Intimidating spitballer Burleigh Grimes managed in Montreal and Toronto

In “Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals,” William Brown writes that the media was surprised to discover a clean-shaven, finely dressed Burleigh Grimes at the press conference that officially unveiled the five-time, 20-game winner as the manager of the Montreal Royals in 1939.

After all, when Grimes was pitching, he was nicknamed “Ol’ Stubblebeard” because he opted not to shave on the days that he pitched. He felt his whiskers would make him more intimidating from the mound. A notorious hot head, Grimes didn’t need facial hair to strike fear into hitters. The menacing right-hander often pitched inside, once hitting six batters in a two-inning stretch. While competing for the Yankees in a game in 1934, the volatile moundsman allowed a home run to Goose Goslin. But Grimes couldn’t wait until Goslin was at the plate again to seek his revenge. A few innings later, the temperamental righty hurled a pitch at Goslin while the Tigers slugger was still in the on-deck circle.

A tough-as-nails farm boy from Emerald, Wis., Grimes is best known as baseball’s last legal spitball pitcher. When baseball outlawed the spitball in 1920, the menacing hurler was one of 17 moundsmen that was allowed to continue to throw the pitch. Employing one of the sharpest breaking spitballs in history, Grimes would win 270 games over his 19-year career that saw him toil for seven different teams. Eleven times he would win more than 15 games in a season and he would pitch in four World Series. His sole Fall Classic triumph came in 1931 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Grimes would retire after the 1934 season, but return to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1937 and 1938 campaigns, leading the club to sixth and seventh-place finishes respectively. The Dodgers reassigned Grimes to their new International League affiliate in Montreal for the 1939 season.

After being introduced as the Royals manager, Grimes was given carte blanche to make any transactions he felt necessary. Within a few days of being hired, Brown reports, Grimes dealt away fan favourites Harry Smythe and Alex Hooks, dismissing them as too old. The Royals’ stern new skipper wanted a fast team that ran the bases aggressively. Unfortunately, the pitching was atrocious for the Royals in 1939. Brown writes that Grimes lost 12 pounds that season fretting about his pitching staff.

Following his dapper debut at the press conference, Grimes reverted to his abrasive ways in Montreal, berating umpires and intimidating his own players. The team faltered and finished in seventh place with a lowly 64-88 record. The players made it clear to management that they didn’t enjoy playing for Grimes and after the season, the ex-pitching star tendered his resignation.

Grimes would resurface in Canada in 1942 as the manager of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1943, he piloted the Leafs to a pennant-winning 95-57 season. But after ousting the Royals in the first playoff round, the Leafs were defeated by Syracuse in the league finals. Grimes would manage Toronto to a third-place finish in 1944, before moving on to manage in Rochester the following season. He would return to manage the Leafs in the middle of the 1952 campaign and would pilot the team to a 78-75 record in 1953.

The Veteran’s Committee elected Grimes to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964. He returned to his home state of Wisconsin following his baseball career, where he would die in 1985 at the ripe old age of 92.

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7 thoughts on “Intimidating spitballer Burleigh Grimes managed in Montreal and Toronto

  1. I had heard of Grimes but knew next to nothing about him. I just looked up his stats and now it seems surprising that it took thirty years for him to get into the Hall of fame. As you mentioned, he won 270 games — a very good career. Obviously he was quite a character, as well. Excellent profile, Kevin.

    • Thanks. Comparing Grimes stats to Tommy John and Bert Blyleven makes me wonder why John and Blyleven aren’t in the Hall. Blyleven will likely go in next year, but John has received no love from the baseball writers who vote.

  2. If the spitball was once legal and it was grandfathered out why don’t any of the pitchers of that era have an asterisk by their name in the hall of fame or in stats books. Obviously Baseball has evolved and continues to evolve. What was once allowed would warrant an ejection or suspension. Knowing all this, what is MLB going to do when the superstars who were on steroids reach Hall eligibility?

    • When I was giving tours at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, I would often have the same discussion with visitors. How can we laugh off spitballers and condemn steroid abusers? They’re both cheating aren’t they? Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame and he wrote a book on how he employed the spit ball for much of his career, when it was illegal.

  3. I wish Barry Bonds could have tried to pull that crap after he hit a home run that he does and old Burleigh had served it up, the next time the sob came to bat he would look ready for the Kings Banquet, apple in the mouth and all

  4. Hey Kevin,

    Thanks for posting this! I am in the midst of writing a book-length biography on Grimes and am always looking for the next lead for nuggets of info on Burleigh. I haven’t broached his time in Montreal yet, but will surely utilize Browns book when the time comes.

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