It seems strange that one can look back at a Hall of Fame pitcher's career that includes three-hundred seventy-three wins and still come away with a thought of what if? Yet, such is the case when one looks back at the career of Grover Cleveland Alexander. Despite putting up numbers that rivaled the two legendary hurlers of his day, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, it has often been the opinion of some that Alexander could have done more. It is thought that, due to war service and his battle against personal demons, he lost his chance to surpass his rival's career win marks and perhaps even eclipse Cy Young's all-time victory total of five-hundred eleven.
Born in Elba, Nebraska on February 26, 1887, Alexander developed his strength as a youth husking corn on his father's farm. Later, while working digging postholes for the phone company, he also played ball on the side and gained notice for his pitching ability . He was signed by Galesburg (Illinois) of the Illinois-Missouri League, and was 15-8 half way through the season when his suffered his first case of misfortune. While running from first to second, Alexander was struck in the head by the shortstop's throw to first to complete a double play. The blow rendered him unconscious and after recovering he was left with blurred vision. Galesburg, withholding his ailment, sold him to Indianapolis of the American Association who, after finding out about his vision, then shipped him to Syracuse of the New York State League. Finally, over time his vision cleared up and he responded with a fine 29-14 record for Syracuse in 1910.
The National League's Phillies purchased Alexander in 1911 and he had a remarkable rookie big league season, winning twenty-eight games, striking out two-hundred twenty-seven batters (a National League rookie record that stood for seventy-three years) and topped the loop with seven shutouts. He followed up with seasons of nineteen and twenty-two wins respectively, led the league in strikeouts (one-hundred ninety-five) in 1912, and shutouts again in 1913 with nine. Alexander's shutout totals were even more impressive because in Philadelphia he pitched in the hitter friendly Baker Bowl. Following a twenty-seven win campaign in 1914, he began a run of three seasons that put him in the class of the contemporary greats of his time, Mathewson and Johnson. From 1915-17 Alexander reeled off three consecutive thirty win seasons (31,33, 30) led the league in ERA with microscopic figures of 1.22, 1.55 and 1.83, and topped the National League (NL) in shutouts (twelve, a still held Major League record sixteen, and eight). He worked tirelessly averaging three-hundred eighty-four innings pitched, while twice pitching two complete games in one day, winning both times. He helped the Phillies reach the World Series in 1915, winning their only game as Philadelphia lost to Boston.
Alexander came at the batter with an easy sidearm motion and excellent control of his fastball and curve. "He looked like he was hardly working at all, like he was throwing batting practice," is how one teammate described him. Although he was known for an excellent curveball, (Alexander himself once said "The main thing with me is my curves"), Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes described his fast ball as "kicking in about three inches on a right-handed batter." Why then would the Phillies trade a pitcher with so much talent coming off such great seasons? Philadelphia shipped Alexander to the Chicago Cubs before the 1918 season suspecting their star pitcher would join the war effort. Their suspicions proved correct as Alexander shortly after the start of the season joined the Army. During the one year he served he engaged, and was witness to, some heavy combat and he returned home a changed man who became withdrawn. He became an alcoholic and suffered bouts of epilepsy.
Despite his ailments, Alexander remained a fine pitcher and gave the Cubs some fine seasons from 1919-25, winning twenty games twice (twenty-seven in 1920 and twenty-two in 1923), leading the league in ERA twice (1.72 in1919 and 1.91 in 1920), and was the Alex of old — walking just thirty batters in three-hundred five innings pitched in 1923. Halfway through the 1926 season the Cubs (wary of his constant drinking) traded him to the Cardinals. Although his best years were behind him, Alexander pitched well and contributed to St. Louis' first pennant winning year. That put the aging, ailing Alexander on the big stage in the World Series against the Babe Ruth / Lou Gehrig led Yankees. However, Alex wasn't one to be intimidated and he twice knotted the Series for the Cardinals winning Game 2 and Game 6. He then took a seat in the St. Louis bullpen thinking full well his Series work was complete, only to soon find out he would be needed, and would end up being associated with one of the most often told World Series stories that is legend to this day.
The Cardinals led Game 7 of the 1926 World Series 3-2, with two out, in the seventh inning when Redbird pitcher Jesse Haines developed a finger blister and walked three straight hitters. St. Louis Manager Rogers Hornsby was forced to make a pitching change and to everyone's surprise signaled for Grove Cleveland Alexander to come in and face powerful hitting rookie Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri. Legend has it the Alex entered the game either recovering from a hangover or simply having been woken up from a bullpen nap. While neither of them has ever been proven true, the record shows Alexander calmly took on the task and was up to it. Surviving a 1-1 pitch mistake (Lazzeri pulled one foul deep down the leftfield line) the crafty veteran snapped off a curveball to fan Tony, strand three runners, and escape danger. Alex then retired the Yankees in order in the eighth and got their first two hitters in the ninth. That left Babe Ruth as the last New York hope. Pitching carefully, Alexander went to a full count on the Babe before just missing and walking him. To everyone's surprise Ruth tried to steal second and was thrown out making the Cardinals 1926 World Champions.
Alexander had one more twenty win season in him (twenty-one in 1927) and won a respectable sixteen in 1928. The Cardinals released him in 1929, after he went 9-8, and he then returned to the Phillies in 1930 but did not win a game in his last Major League season. He then played some semipro ball, but the drinking and epilepsy had taken its toll and he soon left baseball completely. He finished tied with Christy Mathewson for third in career wins, second to Walter Johnson in all-time shutouts with ninety, led the league in ERA four times, and in strikeouts six seasons. He won the NL Pitching Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) three times, and was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1938. At one point in the 1940's, he was an attraction at a New York Circus where he would answer patron's questions about his career, mostly about the famous strikeout of Lazzeri. He returned to Nebraska in 1950 where he died on November 4. In 1953, a film was made about Grover Cleveland Alexander's life ('The Winning Team') and he became a ballplayer not only named for a U.S. President, but one that was portrayed by one, as future Chief Executive Ronald Reagan landed the role.