Burleigh Grimes was known for his trademark spitball pitch, his cantankerous nature and his fierce will to compete.
“Every pitch was a life or death situation for him,” said Joe Niese, author of “Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer,” a book that will be released sometime in late May or early June. “Off the field he was generous with his time and money.”
The fiery pitcher, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1964, had a brief stint with the Central Association’s Ottumwa Packers, a minor league team, in the first half of their 1913 season. Grimes, nicknamed “Ol’ Stubblebeard” because of his habit of not shaving when on the days he pitched, at the youthful age of 19, went 6-2 and boasted a 1.93 ERA in the 70 innings he pitched for the Ottumwa Packers. He gave up 46 hits and 22 runs, 15 of them earned.
“At one point, he had a streak of 29 scoreless innings,” Niese said.
Grimes’ stellar outings on the mound caught the eye of quite a few major league teams, including the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Detroit Tigers, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the then-St. Louis Browns who began to track the exploits of the young pitcher.
A scout for the Tigers named Jim McGuire was able to convince his organization to take Grimes and first baseman George Burns in a two-package deal.
“They [Grimes and Burns] actually ended up playing against each other in the 1920 World Series,” Niese said.
After the deal was made, Grimes was shipped out to play for the Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league affiliation of the Tigers at the time, thus ending his run with Ottumwa.
How he ended up playing for the Packers, also known as the “Speedboys” because of the Ottumwa team’s penchant for stealing bases, is a story in and of itself.
Before the season, Grimes was debating whether or not to play with the Austin (Minn.) Bills, a semi-professional team, or to pitch his tent with Ottumwa. Niese said he was leaning towards the Bills, but his dad, Nick Grimes, stepped in and encouraged him to play for Ottumwa because the level of play would be a step above the competition he would see at Austin.
But Grimes didn’t make much of an impression on Packers’ manager Ned Egan at training camp, and Egan was ready to send him to a team in Centerville. It looked like Grimes’s stay in Ottumwa would be a brief one until a teammate convinced Egan that Grimes was the fastest player on the team. To prove his alleged running prowess, Grimes had to beat a fellow pitcher in a race from centerfield to home plate. After he prevailed in the first two races, Grimes upped the ante in the third and final race.
“He bet $10 he would win the last race, and he did,” Niese said.
In 1920, when Grime was 26 years old, the arbiters of game banned the spitball from the league, but Grimes was one of 17 pitchers — each organization could nominate one player on the team to throw the spitball — exempted from the ban.
“The brass of the Major League decided to do away with the trick pitches being done at the time,” Niese said.
Interestingly, Grimes and Stan Coveleski, another spitballer; were on opposing sides — Grimes pitched for the Brooklyn Robins, and Coveleski pitched for the Cleveland Indians — as the top two pitchers in the 1920 World Series, Niese said. He said their performances had an integral role in convincing the league owners to allow each team to nominate a spitball pitcher who could throw the controversial pitch for the rest of his career.
Grimes spitball continued to help him on the baseball diamond, as he amassed an impressive list of accomplishments.
“It was likened to a watermelon seed, basically squeezing that out of your fingers,” Niese said of the spitball. “The way he [Grimes] threw it was kind of different from everyone else. He cracked nails because of the pressure of squeezing the ball out.”
While pitching, Grimes chewed slippery elm to improve the lubricating properties of his saliva.
In his 19-year career, Grimes won 270 games and topped 20 wins in five seasons. He pitched for seven different teams and was a four-time National League leader in complete games. At age 38, He pitched two winning games in the 1931 World Series for the victorious St. Louis Cardinals. When his career came to an end, Grimes was the last legal spitball thrower in the major league; a relic from a time that had passed.