Obituary: Eli Grba (1934-2019)

RIP to Eli Grba, the original Angel. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels as the first pick in the 1960 expansion draft. Grba died in Florence, Ala. on January 14 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 84. He pitched for the New York Yankees (1959-60) and Angels (1961-63).

Eli Grba was born in Chicago on August 9, 1934. He was a talented athlete in high school and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox prior to 1952. He pitched in the Red Sox organization for four seasons (1953-56) and had a 17-win season for San Jose in the California League in 1955. He lost two years of his career to military service and was traded to the Yankees in 1957. He made his MLB debut on July 10, 1959 against his former team, and he threw a scoreless inning against the Red Sox.

Grba was knocked around a bit in his first year in the majors (2-5 record, 6.44 ERA in 1959), but he improved dramatically in 1960. He won 6 games for the Yankees in 24 appearances (9 starts) and allowed just 65 hits in 80-2/3 innings pitched. He struck out 32 batters and walked 46. He was on the roster for the Yankees in the World Series against the Pirates, but his only appearance came as a pinch-runner.

The 1960 offseason featured the expansion draft for the Los Angeles Angels and new Washington Senators. That draft was broken down by positions, and general managers Fred Haney of the Angels and Ed Doherty of the Senators fllipped a coin to decide who went first in each category. Haney won the first coin toss, which was for pitchers, and his first pick was Grba.

Grba, who was at his home in Mount Prospect, Ill. at the time, told the Daily News that he hoped to make the Yankees “real sorry” for leaving him unprotected. “I didn’t want to move, but since I have to I’m glad to be going with a team like Los Angeles that is just starting out. This way I’ll probably pitch a lot, I hope,” he added.

Grba won the role of Opening Day Starter in 1961 and got the franchise off to a good start with a 6-hit, complete game win in Baltimore, 7-2. Interesting trivia: The first Angels hit was courtesy of Ted Kluszewski, who belted a 2-run homer off of Milt Pappas in the 1st inning.

Grba started 30 games for the Angels that season and came out of the bullpen for 10 more. He threw a career-high 211-2/3 innings and ended the year with an 11-13 record and 4.25 ERA. He fanned 105 batters and had an ERA+ of 105. That was high high-water mark in the majors. He appeared in 40 games again in 1962, but his ERA rose slightly to 4.54 and his record dropped to 8-9. He appeared in just 12 games with the Angels in 1963, with all but one game coming as a reliever, and he was in and out of the minors before being shipped to the Angels farm team in Hawaii for good in mid August, 1963.

His career totals in the majors were a 28-33 record, 4.48 ERA and 255 strikeouts in 536-1/3 innings pitched. He completed 10 games and saved 4 others. Grba pitched in the minors until 1967 and had an 80-57 record there.

In 1963, Grba blamed his bad temper for his poor pitching. “I should win more than eight games,” he told the Associated Press in April. “It’s my obnoxious temper that’s to blame. It tears me up when I do something wrong.”

Grba came clean about some of his other problems in an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times in 1989. Grba, who was in his debut season as a minor-league manager for the Reno Silver Sox after 7 seasons as a coach, admitted his alcoholism contributed to his departure from the major leagues. His drinking problem worsened throughout the 1960s and ’70s as he held a variety of odd jobs in California and Chicago. He entered rehab in 1981 but continued to drink until he fell while climbing back into his room at the rehab center one night.

“That night, I really didn’t want to live anymore. All of a sudden, I started to sob and couldn’t stop. Then a feeling came over me, something I can’t describe. . . . It was the first good night sleep I’d had in many moons,” he said.

Grba’s managerial career lasted just two seasons, with his teams finishing near .500 each year. He also worked as a scout for the Phillies in the 1990s, according to his obituary. He and his wife moved to Alabama following his retirement.

Grba enjoyed being the answer to a trivia question, and he also liked working with young players in the minors after all he had been through, according to his Times article. He had cautionary conversations with players whom he felt were drinking too much.

“After this glorious life of baseball, there is still a lot of life left. It took me a long time to grow up. I don’t want these kids to make my mistakes.”


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