Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Winning Team

In the absence of a baseball game yesterday, I watched a baseball movie I had never heard of called The Winning Team, starring Ronald Reagan and Doris Day. It is a cheesy account about the interesting and somewhat tragic life of Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history.

After awhile I forgot it was actually Ronald Reagan in the film, which was interesting in its own right. The fact that we had a not-so-great actor become POTUS says a lot about this country.

Anyway, Alexander, who was for some reason nicknamed Pete and for obvious reasons called Alex the Great, was beaned in the head by a throw while trying to break up a double play before he even made it to the Majors. The accident left him unconscious for two days, and he suffered from double vision for a year. Then, by some miracle, it cleared up right before Spring Training in 1911, and Alex made his Major League debut with the Phillies, winning a stellar 28 games against 13 losses. He completed 31 games that season with a league leading 7 shutouts.

Granted, Alex pitched his best years during the Dead Ball Era, so his pitching stats are padded by that, but in a category that transcends time, he excels by even today's standards. The guy had impeccable control, posting a 1.6 BB/9 over his career, contributing to a 1.121 career WHIP.

Alex went 19-17 in 1912, 22-8 in 1913, 27-15 in 1914, 31-10 in 1915, 33-12 in 1916, and 30-13 in 1917, all with the Phillies. Then, at age 31, Alex went to war.

Sergeant Alexander spent most of the 1918 season trying to save Europe from its own destruction and save himself, too. He suffered shellshock, what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder, losing some hearing and suffering from dizzy spells. It is said that his wartime was cut short by alcohol abuse and insubordination.

He had been sold by the Phillies, who were broke, to the Cubs. He started 3 games in 1918 and returned to his Hall of Fame form the next year. You can figure out from deduction that he never played in a World Series for the Cubs. He pitched for Chicago until 1926, when the Cubs cut him because of his alcohol problem. What they didn't know, what no one knew, was that Alex suffered from epilepsy that may have been a result of his war experience, and his frequent blackouts were often epileptic seizures. He hadn't even told his wife about his illness, as he was afraid he wouldn't be allowed to play baseball if anyone knew. His alcohol use was partially a result of the stress from his secret.

When Roy O came into the Phillies game last week, it was reminiscent of old time baseball. Alex, in what would become the best-known moment of his career, came into the 1926 World Series game for the Cardinals the day after he had started and won a game. He was pitching for the Cardinals after being out of baseball for part of the season. According to the movie, Alex's wife called Rogers Hornsby and convinced him to sign Alex, who was working in a circus. Who knows if that's true or not? Like I said, the movie is cheesy. Anyway, Alex got a Yankee to strikeout with the bases loaded and a one run lead to end the seventh inning, and he finished the game to give the Cardinals the Series.

The movie showed actual footage of the Series, and the most interesting part of this was footage of a square in St. Louis full of hundreds of people who were watching a scrolling sign that gave updates on the game. Now we can watch games from anywhere in the world thanks to signals from outerspace. Really incredible to think about.

The Winning Team ended after that World Series game, but Alex's career went on for three more seasons and part of a fourth. In 1927 at age 40 he went 21-10 for the Cardinals, won 16 more games the next season, and went 9-8 in 1929. He was traded to the Phillies in December 1929 for one last Philadelphia hurrah, pitching in 9 games (starting 3) in 1930. After he was released by the Phillies, he played with traveling teams until he was 51 years old.

Alexander wore no number to retire, but the Phillies retired the P logo they wore back then in his honor. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938. While The Winning Team is not that great of a movie, it is still worth watching.