Stories You Should Know: Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War

Continuing our theme of athletes who were negatively impacted by military service, we discuss one of the greatest players of all time, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander. 

Alexander was born in Elba, Nebraska in 1887, the same year Walter Johnson was born in neighboring Kansas. Alexander was the eighth of ten children. He was named after the 22nd President of the United States, Grover Cleveland and was born in a hut and raised on a farm. His youth was tough. His family was very poor and “Pete” spent his childhood toiling on the family farm. As a teenager he did find time to pitch for the local semi-pro team on Sundays. Nebraska was not exactly a hotbed for baseball scouts, but at age 22 he was offered $50 a month to pitch for Galesburg of the Illinois-Missouri League. Alexander went 15-8 with a last place team. He then went to the Syracuse Stars in the New York State League and promptly won 29 games, earning a promotion to the Philadelphia Phillies. 

“Pete” was an instant success. In his first outing Phillie’s Manager Pat Moran sent him to face the World Champion Philadelphia Athletics in an exhibition game following the 1910 World Series. Moran warned his young hurler, “You’ll pitch five innings, they’ll be murder, but you’ll learn something.” The “Great Alex” gave up no runs, no hits, and no walks in his debut against the reigning World Series Champions.  

The National League had no more luck against Alexander in 1911. Pete won 28 games (still the most by a rookie in either league) with a 2.57 ERA and led the league in innings pitched. He quickly became the best pitcher in the National League, leading the Phillies to their first National League Pennant in 1915 while posting the first of his record four pitching triple crowns (leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts).  

The World Series that year was a pivotal moment in Alexander’s career. Experts predicted that “Pete” would win three games in the series and lead Philadelphia to the Championship. They seemed prophetic when Alexander tamed the Boston Red Sox in game one, 3-1. Pete managed to get  Babe Ruth to ground out in the Babe’s only at bat in his first World Series. The Red Sox tied the series the next day, and then two days later faced Alexander again, this time in Boston. Alexander pitched well, but was beaten on a bases-loaded single by Duffy Lewis with 2-outs in the bottom of the ninth, 2-1. The Phillies lost game four, 2-1, and facing elimination, Phillie’s manager Pat Moran announced that Alexander would start game 5. 

He didn’t. Rumors began circulating throughout baseball about why he didn’t, most of them involved the accusation that too much alcohol consumption had prevented him from being able to pitch. The Red Sox eliminated the Phillies that day and Grover Cleveland Alexander would be tormented for the rest of his life. “No matter what anyone else may say, I know the reason I lost the 1915 World Series was that I was not in the proper physical condition to give it my best.” Was he drunk or hungover? Alexander always denied it, but the memory of that Series would be carried by Alexander for the rest of his career. He would be somewhat vindicated by his heroic performance in the 1926 Fall Classic

In 1916 and 1917 Alexander continued to dominate, winning the pitching triple crown two more times. “Pete” thought he deserved a raise, and let Phillie’s management know about it. But the “Great World War” that had engulfed Europe now involved the United States. Fearing that “The Great Alex” would get drafted, and not wanting to meet his salary demands, the Phillies sold him to the Chicago Cubs in the spring of 1918.

He won two games for the Cubs and married Aimee Arrants before Uncle Sam came calling. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on May 31st. It would be a life changing experience. The man who came back was not the same. He served with General John (Black Jack) Pershing American Expeditionary Force in Europe. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the 342nd field Artillery Unit. He was gassed during a training exercise, and later was nearly killed by a German artillery shell. It landed so close that he suffered partial hearing loss. It also triggered epileptic seizures. He was sent home suffering from shell shock. His drinking got worse.

“My father was a hard drinker before me, and so was my grandfather before him,” Alexander explained. After the war he became a full blown alcoholic. But he could still pitch. When he returned he won 16 games in a partial season in 1919. He followed that season with his 4th and final pitcher triple crown  in 1920. His life though was falling apart. He was a drunk, and an unreliable teammate. Joe McCarthy took over as Cub’s manager in 1926 and he would not tolerate Pete’s insubordination.

“He was getting along in years then but still quite a good pitcher. But he wouldn’t follow the rules,” McCarthy said. “Sure he did (follow the rules), but they were always Alex’ rules. So I had to let him go.”

He sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals for the waiver price in June of 1926. Alexander was 39 years old, but the move set in motion events that would gain Alexander redemption from the humiliations he had suffered since 1915.

America in the 1920s was on an anti-alcohol crusade. The temperance movement led to the 18th Amendment and prohibition. The sports media turned brutal, ignoring his success on the mound and focusing on his battle with the bottle.

“Alexander may have been a problem for the Cubs and Joe McCarthy, but he wasn’t for us. I didn’t do any preaching to him or anybody else on the ball club about not doing any drinking.” said his new manager, Rogers Hornsby. The Cardinals were in 3rd place entering September, but finished strong to capture their first National League Pennant. Next up were the mighty New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series.

New York won game one and Hornsby called on the aging Alexander to get them even in game two. The Great Alex was up to the task, holding Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the rest of “Murderers Row” to four hits in his 6-2 complete game victory. Six days later he took the mound again and responded with another complete game win in Game 6 to tie the Series at three games apiece. Setting up one of the most dramatic games in baseball history in Game 7. 

The Cardinals led 3-2 with 2-outs in the 7th inning. The Yankees loaded the bases against Jesse Haines, St. Louis Manager, Rogers Hornsby called on the 39 year old Grover Cleveland Alexander to face the Yankees hard hitting second baseman Tony Lazzeri. With the count one ball and one strike, Lazzeri drove a line drive down the left field line. It sliced just foul. Relieved, Alexander got Lazzeri to chase a ball low and outside to fan him and end the inning on his next pitch. Alexander set New York down in order in the 8th inning, and got the first two batters in the 9th. Up came Babe Ruth. He walked him on a 3 and 2 pitch, but Ruth then tried to steal second and was thrown out by Bob O’Farrell ending the Series.  

Alexander was a hero, but his reaction to the accolades was very subdued. “So they’re calling me a hero, eh? Well, do you know what? If that line drive Lazzeri hit had been fair, Tony would be the hero and I’d be an old bum,” he said.

Alexander would win 21 games for the Cardinals in 1927, and then 16 in 1928, when at age 41 he again faced the Yankees in the World Series. This time the “Bronx Bombers” lit him up, knocking him out in the third inning in his one start, and roughing him up again in Game 4 of the Yankees’ sweep. His epilepsy and drinking continued to get worse. His downward spiral led to his wife Aimee divorcing him in 1929. She remarried him in 1931, but then divorced him for good in 1941.

Alexander would hang on in the Major Leagues until he was 43, but failed to pass Christy Mathewson National League record 373 career wins due to the bottle and failing health. His retirement days were not pleasant. He had squandered his money and was forced to pitch for money wherever he could. The next meal was always a challenge. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the third class in 1938. His reaction was typical Alexander.

“You know I can’t eat tablets or nicely framed awards, neither can my wife. But they don’t think of things like that,” hea said.

He was destitute. 

A lonely drunk in his later years, the Yankees honored him by allowing him to attend game 3 of the 1950 World Series between New York and the Philadelphia Phillies. This was the Phillies first World Series appearance since the 1915 Fall Classic.. The Yankees swept them, meaning that Alexander’s win in Game 1 in 1915 was the only World Series game the Phillies won until 1980. He died in Nebraska a month later alone in a hotel room.

Two years after his death he was played by Ronald Reagan in the movie The Winning Team. Doris Day played his wife in the “feel good” endeavor that was not close to an honest depiction of his unhappy life.

None of this takes away from his greatness as a pitcher. His strategy on the mound  was best summed up by two of his Hall of Fame teammates.

 “I never saw a machine like him. Every pitch he threw was the same. Low outside to every hitter.” said Jesse Haines.

Burleigh Grimes described him this way, “Smooth and easy, always smooth and easy.” 

So how did the war affect his legacy? We at A Sip of Sports have ranked him the greatest pitcher in National League history, and the third greatest pitcher of all time. How much better could he have been?

Quite a bit. In 1917, Pete won 30 games, in his next full season (1920) he won 27 more. He won the pitching triple crown both years. He was 33 years old. Give him 50 wins in his two partial years that he missed because of the war (he actually won 18) and you’re looking at more than 400 career wins. Walter Johnson won 417. But the biggest price Alexander paid was what the war did to him personally. His life after the war was never the same. Epilepsy and drunkenness began a downward spiral that he could never escape. 

As Bill James wrote in his 1990 Baseball Abstract, “That he was never able to enjoy his life, that he was never able to build a life for himself outside of baseball or find work in the game, is a disgrace for which both Alex and the baseball world must share responsibility.”  

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