Obituary: Joe Grzenda (1937-2019)

R.I.P. to Joe Grzenda, the last pitcher ever for the Washington Senators and an early short relief specialist. He died on July 12 at his home in Covington, Pa., at the age of 82. Grzenda played for the Detroit Tigers (1961), Kansas City Athletics (1964, 1966), New York Mets (1967), Minnesota Twins (1969), Washington Senators (1970-71) and St. Louis Cardinals (1972).

Joe Grzenda was born on June 8, 1937 in Scranton, Pa. According to his obituary, he was just a couple of days past his graduation from Moosic High School in 1955 when he entered professional baseball, signing a contract with the Tigers. Even in high school, the southpaw was known for his fastball and “drop ball” (a sinkerball). The Tigers originally saw him as a starter, and he spent the first part of his career starting in the minors. He hurt his arm trying to come back from an appendectomy too soon, and while he still had a long pitching career, he was not quite the same pitcher with the same speed. As a result, all but three of his 219 MLB appearances came out of the bullpen.

Source: Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1961.

Grzenda moved through the minors at a steady pace. He went 13-3 for the Valdosta Tigers of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League in 1956, his second season of pro ball. He won 16 games for Birmingham in 1958, his age 21 season. He was the first lefty pitcher on the Victoria Rosebuds (Texas League) to throw a shutout at their home stadium, when he threw a 4-hitter against Poza Rica in a 15-0 rout. There were reports in the papers that the Tigers would bring the young pitcher to the major leagues, but nothing happened until 1961.

Grzenda had a decent Spring Training until he was pasted by the Senators for 5 runs in 2 innings. However, the Tigers had an unexpected hole open up on their pitching staff when veteran Ray Narleski stormed out of camp because the Tigers wouldn’t sign him to a major-league contract. Grzenda won the open spot and pitched in 4 games for the Tigers. He picked up his first MLB win on May 7, 1961 against the White Sox. Grzenda threw a scoreless inning in relief and got the win when the Tigers rallied to an 8-6 victory. Aside from that appearance, he gave up a couple of homers in a total of 4 relief outings, which left his ERA at 7.94. He spent the remainder of the season in the minors.

After a couple of mediocre seasons, Detroit released him, and he bounced around with a couple of other teams before ending with the Kansas City A’s. They brought the now-27-year-old back to the majors in 1964. He spent most of May and all of June with the Athletics, compiling an 0-2 record and 5.40 ERA. He gave up 34 hits in 25 innings before being sent back to the minors. His replacement on the roster, Bert Campaneris, hit two homers in his major-league debut.

Grzenda’s next chance to pitch in the majors came in 1966, when the departure of another veteran created another hole. This time, Don Mossi retired, leaving room for Grzenda. He pitched in 21 games for the A’s and 33 for Mobile of the Southern Association, and he had his best year in baseball to that point. He was 5-2 for the Mobile A’s with a sparkling 1.84 ERA and at least a dozen saves. He went 0-2 with the big-league club, but his ERA was much more manageable at 3.27.

Despite his relatively successful conversion to a early short reliever, the A’s kept Grzenda in the minors to start 1967. After a 6-0 record and 1.44 ERA in Birmingham, he was acquired by the Mets when they had — stop me if you heard this one — a sudden hole in their pitching staff. This time, Don Shaw was called to the Army for a six-month stint, so the southpaw became a Met in mid-August 1967. He threw in just 11 games, but he had a stellar 2.16 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 16-2/3 innings.

The Twins acquired Grzenda in the 1967 offseason. He stayed in the minors for all of 1968 but finally, after 14 years in professional baseball, he spent all of 1969 in the big leagues. It wasn’t because another pitcher retired, was injured or was drafted, either. He finally had a manager who believed in him. It was Billy Martin. Martin had taken over the reins of minor-league Denver in 1968, saw Grzenda in action, and decided to make him a part of the Twins staff once he got the big-league job.

“The biggest thing this year is that it’s nice to know someone has confidence in you,” he said in Spring 1969. “Billy knows what I can do, and when he has confidence in me, I’m more relaxed.”

The relaxed Grzenda appeared in 38 games for the Twins, with a 4-1 record, 3.88 ERA and 3 saves. He struck out 24 batters while walking 17 in 48-2/3 innings. He also threw a scoreless 2/3 of an inning in the ALCS, which the Twins lost to the Orioles. Before he could settle in as a Twin, he was traded to the Senators in early 1970 for outfielder Brant Alyea. The Sens manager, Ted Williams, not only liked Grzenda, but used him as an occasional starter as well. In his first MLB start against Boston, the 32-year-old allowed 1 hit through 8 innings before he tired in the 9th and gave up a 2-run homer to Tony Conigliaro. Washington won the game 7-5.

“I didn’t know for sure I was going to pitch until 5:30,” Grzenda said after the start. “I was happy, I always wanted to start in the big leagues. And the surprising thing was that I wasn’t nervous.”

Senators manager Ted Williams explains the late-career success of Joe Grzenda. I don’t know how he ever got a reputation for hating pitchers. Source: St. Louis Post Dispatch, November 3, 1971.

Grzenda’s other two starts didn’t go nearly as well, and he pitched out of the bullpen for the rest of the season. Still, Grzenda’s excellent outing against the Sox was officially recognized in Congress. Rep. Joseph McDade praised the fellow Lackawanna County resident on the floor of the House. “Last evening in Fenway Park, one of my distinguished constituents, Mr. Joseph Grzenda, displayed in an outstanding fashion both courage and excellence. Joe is a 15-year veteran of professional baseball, specializing in relief pitching… After 105 [appearances] as a relief pitcher, Manager Williams called on Joe Grzenda to make his first major-league start. As the Washington Post said, ‘he pitched the best game in his 33 years.'”

I bet none of the baseball execs who kept Joe Grzenda in the minor leagues were ever praised in Congress.

Grzenda’s best season in the majors was 1971, when he had 5 saves, a 5-2 record and a 1.92 ERA. But the most noteworthy game was his last one of the season. The Senators played their final game ever on September 30 in RFK Stadium. Washington was leading the Yankees 7-5, and Grzenda was called in from the bullpen to save the game. Matty Alou grounded to shortstop, and Bobby Murcer bounced to the pitcher. Grzenda was set to face Horace Clarke, when all hell broke loose. Fans stormed the field and started tearing it apart, causing both teams to flee the field. The Senators final game ended in a 9-0 forfeit loss.

“[I]t seemed like everybody started coming for me,” Grzenda said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I grabbed my cap and I ran.” He grabbed the ball, too., and since nobody from the Senators asked him for it, he kept it.

Grzenda went back to Pennsylvania and became a deputy sheriff in the offseason. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to be a Texas Ranger too, because he was traded to the Cardinals for infielder Ted Kubiak. He had a 5.66 ERA for the Cards in 30 appearances. That was his final season in the majors. He pitched in the minors until 1974 until retiring.

For his 8 years in the majors, Grzenda had a 14-13 record in 219 appearances, with 14 saves and a 4.00 ERA. He fanned 173 batters in 308 innings. He won 92 games in the minor leagues, primarily as a starter.

So, about that baseball from the last Senators game. Grzenda kept it in a drawer in his house for more than 30 years. When the Washington Nationals opened their inaugural 2005 season, he was invited back to RFK Stadium to hand the ball to President George W. Bush, who used it in the game’s ceremonial first pitch.

Joe Grzenda hands the last Washington Senators baseball to President George W. Bush at the Opening Day ceremonies for the Washington Nationals, 2005. Source: The Gazette, April 15, 2015.

“It stayed in a drawer all that time and I didn’t talk about it,” he said. “It never came up. I didn’t even think about it.”


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