and Harmon Killebrew, who just passed away from esophageal cancer, were teammates on the 1975 Royals.)
Lacking an overpowering fastball, Splittorff was originally selected in the 25th round of the 1968 draft—ardly indicative of a blue chip prospect. The Royals were willing to take a flyer on him largely because of his size (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) and his left-handedness. He quickly became a fast-rising bargain, making his debut with a 1970 cup of coffee and then earning some votes in the 1971 American League Rookie of the Year race.
By the mid-1970s, he had emerged as a durable and consistent No. 2 or No. 3 starter. With his sinking fastball (which was sometimes betrayed by the artificial turf at Royals Stadium), his skill in changing speeds, and his ability to study and dissect opposing hitters, Splittorff became a mainstay of those wonderful Whitey Herzog-inspired Royals, who won three consecutive division titles from 1976 to 1978. At first teamed with Dennis Leonard and Al Fitzmorris, and then with Leonard and fellow southpaw Larry Gura, Splittorff helped form one of the American League’s best starting trios.
Splittorff presented a conspicuous image on the mound. He wore large, wire-frame glasses that made him look like a college professor. He also had a distinctive delivery, which featured a pronounced leg kick. I particularly remember Splittorff giving the Yankees fits, carving up a lefty leaning lineup that featured Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles. Splittorff featured four pitches that he mixed well: the sinking fastball, a slider, a curve and a change-up. He was especially effective when he had a detailed scouting report from which to work. Perhaps that explains why he was so effective in the postseason. In seven games spread over five postseason series (mostly against the rival Yankees), Splittorff put up a 2.79 ERA.
Four of those series ended in elimination for the Royals. Splittorff retired in 1984, the victim of a 37-year-old arm that had worn out. Unfortunately, that was just one year before the Royals won their first world championship in franchise history. It was just bad timing.
Given his intelligence and studious nature, it came as little surprise when Splittorff pursued a broadcasting career after his pitching days. Splittorff took the job seriously, first doing play-by-play at the high school level before moving into the Royals’ broadcast booth. Working hard, he became an effective and popular analys, who provided subtle insights on the art of pitching and the strategies of defending hitters.
Unlike many in the broadcast industry, Splittorff does not like to promote his own cause or his own resume. He resists efforts to talk about himself; even after becoming ill, Splittorff has remained a private man who doesn't complain about his illness or seek sympathy from others. He prefers to discuss the Royals and their ongoing efforts to regain their glory of the 1980s.
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.