Alumni Profile: Grover Cleveland Alexander

Richie Ashburn was always fond of the saying "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story, Harry", when talking about some long ago event where the facts were sometimes blurred. That saying may have no better fit for a player than it does for Grover Cleveland Alexander. The stories of his life that are true and the stories of his life that are myths are sometimes blurred, but they're all part of the legend of the Phillies Hall of Famer.

Grover Cleveland Alexander was somewhat of a character. That much is known to definitely be true. By the time his career was over, Alexander's stats spoke for themselves. Alexander won 373 games in his career and from 1915 until 1980, was the only Phillies pitcher to have won a World Series game. In his first 7 years with the Phillies, Alexander won 190 games. Over his career, Alexander would pitch 696 games and would complete 439 of them and would strike out 2,199 hitters. Alexander's achievements were honored with his induction to the Hall of Fame in 1938, when only Cy Young and Walter Johnson stood ahead of Alexander in all-time wins.

Alexander's career with the Phillies included two different stints. The first, from 1911 until 1917 saw Alexander be a dominant pitcher who routinely made the best hitters in the game look downright foolish. He returned to the Phillies in 1930 to pitch his final season, but was nowhere near the pitcher he had been in his first tour with the Phillies. In fact, Alexander pitched just 22 innings in that final season without winning a game.

The Phillies found Alexander pitching in the minor leagues at age 23 after he was somehow overlooked by almost every scout on the planet. The best pitcher out of the New York State League where Alexander was pitching was George Chalmers who the Phillies also wrapped up. Patsy O'Rourke, who managed the Albany team in the New York League recommended that the Phillies take a look at Alexander and touted him as being even better than Chalmers. The Phillies looked at Alexander and were able to snag him. As it turned out, Chalmers finished his Phillies career at 29-41, while Alexander went 373-208.

A chunk of Alexander's career was spent pitching in the days of prohibition. It's out of that fact that most of the stories of Alexander's exploits come. Alexander was given the nickname Ol' Pete, because he was known to be a "sneaky Pete" who found ways around prohibition to enjoy his favorite vice. The Phillies were fearing that Alexander would be drafted into the military and decided that they wanted to get something for him rather than lose him to military service. Because of that, they shipped him to the Chicago Cubs after the 1917 season. Indeed, Alexander was drafted and spent most of his first year as a Cub in France. Before he would return to the major leagues, Alexander would develop epilepsy and his drinking problems would increase, but he would still put together amazing career numbers.

In 1926, the St.Louis Cardinals were heading toward the postseason when the Cubs agreed to sell Alexander to the Cardinals. The Cardinals went to the World Series and Alexander was the winning pitcher in Game Six, tying the series 3-3. Manager Rogers Hornsby, knowing Alexander's penchant for drinking, told Alexander to not party that night because he may need him in Game Seven. That's where the story becomes clouded. While Alexander insists that he went back to his hotel room and stayed there without touching a drop of alcohol, the other version of the story is much juicier. Legend has it that Alexander went on a classic drinking binge and was sleeping off the hangover during Game Seven when he was called upon to face Tony Lazzeri. What is known is that Alexander struck out Lazzeri with a curve ball that had Lazzeri swinging nowhere near the path of the ball. Alexander insists that the only interesting part of the true story is that when the call came to the bullpen, he hadn't thrown even one warm-up pitch and entered the game cold – and sober.

After his playing career, Alexander was found working in a flea circus in Times Square. Asked about his new career, Alexander simply stated "It's better to be living off fleas than to have them living off you". The Hall of Famer also spent time working in Vaudeville shows and earning money in almost any way possible. His drinking continued and his health declined.

In 1950, Bob Carpenter, owner of the Phillies invited Alexander to attend the World Series in Philadelphia. Alexander ended up missing the games in Philadelphia, but did make it to Yankee Stadium for the final two games of the series. One month after the World Series, Alexander passed away. He had spent the last two decades of his life fighting poverty, alcoholism and cancer, which was officially what took his life. In the late 1940s, Alexander lived mainly off $25 a week which came to him from the estate of Cardinal's owner Sam Breadon, who felt indebted to the man who had led the Cardinals to their first ever World Series title.

Again, the facts behind Alexander's career and the numbers that he put up in his playing days are unclear, but the stats stand for themselves. It was the statistics and not the stories that put Grover Cleveland Alexander – named after the President of the United States – in the Hall of Fame. Ironically, two years after his death, future president Ronald Reagan portrayed Alexander in the movie "The Winning Team" about the 1926 Cardinals. The irony was the perfect end to the story of Alexander's life. In summing up his life and career, Alexander stated simply "I had control of everything but myself. I've made promises and broken them, the way I broke a curve outside to heavy hitters. I've laughed as many times as I've cried, so I guess I'm even with my life".

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