Swinging Into History: Grover Cleveland Alexander

After setting a rookie record of 28 wins, everyone knew the name Grover Cleveland Alexander. A man who fiercely took the mound and filled batters with dread as they stepped up to the plate.

Alexander was born in Elba, Nebraska, during the first term of President Grover Clever. One of 13 children, he began playing semi-profession baseball in his youth. He went on to sign his first professional baseball contract at the age of 20 in 1907 for only $50 a month. By 1909, Alexander began playing for the Galesburg Boosters in the Class D Illinois-Missouri League (which operated from 1908-1914). He went 15-8 during the season with an ERA of 1.36.

His career was almost cut short during his 1909 season. While base running, Alexander was struck by a thrown ball. Therefore, he wouldn’t return to action until the next season.

In 1910, he became a star pitcher for the Syracuse Stars in the Class B New York State League and finished the season with a record of 29-11. His contract would eventually be sold to the Philadelphia Phillies for only $750.

Alexander made his debut with the Phillies during the pre-season 1911 City Series. He pitched a five inning no-hit, no-run game against the Athletics. His official Major League Baseball debut was on April 15, 1911.

In his rookie year, he led the league with 28 wins (a modern-day rookie record), 31 complete games, 367 innings, seven shutouts — finishing second in strikeouts and fourth in league ERA.

From 1912 to 1921, Alexander led the league in ERA four times (1915-16, 1919, and 1920), wins five times (1914–17, 1920), innings six times (1912, 1914–17, 1920), strikeouts six times (1912, 1914–1917, 1920), complete games five times (1914–1917, 1920), and shutouts five times (1915, 1916 [a single-season record 16], 1917, 1919, 1921).

He went on to win the National League Triple Crown in 1915, 1916, and 1920. Alexander is also often credited with winning the Triple Crown in 1917.

In 1915, he led the Phillies to their first pennant — pitching a record five no-hitters. That year, he won his first World Series game. The Phillies would not win another World Series game for 65 years.

After the 1917 season, Alexander was traded to the Chicago Cubs for $60,000, Pickles Dillhoefer, and Mike Prendergast. Phillies owner William Baker would later admit that he did it because he needed the money.

Alexander went on to be drafted into World War I, like many of his fellow teammates. A month before shipping out, he married Amy Marie Arrants on May 31, 1918, in a courthouse ceremony. The two would have an off-and-on again relationship throughout their lives. Divorcing in 1929, remarrying in 1931 and divorcing again in 1941.

He spent of what would have been his 1918 season in France as a sergeant with the 342’d Field Artillery. While serving in France, he was exposed to mustard gas and a shell exploded near him — which caused partial hearing loss and triggered an onset of epilepsy.

Despite his talent on the field, Alexander faced an inner demon — alcoholism, which plagued the rest of his life. The trauma of serving in WWI and epilepsy only increased his alcohol intake.

The Chicago Cubs continued to give him a chance on the field. After serving the team with many successful seasons, Alexander was eventually sold to the St. Louis Cardinals for a waiver price. Rumors spread that the Cubs were tired of his drunkenness and insubordination that came with his epilepsy.

The Cardinals went on to win the National League pennant that season and faced the New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series. Alexander pitched complete game victories in Games 2 and 6. After the victory of Game 6, Alexander got drunk that night and was still feeling the effects when he was sent out to pitch the next day in Game 7.

Alexander came to the game in the seventh inning after starter Jesse Haines had developed a blister, with the Cardinals ahead 3–2, the bases loaded and two out. Facing Yankee slugger Tony Lazzeri, Alexander struck him out and then held the Yankees scoreless for two more innings to preserve the win and give St. Louis the championship. The final out of the 7th game was made when Babe Ruth tried to steal second base and was tagged out by Rogers Hornsby.

Alexander has one last 20-0 season with the Cardinals in 1927, but the continue consumption of alcohol finally caught up with him. He played for one last year — a brief stint in 1930 with the Phillies and never returned to Major League Baseball.

Alexander’s 90 shutouts are a National League record and his 373 wins are tied with Christy Mathewson for first place in the National League. He is also tied for third all time in wins, tenth in innings pitched (5190), second in shutouts, and eighth in hits allowed (4868).

At the time of Alexander’s final victory in August 1929, the media reported that he had broken Mathewson’s career victories record of 372. In the 1940s, Mathewson was discovered to have qualified for an additional victory (May 21, 1912) and his total was officially upped to 373 and into a tie with Alexander. Alexander posted a lifetime winning percentage of .642, compared to Mathewson’s .665.

Throughout his career, he only committed 25 errors in 1,633 total chances for a fielding percentage of .985. His offensive stats as a pitcher were also impressive — 378 hits in 1,810 at-bats, a batting average of .209 with 11 home runs and 163 runs batted in.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Alexander continued to play baseball, touring as a player-coach for the Grover Cleveland Alexander’s House of David Team. The tour was managed by J.L. Wilkinson. The team often played against the Kansas City Monarchs — Alexander played with and against many Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige, John Donaldson, Newt Joseph, Chet Brewers and Andy Cooper.

Alexander attended Game 3 of the 1950 World Series at Yankee Stadium where he saw the Phillies lose to the Yankees. He died less than a month later, on November 4 in St. Paul, Nebraska, at the age of 63.


Alexander was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1938, the third year of the Hall. Alexander was the only player elected that year.

Alexander was also the subject of the 1952 biographical film The Winning Team, portrayed by Ronald Reagan. The film earned an estimated $1.7 million at the North American box office in 1952. Alexander has the unique distinction of being named after one U.S. president and being played on-screen by another.

In 1999, he ranked number 12 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was a nominee for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Because he played before the Phillies adopted uniform numbers, the block-letter “P” from the 1915 season uniforms was retired by the team in 2001 to honor his career with them.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

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