He is slight, as big league ballplayers go, and if he has muscles they don't show. He is slow and cannot throw hard. One season he was at bat 520 times without hitting a home run; of his 142 hits, 120 were singles. He seldom smiles and almost never laughs. All he does is play baseball—and beat you. His name is Dick Groat.
"He holds the Pirates together," says Gene Mauch of the Phillies.
"He's the player the Pirates can least afford to lose," says Warren Spahn of the Braves.
"He kills us," says Fred Hutchinson of the Reds. "I wish to hell he'd go away."
August 7, 1960
The punishment which Dick Groat inflicts upon rival National League teams is something like being beaten to death with an ostrich feather fan, and in assessing credit for the rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates it is much easier to pin medals on others. There is Bob Skinner, with his lovely, lethal swing and incredible ability to deliver in the clutch. There is Smoky Burgess, who is short and round but blessed with a pair of the finest wrists and eyes in baseball and the talent to produce base hits without end. There are the two magicians with gloves, Bill Mazeroski and Don Hoak, and the three pitchers that hitters generally dread to see come into town: Bob Friend, Vernon Law and ElRoy Face. There are the rocketing speed and arm of Roberto Clemente and the booming, if infrequent, home runs of Dick Stuart. Gino Cimoli has caught some of the fire, and he has been a good ballplayer this year; so have Hal Smith and Rocky Nelson, who head up the supporting cast. But in all the famed Pirate rallies, and in the solid defensive play which cuts down the other team, the man in the middle always seems to be Dick Groat.
Groat gets on base, he moves the runner along, he keeps the inning alive; he comes up with the big stop and throw when it has to be made. He grows on you, like a very good (or slightly bad) woman with a bland face, and if something should happen to Dick Groat, the Pirates would probably fall apart.
When Bob Oldis, the third-string Pittsburgh catcher, joined the team last spring, he was amazed by Groat, in a negative sort of way. "Why, the guy couldn't do anything. He didn't even look like a big-leaguer to me. But then, day after day, I began to realize what he was doing out there. He was helping this team win ball games. And the longer I'm here, the more respect I have for Dick Groat. He's a hell of a ballplayer."
Smart, quick and rangy
"He always has been," says Al Dark. "They say he doesn't have much range at shortstop. What's range but getting to the ball? And you watch Groat; he's always in front of the ball. He's smart and he knows the hitters and plays position as well as anyone I ever saw. Maybe he doesn't have a great arm, but he makes up for it by getting the ball away quicker than anyone else. He has terrific reactions and great hands, and that's better than speed. As a hitter the only thing he lacks is power. He doesn't strike out, he comes through with men on base, he can bunt and he's the best hit-and-run man in the game.
"For years he was the most underrated ballplayer in the league. Now he's got a good team around him and people are beginning to realize how valuable he is."
Now 29, with a balding head over which he carefully combs the few remaining strands of once-abundant brown hair until they are separated like the strings on a violin, Dick Groat presents a deceptively placid exterior to the world—intelligent, friendly, polite. In the off season he lives in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, with his wife Barbara—a New York model when Groat met her one day in 1955 at the Polo Grounds—and their two little girls. Each day he drives 32 miles to Washington, Pa., where he is a sales trainee for the Jessop Steel Co., and frequently he is called upon to make a speech before some baseball-hungry banquet audience at night. He always cooperates.
When not working or talking, Groat plays golf, shooting in the upper 70s at the Edgewood Country Club, where he is a member. During the season, when the Pirates are at home, the Groats may get together with Bill Virdon and his wife for dinner and an evening of bridge. On the road the quiet, studious-looking Virdon and the quiet, serious Groat room together; they talk baseball or see a show or play some bridge. Occasionally Dick will have a drink or smoke a cigar. All very peaceful.
Only in the sober brown eyes, which look out upon life and the problems of the Pittsburgh Pirates with startling intensity, is there any indication of the fury which smolders inside. The inner Groat is one of the most amazing competitors in the world of sport, an athlete who burns with an almost frightening determination to excel. Lacking size and speed and strength, Groat has compensated with passion and has succeeded.
Each January the baseball Pirates play the football Steelers in a benefit basketball game for a Pittsburgh children's hospital, and the presence of Groat in the Pirate lineup has for years made this a one-sided affair. Last winter, however, the Steelers rang in Don Hennon, the high-scoring little University of Pittsburgh guard, and the game went down to the final 30 seconds with the Pirates ahead by only three points. When Hennon got the ball, Groat dropped back, willing to give up an easy shot and a possible two points in order to gain possession and run out the clock. So Hennon shot and made the goal—and Bob Prince, the Pirate broadcaster who was refereeing the game, more or less, called a foul on Groat.
"My God," says Prince, "Dick was fit to be tied. I know he didn't foul Hennon; I just wanted to send the game into overtime and give the customers a show. 'Relax, Dick,' I told him. 'This is only an exhibition, a fun game.' 'Fun, hell,' he said. 'I'm trying to win.' When the Pirates lost in overtime, he wouldn't speak to me for weeks. I think he's still a little bit mad at me."
As a kid growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Swissvale, Groat always seemed to try harder than anyone else. At Duke, as a 5-foot 11-inch boy playing a game that had been captured by giants, he set a national collegiate basketball scoring record with 831 points in his junior year. He had an even better per-game average as a senior, and made All-America two years in a row. As a scorer he was almost impossible to stop. He could hit from outside with a two-hand set shot or confound and confuse the opposition with his driving, stop-and-go dribble in close. He was one of the first to realize the value of the one-hand jump shot, and he used it; he was also an exceptional rebounder for his size, a tough defensive man and perhaps the best playmaker ever seen in the old Southern Conference. "The thing about Groat," said Vic Bubas, North Carolina State's all-conference guard, "is that I knew what he was going to do, but I couldn't do anything about it."
Two more All-Americas
As a college shortstop, Groat was twice All-America again, hitting well over .300 his last two years and performing what passed in that league as wizardry afield. This so impressed Mr. Branch Rickey that Dick received $25,000 to sign a Pittsburgh contract. Judging that he had little or nothing to lose, Rickey popped Groat right into the 1952 Pirate lineup that was to come close to the National League record for futility before the season was over, losing the magnificent total of 112 games.
"Maybe it wasn't much of a ball club," says Groat now, "but I wasn't worried about winning any pennants. All I was worried about was staying in the big leagues."
He should have worried about his hair. He had two hits in his first game and drove in two runs. In his fifth he started a triple play. At the end of the season his .284 average was better than Ralph Kiner's, better than Gus Bell's, better than anyone else on the Pirates. If Pete Castiglione, Catfish Metkovich, Joe Garagiola, Tony Bartirome, Clem Koshorek, John Merson, Bobby Del Greco and other members of that undistinguished cast were big-leaguers, Groat was ready for the Hall of Fame.
That winter, while finishing up his degree at Duke and waiting to be drafted, Groat played part of the NBA schedule with Fort Wayne. He scored well against the big pros and fascinated the fans; weary of waiting for Bob Cousy to come to town to give them occasional deliverance from the goons, they began to pack Memorial Coliseum to watch their own flashy little man. But when he went into service in January of 1953, Groat had played his last pro basketball. The Pirates were too conscious of his value by then to take a chance, and when he returned from service General Manager Joe Brown asked that he stick to one sport. Occasionally Groat still wonders if he picked the right sport.
"Sometimes I get frustrated in baseball," he says. "I can't hit the home run or lift a team through sheer physical ability. I could in basketball. If we were six points behind with a couple of minutes to play, I knew I could make up the difference, I could still win the game. I could score in basketball. I have to work like the devil to score here."
The reason Groat decided on baseball was not the money ("I made more in salary my first year with Fort Wayne than in my first two seasons with the Pirates," he says), although by now he earns more with Pittsburgh (between $25,000 and $30,000) than he ever could in the NBA. It was a feeling that baseball offered a longer career, a more important career, a chance to go further. "Also," he says, "I felt that I owed a lot to Mr. Rickey. He was awfully good to me."
In the five full seasons and part of a sixth since Groat returned from the Army, he only once has known the exaltation of the slugger. That was in 1957, the season in which he achieved his career high for home runs. Seven. In a double-header at the Polo Grounds he hit two home runs, one in each game, and also a bases-loaded triple. The next morning he was seen walking slowly along Park Avenue, peering into the showrooms at Cadillacs. But that night he was back hitting singles to right field.
"The only place I ever consciously try to hit a home run now is in the Coliseum," he says. "That's the only fence I consistently reach." To preserve his pride, Groat has come up with some figures that show the futility of hitting the ball up in the air in the first place. "Five out of 10 line drives go for base hits," he says, "and three out of 10 balls hit on the ground. Only one out of 10 fly balls are hits; the rest are caught for outs.
"Of course," he adds, a bit sadly, "not the kind of fly balls that Banks and Mays and Aaron hit."
Scramble from the depths
When Groat got out of service in 1955, he had trouble regaining his rookie form. He hit only .267, and the next season was even worse. The turning point came in August 1956, when he was in a horrible slump. He took extra batting practice. He talked to all the good hitters he could find. He changed his stance, his bat, everything. Finally, in desperation, he began to swing against thrown tennis balls, plastic golf balls, bottle caps, even corncobs, in an attempt to just meet the ball and forget about distance. Something snapped—nobody, Groat least of all, knows exactly what. But he hit .357 the final month of the season, raising his average from .254 to .273. In 1957 only Musial, Mays, Frank Robinson and Aaron exceeded his .315 average. In 1958 he hit an even .300. Last year's .275 wasn't good for Groat, but it wasn't bad for a shortstop.
This year Groat often has been sensational. He had six hits in six at bats on Friday the 13th of May against Milwaukee, something no one in baseball has been able to do since 1955, when Joe De Maestri, illogically enough, pulled the same trick. Later Groat had five hits in one game, and on five occasions he has had four hits. In San Francisco in mid-June he went nine for 15, drove in six runs and started four double plays as the Pirates cut down the Giants in three games. He was 16 for 23 in one sizzling stretch, 27 for 56 in another and at one point led the league in batting with .351. No one expected this to continue, for Groat is not a .350 hitter, a distinction he shares with others, but he has continued well above .300 and has been leading both major leagues in hits. He should get 200 this season, and not many ballplayers do that.
A natural opposite-field hitter, he has learned to pull the ball to keep the defense from loading up the right side. He can hit behind the runner about as well as anyone who plays the game, now that Willie Keeler is gone and Alvin Dark is growing gray. He is a master of one of baseball's toughest plays, the apparently simple, but endlessly complex, sacrifice bunt. He has learned how to take a hard-sliding runner without losing his leg and how to feed the ball to Bill Mazeroski on the double play so that Mazeroski won't lose his. He knows what his own pitchers in a given situation will throw to a particular batter and what that batter is most likely to do with the ball. He has learned when to cut off a throw from the outfield and when to let it go. He is one of the best at getting behind a runner on second to take the pickoff throw, and for two straight seasons he has led National League shortstops in making the double play.
Most important, he has taken charge of this Pittsburgh ball club, which is no longer fumbling and futile and inept as in the old days, but smart and tough and determined. Working "like the devil to score," Dick Groat has given the Pirates an impetus no long-ball hitter could ever have supplied.