Sunday, October 10, 2004

Out of the mist, he slowly walked

He was just a country boy from Nebraska. He never went to college. All he ever wanted to do was to play baseball. It was the one thing he did well which also made him happy in doing it.

He didn't know anything about the war, so far away from his dreams. He did manage to return from those fields so far from home, even to play baseball again, but he left a part of himself there. The artillery shell which had landed so close to him had killed many of his friends, burst his eardrum, and left him "jumpy" for the rest of his life. Whenever a child lit a firecracker, he was so startled that the fear on his face frightened those around him, too.

He turned to the bottle, not for comfort, but for oblivion. Only when senselessly drunk could he forget the horrors he had witnessed in war. But his succor took its toll, and his only true passion, his baseball skill, began to quickly fade away. His team abandoned him, traded him, but for a time a new team embraced him, and he played as he once had. A pitcher of phenomenal control, though, his accuracy failed him. The fastball, in younger days only a feared alternative to his deadly curves, became a more frequent weapon, and the good, younger hitters were finding the range. He was traded once again.

No longer did he find relief in the cheers of the crowds. The bottle became his only friend, and principal companion. His new manager was a player himself, though, and knew well the magic in that arm. But old "Pete," as everyone called him, could only manage yeoman's work on the mound for this new team. People still pointed him out in public, but now only to say, "See him? He once was the best pitcher in the game."

But fortune smiled upon him, as this new team won the National League pennant, and were matched against the surging New York Yankees in the World Series. Eyebrows raised when his team's player-manager, Rogers Hornsby, the greatest right-handed batter in the game before or since, chose the 39 year old Grover Cleveland Alexander, so far past his prime, to start the second game of the Series. They were raised even more when he won it.

Poor old Pete was called upon once more in the sixth game, with his team down 3-2, and once again beguiled the Bronx Bombers. Two wins in the World Series! Pete was as happy as he had been since the War! Why, more than a decade earlier, he had pitched in the World Series as the most dominant pitcher in the game, and only won a single game, as his Phillies lost in five.

Pete celebrated the only way he knew how: by getting drunk. But this time, it was in joy, and not sorrow. Every glass brought back memories of past glories on the diamond. For once, he was a happy drunk, and tied on a good one. He could barely stagger into the clubhouse for the seventh and final game, and once out in the bullpen, he sat on the ground in the corner, nursing his hangover, and only occasionally asking another pitcher how the game was going.

It was going well, at least until the 7th inning. St. Louis led, 3-2. The Cardinals' ace knuckleballer, Jesse Haines, loaded the bases with two men out, but developed a blister on his finger. He told manager Hornsby he couldn't continue. Whatever made Hornsby send the call out to the bullpen for Alexander, we will never know. He surely knew the aged star could barely walk.

But when the boy ran to the bullpen and cried, "He wants Alexander," old Pete sobered up. He stood and put on his glove. The fall afternoon in New York was foggy, and there was a mist hanging over the outfield where the bullpen was. At the plate was Tony Lazzeri, the Yankees' sensational rookie who had batted in more runs and hit more home runs than Gehrig that year, second only to Babe Ruth on the team. What a vision it must have been for the young star, seeing the pitching legend emerge from the mist as he slowly walked to the mound.

Once again on the mound: Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the all time greatest pitchers, known as the master of the curveball. With the bases loaded, two outs, and a bad hangover, Alexander fed Lazzeri four fastballs and struck him out. He also retired the Yankees in order in the eighth, and got two outs in the ninth before walking Babe Ruth. Facing Bob Muesel, Pete was one out away from closing the Series when Ruth attempted to steal second, and was thrown out. The Cardinals won, mainly behind the arm of the old pro.

It was October 10, 1926. Alexander pulled himself together and had two more good seasons for the Cardinals, winning 21 and 16 games, but he was not the dominant pitcher he was before going to war. Two years later he was out of baseball, and spent his final years as a barfly. But, one moment in 1926 will forever represent the greatness of one of the best pitchers ever to stand upon a mound.


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