Obituary: Johnny Groth (1926-2021)

RIP to Johnny Groth, a good-hitting outfielder who played for 15 years in the majors following the end of World War II. He died on August 7 in his oceanfront condominium in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 95 years old and is survived by his wife of 72 years, Betty, and 11 children. Groth played for the Detroit Tigers (1946-1952, 1957-60), St. Louis Browns (1953), Chicago White Sox (1954-55), Washington Senators (1955) and Kansas City Athletics (1956-57).

John Thomas Groth was born in Chicago on July 23, 1926, the son of German immigrants. He grew up around Wrigley Field, and that location actually became pretty important in his early education, according to his obituary. The Chicago Bears played in Wrigley Field at the time, and the halftime of those games would feature exhibition games from neighborhood kids, including Groth. His skills there were noticed by the football coach of the Chicago Latin School, and he was given a scholarship to attend the prestigious high school. He was a multi-sport star there and led the football team to the Private High School League championship in 1944. Groth was called one of the greatest athletes developed in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune. By the time that he graduated in 1944, though, he was at the age to be drafted into World War II, so he decided to join the U.S. Navy.

Before entering the Navy, Groth envisioned taking a football scholarship at a college like Yale. “Football was my game. I played very little baseball until I reached Great Lakes, in the Navy,” he said. Groth hit .341 for the Great Lakes Naval Station baseball team in 1945, playing on a team that included major-leaguers like Mike “Pinky” Higgins and Ken Keltner. Groth’s obituary states that he was the only non-major-leaguer on the team, thanks to Bob Feller. Feller was in charge of the Navy’s baseball program and assigned Groth to the team. Feller also did a little advanced scouting for his Cleveland Indians and pressed hard for Cleveland to make the best offer. However, Detroit’s Higgins did the exact same thing. Groth so impressed the Tigers execs, particularly owner Walter Briggs, that scout Wish Egan was essentially given a blank check and a directive to get Groth on the team at all costs. After negotiations with Groth and his father, Egan got his man for a $30,000 bonus and a 3-year, $5,000 contract.

The Tigers didn’t waste any time giving their 19-year-old prospect a taste of the majors for the remainder of the 1946 season. He joined the team straightaway, bypassing the minors completely. He was used very sparingly, appearing in an exhibition game against the Flint, Mich., All-Stars and collecting a couple of hits. He played in center field a little and started a couple of games against the lowly Browns toward the end of the season. He was hitless in 9 at-bats and scored a run on a Hank Greenberg homer.

Groth spent of the next two seasons honing his skills in the minor leagues, coming up for a late-season stay with the Tigers each fall. In 1947, he punished Eastern League pitching with a .319 batting average while with the Williamsport Tigers. He connected for 10 homers and 14 triples and added 20 outfield assists for good measure. That September, the Tigers brought him up for the final road trip of the year. He collected his first major-league hit, a single off Washington’s Mickey Haefner, on September 15. Groth was even better in 1948, when he hit .340 and slammed 30 home runs for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. When he rejoined the Tigers at the end of the season, he hit .471 in 6 games. He feasted off the poor St. Louis Browns, in particular. He started 3 games against them and had 7 hits in 12 at-bats, including 2 doubles, a home run and 5 RBIs.

After that kind of performance, there was little doubt that Groth would start 1949 as the Tigers’ starting center fielder. “Detroit fans are going to speak his name in the reverent tone bobby-soxers reserve for Frankie boy,” wrote columnist Frank Corkin Jr., referring to Frank Sinatra, of course.

“We see a lot of rookies in training camps and we are impressed. Most of them, however, have some weakness,” added Detroit manager Red Rolfe. “Johnny Groth, however, can do everything. He can hit, he can run, and he can throw. We’re counting on him to help us.”

Despite the high expectations, certainly nobody was expecting Groth to have an Opening Day like the one he had on April 19, 1949. He hit two solo home runs off White Sox starter Al Gettel to lead Detroit to a 5-1 win. Then the very next day, he hit a double and grand slam off Sox pitcher Randy Gumpert. Groth added another grand slam off the St. Louis Browns’ Ned Garver on April 28, and by the time May rolled around, Groth was batting .439. He had 18 RBIs over the first 11 games of the season, which is a Detroit Tigers record that was tied by Prince Fielder in 2013. Naturally, that was an unsustainable pace, and Groth cooled off in the summer months, but he rallied late to finish the year with a .293/.407/.471 slash line, with 11 home runs and 73 RBIs. A broken wrist suffered in August brought his season to an early end and possibly cost him a Rookie of the Year Award. He finished fourth to Roy Sievers of the St. Louis Browns, even though Groth’s season was a little better.

Groth had his best season in 1950, setting highs for most offensive categories, including batting average (.306), doubles (30), home runs (12), RBIs (85), walks (95) and runs scored (95). He also played in all 157 of Detroit’s games, leading all of baseball in that category. He had successfully overcome the dreaded Sophomore Slump, and he continued to hit for a high average while with Detroit, batting .299 in 1951 and .294 in ’52. However, his power largely disappeared, as he managed to hit just 7 home runs in those two seasons combined. That may have accounted for Groth’s departure from Detroit.

Groth’s rookie season of 1946 was also Hank Greenberg’s last with the team. When Greenberg and the Tigers parted ways, they lost much of the power from the starting lineup. Outfielder Vic Wertz could hit 20 to 30 homers, but the rest of the starters were lucky to reach double digits. So when Groth homered three times in his first two games, there were many who hoped that the team had its new Greenberg. Groth, however, just wasn’t that kind of hitter. He was a good contact hitter who rarely struck out and played good defense in the outfield, but he was not a slugger. The Tigers had hopes for their outfield of Wertz, Groth and Hoot Evers when they all topped .300 in 1950, leading Detroit to a second-place finish. However, Evers failed to hit in 1951 and was traded the following June. Wertz’s productivity slipped in 1952, and he was traded that August. Finally, Groth was traded to the St. Louis Browns in December of 1952, along with pitchers Virgil Trucks and Hal White, in exchange for outfielder Bob Nieman, second baseman Owen Friend and catcher J.W. Porter.

Johnny Groth with his wife, Betty, and daughters Betty Ann (2) and Susan (1). Source: Ft. Worth Star Telegram, February 6, 1954.

Groth’s one season with the Browns was a mixed bag. His power returned, as he hit 10 home runs. On the other hand, his batting average and on-base percentage dropped to .253 and .308, respectively. He also missed two weeks after he was beaned by a Billy Pierce fastball, to add insult to injury. His most noteworthy game was on September 27, 1953 — the last game in St. Louis Browns history, as it turned out. The Browns lost to the White Sox 2-1 in 11 innings, and Groth was 3-for-5 on the day. In the bottom of the third inning, he doubled off Pierce and scored on an Ed Mickelson single. That was the last run ever scored by the franchise. After the season, the team’s new ownership announced it was moving to Baltimore to become the Orioles. Groth was an Oriole for a few months but never had the chance to don the uniform. He and Johnny Lipon were traded to the Chicago White Sox in the offseason for Neil Berry and Sam Mele.

The addition of Groth gave the White Sox the league’s fastest outfield, said general manager Frank Lane. He was more than a shade optimistic. Groth may have had good speed, but he was a terrible baserunner. The Sox outfield of Minnie Minose, Groth and Jim Rivera had a grand total of 39 stolen bases, and Groth had 3 — and was caught stealing 9 times. Base-stealing aside, Groth seemed happy to be playing in his hometown, as he had a .275/.341/.372 slash line. He banged out 4 hits in a 15-3 beatdown of the New York Yankees on July 21, scoring twice, driving in 4 runs — and stealing a base!

Groth got off to a hot start in 1955, batting .338 in 38 games through June 7. Then Lane traded him, catcher Clint Courtney and Bob Chakales to the Washinston Senators to re-acquire Jim Busby, who Lane had traded in 1952. “The Sox should have the fastest outfield in baseball,” Lane said (again). The trade was a bust for the White Sox, as Busby wasn’t half as good as Groth, and Lane traded him away again after the season. Though the Senators got more talent out of the deal, it wasn’t enough to move them out of last place. Groth struggled with his new team and ended up as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter. He hit .219 for Washington to end the season with a .254 average.

Groth never served as a regular again, though his ability to play all three outfield positions and come off the bench ensured him steady play. Washington had multiple young outfielders, leaving little room for Groth in the lineup. He was placed on waivers and had his contract purchased by the Kansas City A’s in April of 1956. He stayed with the A’s for about a season and a half, hitting a cumulative .253. His contract was purchased by the Tigers in August of 1957, and the outfielder returned to the team where his career began. The acquisition paid dividends almost immediately, as he had 5 hits and a walk in a game against the White Sox on August 17. One of those hits was a walk-off RBI single in the tenth inning for the 9-8 win.

By then, the Tigers had finally assembled an excellent outfield of Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn and Charlie Maxwell. Groth served as a capable backup, continuing to hit in the 280s or .290s before tailing off to .235 in 1959. He finished his career in 1960, where he hit .368 in 25 games, appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter and splitting the season between Detroit and the team’s AAA affiliate in Denver.

Source: Detroit Free Press, August 18, 1957.

Groth played for a total of 15 seasons, accumulating a slash line of .279/.352/.395. He had 1,064 hits that included 197 doubles, 31 triples and 60 home runs. He drove in 486 runs and scored 480 times, drawing 419 walks against 329 strikeouts. He has a lifetime OPS of .746, and Baseball Reference credits him with 5.8 Wins Above Replacement. He also had a lifetime .987 fielding percentage in the outfield, and over the final four seasons of his career, he committed a total of 3 errors.

Groth spent the first couple years of his retirement managing in the Tigers minor leagues. He then took a job as a scout for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, operating out of Florida, where he and his family moved after his playing days were done. One of his biggest finds was Mickey Rivers, who had a fine 15-year major-league career. He retired in 1990 to spend more time with his large family, which included 29 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren.

Right up to the end of his playing career, Groth played the game with an enviable attitude. Even in 1959, when he was playing as a backup, Tigers manager Bill Norman pointed him out to the press and said, “You just don’t see many athletes like Johnny who are genuinely happy to play.”

“I figure I’m lucky, Where else can you get a job where you have to put in so little time during the day and you’re able to travel so much? Every city we play in has something of interest,” Groth said. “Thousands of people pay to go to these cities on their vacation and I get there just because I’m a ballplayer.”

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