Obituary: Dick Groat (1930-2023)

RIP to shortstop Dick Groat, a 2-time World Series champion, an 8-time All-Star and the 1960 National League MVP. He died on April 27 at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, from complications of a stroke. He was 92 years old. Groat played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1952, 1955-62), St. Louis Cardinals (1963-65), Philadelphia Phillies (1966-67) and San Francisco Giants (1967).

Richard Morrow Groat was born in Wilkinsburg, Pa., on November 4, 1930. Many future baseball major-leaguers play multiple sports in high school, and Groat was no exception. Few athletes, though, had Groat’s multi-sport excellence. He starred as a forward on the Swissvale High School basketball team. He was just as good a baseball player as he was a basketball player, and he was invited to play in the Hearst National Baseball Championship twice, in 1947 and ’48. As a part of the all-U.S. team that played the New York team at the Polo Grounds, Groat was hitless in two appearances in the 1947 game, with three successful chances as a second baseman. His teammates on that team included Bill Skowron and Henry Agganis. Groat was the starting second baseman in the 1948 edition, and future big-leaguers Hobie Landrith and Mike Baxes joined him on the all-U.S. team. He singled twice in three at-bats.

Groat as a Duke University basketball star. Source: The Charlotte Observer, December 14, 1949.

When it came time to go to college, Groat turned to Duke University and its basketball program. He quickly became a college hoops sensation. In a December 17, 1949, game against Washington and Lee University, Duke scored 19 points in a 5-minute overtime period, turning a 62-62 deadlock into an 81-67 rout. Groat led the Blue Devils in scoring with 25 points. Groat averaged 14.5 points in the 1949-50 season. Duke basketball coach Gerry Gerard feared that he would one day lose his star forward to baseball, as Groat remained one of the top shortstop prospects in the country while playing for the school’s baseball team. Instead, it was academics that caused an early departure, as Groat stepped away from basketball in early 1950 for scholastic issues. He returned for the 1950-51 and 1951-52 seasons and averaged more than 25 points per game in each season. He scored a total of 831 points in 1950-51, setting a collegiate record.

Having established himself as one of the leading scorers in all of college basketball, the honors came quickly. In his final regular season game, Groat set a school record with 48 points in a 94-64 win over the University of North Carolina. The United Press named him the player of the year for the 1951-52 college season, shortly after he was named to Collier’s 1952 All-America “dream team.” Joining him on the team were Clyde Lovelette of Kansas and Cliff Hagan of Kentucky, both of whom had substantial NBA careers. Groat himself was the First Round pick of the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons in the 1952 NBA Draft.

But what about baseball? Groat was an excellent hitter for the Duke squad, though he led the team in errors. That was to be expected of a shortstop with such great range, though. The Pittsburgh Pirates and general manager Branch Rickey weren’t scared off by the questionable defense and signed him in June of 1952 for a bonus reported to be $35,000. Groat, as a bonus baby, reported directly to the major leagues and never played a game in the minors.

The 1952 Pirates would lose 112 games, so the team didn’t have anything to risk by inserting the rookie into the starting lineup immediately. Groat elbowed aside infielders Clem Koshorek and George Strickland and started most of the Pirates’ games from that point forward. He made his major-league debut as a pinch-hitter on June 18 against the New York Giants and grounded to pitcher Jim Hearn. He made his first start the following day and smacked a 2-run single off Giants pitcher Larry Jansen in the third inning. He had 2 hits on the day and was off and running. Groat struggled in his first month in the majors but adapted rapidly. He had a streak in August in which he had at least two hits in every game from the 9th to the 16th. He finished the season with a .284 batting average in 95 games. Just 8 of his 109 base hits went for extra bases, but his batting average led all Pirate regulars, and his defense as shortstop was solid. Though he didn’t start playing until mid-June, Groat finished in third place for the Rookie of the Year Award, behind Brooklyn’s Joe Black and New York’s Hoyt Wilhelm.

Immediately after he finished playing ball for the Pirates, Groat joined the Pistons for the NBA season. He appeared in 26 games and averaged 11.9 points per game. It was the last professional sport he would play for several years, as Groat was called into the Army. In his final game with the Pistons (and the last of his NBA career, as it would turn out), Groat scored the last 6 points of a game to knock off the Milwaukee Hawks, 65-62, on January 25, 1953. He played basketball and baseball for Fort Belvoir during his stay in the Army, but he didn’t return to the Pirates until 1955. Now 24 years old, Groat elected to stay a one-sport star, leaving the NBA for good.

That decision wasn’t as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Groat really was torn between choosing basketball or baseball as his sport of choice. Pirates manager Fred Haney tried to do his part by all but handing the starting shortstop job to Groat. It wasn’t much of a hardship, as the 1954 starting shortstop, Gair Allie hit .199.

“He [Haney] hasn’t told me yet, but I understand he says I’m going to be his shortstop this year,” Groat said in March of 1955. “All I know is that three of us started out at the job, and I seem to be the only one left now. Allie… has been sent to New Orleans. And Dick Smith has been switched to third. So I guess that leaves only me.”

Groat more than earned his role in the starting lineup in 1955. He led all Pirates with 151 games played and picked up 139 hits. He slashed .267/.317/.351, for a .669 OPS, and he also played strong defense at shortstop, turning 107 double plays while registering a .961 fielding percentage. He wasn’t thrilled with his performance, as he was hoping that a .300 season would eliminate any thoughts of playing basketball. But for a ballplayer playing in a full season for the first time in three years, it was a positive year. The Pirates, who were still terrible, were slowly building a powerhouse with a group of young players that included Roberto Clemente, Vern Law and Bob Friend. Groat solved the shortstop position as the team gathered talent.

Groat never developed into a slugger, but he did become the .300 hitter that he wanted to be as he readjusted to baseball following his Army stint. He also became a team leader. Les Biederman of The Sporting News wrote in 1956, “One of the first things Manager Bobby Bragan noticed last year was that the Pirates needed a take-charge guy. There were so many youngsters on the team that none would do it on his own. So Bragan handed Groat the lineups one day and told him to take them up to home plate. From that day on, Groat was the unofficial ‘captain’ of the Pirates, and at 25 was one of the youngest leaders in the majors.”

Dr. Abdulahad Ahadi of St. Louis County Hospital examines Dick Groat’s ribs after getting hit by a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Don Cardwell. Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 9, 1963.

Groat raised his batting average to .273 in 1956 and then reached the .300 mark in 1957 — .315 to be exact. Groat also hit a career-high 7 home runs, in spite of missing nearly three weeks of the season with a severely sprained ankle. Even with the injury, he was among the league leaders in batting for most of the season and eventually finished in fifth place. He was in competition with some of the NL’s best sluggers for the batting crown — he finished behind Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron. “It’ll take a muscle man to win it, and I’m not in the muscle category,” Groat said when assessing his chances. “I’m not fast and I don’t beat out those slow rollers. I’m content to bat .300.”

Groat hit an even .300 in 1958 and was selected to his first two All-Star Games in 1959. He didn’t start either game because Ernie Banks was still a shortstop for the Cubs, but he was getting recognized as one of the NL’s best shortstops. During this time, the Pirates were moving up the standings, moving from a cellar-dweller to a pennant contender. Everything came together for Pittsburgh, and Groat, in 1960. The shortstop had one of the best seasons of his career, capturing the NL batting title with a .325 average. He drove in 50 runs, scored a career-best 85 times and drew 39 walks for a .371 on-base percentage. Groat broke his left wrist on September 6 after getting hit by a Lew Burdette pitch and missed about 20 days, but he returned and picked up 3 hits over his final two starts to keep Los Angeles’ Norm Larker from winning the batting crown. Groat was rewarded for his outstanding season with the NL Most Valuable Player Award, winning 16 of the 22 first-place votes. (Incidentally, every first-place vote in 1960 went to a Pittsburgh Pirate. Groat got 16, Don Hoak got 5 and Clemente 1.)

The 1960 Pirates won 95 games to capture the NL pennant, and then the team shocked the New York Yankees, winning the World Series in seven games. Groat, still nursing his wrist injury, was uncharacteristically quiet during the series, as he hit .214 with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs — two very important RBIs. He scored the Pirates’ first run of the World Series in the first inning of Game One. Roger Maris had homered to give New York an early lead, but Bill Virdon singled and advanced to third on a delayed steal and throwing error by Yogi Berra. Groat drove him in with a double to right and scored on a Bob Skinner single, putting the Pirates on top. The Bucs won that first game 6-4. The other RBI came in the famed Game Seven. With the Yankees losing 7-4 in the eighth inning, Groat knocked in Gino Cimoli with a single, spurring a 5-run rally that briefly put the Bucs on top 9-7. The Yankees rallied to tie the game in the ninth inning before Bill Mazeroski homered off Ralph Terry to win the game and the Series.

The town of Swissvale named both a street and a little league ballpark after their famous resident. Groat also was given the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, presented annually by the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. George Trautman, minor-league executive, was the chairman of the committee that picked him. “We will forgive Dick for being so outstanding that he was able to side-step us in the minors and move directly to the majors,” Trautman said. “But we also will take the liberty of using him as an example for all other aspiring young players to look up to, because it would be hard to find a better all-around sportsman and gentleman in our great game than Dick.”

Groat’s batting average fell 50 points in 1961, down to a still-respectable .275, as the Pirates fell in the standings to sixth place. He recovered to slash .299/.325/.361 in ’62, with 199 hits. The Pirates, looking for pitching help, traded Groat and reliever Diomedes Olivo to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Don Cardwell and shortstop Julio Gotay. The Cardinals had been interested in Groat for several years and had cycled through a number of shortstops over their previous seasons, without finding a consistent starter.

Groat thrived in Cardinal red in 1963, almost winning a second MVP Award. He was a distant second to Sandy Koufax, who won 25 games with a 1.88 ERA, but he had the best offensive season of his career. Groat slashed .319/.377/.450 and led all of baseball with 43 doubles. He also had 11 triples (a career best) and 6 homers among his 201 base hits. Groat reached career highs with 85 runs scored (tied with his 1960 season), 73 RBIs and 56 bases on balls. Three years to the day after breaking his wrist — September 6, 1963 — Groat was hit by a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Cardwell — the other key player in the trade that made Groat a Cardinal. Groat had been batting .329 at the time of the injury, and after missing a couple of games with his sore side, he hit .239 over the remaining games. The batting crown ended up going to Tommy Davis and his .326 batting average. Had it not been for that rib injury, Groat could have ended up with a second batting title.

Groat was selected to his eighth and final All-Star Game in 1964, which was also his last stand-out season. He played in 161 games for the Cardinals and batted .292. Though he homered just one time, he hit 35 doubles and drove in 70 runs. The Cardinals won the NL pennant, giving Groat his second trip to face the Yankees in the World Series. Again, his team won in 7 games, though he didn’t hit well in the postseason. He hit .192 with an RBI, and one of his biggest moments was a sacrifice bunt that he didn’t execute. It came in Game Five, in the tenth inning and a 2-2 tie. With runners on first and second, Groat tried to bunt the runners over but missed it. On the play, baserunner Bill White was trapped off second base but reached third when a pickoff throw failed to catch him. Groat hit into a force play, and the next batter, Tim McCarver, belted a 3-run homer to give the Cardinals the lead, and the 5-2 win. If Groat had laid down a successful sacrifice? With first base open, the Yankees would have walked McCarver to bring up Mike Shannon, and the whole game may have ended much differently.

At 34, Groat’s productivity tailed off in his final year with the Cardinals in 1965. He hit .254, his worst average as a regular player, and his OPS+ was a career-worst 73. St. Louis traded him, Bob Uecker and Bill White to the Philadelphia Phillies for Pat Corrales, Alex Johnson and Art Mahaffey in October of 1965. Groat slashed .260/.311/.320 in 1966, his last full season. He continued to play well at shortstop and saw extended time at third base for the first time in his career. He also recorded his 2000th career hit, against former Cardinals teammate Bob Gibson. Groat joked that he would have tipped his cap to the cheering Philadelphia fans, but, referrering to his bald head, “I don’t look for excuses to take off my cap. Athletes are supposed to look young, and when I take off my cap, I don’t look that young anymore.”

Source: Daily Press, May 17, 1965.

After many years of durability — he played in 150 games or more in a season seven times — Groat was hampered by an ankle infection, which led to permanent weakness, and ineffectiveness in 1967. He made it into 10 games with the Phillies and hit .115 before the San Francisco Giants purchased his contract on June 21. San Francisco used him mainly as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement for shortstop Hal Lanier, and Groat batted .171 with the Giants. He retired after the end of the season, with no regrets.

“Nobody ever thought I could go from college to the big leagues, and nobody ever thought I could last 14 years,” he said that September. “They told me in Swissvale High School and later at Duke I couldn’t play big league ball… I know one big league scout who followed our team at Duke. He said there were seven better prospects on that team than me. I was the only one who made it to the big leagues.”

In 14 seasons, Groat had a slash line of .286/.330/.366 and an OPS+ of 89. His 2,138 hits included 352 doubles, 67 triples and 39 home runs. Groat drove in 707 runs and scored 829 times. Baseball Reference credits him with 36.8 Wins Above Replacement. His fielding at shortstop contributed to that number; Groat had a lifetime fielding percentage of .961 at the position, with above average range.

Immediately after retiring, Groat took a job as an account executive at Jessop Steel Co. He also owned a golf course in Ligonier, Pa., with former Pirates teammate Jerry Lynch and participated in many instructional clinics. Like many athletes, Groat turned to the broadcast booth, though it was for basketball games and not baseball games. He signed on as an announcer for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1972, and then he spent 40 years as a broadcaster for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team. Groat worked regularly for Pitt through the 2018-19 season

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Groat was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011. He didn’t fare as well with the National Baseball Hall of Fame voting. Groat was on the ballot between 1973 and 1978, but he never got more than 2% of the needed votes. One has to wonder if a second MVP or batting title might have improved his vote totals. Groat was recently announced as an inductee for the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame, Class of 2023, along with Elroy Face, Friend and Kent Tekulve. The announcement was made on April 20, seven days before Groat’s death.

Groat is survived by daughters Tracey, Carol Ann and Allison, 6 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, Barbara, died in 1990.

For more information: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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