On hilly streets of Lonaconing, native son 'Lefty' is still a giant

September 22, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

LONACONING -- On the steep slopes of the Alleghenies, where for generations coal miners and their sons burrowed into the rock-hard earth, lived an independent man who refused to dig for a living. His name was Robert Moses Grove, otherwise known as Lefty, who threw a baseball with extraordinary effectiveness and thus found a comfortable way to enjoy days in the sun by not having to put on a lanterned helmet and go underground.

He had incredible speed, amassed enormous strikeout totals and pitched his way into the Hall of Fame. Hitting off him was like asking to be blindfolded and then trying to swing an ax handle to hit a lump of coal in the darkness of midnight.

Winner of an even 300 games and with a record of 31-4 with the Philadelphia A's in 1931, he received the first Most Valuable Player Award presented by the Baseball Writers of America -- a magnificent trophy, the kind of work they don't create anymore, with a pitcher depicted on top of a globe-like baseball designed by Dieges & Glust, well-known silversmiths.

Its value can't be estimated, which is why it's kept in a bank vault in downtown Lonaconing. A visit here to see and touch the "holy grail" of baseball was arranged by John Meyers, once a standout athlete at Frostburg State and later a high school teacher and coach for 35 years.

He's the "keeper of the flame," a caretaker of the trophy, so to speak, the overlord of what Lonaconing likes to fondly remember about its most celebrated son, something of a paradox for a man who was only truly comfortable when he was with the home folks.

Grove was considered by some teammates as difficult to get along with, someone whose temper triggered him, on occasion, to tear up the clubhouse. Such an occasion occurred in his

record-setting year of 1931 when Grove, after winning 16 straight, lost 1-0 to the St. Louis Browns because a rookie outfielder, Jim Moore, playing in place of Al Simmons, who had gone home to visit in Milwaukee, misjudged a fly ball.

Grove knocked down the clubhouse door, kicked over lockers and destroyed his own uniform. "If Simmons had been here and in left field," Grove screamed, "he would have caught that ball in his back pocket."

To the day he died, in 1975 at age 75, Lefty held Simmons responsible.

"After I lost that game, I came back to win six or seven in a row. I could have had about 24 straight wins except for that 1-0 loss."

That same year, Grove toured Japan with an all-star team and the prime minister presented him with an oversized baseball glove as a memento of the trip. Crossed flags of the United States and Japan were stitched into the leather. But, 10 years later, when Pearl Harbor was bombed, which coincided with the day Grove announced his retirement, he took a penknife and cut away the rising sun.

Meyers remembers Lefty, on other occasions, at the pool hall and bowling lanes he operated, taking a cue stick and breaking it over his knee to vent anger. Another time he went home to replace a radio he thought would offer better reception than the one he and friends were listening to, but all it offered was nonstop static. Lefty picked it up, fired it against the wall and said, "That's not as good as the one we had."

Meyers and Suter Kegg, sports editor emeritus of the Cumberland Times, remember Grove with affection, not disdain, simply because they understood and liked him. "I think there was a shyness to him," said Kegg.

"He felt comfortable when he was at the Lonaconing Republican Club with his friends or at 'Lefty's Place,' a pool hall and bowling lanes. Sometimes he'd drop in at the newspaper office, put his hand over my typewriter and say, 'That's enough work for one day.' Lefty liked to kid around."

"He came from strict parents," recalled Meyers, 79. "He was honest and blunt in his manner. He only went to the sixth grade in school and maybe that bothered him when he was around better-educated people."

But how did the MVP trophy come under the care of Meyers?

"In 1955, Lefty said if he gave it to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, none of the folks in 'Coney,' which is what we call Lonaconing, would have a chance to see it," replied Meyers. "It was on display at Valley High School for almost two decades before it was suggested it be moved for security reasons."

Whether it eventually will go on loan to Cooperstown, the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore or to the baseball exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington is a decision that will be made in the future. Meyers realizes in this era of memorabilia collectors the trophy would bring a heavy price if offered at auction, but that's not going to happen.

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