Philography: Grover Cleveland Alexander
By Matt Veasey
As told by Jan Finkel in a biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander at theSABR website, he was “the only ballplayer named for a sitting United States president and portrayed on film by a future one.”
In the 1952 biopic film “The Winning Team“, Ronald Reagan portrayed Alexander, with Doris Day playing Alexander’s wife, Aimee. It told his story from his amateur into pro days, and his battles through alcoholism and epilepsy.
U.S. President Grover Cleveland is the only Chief Executive to have served for two non-consecutive terms (1885-89, 1893-97), and thus he is considered both the nation’s 22nd and 24th President.
The ballplayer was born into a large family in a Nebraska farming community. He began to show prowess as a baseball pitcher in his youth, and took a job with a company stringing telephone lines, pitching on weekends for local club teams.
In 1909 at age 22, Alexander hooked on with his first pro team, signing with the Galesburg Boosters of what was then known as the Class ‘D’ Illinois-Missouri League.
He went 15-8, but his season was ended, and nearly his career, when he was struck in the head by a thrown ball while running the bases. He recovered, and in 1910 had a dominant 29-11 record for the Class ‘B’ Syracuse Stars.
His performances in Syracuse caught the eye of major league scouts, and Philadelphia Phillies owner/president Israel Durham approved the purchase of his contract.
At age 24, Alexander made his Phillies debut in the 1911 season, and his dominance continued there against the best competition in the land. He went 28-13 with 7 Shutouts and 31 Complete Games as a rookie.
He had a 2.57 ERA in 48 games, 37 of them starts, while pitching 367 innings that year as well. It was just the beginning for what would become one of the greatest pitching careers in baseball history.
From 1911-17, Alexander pitched 7 seasons for the Phillies that amount to a full career for many of today’s modern starting pitchers in the 21st century.
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In those 7 years, Alexander pitched 329 games, making 277 starts. In 2,492 innings he allowed just 2,101 hits and struck out 1,403 batters. His ERA was a minuscule 2.12 ERA, and he registered a 190-88 win-loss record.
In 1915, Alexander helped lead the Phillies to a 7-game margin of victory over the Boston Braves for the franchise’ first National League Pennant, advancing them into the World Series against Boston’s American League team, the Red Sox.
That year, Alexander went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA and a career-best 241 strikeouts. It began a 3-year period in his prime in which he would win at least 30 games each season.
The 1915 World Series opened in Philly at Baker Bowl, and “Alexander the Great” got the Phils off to a good start, with his complete game 3-1 victory putting the team out in front of the Red Sox.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, it would be their last win in the Series. In fact, it was the last postseason win by a Phillies team for 62 years, and the franchise’ last World Series win for 75 years.
The Red Sox rallied to win the final four games of that 1915 World Series by all one-run margins: 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 and 5-4, the final win coming in Philadelphia back again at Baker Bowl.
The man nicknamed ‘Old Pete’ (for still unknown reasons) would return to the World Series two more times in his career. Alexander would win his lone championship in 1926. But he would have to leave Philadelphia in order to do so.
Following the 1917 season, Alexander was traded by the Phillies to the Chicago Cubs along with starting catcher Bill Killefer in one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.
The Phils got pitcher ‘Iron Mike’ Prendergast and a reserve catcher, William ‘Pickles’ Dillhoefer, in return. Each would last for just one season in Philly.
Meanwhile, Alexander found his Cubs career delayed when he was drafted into the Army after just 3 April starts in order to serve at the end of World War I.
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During this first portion of his career, Alexander was sometimes accused of drunkenness on the mound. But an opponent as great as Ty Cobb knew the true story. “He wasn’t drunk out there on the mound, the way people thought. He was an epileptic. Old Pete would fall down with a seizure between innings, then go back and pitch another shutout.”
Returning for his first full season in Chicago at age 32 in 1919, Alexander set about resuming the building of his Hall of Fame career. From 1918 into 1926, a period covering most of his 30’s, ‘Old Pete’ went 128-83 in a Cubs uniform.
Unfortunately, a 3rd place finish in that first full 1919 season was the best that the team could muster during his tenure. At mid-season in 1926, the Cubs released the then 39-year old Alexander.
He was signed by the Saint Louis Cardinals, who were battling for the NL Pennant and hoped that the wily veteran could help push them over the top. That he did, making 16 starts and going 9-7 with a 2.91 ERA in the 2nd half.
The Cardinals won the National League Pennant by 2 games over Cincinnati, and advance to the World Series where they matched up against an emerging power, the New York Yankees.
At that point in their history, the Yanks had just won the AL Pennant for the 4th time in 5 years thanks largely to the slugging exploits of the incomparable Babe Ruth. But they had only won a single World Series, in 1923. This would not be their 2nd.
In the 1926 World Series, Alexander was dominant. He started and won both Games 2 & 6, registering complete game victories in each. Then in the decisive Game 7, he came on in relief, trying to preserve a 3-2 Cardinals lead.
Alexander set the Yankees down in the 7th, and then again in the 8th. In the 9th inning, he registered the first two outs, and then up stepped Ruth. The two future Hall of Famers battled to a full count, and then finally Ruth earned a walk.
With the Babe on first as the tying run, up stepped Bob Meusel, who had some success against Alexander in Game 6. Meusel would never really get a chance this time.
Alexander fired a fastball past Meusel, and as he delivered, Ruth took off for 2nd base, hoping to get into scoring position with a surprise steal. Cards catcher Bob O’Farrell threw him out by 10 feet, ending the game and giving Saint Louis the World Series championship.
Now entering his 40’s, Alexander continued to find success with the Cardinals in both the 1927 & 28 seasons. They returned for a 1928 World Series rematch with the Yanks, but this time New York got the better, sweeping Saint Louis.
In 1929, Alexander was clearly slowing down. He was able to give the Cards one final 19-start campaign, going 9-8, including what would prove to be the final victory of his career.
That final victory for ‘Old Pete’ would come against, of all teams, the Philadelphia Phillies. In the 2nd game of a doubleheader on August 10th at Baker Bowl, Alexander earned the 373rd and final win of his career.
That would not, however, mark his last appearance on a big league mound. On December 11th, 1929, the Cards dealt him back to the Phillies, in order that he might finish out his career where it all began.
In that final 1930 season, at age 43, Alexander would appear in 9 games for the Phils during April and May. He made 3 starts, recording his final effective starting effort in his first outing on April 20th. That day, Pete went 6 innings allowing just 2 earned runs in what turned out to be a 2-1 loss to the New York Giants.
By May 28th at Boston, it was clear that he was done. In his final MLB appearance that day he allowed 2 runs on 2 hits over 2 innings. The Phillies released him. He tried to stay in the game over the next few years, but his skills would not allow a return to big league baseball.
Ty Cobb ~ “He was an epileptic. Old Pete would fall down with a seizure between innings, then go back and pitch another shutout”
His post-baseball life was miserable, to be kind. He battled alcohol, depression, epilepsy, a heart attack, and ultimately cancer. His lone bright moments came at his Hall of Fame induction in 1938, and as a guest of honor for Games 3 & 4 of the Yankees-Phillies 1950 World Series.
Just one month after that Series was concluded with a Yankees sweep of his old Phillies team, Grover Cleveland ‘Old Pete’ Alexander passed away in a hotel room in Nebraska at age 63.
Alexander is tied with fellow Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson at the top of the National League all-time Wins ranking with his 373. His 90 shutouts are a league record. In a 1999 ranking by The Sporting News of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players he was ranked at #12.