Thursday, January 29, 2015

189. Walt VanGrofski: Good, But Just Not Good Enough

This is the fourth of 5 Bushwicks Stories in 5 days. For the introduction to the Bushwicks and this series please go HERE first. 

Some where, many years ago I came across a catcher named VanGrofski. For the life of me I can't remember where or how I first heard of him, but for the better part of a decade I've tried to piece together the career of this journeyman catcher. Maybe it was the odd Polish name with the Dutch prefix. Or perhaps it was because he came from Bloomfield, New Jersey, close to the city of Passaic where I was born. What ever it was, it certainly wasn't because he was well-known. VanGrofski never played in the majors and his last name is misspelled in records and newsprint more often than it is spelled correctly. Still, every time I came across a box score or article that mentioned him, I put it in my "VanGrofski file", just waiting for the right time to put it all together. Now, with this "5 Bushwicks in 5 Days" series I have that perfect opportunity - Walt VanGrofski is the perfect example of one of the four types of players on the Brooklyn Bushwicks...

Walt VanGrofski was good, just not good enough to make it all the way to the majors.

Walt VanGrofski came out of the same Polish neighborhood in Bloomfield, New Jersey that produced future Yankees Hank Borowy and Dan Savage. At Bloomfield High he knocked the cover off the ball and divided his time between the outfield and calling the shots from behind the plate. Even in the early 1930's Walt VanGrofski was described as a throwback - an old school backstop cast from the same mold as Ray Schalk. Just over 6' tall and 170 lbs, VanGrofski possessed a take no prisoners attitude with a gritty, excitable drive that became immediately obvious when you were on the wrong end of his dark, steely-eyed glare. His friends and local sports writers called him "Beeky", a nickname no one outside Bloomfield dared to use.

He turned pro in 1931 with the Clarksburg Generals of the the entry-level Mid Atlantic League. The next season he was picked up by the Dodgers organization and shipped to York of the New York-Penn League. VanGrofski batted around .250 through 1933 and was picked to join a tour of minor league prospects stopping at Puerto Rico and parts of South America. While in San Juan VanGrofski learned his contract was picked up by the Pirates who promoted him to the Little Rock Travelers, a team which today would be AA level ball. Now the catcher's career seemed to stall. He hit a lack-luster .214, then was demoted back to the New York-Penn League. When the Pirates decided to send him to Savannah the catcher called foul. Rather than play low-level ball in the sweltering Georgia summer, VanGrofski packed his grip and took the next train back to New Jersey. On his way out of town he told reporters he intended to stay in Bloomfield indefinitely and play semi-pro ball in the New York Metropolitan area.

A week later Pittsburgh punted him back to the Brooklyn organization who shuttled him to the Allentown Brooks. It was while playing for the Brooks in 1936 that VanGrofski made headlines for his hitting, just not the kind you did with a bat. Allentown was beating the snot out of future Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy. (Mulcahy would earn the unfortunate nicknames of "Losing Pitcher Mulcahy" and "Hard Luck Mulcahy" after twice losing 20 games in a season for the Phils). VanGrofski had three hits off the future Phillie when he came up the forth time with runners in scoring position. Mulcahy lost his cool and fired a fastball at VanGrofski's head. Walt threw away his bat and charged the mound. The pitcher, who had a few inches and 20 lbs on VanGrofski, left the mound to meet him. Before Mulcahy could get a swing in, VanGrofski landed a devastating hook that opened up a large cut above the pitchers eye and another quick jab that settled the score. A fight broke out that eventually rose to riotous proportions, necessitating a platoon of police to quell the mess. VanGrofski was slapped with a $25 fine and Mulcahy charged $10 as punishment.

Whether it was frustration building up or just Walter being what the press described as "the aggressive type of player", VanGrofski rode the adrenaline and was hitting a career high .304 when an incident happened that might be the reason the catcher never made the bigs. During a close game against Elmira and the pennant on the line, second baseman Packy Rogers attempted to score on a long single. VanGrofski took the throw from the relay man and waited for Rogers who came in spike high. In the terrible collision Rogers' metal spikes tore the catcher's mitt completely off VanGrofski's hand but somehow he held onto the ball to tag the his assailant out. Newspapers at the time remarked on how nasty a play it was and there remained bad blood between the two teams for quite some time. There was no mention I could find about an injury, but one phrase began appearing after this incident to describe VanGrofski: "weak armed".

The Brooklyn organization took notice of the 25 year-old firebrand and sent him to the Winston-Salem Twins as their player-manager. He was still with Winston-Salem in '38 when he butted heads with the club's president. When the dust settled VanGrofski was fired and exiled from the Dodgers family. He went back to Jersey again and soon found a berth with the Trenton Senators, part of the Washington Senators organization. A newspaper article from the time finds a vengeful VanGrofski chomping at the bit to face the Dodgers farm team that played in the same league as Trenton. The accompanying photograph shows a man you'd not want to cross. This time the animosity didn't translate to success on the field and he finished the summer with a lousy .198 average. When he hit the same numbers in 1940 he found himself without a job in organized baseball.

Again, VanGrofski went home to New Jersey. Bloomfield is a short bus or train ride from Manhattan, the hotbed of semi-pro baseball. VanGrofski might have been out of organized baseball, but that didn't mean he was finished as a player. While many young ballplayers used the semi-pro's as a place to gain the attentions of big league scouts, experienced veterans like VanGrofski hoped that a good season on the sandlots would rejuvenate their flagging career. In the spring of 1940 Walt VanGrofski was 28 years-old and far from giving up his major league dreams.

The best semi-pro outfit in the country, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, had a bona-fide major league veteran behind the plate in Charlie Hargreaves. The 43 year-old spent 8 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates and now was making a comfortable living playing semi-pro ball at Dexter Park. However, since the Bushwicks played double headers on Saturday and Sundays, Hargreave's 43 year-old knees would necessitate an understudy and Walt VanGrofski was available.

The catcher's plan to stay in the minds of the baseball powers-that-be worked, but just like Allentown in 1936, it was for the wrong reason.

On Sunday July 21st, the Bushwicks were hosting the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League for a double header. As usual Hargreaves caught the first game and VanGrofski took the night cap. In the sixth inning Howard Easterling, the slugging third baseman of the Grays, hit a long fly down the right field line. The Bushwicks typically hired two umpires for a game as opposed to the majors who used three at the time. While this saved money it sometimes made for bad calls and this was one of those times. Umpire Meyers called the blast a home run which would have tied the score at 3-all. The other umpire by the name of Shannon ruled it foul and Meyers reversed his call. The 10,000 fans in the stands made their disapproval known and a deluge of seat cushions, scorecards and hats began. When those ran out they started with the soda pop and beer bottles.

Someone in the third base box seats fired a Coca Cola bottle at VanGrofski that just missed his head. If you've ever held one of those old glass Coke bottles in your hand then you can understand why the Bushwick's catcher became super-pissed. Already a high-strung and aggressive competitor, VanGrofski picked out who he believed threw the bottle, a black guy named Henry Strong, and charged into the stands to settle accounts. In seconds he was over the rail and all over Strong, but just as fast the crowd turned on VanGrofski and he had to be rescued by his teammates. Meanwhile more than one hundred angry fans swarmed onto the field. A squad of Brooklyn's Finest met them head on and brought order back to Dexter Park.

Being this was an inter-racial sporting event, the consequences could have been very dire. Fortunately this was Brooklyn, not Birmingham or Atlanta and no repercussions followed. The Bushwicks continued to play the top-level Negro League teams without incident and VanGrofski was soon back in organized ball.

The Yankees saw a promising leader in the fiery catcher and assigned him to their Wellsville team as a player/manager in 1942. The Wellsville fans embraced their scrappy manager and the team became known throughout the league as "VanGrofski's Ruffians". Then almost as soon as he returned to pro-ball he was drafted into the Army. He served a year as an athletics instructor before sent back home. The battle damage inflicted on his body during his more than ten years as a professional catcher was probably the reason for the early discharge. He was working as recreation attendant at Newark's Wilson Avenue school when the Yankees gave him a call. Their top farm team, the Newark Bears, were a team full of kids too young for the draft and aging veterans useless for combat. An experienced backstop with managerial experience like VanGrofski was just the thing the Bears needed. Now well into his thirties, VanGrofski finally made it to one step shy of the major leagues.

The catcher barely hit above .200 in 59 games in 1944, but the next year he swatted the wartime pitching at a .290 clip. The problem was that his arm was shot and runners knew it, swiping bases off him at their leisure. When the war ended, VanGrofski and most of the wartime Bears were released. The Yankees saw managerial promise in VanGrofski and sent him to their Sunbury, Pennsylvania club where they'd just built a $200,000 stadium. Described by local sports writers as "a high-strung fellow", VanGrofski led the league in being thrown out of games by umpires. He even nursed a private feud with the scribes in the press box. The fans loved it. He managed for a few more seasons, passing from the Yankees to the A's organization before calling it a career after more than twenty years. He returned to Bloomfield where he and his wife Mathilde raised an athletic son named Tom and put in 25 years as an electrician. The fiery receiver passed away at his home in Ocean City, New Jersey in 2000. 

As a foot note, I wish I'd have known VanGrofski was still alive and living near my Grandma until 2000. I'd began researching his career years before that and would have loved the chance to talk to him in person, to sit face to face with the guy who I'd read so much about. While guys like Joe DiMaggio or Honus Wagner had careers that took them to Cooperstown, to me they're a bore compared to a journeyman like Walt VanGrofski.

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