Obituary: Alex Grammas (1927-2019)

RIP to Alex Grammas, who spent more than 40 years in professional baseball as a player, coach and manager. He died on September 13 at the age of 93. As a player, Grammas was an infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals (1954-56, 1959-62), Cincinnati Reds (1956-58) and Chicago Cubs (1962-63). He also coached for the Pirates (1965-69), Reds (1970-78), Braves (1979) and Tigers (1980-91) and managed the Pirates (1969) and Brewers (1976-77).

Alex Grammas was born on April 3, 1926 in Birmingham, Ala. His father ran the Magic City Candy Co., and during the offseasons of his early baseball career, he would go back to Birmingham and pack candy. He attended Phillips High School there and served in the United States Army in World War II. Upon his return, he attended Mississippi State University and played on two SEC championship teams before he graduated in 1949. He led Mississippi State to a 7-5 win over Kentucky in the 1949 title game, with a 400-foot home run among his base hits.

The White Sox signed Grammas in 1949, thanks to scout George “Specs” Toporcer. They also signed his older brother Pete, who also played on those Mississippi State teams. Though Pete was a couple of years older, he graduated at the same time as his younger brother because of his longer military service time. Both brothers got off to a great start in the Sox system. Alex hit .327 for the Muskegon Clippers of the Central League as a third baseman, while shortstop Pete batted .332 for Hot Springs. Pete would quit professional baseball in the spring of 1951, playing with a semipro team in Indiana before becoming a candy salesman. Alex’s journey was just getting started.

Alex Grammas and Sparky Anderson, during better times with the Detroit Tigers. Source: Detroit Free Press, October 6, 1991.

After a great start in 1949, Grammas struggled to a .223 average with the Memphis Chicks in 1950. He redeemed himself somewhat, bringing his average up to .254 through 52 games of the 1951 season. The Chicks sold his contract to Tulsa, a Reds farm team, on June 14, 1951. He improved his hitting in Tulsa and really turned it on at Kansas City in 1953, hitting .307 with 62 RBIs. He and teammate Vic Power were named to the American Association All-Star team. Though Kansas City was a Yankees affiliate, he remained property of the Reds until December of that year. Grammas was traded again, this time to St. Louis, in exchange for pitcher Jack Crimian and $100,000 cash.

“Lord, I was hopin’ the Cardinals would get me,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the deal. “I can’t think of anythin’ better than playin’ next to Red Schoendienst, the best up there.”

(The writer for the Post-Dispatch obviously had some fun with Grammas’ Alabama accent in his quotes.)

Grammas successfully took the starting shortstop role from Solly Hemus and played pretty capably for the Cardinals for a little over two seasons.He was an above-average fielder and made for a pretty slick middle infield combo with second baseman Schoendienst. He hit .264 with the Cardinals in 1954, drew 40 walks against just 29 strikeouts and, though he wasn’t a power hitter, homered twice. He was second in fielding percentage among shortstops, behind Johnny Logan. He would have been tied for first except he made two errors in late-season games — both on ground balls hit by Johnny Logan, ironically.

On May 16, 1956, Grammas was traded to Cincinnati, along with outfielder Joe Frazier, for Chuck Harmon. The Reds would use him as a backup infielder for most of his stay with the team, and he logged time at every infield position except first base. He topped the .300 mark in batting average for the only time in his career with the Reds in 1957, hitting .303 in 73 games, albeit in just 99 at-bats.

After batting .218 in 1958, the Reds traded Grammas back to St. Louis in a 6-player deal in October of that year. In his second go-around with the team, he hit just under .250 over parts of four seasons. He did hit a career-high 4 home runs in 1960. Actually, all of his 12 MLB home runs came in his two tours of duty with the Cardinals. His final one, on September 29, 1960, was a pinch-hit blast off of Sandy Koufax to tie the game against the Dodgers.

Grammas finished off his playing career with the Cubs, having been acquired via trade in June of 1962. He played in a total of 39 games with Chicago and retired after the 1963 season.

In his 10 years in the major leagues, Grammas had a slash line of .247/.318/.317. He had 512 hits in 913 games, with 90 doubles, 10 triples and the dozen homers. He spent most of his time — 671 games — at shortstop, but he also played 123 games at third base and 100 at second base. He was a better-than-average fielder at all three spots.

Back in his playing days, Grammas spent his offseasons working in his father’s candy business. Source: The Birmingham News, December 21, 1952.

Grammas jumped into the coaching side of baseball almost immediately. He served as the manager of the Cubs Fort Worth farm club in the Texas League in 1964 before being added to the coaching staff of the Pittsburgh Pirates, under new manager Harry Walker. He served as the third base coach for the Bucs and was also a business partner with Walker; they opened a Leeds Quick-Mart in 1966.

Grammas was the only coach to be retained when Walker was fired and replaced by Larry Shepard for the 1968 season. When Shepard was fired with five games left in the regular season in 1969, Grammas stepped in as interim manager and won four out of five.

New Reds manager Sparky Anderson hired Grammas as his third base coach for the 1970 season. Shepard, who Grammas had replaced in Pittsburgh, was the Reds pitching coach. Grammas stayed with Cincinnati through the Big Red Machine era and was a coach on the 1975 Championship team.

Don’t underestimate the value that a good third base coach can bring to a game. Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman, who saw plenty of third base coaches in his 46 years of calling Reds games, called Grammas as great a coach as he ever saw. Author Bob Howsam, who wrote Making the Big Red Machine, said that Grammas was good for about seven wins a year.

Early on in his coaching career with the Pirates, he noticed that Reds pitcher Sammy Ellis was tipping his knuckle-curve pitch. He whistled to his batters when he saw the pitch was coming. and laughed off any accusations that he was a sign-stealer.

“Here I am, getting a better reputation as a thief than I had as a ball player,” he said.

Grammas took a hiatus from coaching to manage the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976 and 1977. Both teams lost 95 games, making his stay as manager a brief one. After a return to the Reds for a year and a stop in Atlanta for a year, he joined the Detroit Tigers coaching staff, reuniting with Anderson. Grammas won his second World Championship with the 1984 Tigers.

Anderson and Grammas had developed a close friendship from their years of working together, but the relationship ended badly when Grammas wasn’t asked to return at the end of the 1991 season. Grammas was furious that Anderson wouldn’t give him a clear reason for his dismissal. Anderson noted that Grammas had talked of retirement in recent years and that he had fought his general manager to keep him on for the last couple of seasons.

“We were as close as a manager and a coach could get,” Grammas told the Detroit Free Press. “He was my closest friend in the game, absolutely. I didn’t think he’d handle it this way… He was a different person to me than he was.”

Fortunately, Anderson and Grammas patched up their relationship after running into each other at a baseball banquet in Texas in 1996.

Grammas was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. Regardless of how his coaching career ended, he was happy to have spent a quarter of a century as a coach in the majors.

“Unless some old-timer did it, I don’t think anybody in baseball has ever coached third base for 25 years,” he said in a 1992 interview. “It’s a good feeling to know you’ve done something no one has ever done.”

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