Grover Cleveland Alexander: The Underrated Immortal

May 28, 1930

When one is asked about the dominant pitchers of baseball’s dead-ball era, usually the names Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson come up. One pitcher who doesn’t seem to hold the same lofty ranking in the annals of immortality, despite having accomplishments that rival those of the “Big 3,” is Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Alexander, who pitched from 1911-1930 and had great success, is somehow overshadowed even though he had a truly legendary career in Major League Baseball. Alexander isn’t just a forgotten name by modern fans, but was even under-appreciated by his contemporaries. Mathewson and Johnson were easy selections in the Hall of Fame’s historical first class of 1936, and Young’s place as a baseball immortal has never been debated, but despite having similar statistics, Alexander received just 24% of the Hall of Fame vote in 1936 and had to wait three years before finally being elected.

Alexander compiled 373 wins, a mark that’s still only tied with Mathewson as the most ever in the National League, and third all-time behind Young and Johnson. He was a three-time 30-game winner and led the league in ERA four times. By comparison, Mathewson and Johnson led the league in ERA five times each and Young did it twice. Johnson was a 30-game winner twice, Young topped 30 on five occasions and Mathewson did it four times. Even in a modern statistical category like WAR, Alexander compares with the Big 3 as he, Young and Mathewson each led the league in WAR for pitchers six times each, while Johnson led seven times.

The fact that Alexander doesn’t have one huge accomplishment to hang his hat on may cause the average fan to overlook him as an immortal. Young’s 511 wins and Johnson’s 417 are respected equally as two of baseball’s magic numbers. Johnson and Mathewson were mainstays of specific organizations (the Senators and Giants respectively), while Alexander played for three different teams, costing him an association with any one franchise. Whatever the case, Alexander’s accomplishments should not be overlooked.

Alexander caroused and dominated his way through 20 major league seasons, appearing for the final time on May 28, 1930. He came up as a 24-year-old with the Phillies, where he had his greatest success. After eight years in Philadelphia, he was traded to the Cubs where he spent the next nine seasons. He was picked up off waivers in 1926 by the Cardinals, and then traded back to the Phillies where he pitched one final season at the age of 43.

Alexander had his best stretch between 1915 and 1917 with the Phillies. In that three-season stretch, he went 94-35 and pitched an ERA of 1.54. Young, Johnson and Mathewson never had a three-year stretch with a won-loss record and ERA close to Alexander’s. While Alexander remained a top pitcher after that, his sheer dominance waned after the 1917 season. A known partier and drinker, Alexander’s production tailed off in his mid-30s, but he hung around the game until 1930 and had a winning record in every season until his final year, in which he went 0-3 in nine games.

On May 28, 1930, Alexander’s Phillies matched up against the Boston Braves at Braves Field. Neither team had high expectations as they finished in the bottom of the National League in 1929 and each was off to a poor start in 1930. The Phillies had just one real star in their lineup: Chuck Klein. The power-hitting Hall of Fame right fielder was coming off a season in which he led the NL in homers with 43, and was just coming into his own as a 25-year-old slugger. Boston featured Hall of Famers Rabbit Maranville and George Sisler, but both were at the tail end of their careers and well past their primes.

Phil Collins started the game on the mound for the Phillies and opposed the Braves’ Socks Seibold. Neither pitcher had much of an impact on the sport as they each spent eight nondescript seasons in the majors. Seibold held the Phillies scoreless in the first inning, and the Braves jumped on Collins for a run in the bottom of the first for a 1-0 lead on an RBI single by centerfielder Randy Moore.

The Braves extended the lead to 2-0 in the second when Freddie Maguire scored on a single by Lance Richbourg, the Braves’ leadoff batter. The Braves made it 3-0 in the bottom of the sixth on a solo homer by rookie Wally Berger. Berger would go on to be a four-time NL all-star, and was voted as the starting centerfielder in the first ever All-Star Game in 1933.

The Phillies finally got on the board in the top of the seventh when Fresco Thompson doubled and came in to score on a single by Harry McCurdy. With the Phillies back in the game, manager Burt Shotton, who would go on to skipper the Brooklyn Dodgers to two NL pennants, called on Alexander to keep the game close.

Alexander ran into trouble immediately as he allowed singles to Richbourg and Maranville before Moore drove them both in to extend the Boston lead to 5-1. Seibold got through the Phillies in the top of the eighth, allowing Alexander to take the mound for the final inning of his career. He retired the Braves without allowing a run and left the mound for the last time in a major league uniform. The Phillies didn’t mount anything against Seibold in the ninth and lost by a final score of 5-1.

The outing for Alexander was his ninth appearance during the season and he pitched ineffectively in each one. In 21 2/3 innings, Alexander surrendered 40 hits and 24 earned runs for an ERA of 9.14. He was unable to win any games in 1930, thus keeping him tied with Mathewson for third place on the all-time wins list with 373. The only pitcher to approach his total since he retired in 1965 was Warren Spahn, ten wins shy of Alexander’s total.

Grover Cleveland Alexander, nicknamed “Old Pete” and named after the president whose term in which he was born, had one of the truly remarkable careers of the early 20th century. He had one of, if not the greatest, rookie seasons of any pitcher when he won 28 games in 1911 as a 24-year-old. His 28 wins are the most of any rookie pitcher and the way the game is played today, it is unlikely that his total can ever be challenged.

Alexander dominated straight through the 1917 season, but after missing much of the 1918 season while serving during World War I, he was never quite the same pitcher. The best moment of the latter part of his career came in 1926 when he pitched two complete game victories over the Yankees in the World Series, and pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in relief by striking out Yankee slugger Tony Lazzeri to preserve the series-clinching win.

Alexander combined to go 37-19 in ’27 and ’28, at 41 years old, but finally fell off from there. He battled poor health, alcoholism and the mental effects of his time in World War I for the remainder of his life. Despite his ill health and poverty, Alexander surfaced one final time at the 1950 World Series when he attended a game to see the “Whiz Kids” first-hand. It was the first time the Phillies made the World Series since he pitched them there in 1915. Less than a month later, Alexander died at age 63.

There are a number of factors that have caused Alexander’s accomplishments to be underestimated by the casual fan. His teams never had a streak of dominance in the National League, and he isn’t easily associated with just one team the way Mathewson and Johnson are. However, as the game progressed through the later part of the 20th century, statistics and record-keeping became more advanced and baseball historians seemed to have preserved Alexander in his well-deserved place among baseball’s immortals. He received the lofty ranking of #12 in The Sporting News Top 100 Baseball Players of All Time, which was released in 1999. He was the third-highest rated pitcher, behind Johnson and Mathewson and ahead of Young. He was also nominated as a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century team.

Despite those lofty accolades and his 1938 induction at Cooperstown, it took the Phillies until 2001 to honor him in their retired numbers gallery. Because Alexander played during an era before numbers were worn on jerseys, the Phillies hung a block letter “P” among their retired numbers in honor of Alexander. In a move that was way overdue, the franchise in which he was most dominant didn’t recognize him until more than 70 years after he played his final game in the majors on May 28, 1930.