Alexander the Great
by Lynn McKeown
One of the great American athletes of the 20th Century began his professional career with a Galesburg team.
Grover Cleveland Alexander became one of the best baseball players of all time in a career that lasted from 1911 to 1930 in the major leagues. He holds the all­time record for shutouts in a season with 16. That occurred in a stretch with the Philadelphia Phillies when he won 30 games or more in three successive seasons. Alexander is tied with his great contemporary, Christy Mathewson, for the most total wins by a pitcher in the National League (373). Mathewson was an ethical paragon whose career and life were cut short by bad luck. Alexander had some bad luck too ã and eventually became sort of a moral pariah as well.

Grover Cleveland Alexander (or Alex, as he was often called) was born on a farm near St. Paul, Nebraska in 1887, the next to youngest in a family of 13 children, eleven of whom were boys. He began playing baseball for a semi­pro team at the age of 19. He enjoyed much success locally and was signed to play in the 1909 season for the professional Galesburg Boosters of the Class D Illinois­Missouri League.

Accounts differ about how Alex came to be hired by Jap Wagner, manager of the Galesburg team. Some say that Wagner saw Alex pitch while Wagner was on a trip in Nebraska. Jack Kavanaugh, Alex's biographer, believes that Wagner encountered Alex in 1908 when the latter was playing a game with a traveling semi-pro team in Canton, Ill.

Alex's season with the Galesburg Boosters was nothing short of sensational ã for a time. He pitched a no­hitter against the Canton team and was the winner in an 18­inning, 1­0 victory over Macomb which the Galesburg Evening Mail headlined as the greatest game in the league's history.'' He was called "Alexander the Great" by local journalists. Alex had a 15 win, 8 loss record by late July with an otherwise mediocre team ã when disaster struck.

In a game at Pekin, Alex was a base runner at first base when the next batter hit a ground ball. The Pekin shortstop, attempting a double­play relay to first base, hit the baserunner, Alex, square in the forehead with the baseball.

Here again, accounts differ. Many versions of the story say that Alex was in a coma for 56 hours. Biographer Kavanaugh, in a children's book about the ballplayer's life, says that he was unconscious for seven days! In his later full­length biography ã and presumably with better information ã Kavanaugh revises the unconscious spell to 36 hours, though he notes that Alex was in the hospital for a three week period, after which his father took him back home to Nebraska.

Alex recovered but suffered from double vision. The Galesburg Boosters sold his contract to an Indianapolis team for $700, either to get rid of damaged goods or possibly with the expectation that the new team would get Alex needed medical attention. A specialist there diagnosed him with a damaged optic nerve, and it appeared Alex's baseball career was over. Back home again in Nebraska, Alex kept trying to pitch. If he couldn't, he said later, he felt he would "go to pieces." Suddenly, his normal vision returned and he did some pitching with a local team near the end of the 1909 season.

The next year Alex was signed by a team in Syracuse, N. Y. With that team in 1910, he had an outstanding season, winning 29 games. The next year, just two years after beginning his pro career in lowly Galesburg and having a nearly fatal accident, he was sold to the big league Philadelphia Phillies for $750, with an original salary of $250 a month. As it turned out, that was a bargain even for those times.

Alexander's years with the Phillies, from 1911, when he set a rookie record by winning 28 games, to his last year with the team in 1917, was a stretch of success equalled by few if any major league pitchers. During this period he was league leader in wins five times, in ERA twice, in complete games, strike-outs and shut-outs five times each.

In 1915 Alex had a 31 win, 10 loss season, with an ERA of 1.22, 36 complete games, 241 strike­outs and 12 shut­outs. His efforts led the Phillies into the World Series, where Alex was the pitcher in their only win and allowed only two runs in his other start, as the Red Sox won the Series (and they haven't won many since) in five games. In 1916, Alex won 33 games, losing only 12, with a 1.55 ERA, 38 complete games and 16 shutouts ã the latter a major league record that still stands (The next closest is 13). He was not an overpowering fastball pitcher but had a variety of pitches with an outstanding curve and pinpoint control; he had become a master of the art of pitching.

There's no question about Alex's accomplishments during this period. There is an unusual and possibly very important difference in accounts of his health and personal life at the time.

In a group of interviews with old­time ballplayers compiled in the 1960s, Hans Lobert, a teammate of Alex from 1911 to 1914, gives a graphic description of seizures Alex suffered "two or three times a season." His teammates' response, apparently standard for the time, was to hold Alex on the ground and pour brandy down his throat, after which he would shortly recover.

There is no question that Alex had epileptic seizures later in life, with the root cause probably the accident with the Galesburg team in 1909. But most biographical accounts say they began at the time of his World War I experience in 1918.

Kavanaugh feels that Lobert's story was "concocted," though it sounds very down­to­earth and believable to this reader. Kavanaugh's main reason for doubting Lobert is that he thinks the Phillies owner would have used Alex's disease to get him exempted from the draft. It seems not impossible, however, that the owner might have wanted to keep Alex's disease secret so it wouldn't lessened his value in a trade ã and he was traded after the 1917 season to the Chicago Cubs for $60,000 and two lesser players.

It should also be realized that, at this time, epilepsy was very poorly understood and subject to much misunderstanding ã as it is to a lesser extent today. Even the causal link to brain injury was not understood until later. It was a common belief that those subject to epileptic seizures were sure to progress to a worsened state, when they would have to be institutionalized. The truth, we now know, is that epileptics can function normally in most respects, can take part in athletic activity, and don't usually become worse over time.

Possibly Alex didn't ask the draft board for an exemption because of patriotic obligation and, also, fear they would not understand his disease. There was public criticism at this time of professional ballplayers as "slackers" if they tried to avoid the draft for reasons that seemed unsubstantial, and since Alex performed so brilliantly as a ballplayer, his disease might have seemed unsubstantial. And he might have feared, with justification, that if his condition were widely known, he might be considered unemployable as an athlete.

If Alex was suffering from a serious and very troubling disease (and one for which there was no effective medication at this time), it makes it all the more remarkable ã and courageous on his part ã that he achieved such outstanding success on the ball diamond. In the years ahead, he was to have more triumphs but also additional bad luck.

Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the greatest baseball players of the Twentieth Century, was named after the U.S. President in office at the time of his birth. After his death, Alexander was portrayed in a movie by an actor, Ronald Reagan, who later became a U. S. President. In another coincidence, both Alexander and Reagan had lived for a time in Galesburg, Illinois.

Alexander ã Alex for short ã had his first professional experience playing with the minor league Galesburg Boosters in 1909. (In his first actual game with the Boosters he pitched a few innings in an exhibition game win over Knox College.) Alex had an outstanding season with the Boosters before an accident in which he was left in a coma for about a day and a half. He recovered from the accident and the double vision it caused but later suffered from epilepsy.

Alex's career after his season in Galesburg was dramatically successful. The first part of this article gave some of the facts of his years with the Philadelphia Phillies (1911­1917), in which he rapidly became the most successful pitcher in the National League. In 1918, Alex's career was interrupted as he was drafted into the Army and went to serve with an artillery unit in World War I. His experience with the artillery left him deaf in one ear and possibly aggravated his epilepsy, but he was able to return and pitch a few games that season with his new team,the Chicago Cubs. (Christy Mathewson, his great National League rival, was exposed to poison gas during the war and died as a result some years later.)

The first part of this article dealt with a discrepancy about when Alex first began to have epileptic seizures. A Phillies player, Hans Lobert, said in an interview that Alex was having them during their time as teammates, 1911-1914, and Lobert also said that, to his knowledge, Alex was not drinking at all at this time. Both these observations are at odds with the view of Alexander that later became prevalent ã that he was a heavy drinker from his early days and developed symptoms of epilepsy only after his war experience. Whatever the truth, by the time of his Jack Kavanagh says that Alex felt "that an alcoholic edge held the sneak attacks of his ailment at bay." (He also sometimes sipped ammonia when he felt a seizure coming on!) He was still an outstanding pitcher, however.

The Phillies, during Alex's time with them, were less than stellar. The Cubs teams on which he played from 1918 to 1926 were even more mediocre, and Alex's record during the Cubs years was not as brilliant as it had been. He said that he never regained his old form after his wartime experience, and it should also be remembered that the Phillies years were in the "deadball" era, which favored pitchers. But Alex still had some good years with the Cubs, including 1920, when he led the league in wins with 27 (with only 14 losses) and earned run average with 1.91. In 1923 he had 22 wins and 12 losses, with a 3.19 ERA.

Alex's greatest moment, however, came after he was traded in 1926 to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals had an outstanding team that year, led by player-manager Rogers Hornsby. They won the National League pennant and faced the New York Yankees ã the Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig ã in the World Series.

The Series was tied, three games apiece (Alex was the winning pitcher in games two and six), and the score was 3­2 in the seventh inning of the seventh game. The Yankees loaded the bases when, with two outs and the brilliant rookie Tony Lazzeri at the plate, Alex was called in from the bullpen. He struck out Lazzeri, held the Yankees in check for two more innings, and saved the World Series championship for the Cardinals.

Before Lazzeri's strikeout he had hit a long foul ball which, if it had been fair, could easily have been a four­run home run that would have won the game and the Series for the Yankees. A few feet over, Alex said later, and "he would have been the hero and I would have been the bum," instead of the other way around.

The incident is one of the great stories of World Series history. Part of the story, as it's usually told, is that the alcoholic Alex (or "Ol' Pete" as he was often called, after a scruffy cartoon character called "Alkali Pete") was nursing a hangover after celebrating his victory of the day before and might probably had a few drinks already on this occasion. Biographer Jack Kavanagh thinks it is doubtful that either was true, since Alex had spent the night before in a hotel with his wife Amy, who tended to keep him in line, and he had known that he might be needed as a relief pitcher. But it is part of the legend of "Ol' Pete" that he was a drunk, though one who could rise to the occasion. Or, as Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby once said, he was a better pitcher drunk than most were sober.

The next year Alex had another good season, winning 21 games versus 10 losses, with a 2.52 ERA. In 1928 the Cardinals again faced the Yankees in the World Series, but Alex was ineffective as the Yankees swept the Series in four games. By 1930 he was out of the major leagues, though he had made a visit to Galesburg while still in a big league uniform.

On June 26, 1929 the Cardinals, on an open date, travelled to Galesburg to play a local semi­pro team at the Lincoln Park field. Alex pitched a few innings and was presented with a gift, as an estimated 4000 spectators watched the Cardinals win 5­3. Alex was also a guest at a Kiwanis club meeting and, when asked to speak, joked that maybe he would begin a career as an orator like his fellow Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. In describing Alex's departure, the reporter referred to him as "the old master."

In his years after his playing days in the major leagues, Alex had a difficult existence. He wanted a position as a pitching coach ã he had been known for helping young pitchers, even if they might be vying for his job ã but he was never offered a coaching job, probably because of his alcoholic reputation. For a while he was a player or manager with a House of David team. This group, started originally by an obscure religious cult, became to baseball for a time what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. They travelled around the country, entertaining people with their athletic skill and a variety of tricks. At one time, Alex was on the same team with Satchel Paige, the great Negro League player also at that time barred from the major leagues.

Alex also had a job for a time in a "flea circus" in New York City, a sort of permanent side show with magicians, sword swallowers and the like. This part of Alex's life is often seen as a great, sad come­down from his former glory. Yet this was a time before players' pensions or social security, when the whole world was in the Great Depression. Alex had probably not been wise with his money but was not alone in that respect. Pictures of him in the flea circus show a man of dignified appearance in vest and tie, and reports from the time say the old master gave a very informative talk on his pitching techniques. The newspapers, however, reported incidents when he was found unconscious and presumed drunk ã whether it was really a matter of alcohol or his epilepsy. A nationally syndicated columnist, Westbrook Pegler, publically criticized Alex for not " reforming."

Alex lived for twenty years after his big league career was over, dying at the age of 63 in a Nebraska hotel room of an apparent heart attack. In 1952, two years after his death, a movie based on his life was made, starring Ronald Reagan and Doris Day. Called "The Winning Team," it received mixed reviews, often being dismissed as "fluff." With a love story at its center and using real big league baseball players in bit parts, the movie was obviously designed in somewhat clumsy fashion to appeal to both male and female viewers. (Older fans will spot slugger Hank Sauer, from the Cub teams of the 1950s, incongruously portraying a Yankee. Hall­of­Fame pitcher Bob Lemon also had a bit part and was Reagan's "body double.")

The movie has many factual inaccuracies, even beyond Doris Day breaking into song in one early scene. The relationship of Alex and wife Amy was not quite as perfect as portrayed. In real life they were married and divorced, remarried and divorced again, though at the time of Alex's death they were exchanging affectionate letters. In one other respect, however, the movie conveyed an important truth that was ignored even in Alex's obituaries. Amy Alexander had served as consultant for the movie and apparently led the movie­makers to at least make a stab at indicating the important part his epilepsy had played in Alex's life. Amy used part of her consultant's fee to erect a monument to Alex in his home town.

Ronald Reagan had come to Galesburg as a small child about five years after Grover Cleveland Alexander's eventful season with the Galesburg baseball team. Reagan later said that "The Winning Team" was one of a group of movies that he was most proud to have made. Maybe he was pleased that he helped set the record straight about the "old master" and to restore a bit of justified honor to another former Galesburger.

Sources of information for this article included Galesburg newspapers on microfilm at the Galesburg Public Library, "The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence Ritter (William Morrow, 1984), and "Grover Cleveland Alexander" (Chelsea House, 1990) and "Ol' Pete" (Diamond Communications,1996) by Jack Kavanagh, the latter the only book approaching a full length biography. John Ring dealt with Alex's days with the Galesburg Boosters in an earlier Zephyr article. We would be interested in more stories and photos from this period.