Card Corner: 1971 Topps, Jerry Groteby Bruce Markusen
October 07, 2011
There is no card that better fits the player than Jerry Grote’s 1971 Topps card. Moments after making contact with a pitch in a game against the Cardinals in 1970, Grote is absolutely busting his way out of the batter’s box, his head down, his arms pumping forcefully. For an old school player like Grote, it was the only way to run out every ball—ground ball, pop-up, or a single to left field. In other words, it was the right way to play the game.
Grote might not have fit in with today’s more genteel game. He did not like to fraternize with the opposition. He did not enjoy talking to the media, either before or after the game. He just wanted to play that day’s game, play it hard, and win as often as possible. Those were attributes that would help the Mets, never more so than in 1969 and 1973.
There’s a tendency to think of Jerry Grote as a lifelong Met. It’s easy to forget that he actually started his professional career in the organization of the Houston Colt .45s. Grote made his major league debut with Houston in September of 1963, when he entered a game late as a defensive caddy for Big John Bateman. On Sept. 27, Grote became a part of an unusual development as the Colt .45s started the first all-rookie lineup in major league history. Other rookies who started that day were Rusty Staub at first base, Joe Morgan at second base, and Jimmy Wynn in center field. Along with Grote, those rookies all became very good players, and Morgan emerged as one of the all-time greats, a worthy selection for Cooperstown.
While Morgan, Wynn and Staub would all develop into solid players in Houston, Grote would struggle with the Colt .45s. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. Grote built his own batting cage at his parents’ home in San Antonio. He constructed the cage out of chicken wire and reinforced it with old carpeting. He spent much of his time in the winter working out in the cage, taking his swings against an old “Iron Mike” pitching machine.
As much work as Grote put in, it did not pay off in 1964. He did little to distinguish himself with the bat, hitting .181 with a .240 on-base percentage and a .262 slugging percentage. Those ghastly numbers, coupled with the arrival of Rule Five draftee Ron Brand and three-time All-Star Gus Triandos, resulted in a return ticket to the minor leagues in 1965, the year that the Colts moved into the Astrodome and became the Astros.
Grote started the season as the No. 1 catcher for the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, but later moved to third base when Bateman was demoted to the minor leagues. Grote hit .265 with 11 home runs, acceptable numbers for a catcher, but less appealing from a third baseman. After the '65 campaign, the Astros gave up on Grote, sending him to the Mets for cash and a player to be named later, who turned out to be an obscure pitcher named Tom Parsons.
The trade was one of the best that an aging George Weiss engineered as general manager of the Mets. The trade came at the suggestion of Mets scout Red Murff, who had previously worked for Houston and had originally signed Grote. Knowing that the Mets needed help behind the plate, where journeymen like Chris Cannizzaro and John Stephenson were soaking up most of the playing time, Murff felt that Grote was a perfect fit for the Mets.
Confident in his ability to handle a pitching staff, the Mets made Grote their No. 1 catcher in 1966. With Grote in place, the Mets avoided the 100-loss mark for the first time in franchise history. He immediately impressed his teammates with his competitive nature, which seemed to rub off on some of the other players. Given his determination and his defense, the Mets didn’t much care that Grote hit only .237 with a mere three home runs.
The Mets also noticed that Grote took his competitiveness to extremes. He developed an interesting habit behind the plate. When a Mets pitcher recorded the third out of an inning on a strikeout, Grote tossed the ball to the side of the mound that was opposite from the other team’s dugout. He did that to make the enemy pitcher have to walk a little bit longer before bending over to pick up the ball.
Not only did Grote have little love for the opposition, he could be short and ill-tempered with teammates. That attitude carried over to his dealings with the media. He did not have much patience for questions from writers, whom he regarded as outsiders. And then there was his ill regard for umpires, which reached a low point during a game in July of 1967. Mets manager Wes Westrum faced a shortage of players—he had only 21 healthy bodies—for a game against the Dodgers. After entering the game as a pinch-runner in the top of the seventh, Grote took his place behind the plate for the bottom half of the inning. Almost immediately, Grote took umbrage with the strike zone of home plate umpire Bill Jackowski. At the end of the inning, he shouted at Jackowski from the dugout, then threw a towel onto the field.
Jackowski ejected Grote, creating a severe problem for Westrum, who had run out of healthy catchers. Left with no choice, Westrum pressed outfielder Tommie Reynolds into service as his emergency catcher. (It would mark the only catching appearance of Reynolds’ career.)
Not only did Westrum fine Grote for his irresponsible actions, but general manager Bing Devine chewed out the temperamental catcher after the game. Grote learned a valuable lesson: that he sometimes had to curb his temper for the good of the team. (A few years later, Grote would miss a pitch from Mets right-hander Harry Parker that hit umpire Bruce Froemming. Froemming later accused Grote of intentionally missing the pitch, but Grote claimed that he had been crossed up. Without any proof, Froemming had no choice but to allow Grote to continue playing.)
A wiser player after the fire-and-brimstone lecture from Devine, Grote still wanted to improve his profile as a hitter. He hit above .300 over the first half of 1968, earning him selection as the starting catcher in the All-Star Game. He became only the second Met in history to earn a starting place on the National League All-Star team, joining journeyman second baseman Ron Hunt, a 1964 pick, in a selective group. Grote would finish the season at a solid .282, but instead of taking kudos for the improvement, he credited new manager Gil Hodges with helping him shorten his stride and quicken his swing.
While Grote was complimenting his manager, Hodges was recognizing Grote‘s toughness. A classic example took place in September of 1969, as Grote played both games of a doubleheader against the Expos. He totaled 21 innings in the two games, unusual given the physical demands of catching.
Hodges felt it was important for Grote to catch the young and talented Mets staff as often as possible. Even though Grote’s batting average fell off by 30 points in 1969, his defensive play reached a career peak. He committed only four passed balls and put together a TotalZone rating of 11. He threw out 40 of 71 opposing base runners, accounting for a stunning rate of 56 per cent. In a sport where the better base stealers are successful 80 per cent of the time, Grote’s numbers defied reason.
With Grote extracting the most of a youthful pitching staff, the Mets rallied to win the National League East. Grote didn’t hit much in the playoffs against Atlanta, but he delivered key hits in Game Two and Game Four of the World Series, with both blows setting up important run-scoring rallies. Though his hits garnered few headlines, Grote played a subtle role in the Mets’ logic-defying championship over the previously invincible Orioles.
Grote remained the Mets’ starting catcher through 1970 and ‘71, with the latter season hallmarked by his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but his situation began to change in the spring of 1972. The tragic spring training death of the beloved Hodges shook the organization, which turned to coach Yogi Berra as the team’s new manager. Shortly after Berra assumed command, he demoted Grote to a backup role and made Duffy Dyer the No. 1 catcher. Some Mets observers speculated that Berra preferred Dyer because he hit with more power than Grote, but Berra was hiding the real reason for the change. Grote was struggling with several bone chips in his throwing elbow, a condition that would require surgery in September.
The following spring, Grote returned to his role as starting catcher, but an errant fastball from Pittsburgh’s Ramon Hernandez broke a bone in his right forearm and sidelined him for two months. Once again, Grote had to work his way back, eventually lifting his average from the .170s to the .250s. Grote and the Mets made a return to the postseason and eventually the World Series, before losing to the powerhouse A’s in seven games. As he did in 1969, Grote caught every inning of the 1973 postseason.
In 1974, Grote earned selection to his second All-Star Game, but he continued to suffer injuries that summer and ended up splitting much of his time with Dyer. With the Mets increasingly concerned about the wear and tear on Grote’s body, they brought six catchers to spring training in 1975. Dyer was now out of the picture, having been traded to Pittsburgh, but journeyman Jerry Moses and impressive rookie John Stearns had arrived to crowd the catching situation.
Just when Grote appeared to be losing his grip on the catching gear, he beat back the competition and Moses was sold to the Padres. Playing through back problems, Grote batted .295, led all NL catchers in fielding percentage, and picked off six base runners. He continued to play effectively in 1976, despite the recurring pain in his back.
It was not until 1977 that Grote fell into a lesser role. Manager Joe Frazier made Stearns his starting catcher and began to use Grote occasionally at third base. That situation ended in late May, when Joe Torre replaced Frazier, moved Lenny Randle from second base to third base, and reinstated Grote as his backup catcher, where he would serve as a defensive caddy to Stearns.
Unfortunately, Grote did not finish the year in New York. At the June 15 trading deadline, the Mets began dismantling their team by trading Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman, their leading power hitter. Just before Sept. 1, they continued the housecleaning by dispatching the 35-year-old Grote to the Dodgers, where he became Steve Yeager’s backup for two seasons.
After the 1978 season, Grote found himself looking for work as a free agent. Yankees president Al Rosen approached Grote, offering him a two-year deal, under which he would play no more than 40 games a season while backing up the great Thurman Munson. Grote considered the offer, but with his marriage at a crossroads and his family his primary concern, he opted to retire.
The retirement lasted only two seasons. His wife filed for divorce, and with the marriage no longer salvageable, Grote decided to return to action in 1981, this time with the Royals. He settled for a role as a third-string catcher and pinch-hitter. He enjoyed one last hurrah on July 3, when he set a Royals record with seven RBI in a game against the Mariners. Grote eventually raised his season average to .304, but was mysteriously released on Sept. 1. He returned to the Dodgers, played in two more games, and then called it a career.
Four years later, Grote was managing the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern League when he suddenly ran out of healthy catchers in the midst of a doubleheader. In between games, Grote phoned his general manager and asked him for permission to be activated for the nightcap. The GM said yes, and the 42-year-old Grote strapped on his chest protector and shin guards for the final time. Remarkably, Grote drew a walk, skillfully laid down a sacrifice bunt, and played an errorless game behind the plate.
Even in his 40s, some four years removed from his last days as a major leaguer, Grote had retained the same determination that he showed on his 1971 Topps card. Even though 15 years had passed, nothing had changed for an old school gamer like Jerry Grote.
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.
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