Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-065654. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Photo taken during a Cubs/White Sox City Series at Comiskey Park, 1925
Profile by BCB reader San Diego Smooth Jazz Man
Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, known throughout his career as "Pete", was one of the greatest pitchers of the deadball era and the higher-offense era that succeeded it, and was also one of the best ever to wear a Cubs uniform. As was common in those days, he was named after a popular politician, President Grover Cleveland, but he has a further presidential distinction -- he is the only one to have a future President (Ronald Reagan in "The Winning Team") portray him in a feature film.
Alexander was born on February 26, 1887 in the farming community of Elba, Nebraska. One of 13 children, his family hoped he would study law, but he became a telephone lineman so he could play baseball on weekends.
In 1909, he made his professional debut with Galesburg of the Illinois-Missouri league. For natives of Illinois, in addition to the city of Galesburg, this league featured teams in Canton and Macomb. In his first season, Alexander went 15-8 with an estimated ERA of 1.36, pitching three shutouts. However, his season ended early - as in July of that year, Pete was trying to break up a double play at second when the shortstop's throw hit him in the right temple. Reports say that Alexander was unconscious for nearly two and a half days. When he awoke he was suffering from double vision, which he endured into the spring of 1910.
However, the double vision vanished as mysteriously as it came, and Pete was able to pitch again. However, it's believed the long-term effect of this incident was to cause the epilepsy that would haunt him the rest of his life.
Epilepsy wouldn't be the only condition Pete would have to endure. He also battled alcoholism, but it never seemed to hinder his work on the mound.
He had difficulty with just about everything in life except pitching. He was a solitary man, who spoke in a small, whispery voice.
In 1910, due to the double-vision problem, Galesburg sold Pete to Indianapolis of the American Association. However, he was immediately dispatched to the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League, who took advantage of Pete's newly-regained vision, as Alexander went 29-11 with an ERA of 1.85, throwing 31 complete games.
Pete Alexander was clearly ready for the majors, and the Philadelphia Phillies drafted him for a reported $500 in 1911. His first season in the majors is considered to be the finest by a rookie pitcher in the 20th Century. Pete went 28-13 to lead the National League with an era of 2.57. He led the league in complete games, with 31. He struck out 227. He battled Cy Young, and beat him in a 1-0 one-hitter. Pete even pitched in relief, and picked up 3 saves. All of this was accomplished for a Phillies team that went 79-73.
Pete then embarked on an amazing stretch of his career in 1915, winning 31 games that season and leading the Phillies to their first NL Pennant. The Phils lost the World Series to the to the Boston Red Sox. (Pete was 1-1 in the post-season) That was followed by 33 wins the following year -- he scored his second successive pitching Triple Crown, as Pete also led the NL in strikeouts with 167 and an ERA of 1.55. In 389 innings, and 45 starts he pitched thirty-eight complete games and sixteen shutouts, his second consecutive season of double-digit shutouts.
To this day, that is the National League record for shutouts in a season (also held by the 19th Century hurler George Bradley). Only Jack Coombs in 1910 and Bob Gibson in 1968 have come close to that, with thirteen each. What makes these shutout numbers even more remarkable - he pitched in Philadelphia's tiny Baker Bowl, which featured a RF wall only 297 feet from home plate.
Then, in 1917, Pete went 30-13 with 200 K's along with an ERA of 1.83 and 8 shutouts.
How did Pete Alexander accomplish all of this? He was said to have a live fastball that moved in on righthanders and a sharp-breaking curve. He could change speeds on both the fastball and the curve, with extraordinary control. His pitching motion was apparently effortless, and graceful. His stride was short, his delivery three-quarters overhand. On the mound he was deliberate, without wasted time or motion.
In 1917, World War I was raging and the US became involved. In a move which is described as one of the most cynical acts in baseball history, Phillies owner William Baker traded Alexander to the Cubs for two players (Mike Prendergast and the charmingly-named Pickles Dillhoefer) and $55,000. Baker claimed that he needed the money, but the real reason was that the Phillies were sure that Alexander was about to be drafted into the Army.
Well, the Phils were right. Alexander went 3-1 for the Cubs in 1918 before he was drafted. Ironically enough, the Cubs won the pennant without Alexander's services.
The war ruined Alexander. Spending seven weeks at the front under relentless bombardment, he was left deaf in his left ear. He suffered some muscle damage in his pitching arm. He caught shrapnel in his right ear which may have led to his bout with cancer years later. His epilepsy surfaced and he drank to cover that up.
Back from the war in 1919, Alexander somehow got himself in shape to pitch once again for the Cubs, and wound up finishing 16-11, with 9 shutouts and an ERA of 1.72 -- and, still to this day it's a record -- the lowest for a Cubs pitcher in Wrigley Field. In 1920, for a fifth-place Cubs team, he scored another Triple Crown: 27-14 with 173 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.91.
However, from 1921 on, alcohol was taking over Pete's life. It was said that Pete was "drinking to relive the past, forget the present, and forestall the future." He was no longer a dominating pitcher, but he still won more than he lost. He became a finesse pitcher.
After the Cubs finished last in 1925, changes were in order. Joe McCarthy came in to manage the team, and he eventually came to the conclusion that Pete's drinking was hurting the team. Alexander's Cubs career ended in June 1926, as the Cardinals picked up the 39-year-old Alexander on waivers. Ironically, it came just days after the Cubs honored Alexander with a "day" in which he was gifted with a new car -- a Lincoln, from the team, and the fans. Legendary player-manager Rogers Hornsby said he could tolerate Pete's drinking, as long as he could help the team win the pennant. Rogers was right -- the Redbirds won the NL Crown, and faced the Bronx Bombers, led by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri in the 1926 World Series.
That series etched Alexander's legend in stone: He pitched complete game victories in Game 2 and 6, and came into relief in the 7th inning in the deciding 7th game, with the bases loaded and 2 out, to face Lazzeri. (Further legend has it that Alexander was decidedly intoxicated as he entered the game, but he claimed later he wasn't -- of course, we'll never know for sure.) He struck out Lazzeri, and held the lead, and the Cardinals won the game and the series when Babe Ruth inexplicably tried to steal second base with two out in the ninth, and was thrown out. That would be the final climax of Alexander's career, for it was in free-fall after that.
Even though Alexander's Cardinals made it to the 1928 World Series, he was pounded by the Yankees. His career with St. Louis ended in December 1929, when he was traded back to the Phillies. He was released in 1930, shortly after the season started.
The last 20 years of Alexander's life were miserable. He entered various sanitariums to stop drinking, but it didn't help. He roamed the country in a series of odd jobs, staying in cheap hotels, and falling in and out of poverty. He even pitched with the "House Of David," an Israelite religious community that raised money with a famous barnstorming baseball team that toured the country. Alexander became an "embarrassment" to MLB. So, the commissioner's office decided to give him a 'pension' of 50 dollars a month. He had some relief from his situation when he was elected to the Hall Of Fame in 1938. Pete was able to pull himself together enough to speak at the induction ceremony.
In 1946, he suffered a heart attack. The next year, Alexander was injured in a fall down a flight of stairs during an epileptic seizure. Cancer was found on his right ear -- some believe that was due to his WWI injury. The ear had to be removed. His life had become very, very tough and the end was near. Pete Alexander died, possibly due to another heart attack, on November 4, 1950, at the age of 63, in St. Paul, Nebraska.
His career win total -- 373 victories in 20 years -- is the third highest total in major league history. Pete led the league in ERA four times, wins in six seasons, complete games six times and shutouts in seven different years. And, finally, Alexander won 30 or more games in three consecutive seasons. Though he spent only seven full seasons, and parts of two others, in a Cub uniform, his 128 Cub wins ranks 14th in club history, right behind Greg Maddux.
Even though the best years of Grover Cleveland Alexander's career were with other teams, he pitched magnificently for the Cubs. Further, remember that these seasons came after his career was interrupted by his terrible experiences in WW I. It could have been expected that he would never pitch again, as he was battling epilepsy, and alcoholism, in addition to what we would now certainly term post-traumatic stress syndrome. He still holds quite a few Cubs pitching records.