Joe Niese. Burleigh Grimes: Baseball's Last Legal Spitballer. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2013. 244 pp. Paper, $29.95.
Burleigh Grimes was born in rural Wisconsin in 1893. His father, a farmer and sometimes day laborer, played for and managed the town baseball team, which competed with others throughout the region. Young Burleigh began by playing on the town's juvenile team, then in high school, and eventually for his father's club. He developed a reputation for his competitiveness and also his skill at throwing his specialty pitch: the spitball.
During the early 1900s, when Grimes came of age as a pitcher, the spit-ter was still legal at every level of amateur and professional baseball. Pitchers were permitted to lubricate their fingers before throwing the ball, resulting in pitches that had less backspin and dropped more unpredictably than conventional fastballs. After experimenting with several different substances, Grimes settled on a natural slippery elm bark that was readily available around his Wisconsin farm. He would use the same slimy lubricant for nearly thirty years on the pitcher's mound.
In his late teens, Grimes embarked on a professional baseball career, playing for several minor-league teams before being called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1916. He spent the next eighteen years pitching for seven major-league clubs, including the Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and the St. Louis Cardinals. As a major leaguer, he amassed 270 victories and pitched 314 complete games, played with thirty-six Hall of Fame teammates, and appeared in four World Series, winning one in 1931 with St. Louis. He also hit over .300 twice in his career and hit 62 doubles, showing some batting skill as well.
Along the way, Grimes antagonized countless players, fans, umpires, managers, and front-office personnel with his style of play and general cantankerousness. He tyrannized friend and foe alike, throwing beanballs at opposing hitters and berating his own team for defensive miscues. Nearly every spring, he held out for contracts that would pay him more money, demanding $25,000 a season even at the height of the Great Depression. He got into fistfights with his managers and altercations with his teammates; and over the course of his life, he married five times, twice ending in contentious divorce proceedings. Grimes's combative attitude persisted after his playing days ended, as he embarked on a mediocre managing career marred by numerous game ejections, tirades against his young players, and eventual firings. Eventually he found long-term employment as a major-league scout; and by the time he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964, Grimes had mellowed considerably.
Joe Niese tells the story of Burleigh Grimes in marvelous detail, enriching the bare numbers with anecdotes culled from a wide range of published sources. One of the strongest sections of the book is the opening chapter on Grimes's upbringing in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Niese provides tremendous insight into how deeply baseball was woven into the fabric of midwestern farm life at the dawn of the twentieth century, when players traveled to town games by horse and buggy and spent the off-season working as lumberjacks, farmers, or in burgeoning industrial jobs. He also takes pains throughout the book to craft an honest portrayal of Burleigh Grimes as he truly was, warts and all. Niese makes a candid assessment of how his subject's behavior contributed to both his successes and limitations, and the result is a very balanced work of scholarship.
However, the author uncovers so much detail in his research that it inadvertently contributes to one of the book's minor shortcomings. Niese is so eager to include every single aspect of the life and career of Burleigh Grimes that he occasionally causes a bit of information overload. The meat of the book covers the pitcher's professional career, and it describes each of Grimes's teams, seasons, and nearly every game that took place over that eighteen-year span. The middle chapters share a sameness of structure, detailing each season in minute specificity, ranging from health ailments to monthly game results to final team standings. Then comes a summary of each off-season, tracking Grimes's personal activities, health issues, and inevitable contract disputes with management. Each chapter then moves on to present the following year in a similar manner, at times resulting in a slow-paced narrative.
At the same time, some larger context seems incomplete. When the major leagues outlawed the spitball in 1921, Grimes was grandfathered in as one of only seventeen spitballers who would be permitted to throw the pitch throughout their careers. Although the book lists the other sixteen names, it never returns to the subject later to show how the numbers dwindled down to Grimes alone by the early 193os. In a book subtitled Baseball's Last Legal Spit-bailer, it would be appropriate to document how Grimes persevered long after his peers.
The book also declines to speculate on how Grimes's persona and reputation may have affected his Hall of Fame election, which took nearly thirty years to accomplish. Nor does it provide a formal conclusion to assess his legacy, in terms of on-field behavior, rule changes, or his impact on subsequent spitballers, whose names never appear.
In all, this excellent biography does justice to Burleigh "Old Stubblebeard" Grimes. It is a welcome addition to baseball scholarship.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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