Today's birthdays include: Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Willie Stargell, five-time All-Star Cookie Rojas, one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, catcher Bob Swift (remembered as the catcher when this happened) and Roberto Duran (the pitcher, not the boxer).
Lefty Grove: Born 1900
There's an argument to be made that Lefty Grove is the greatest pitcher of all time, although few people make that argument. His career record of 300-141 (a .680 winning percentage) says a lot, but his nine ERA titles say even more. For example, here is the list of most ERA titles:
Lefty Grove: 9
Roger Clemens: 7
Christy Mathewson: 5
Walter Johnson: 5
Sandy Koufax: 5
Pedro Martinez: 5
But that doesn't even tell the whole story, how much better Grove often was compared to the No. 2 or No. 3 guys. At his peak in 1930 and 1931 (he went 28-5 and 31-4 those two seasons) he towered over the league. His 2.54 ERA in 1930 was close to a run per game better than Wes Ferrell's 3.31. Grove's 2.06 ERA in 1931 far outpaced Lefty Gomez's 2.67 and Bump Hadley's 3.06. He won five ERA titles with the Philadelphia A's and then four more with the Red Sox.
If you don't like ERA, we can look at most times leading your league in WAR:
Lefty Grove: 8
Walter Johnson: 8
Roger Clemens: 7
Cy Young: 6
Pete Alexander: 6
Randy Johnson: 6
OK, maybe those two categories emphasize peak value over career value. Career WAR for pitchers:
Cy Young: 170.3
Walter Johnson: 152.3
Roger Clemens: 139.4
Pete Alexander: 117.0
Kid Nichols: 116.6
Lefty Grove: 109.9
Tom Seaver: 106.3
Greg Maddux: 104.6
Randy Johnson: 104.3
Phil Niekro: 97.4
Of the five guys ahead of Grove, four pitched in a different era of baseball, when home runs were non-existent and pitchers threw huge totals of innings, making it easier to rack up lots of WAR. Clemens is the only pitcher who rates higher who didn't get the advantage of pitching in the so-called dead-ball era.
Another thing to consider: Grove didn't reach the majors until he was 25 years old. He pitched five seasons for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, going 108-36 before owner Jack Dunn finally sold him to the Athletics for $100,600 -- the Athletics outbidding the Cubs and Dodgers to make Grove the most expensive sale ever at the time. It's true that Grove may not have been a perfectly polished pitcher upon arriving in the majors -- he had a 4.75 ERA his first season. But he led the league in ERA his second season when he stopped overthrowing as much and threw his fastball with better command. Maybe he wouldn't have won 108 games in the majors if he'd spent those years in Philadelphia instead of Baltimore but he probably could have won another 75 to 80. Give him 375 wins instead of 300 and he'd be remembered more often on the level of Johnson or Clemens.
How hard did Grove throw? He often used just the one pitch during his days with the A's. "When planes take off from a ship, they say they catapult," Yankees shortstop Frankie Crosetti once said. "That's what his fastball did halfway to the plate. He threw just plain fastballs -- he didn’t need anything else." Teammate Doc Cramer said, "All he had was a fastball. Everybody knew what they were going to hit at, but they still couldn't hit him." Writer Bugs Baer famously once wrote that "Lefty Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf."
It's probably not much of an exaggeration to suggest Grove threw only fastballs early in his career. He definitely added a curveball later in his career and even a forkball, and Connie Mack, his manager with the A's, said Grove didn't really learn to pitch until he was traded to the Red Sox. (Grove suffered an arm injury in 1934, his first with Boston, and didn't throw as hard after that.) An article in Baseball Magazine from 1934 quotes his Philadelphia catcher Mickey Cochrane as saying, "I'll admit when Grove broke into the league he had little else except his fast ball. But he has learned a lot. He has a pretty fair change of pace and a very serviceable curve."
Grove was known for his fiery temper, directed at both teammates and opponents. "Did I get sore at my teammates? Did I yell at (Joe) Cronin? Yes sir. Guess I did. I was out there to win. That's the only way to play the game," he admitted in a 1961 AP story.
Karl Best: Born 1959
Unless you're a Mariners fan from the '80s, you're unlikely to remember Best, who had a short career as a reliever. I mention him because he graduated from Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, Wash., just outside of Seattle. He was a local kid who made good. I went to rival Kentridge and my mom worked with his mother for a time. Best was a big kid, threw hard, had trouble throwing strikes and moved slowly through the minors. For one brief period, however, it all came together for him. After major league trials in 1983 and 1984, he pitched well the first three months of the 1985 season. Appearing in 15 games and pitching 32.1 innings, he had a 1.95 ERA and four saves. For the first time in his career, he was throwing strikes: He had 32 strikeouts and just six walks. On June 20, he pitched three scoreless innings against the Rangers to get the save. He had become a fixture in the Seattle bullpen.
And that was it. He hurt his shoulder and had surgery and missed the rest of the season. He would pitch in 26 games the next season and a few more with the Twins in 1988, but he wasn't the same pitcher and didn't pitch again after 1988. Had he turned the corner in 1985? Who knows. It was just 32 innings but it was a dominant 32 innings. Maybe something had clicked, a delivery tweaked. My inclination is to believe that he would have remained a good pitcher if he hadn't gotten hurt. But, sadly, that's part of baseball, where fields are littered with pitchers who once threw 95.
(Here's a story from the Seattle Times in 2007. At the time, Best was still living in the Seattle area and owned a construction company. The story mentions his daughter Amanda, a high school basketball player. She went on to play four years at New Mexico, where she was an all-conference player and third-team Academic All-America majoring in biochemistry.)