Thursday, August 16, 2012

127. Johnny Grodzicki: The Cardinals Next Big Thing

If you flip through an old St. Louis newspaper or an issue of The Sporting News in 1940 or 1941, the chances are pretty good you'll come across at least a mention of a ballplayer named Johnny Grodzicki. The Cardinals of the early 1940's were arguably the best franchise in the game due in no small part to their vast farm system. Spread throughout the country their vast network of affiliated clubs spewed forth a continuous stream of young arms that fed the mighty St. Louis war machine: Mort Cooper, Howie Pollet, Max Lanier, Johnny Beezley... all stars of their day. So with all this top-drawer talent on the big club why spend the ink on some kid with an unpronounceable name still in the minors?

Because Johnny Grodzicki was that damn good. In fact, he wasn't just damn good, he was a can't miss, full-fledged superstar. Grodzicki was, as they say, the "next big thing."

Growing up in the gritty industrial town of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, all Johnny Grodzicki thought he had to look forward to was a life spent in one of the many factories that filled the sky above with gray smoke. He came from a big Polish family that resided in the Honey Pot section of town. His parents, Ignatz and Lottie, were recent immigrants and he had five brothers: Stanley, Chester, Casimer, Richard and Edward and two sisters: Jean and Alfreda. To supplement the meager paycheck he received from his job in a silk mill, Grodzicki started selling subscriptions to the Sporting News. Back then, everyone read the Sporting News, and helped by his genial personality, Grodzicki sold enough subscriptions to get himself a scholarship to the Ray Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs Arkansas. Doan's school attracted the best young ballplayers in the country and the 1935 faculty was chock-full of the games' top stars. As a pitcher, the strapping Pole was tutored by none other than Schoolboy Rowe, ace of the world champion Detroit Tigers and the immortal Dizzy Dean, at that time by far the best hurler in the game.

Under the watchful eyes of Rowe and Dean, Grodzicki learned how to properly hold a curve ball and all the other skills needed to become a professional. By the time the school had ended Johnny Grodzicki was signed by St. Louis (undoubtedly due to Dizzy Dean's recommendation) and thrown into the giant swimming pool that the Cardinals called their farm system.

Grodzicki surfaced with the New Iberia Cardinals in Louisiana's Evangeline League. The big righty threw hard but was wild and he ended his first season with a 16-12 mark. He showed great promise but needed work. If nothing else, Grodzicki impressed the Cardinals with his eagerness to learn. Hard work and determination brought him a promotion to Houston in 1937 and he tore up the Texas League with an 18-11 showing. However he was still prone to walks and topped the league with 174 passes. None-the-less the Cards had enough faith in him that they promoted him to their top farm club in Rochester. Under the watchful eye of manager Billy Southworth he dropped to 8-7 trying to get a hold of his control but by the end of the season he was undoubtedly the jewel of the St. Louis farm system.

Tragedy struck during the Red Wings' spring training when Grodzicki came down with influenza. The virus spread quickly and infection wracked his body. A stocky 6'-2" and 215lbs at the time of his illness, nine days later Grodzicki had lost 50lbs and was fading fast. Doctors weren't discussing whether or not he'd be able to play ball again but whether he was going to survive the infection. The Cardinals spared no expense to save their future star and after a battery of operations and round after round of serum injections, Grodzicki emerged from the hospital, weak but alive. He got into 25 games with the Red Wings that season and not surprisingly went 3-3. Trying to regain his strength and form on the mound, Grodzicki traveled south to Panama in that winter. In the four-team Panama League the big Pole came into his own and won 10 games for the Colon ball club and when the season ended, Grodzicki was tanned, bubbling over with confidence and ready for spring training. The bosses in St. Louis had been following his progress south of the border and now he had a guardian angel looking out for him - Billy Southworth, his manager in Rochester, was the new Cardinals manager. Southworth knew what the big fella was capable of and had him report straight to St. Petersburg, Florida. Johnny Grodzicki was spending the spring with the Cardinals.

It was a great spring training by any definition. On the mound the big phenom beat the hell out of the world champion Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. The sportswriters couldn't find enough adjectives to describe the big Pole from Nanticoke and the Cardinal executives were spraining their brains thinking about all the pennants that lay ahead. By the time the team broke camp Grodzicki was on the train north to St. Louis. Though everyone agreed he still needed some fine tuning, for the time being he was a Cardinal.

On April 18, 1941 he faced the Chicago Cubs in the top of the 9th inning and retired all 3 batters he faced. Two days later he was brought in again in the ninth against the Cubs and retired the last two batters to end the game. After another two days rest Grodzicki was again brought in from the bullpen, this time as the fifth Cardinals pitcher against Pittsburgh with the score tied 7-7 in the 12th inning. The rookie walked three and gave up a run as the Pirates went ahead, but fortunately a double by Marty Marion and a hit by Enos Slaughter put the Cardinals on top in the bottom of the 12th. As the last pitcher standing, Johnny Grodzicki got his first major league win.

Exactly a week later Grodzicki was rushed in to relieve starter Bill McGee in the third against the Giants in New York. In six innings he gave up 1 earned run on 3 hits, whiffed 5 but walked 4. He also picked up his 2nd win as a Cardinal. Despite a pretty good beginning the front office decided it was best if their young phenom spent another year in the high minors honing his craft. With all their existing arms, the Cards could afford to wait another year before unleashing the big Pole on the National League.

Grodzicki was sent to the Columbus Red Birds. Columbus, along with Rochester, was the top rung of the Cardinal organizations farm system. The ball club he joined was stocked with future major league all-stars Harry Brecheen, Murry Dickson, Harry Walker and Preacher Roe. Grodzicki dominated the American Association that summer striking out 136 men in 199 innings and compiling a .792 winning percentage. Besides leading the league in winning percentage his ERA was the lowest and he was undoubtedly the best pitcher in the loop. His 19-5 record led the Red Birds to the Little World Series where they beat the Montreal Royals in 6 games, Grodzicki winning two of them.

The sky was the limit for the Pennsylvania Pole as he went home to Nanticoke for the winter. Come opening day 1942 there was nothing stopping him from joining the Cardinals for good.

Nothing except World War II.

After spending one last Christmas and New Years with his family, Johnny Grodzicki and his brothers went down to the local army recruiting station and enlisted. Because of his notoriety the big Pole was sent straight to Fort Knox, Kentucky and put to use on the ball field. At the time this practice wasn't uncommon. With the huge influx of volunteers the army could spare a few professional athletes and put them to use entertaining the troops. The Navy began a spirited competition with the Army trying to see who could field better teams and the publicity derived from the inter-service rivalry help build an esprit de corp amongst the new citizen-soldiers. Such was Grodzicki's fame that Bob Feller named him to his personal Army-Navy team that played against the American League All-Star team in Cleveland. Though Feller's team lost 5-0, the fact that this guy who appeared in just 5 major league games was selected to play with the best ballplayers in the game says something to the way his contemporaries thought of his talent.

With the war effort moving into full swing, Grodzicki transferred to the 17th Airborne Division and went overseas in the summer of '44. After slugging through the Battle of the Bulge, the 17th did their first combat jump in March 24, 1945 when they parachuted behind enemy lines into Westphania, Germany. After capturing strategic bridges spanning the Issel River they continued into the heart of the Third Reich. After 5 days of combat a German shell exploded next to him, killing three of his fellow paratroopers. Grodzicki was alive but chunks of scrap iron tore into his right side, smashing his hip and lower leg.

At a field hospital doctors discovered that the sciatic nerve was damaged and Grodzicki was told he'd probably never walk again. Surgeons removed the shrapnel and the pitcher began a long, hard regimen of rehabilitation and therapy. By the time Grodzicki returned home to Nanticoke he was on crutches and his right leg below the knee was shrivelled to half of it's former size.

Like his bout with influenza back in 1940, Grodzicki gave it his all in trying to regain his strength. Again, as in 1940, he went south to Panama where he worked out with the Colon ball club and when spring came around he was in the Cardinals camp. Newspapers trumpeted his return and he was held out as a shining example of courage and sacrifice.

But despite everything he and the Cardinals tried, Grodzicki's major league career and dreams were over. He stayed with the club throughout the '46 and '47 season but by the spring of 1948 it was obvious that Grodzicki had better start looking for another line of work. The Cardinals still thought highly of their former phenom and put him to work as a coach and manager in their farm system. In the winters he played and managed in Panama and eventually the Cardinals made him their roving pitching coach. He stayed with the organization until 1964 when he switched to the Mets for two years when he went over to the Detroit Tigers. In 1979 made the majors again, this time as the Tigers pitching coach. After over 40 years in organized ball, Grodzicki retired to Daytona Beach to spend time with his wife Anita and his stepson and stepdaughter. He passed away on May 2, 1998 at the age of 81.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

126 Abel Kiviat: Olympian

Like millions of people around the globe, I tuned in to watch the opening ceremonies of this year's Olympic Games in London. A few hours later I found myself trying to make sense of what the crippled kids, scarey demon monkees and high school theater club "dancing-through-time" skit had to do with the world's greatest sporting event. I longed for the time when the opening ceremony meant each team marching around the track carrying the flag of their nation, followed by some speeches by local dignitaries and then the games would begin. The newspaper reporting of the games and participants was centered not like today on an athlete's tragic family history, but on their athletic prowess, vitality and determination to win for their country. In tribute to those more sports-oriented games, I bring to you Abel Kiviat, American silver medalist and a member of the first Olympic baseball team.

Although baseball had been popular in Latin America and Japan since the 1880’s, the game just hadn’t caught on with young men in other countries. The game was seen as too complicated and unrefined especially to Europeans but because of the way immigrants from these same countries embraced and excelled at the sport once arriving in America, the game was given a chance at becoming an official Olympic event. At the 1912 Games in Stockholm a series of two exhibition games were scheduled to gauge spectator interest in the sport. The first game was against a team made up of local Swedish players, the game having become recently introduced to that country courtesy of immigrants returning home from America. The American team was selected from athletes already competing in officially sanctioned events. Due to obvious reasons, the United States Olympic Committee forbade any of their athletes from competing in the exhibition baseball games until their own events were finished. A natural selection for the team was Jim Thorpe who seemed to excel at just about any sport invented, but he had to miss the first game because he was in the process of winning a gold in the decathlon. However Thorpe’s roommate played that day.

By the age of 20 Abel Kiviat was one of the best middle-distance runners in the world. He was a star athlete at his high school on Staten Island, holding the New York City record for the half-mile and mile race as well as being recognized as an All-Star shortstop in baseball. After high school he raced competitively for the Irish-American Athletic Club, one of the best sporting clubs in the States. While representing the Club he set 3 outdoor and 6 indoor records and won an additional nine national titles. Although a Jew and not of Irish heritage he was selected to be the teams captain for five years. While qualifying for the 1912 United States Olympic Team, Kiviat set the world record for the 1500 meter race with a time of 3 minutes 55.8 seconds which remained unbroken until 1917. Although the favorite going into the 1912 Olympics, he managed to win only the silver when he inadvertently eased up towards the end of his race and lost to England’s Arnold Jackson. Kiviat was, however, the American baseball team’s biggest slugger.

In the first game against the local Swedes, Kiviat went 2 for 4 with a triple and stole two bases as the Americans won 13-3 in a game lasting 6 innings. The sparsely attended game mostly attracted Americans and Swedish-Americans who were already familiar with the sport. The game played on the following day attracted a much larger crowd, probably due to the fact that the regular events were winding down and that Jim Thorpe, the sensation of that year’s games was scheduled to play.

The teams were made up solely from American athletes with Thorpe making an appearance in right field on the same squad as his roommate, Kiviat. With the competition much stiffer and being a little rusty since his days as an All-Star high school shortstop, Abel committed 2 errors in the game but more than made up for it at the plate, going 2 for 3 with a double and stolen base. Kiviat’s team won 6-3.

Baseball didn’t make that big of an impression on the Olympic Committee and would not be tried again until 24 years later at the Berlin Games. Abel Kiviat returned to America and continued to run races but his career was cut short when he was suspended by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1915 when he was accused of asking for too much money for expenses in order to travel to a track meet in Upstate New York. Athletes were supposed to maintain their eligibility by not receiving outright payment for their talent but some got around this by accepting large payments under the category of “travel expenses.” Kiviat fought the charges and was reinstated 8 years later but by then he was a long way from his former peak. He stayed active in the sport he loved by volunteering at the big annual track meets held at Madison Square Garden where he became a gregarious fixture in the press box. In 1984, at the age of 91, Kiviat was given the honor of participating in the Olympic torch relay through Manhattan. He lived to the ripe old age of 99, for a time America’s oldest living Olympian.

This story was included in the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" which highlights the careers of 14 Jewish ballplayers and can be purchased by clicking HERE or on the tab right below the arrow on the main header of this blog.