The final at-bat of Grover Cleveland Alexander

“I doubt that I ever felt sorrier for any man who ever worked for me than I did for Alexander”  

Branch Rickey

Collecting Alexander autographs

The acquisition of an authentic Grover Cleveland Alexander autograph is an expensive but not particularly difficult proposition. A prolific signer both through the mail and in-person, he was never known to have used a secretary or “ghost” signer. After his Hall of Fame induction, mail sent to him in care of the Baseball Hall of Fame was forwarded to him at either Nebraska or Los Angeles, Calif., his two main places of residence between 1938 and his death in 1950. He took great pride in receiving requests and was by most accounts extraordinarily diligent in responding to fans. Because of the fact that he moved around the country so much in his later years, responses were slow in coming but they came. Sometimes postmarked from small towns that dotted the country along the railroad route between Nebraska and Los Angeles as “Alex” would frequently attend to autograph requests during his train trips as a way to relieve the monotony. During the later part of his playing days teammates have described him as “grumpy, ill-mannered and unapproachable,” but this was usually directed at younger rookie players trying to hook up with the team.

His signature changed little over the years and there are two common variations. The more prevalent being the use of his initials “G.C. Alexander” He would on occasion sign his full name “Grover Cleveland Alexander.” One of the most popular mediums of collecting of the day was for collectors to request a signature on a government postcard (postal mail card usually stamped with a postmark via return mail). These sell today in the $1,500-$2,000 price range and have more than doubled in value over the past two years.

Grover Alexander signed letters too, which will occasionally surface and command in the $3,500-$4,500 range depending on content. Almost all of the letters are typed. The few handwritten letters that I have seen over the years are usually brief with little content and would more appropriately be called a “handwritten note” than a letter. Alexander’s autograph is extremely rare on photos and signed balls, especially single signed. No signed personal checks of Alexander are known to exist as it would be a safe assumption that his wife handled his finances for him. As with any autograph, forgeries do exist and collectors should exercise caution, question provenance and consult with a knowledgeable dealer or collector before making a purchase.

Very little in the way of unsigned memorabilia has surfaced over the years. However, rumor has it that several years ago the St. Louis Cardinals uniform that Alexander wore during the World Series in which he fanned Lazzeri was discovered at a garage sale in the Midwest and was subsequently offered at auction. In collecting autographs or memorabilia of Grover Cleveland Alexander, patience is not just a virtue, it’s a necessity.

Player Profile

If ever there was a baseball “love story” the story of Grover Alexander and Amy Arrants would be it. Arrants lived in Omaha, Neb., with her family and first met Alexander on a blind date while visiting friends in St. Paul, Neb. It was love at first sight and after a brief courtship, they were married in 1918.

Arrants was an attractive red head and Alexander was a 31-year-old pitching sensation at the peak of his powers. Neither one of them could have known then how tragic their lives would later become or how they would both be inextricably bound together through all of it. After the wedding, Alexander was off to fight in a war in Europe that would last another year. His own eternal war would wage on much longer, finally consuming him 32 years later. Through the good and the bad, Arrants would remain with him, until it became too much to bear. They would separate and reunite dozens of times throughout their lives, even divorcing in 1929, remarrying and divorcing again, but they never could stay apart for very long. Alexander needed her.

She would be the only person who had any real influence over him she once explained, “I feel more like a mother to him and him a small boy. He listens to me more than anyone else.”

Regrettably, Alexander didn’t listen well enough and he died in 1950 penniless and alone. In a small rented room in St. Paul, Neb., an unfinished letter to Arrants was found in his typewriter. Twenty-nine years later when Arrants died in a California nursing home, a baseball from the 1926 World Series, a souvenir of Alexander’s greatest triumph was found near her body.

Alexander was an alcoholic in a time when little was known about the disease. Habitual drunks, which he surely was, were simply thought to be “weak in character” or in “self restraint.” Based on what is known about the disease today, many of the so-called “warning signs” were firmly in place, with his father and grandfather both having been alcoholics. While Alexander had achieved masterful control over his pitching, he was never able to achieve the same control over either his personal life or his drinking.

Shortly before his death he confided in former teammate, Specs Torporcer, for an article in Blue Book magazine, that he had started drinking heavily while on overseas duty in the first World War. It was clear to Torporcer that Alexander had wished he’d never started. He returned from Europe with a serious drinking problem, almost deaf in one ear from exploding shells and an epileptic condition. The epilepsy was either brought on by or aggravated by his heavy drinking.

During a seizure, teammates would hold him down and grab his tongue to keep him from choking to death. A bottle of brandy was kept in the dugout for Alexander to “steady his nerves” after a seizure.

Later, near the end of his career, tales of Alexander’s drinking made the rounds throughout the league. Covered up for years, they had finally began to make the sports pages. New Cubs manager Joe McCarthy, disgusted by “Ol Pete’s “lack of discipline” and unable to get along with the fading superstar, made one of the few blunders of his managerial career and simply let Alexander go. The Cardinals acquired him on waivers. Alexander reported in June and helped pitch the Red Birds to their first NL pennant.

The 1926 World Series and especially Game 7 would prove to be the swan song of Alexander’s career and oddly enough the legend that surrounds one of his most stellar achievements would be centered around his drinking. The fact is, it was one of the few times in which he was in all probability stone-cold sober. Alexander won Game 2, holding the powerful Yankees team to only four hits. In Game 6, he beat the Yanks again and evened the series.

Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby, who knew a thing or two about bad habits himself, possessing a serious gambling problem, told Alexander after the game, “You were great today. I suppose you want to celebrate tonight, but don’t do it. I may need you tomorrow.” It appears he took Hornsby’s advice and went back to his hotel room and stayed there all night.

Alexander said years later, “I was cold sober the night after I pitched the sixth game, there were plenty of nights before and since that I wasn’t, but that night I stayed sober.”

Arrants had recalled years later that she and her husband had gone upstate early. She mixed them each a highball and they went to bed. Alexander had told Hornsby that day, that if needed, he could be called upon to throw “Four or five of the damnedest pitches they ever saw” and to save himself “I won’t warm up.”

In an interview shortly before his death, Alexander recalled this stellar moment in baseball history. “I knew how to pitch to Lazzeri and Rog knew it, as I came in from the bullpen Hornsby had the ball, he was standing out there at his second base position and when I reached the mound he threw the ball to me. Rog knew there wasn’t anything he had to tell me.” After throwing two curves, one a ball and the other a strike, catcher Bob O’Farrell called for an inside pitch to try and cross Lazzeri up in the hopes he would be looking for a another curve. But Lazzeri got ahold of it and dropped the ball into the left field stands foul by only a few feet.”

Asked if he felt nervous after that shot, he had answered, “Ask Lazzeri how he felt, I felt fine.” His next pitch was his fabled curve, the pitch that had earned him the nickname “Old Down and Away” from frustrated batters. Lazzeri lunged but didn’t come close and the inning was over with three Yankees runners left cooling their heals on base. Alexander held the Yanks hitless in the last two innings and the Series was over.

Babe Ruth would later write, “Just to see Old Pete out there on the mound, with the cocky little undersized cap pulled down over one ear, chewing away at his tobacco and pitching baseballs as easy as pitching hay is enough to take the heart out of a fellow.”

After the victory, Hornsby in his exuberance was quoted as saying, “Alex pitches better drunk than any other pitcher sober.” This only served to fuel the rumor, which incidentally made for outstanding press. Near the end of his life he told his wife, “The biggest mistake we made, Amy, was in not denying the story from the start. At the time it made good reading, so we let it go.”

It was obvious that the event meant a lot to him and he tried in vain in later years to set the record straight. Nevertheless, if Grover Alexander wasn’t drunk that day he had many more ahead of him in which he would be. The rest of his life would be filled with one “bad break” after another in the long downhill spiral.

In the middle of the 1929 season he went on a bender. The Cardinals sent him to a sanitarium to dry out. He checked out of the hospital and vanished for two days only to show up at the ballpark drunk. He was given his release for the rest of the season. Cardinals owner Sam Breadon (a drinking man himself) had seen enough: he paid him off in full and Alexander returned to his Nebraska farm. Although he would return the next season with the Phillies where it all had begun 20 years before, he would never win another major league game. That left his career total at 373 victories, only one more than the great Christy Mathewson, who retired with 372.

Despite his handicaps, Alexander had won more major league games than any National League pitcher in major league history. However, in 1940, baseball historians discovered a game won by Mathewson from the 1902 season that had previously been overlooked. This moved Matty into a tie for the record previously thought to he held exclusively by Alexander. After 1926, “Ol Pete” never could catch a break.

In 1929, Arrants had filed for divorce. She testified that Alexander was “beyond redemption.” He continually tried to quit drinking and repeatedly failed. He had become increasingly difficult to get along with and cited “extreme cruelty” as the reason for the dissolution of marriage. She still loved him and refused to speak ill of the one-time superstar.

“I wouldn’t say a word against him; he’s a nice fellow. We simply disagreed.” She confided in friends that she divorced him in the hopes of shocking him into sobriety. It didn’t work.
 
In Grand Island, Neb., Alexander found himself in some major trouble. He was arrested and jailed after a car accident and six-mile chase, for suspicion of intoxication, reckless driving, speeding, illegal transportation of liquor, fleeing the scene of an accident, and failing to stop when ordered by police.

A woman who was in the car with him gave her name as Mrs. Mason. Two days later, Alexander was named in a lawsuit by St. Paul theater owner Roy Mason, who demanded compensation from the former big league ballplayer for the alienation of affection of his estranged wife “Mrs. Mason,” demanding $25,000. A few weeks later, Arrants received a call from a friend of Alexanders, boxer Bill Maharg, who was one of the key players in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. She was told that Alexander was “In bad shape” and hiding out in a Philadelphia hotel room. Arrants pulled him together enough to get him a job with Dallas in the Texas League where he was later suspended for “breaking training.”

He would eventually pitch a few games for the team but was released. His unreliability and frequent bouts of drinking embarrassed the team and outweighed the advantages that the faded major league star could offer as a gate attraction. Again, he was in search of a job.

He entertained offers from as unheralded a source as the Omaha, Neb., police department which wanted him to pitch for the departmental team. It was amazing to think that only four years previous Alexander had challenged the great Tony Lazzeri in Game 7 of the World Series and walked away the hero. He had been the toast of the town and the nation. Rarely has an individual fallen so far, so fast.

Then, finally a break. The Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, thinking there might be a few pitches left in his old arm, signed him to a contract. With the movie cameras whirling and 14,000 fans in attendance to encourage his triumphant return, Alexander was a no-show. He was in a Chicago hotel room drunk once again.

It was clear Alexander was becoming an embarrassment to baseball. How could one of the greatest players the game had ever seen be almost completely destitute so soon after his major league career was over? The last thing the owners wanted was anyone questioning how after a stellar 20-year career, capped off by almost single-handedly winning the 1926 World Series for the Cardinals, that Alexander could be broke.

No one was more mindful of this than then Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, the man who let Alexander go after the 1929 season. Unbeknown to Alexander, who thought the money was coming from the National League front office, he began to receive a small monthly check. Breadon had hoped that this would at least keep Alexander off of the streets and out of the newspapers, but he was wrong.

Eager to do the only thing he had ever done, play baseball, Alexander signed on with the barnstorming “House of David” baseball team. The popular team known for their unshorn appearance toured and played ball to help spread their Old Testament religious beliefs. Alexander still had box office appeal and for many of the fans in the small towns mostly in the Midwest where the teams played, this would be their first opportunity to see a professional baseball game and a real life baseball legend.

Alexander was determined to turn his luck around and made up his mind to quit drinking for good. Feeling better than he had felt in years and with a pension (of sorts) coming from the Cardinals and a regular check from “The House of David Team,” things were looking up. He asked for and was given another chance from Arrants and pledged that his drinking escapades were behind him. The pair were married for a second time on June 2, 1931. By Arrant’s account, his sobriety would only last six weeks before he was back to the bottle. After an all out bout of drinking before a game in Devils Lake, N.D., he managed to get himself thrown out of the game when he showed up drunk, acted erratically, and tried to pick a fight with the umpire.

In between his road trips with the House of David he hired on with Ray Doan’s Baseball School in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1933, who along with diamond greats Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker, taught aspiring young boys the finer points of the game. Doan had been playing a big part in Alexander’s life. It was he who financed the House of David team and had persuaded Alexander to join. He had even acted as a matchmaker in convincing Arrants to give Alexander another chance and marry him the second time. Doan knew full well that without her, Alexander could rarely be relied on to manage his own affairs.

Even with Arrants, he was becoming difficult, if not impossible, to manage. He was found one night in Hot Springs passed out on the street drunk and penniless. In a local hotel, he fell asleep with a cigarette and destroyed the bed. When liquor was unavailable, Alexander drank Arrant’s perfume. She appealed to then National League President Ford Frick for help. Frick, aware of the embarrassment that Alexander was causing not only himself, but the game of baseball and wrote to commissioner Kennesaw Landis for advice.

His letter stated “I think it is not a question of what we can do for Alexander, but is there anything we can do about him?” Landis and Frick had even received letters from baseball writers and fans across the country who had seen firsthand the plight of the old right-hander. Frick concluded his letter by saying, “Personally, I have very little sympathy with Alexander. I feel that baseball has been very kind to him and that he has been given every opportunity to make good. On the other hand, I do feel that having him running loose on the country, so to speak, is a bad advertisement and it would probably be worth $50 per month to us to prevent that occurrence.”

Meanwhile, Alexander continued to tour with The House of David team, although his usefulness with the team had begun to wear thin. His appearances usually included his being positioned in the third base coach’s box as a type of living monument to his past greatness. Years later in looking back Alexander would say, “I was advertised like the elephant in the circus.” Clearly his days with the team were numbered.

Even Arrants had had enough. She left to stay with friends in Cincinnati. Alexander was on his own again. Doan came to Alexander’s rescue and located a longtime friend in St. Paul who owned a farm. The friend agreed to accept the $50 per month from Ford Frick in exchange for room and board and for “looking out” for Alexander. Doan breathed a sigh of relief as he gave Alexander his release from the team along with a train ticket back to St. Paul.

After a restless winter, he left his host’s farm to pursue a job with a radio station in Louisville, Ky., telling young radio listeners the finer points of the game, but after six weeks he was on the move again, this time to Evansville, Ill., and another radio job. He worked with WGBF in a spot that was labeled “The Maurice Cosmetic Program,” financed by a Mrs. E. Hussey, who reportedly had also taken up residence as Alexander’s “roommate.” Hussey was soon arrested for writing bad checks and the “partnership” dissolved.

A month later, Alexander was in the news again after having been found unconscious, bruised and battered on an Evanston street. It was unclear if he had been struck by a car, beaten up, or both. His right eye was completely closed and there was a deep gash on his forehead. After being taken to the nearby hospital, it was learned that he had no permanent residence and had been existing off of the generosity of bar-room cronies. He had no recollection of how he had received his injuries.

Six months later he was hospitalized again for injuries suffered in an auto accident. He had injured his leg, neglected it, and it had become infected. Released from the hospital, he made his way to Springfield, Ill., where he became a “greeter” at a local saloon. It is unlikely however, that his compensation was anything more than what he could drink.
 
Alexander’s prized possession, his 1926 World Series ring, was reported to have been pawned and was sitting in an Atlanta pawnshop. Breadon, desperate to avoid criticism again, instructed Rickey to pay the necessary $55 to the pawnshop and return the ring to Alexander. Rickey went even further than that, offering Alexander a position with the Cardinals at $100 per month if he would agree to stop drinking for the term of his employment. Alexander stalled, stating that he had several minor league offers for his services that he was entertaining before he disappeared again.

His latest disappearing act lead to Rickey’s statement, “I doubt that I ever felt sorrier for any man who ever worked for me than I did for Alexander.”

In January of 1938, it was reported that Alexander had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The national spotlight was once again on Alexander and writers across the country wrote about his legendary accomplishments.

In an attempt to capitalize on this rediscovered fame, he took a job as a side-show attraction at Huberts Museum in New York City, a Times Square flea circus. It was a tawdry location and Alexander shared the bill with sword swallowers, freaks and other strange acts. Fans who visited him there reported a certain “quiet dignity” that the great pitcher managed to maintain in the midst of his surroundings as he gave his lectures to the crowds that would wander in reliving that third strike to Lazzeri hundreds of times and demonstrating how to throw the curve ball before concluding his talk by answering questions from the audience.

In June of 1939, Alexander was formally inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his speech delivered on the grounds at Cooperstown, he expressed regret that baseball did not take care of its own after their playing days were over, even remarking to a reporter, “They gave me a tablet at the Hall of Fame, but I can’t eat any tablet.”

Hospitalized repeatedly after 1939 for as long as a month, he always found a way to get back into trouble. In 1941, a taxi driver found him on the street unconscious with numerous facial lacerations. Arrants visited him in the hospital to check on his condition then filed for divorce for the second time and left to live in Los Angeles, far away from her former husband’s self-destruction.

The remaining seven years of Alexander’s life were spent crisscrossing the country from east coast to west coast. Many fans who had written to him during that time to request an autograph received responses postmarked from the small western towns between St. Paul and California. Alexander passed the lonesome hours on the trains by answering his mail. A series of odd jobs followed, but none of them seemed to last very long. The lengthiest was a job with Wright Aeronautical in Cincinnati, where he worked for a little more than four months during World War II. 

Hornsby tried to help by finding Alexander a room in St. Louis with the promise of a job. It was there that he was admitted to the hospital again for what the papers called a “nervous condition.” He had lately expressed concern over irritation in his right ear where he had sustained a minor shrapnel wound during World War I. The irritation had turned to infection and after looking closer at that infection, doctors had discovered cancer.

The infected ear was amputated with more misfortune to follow. In 1946, he suffered a heart attack after leaving Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis after a ballgame in which the Cardinals won their sixth World Series championship. After that, he turned up in Albuquerque, N.M., where he spent a night in a hospital after fracturing a neck vertebra in a fall at his hotel. He reunited with Arrants in California and shortly thereafter suffered a stroke and two months later was hospitalized again after being found unconscious behind the apartment he and Arrants were living in. He blamed the fall on his epileptic seizures which had began to occur more frequently and had become more and more acute.

Back in St. Paul in 1950, Alexander was delighted when friends offered to bring him to New York to watch the final games of the 1950 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees. He watched the two games at Yankee Stadium, as the Yanks won four straight to win the series. It was the last time he would visit a major league ballpark.
 
He then returned to St. Paul. Arrants, then living in Omaha, where she had been working, invited him to join her. He had been waiting for his government disability check to arrive in the mail when he wrote to Arrants: “I feel the end is not far away and I don’t want it to come to me here.

If there is another hell in this world, I don’t want to ever get there. St. Paul is bad enough.”
On Nov. 4, 1950, at 12:30 p.m., Alexander was found dead in his rented room. He was discovered face down lying on the floor. His body, racked by years of abuse, had finally given out. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack. He had died after mailing a letter to Arrants in which he apologized for not making it to Omaha. An unfinished letter to Arrants was found in his typewriter. The check that he had been waiting on arrived the following day.

His funeral was held two days later on Nov. 6, 1950, with old friend Rev. J.B. Roe, a retired Methodist minister, delivering the sermon at the McIntyre Funeral Home. The Presbyterian church tolled chimes for one of the greatest players the game had ever known. More than 150 people attended the services, including former World War II buddies and lifetime friends football Hall of Famer George “Potsy” Clark and former major league pitcher Clarence Mitchell, and, of course, Arrants. The business manager of the Omaha Cardinals, Ray Oppegard, was there representing the St. Louis Cardinals and picked up the check for the funeral services and burial.

Alexander was buried with full military honors at Elmwood Cemetery on the outskirts of St. Paul, next to the graves of his mother and father. The grave of the man who had won 373 major league games was marked only with a small white cross and an identification plate provided by the mortuary.

In 1952, the movie “The Winning Team” staring Ronald Reagan as Alexander and Doris Day as Arrants, was released to scathing reviews. The film was large on romance and short on facts. Arrants was a consultant for the film, and always true to her late husband’s memory, downplayed his alcoholism and the other darker chapters of his life. She used her pay from Warner Brothers Studio to purchase a monument to be placed on Alex’s grave on May 31, 1952, the 34th anniversary of their first marriage. Arrants spent the remaining years of her life in the Los Angeles area. She died a semi-invalid at the Commonwealth Villa Retirement home in December of 1979.

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One thought on “The final at-bat of Grover Cleveland Alexander

  1. trisha on said:

    my father was the born out of wedlock son of grover cleveland alexander,he was adopted as a baby in chicago,his mother was from rockford il ,16 yrs old and the daughter of a methodist minister. my father too was a great athlete with a try.out for the boston red soxs,he.missed the early.morning call for tryouts due to a late nite outing. he blew it. he went on to be a wonderful father and husband,. was coach for many pony leagues,little leagues girls leagues for 25 yrs. he was a strong leader among young people and the sport of baseball.

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