Joe Grzenda graduated from Moosic High School on June 8, 1955, his 18th birthday. Two days later his father drove him to Jamestown, New York and dropped him off at a stranger’s house. So began a two-decade professional baseball odyssey for Grzenda wherein he played in eight major league and 16 minor league seasons in 18 different cities.
Sitting in the finished basement of his ranch home in a wooded development in Covington Township surrounded by mementoes of his career, Grzenda talked about his career arc in a two-hour interview two days after his 80th birthday.
There was no Little League in Moosic when Grzenda was growing up. “We played with a ball with a cover of black electrical tape. The neighbors had cows and we had to be careful where we’d slide.”
A left-handed thrower who was listed at 6-2 and 180 pounds, Grzenda was a hot prospect at Moosic High, where he once struck out 19 in a seven-inning game, losing 1-0 to Marymount with the run scoring on an error. At a high-school reunion, he joked with his classmate who made the error, saying, “After 50 years, that error still bothers me.”
Still in high school, Grzenda also pitched for Greenwood AA in a high- caliber adult amateur league. He was bird-dogged by the late Joseph J. Wincovitch, a Detroit Tigers scout who would later be the Lackawanna County Sheriff. Grzenda got a $4,000 signing bonus, cleared $3,600, the average annual salary for an American worker at the time, and the equivalent of $25,000 in 2017 dollars. Though the money went to his parents, Grzenda said, “The $3,600 made me proud.”
The Jamestown Falcons were then a Detroit Tigers affiliate in the Pony (Pennsylvania, Ontario, New York) League. “It was a heck of an experience for me because I had never been away from home,” Grzenda said. “Most were college boys. I lived with two other guys. The club made sure one of them had a car so we could go to lunch and things.”
From 1955 to 1960 he pitched for five different Detroit minor league clubs and developed a reputation as a hard thrower. “Guys coming down from the big leagues said I was throwing as hard or harder than Herb Score.” (Cleveland Indians pitcher Score was considered one of the fastest pitchers in the Major Leagues at the time.)
In 1958 at AA Birmingham, Alabama in the Southern Association, a girl in the stands near the dugout caught his eye. He had the bat boy carry a note to her. Her name was Ruth. They married in 1959. They are still together. They raised two kids, daughter Donna and son Joe Jr., who grew up baseball brats sometimes going to three different schools in a single school year.
Grzenda won 16 games for Birmingham in ’58 with a club-record 190 strikeouts, helping the Barons win their first pennant since 1931. That off-season, the Tigers wanted him to go in the Army for six months. He never learned why and didn’t play any army ball.
Discharged a month early, he reported to spring training with the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. It rained five of seven days and Grzenda didn’t pitch. The Tigers advanced him to their top farm club, AAA Charleston in West Virginia. He seemed to be on the cusp of a call up to the Bigs, but had a setback.
“I always wanted to tell this. I met the club in Indianapolis, but they lost my equipment. I had a red belt, the team’s color. I wore that and Mel Stottlemyre’s son’s spikes. The first baseman loaned me his second glove. They pitched me that day. No throwing, Nothing. Ozzie Virgil, the father, was the catcher. Ozzie comes to the mound. ‘I heard you were a fireballer. You’re not throwing nothing.’ I said ‘Ozzie, I haven’t thrown since last year.’ He kept calling curveball, curveball, curveball. I did OK for five innings. The next day I had a toothache in the elbow. I blame myself because I was afraid to say no.”
Though team doctors gave him injections before his starts, it took four or five years to get over the elbow soreness. By 1960 Grzenda had been in the minor leagues for six seasons, but he never considered giving up the dream.
In 1961 Grzenda finally stuck with the Tigers after spring training. Though Grzenda would start 156 games in the minor league career, in the majors he was used in relief. He made his debut on April 26 against the Yankees. “I was so nervous my knees wouldn’t stay in my pants.” He got in only four games before being sent down to Denver in early May.
The Tigers released Grzenda after the ’63 season. Over the next seven seasons he was sold twice, spending time in the majors with Kansas City, the Mets and Minnesota, finally winding up in Washington with the Senators where he had his best Major League season in 1971 at age 34, when he earned $22,000 as the Senators closer. He had a 5-2 record and a 1.92 ERA. But how to explain blossoming so late in his career? “Sid Hudson, the pitching coach, and I were sitting on bench talking and Sid said, ‘if you ever go on that mound and are afraid to lose, you’re going to lose.’”
It was an epiphany.
“I thought, son of a B, that was me. At that time you needed five years for a pension and I was thinking about that every time I went out there. I was so tight. Sid changed my attitude, changed my personality.”
Grzenda qualified for the pension during the ’71 season. Ted Williams was the Senators manager and he knew Grzenda had qualified. Grzenda was shagging flies in the outfield when Ted tapped him on the shoulder and asked how he was doing. I said, “The world is off my shoulders.”
The Senators moved to Texas after the ’71 season. Their last game in Washington against the Yankees ended with Grzenda on the mound — and with a near riot.
The crowd was only a little over 14,000, but they were on the edge. In the fourth Yankees pitcher Mike Kekich grooved Senator favorite Frank Howard a fastball and he hit it for a home run. The fans went crazy and were barely contained from storming the field as “Hondo” took three curtain calls. In the ninth, with the Senators leading 7-5, the buzz from the crowd was palpable. Grzenda was on the mound. He got the first two outs quickly, the second on a Bobby Mercer grounder back to the mound. As Horace Clark stepped into the box, the crowd erupted. “You could see a cloud of dust as the fans down the lines poured on to the field,” Grzenda said. “One big guy with a beard ran at me. I had the ball and was thinking about throwing it at his head, but he just touched me and ran off.”
Fans leapt over the dugout as the players ran in. Three jumped on Howard’s back. They stole hats. They tore up the bases, the turf and anything they could get their hands on. Order was never restored and the game was forfeited to the Yankees.
Grzenda kept the ball Mercer had hit for the second out, took it home, put it in an envelope on which he wrote: “Last ball ever thrown as a Washington Senators baseball club. Sept. 30, 1971. Mercer grounded out to me.”
Thirty-three years later, in 2004, when the news broke that Montreal Expos franchise was moving to Washington for the 2005 season, Washington Post writer William Gildea interviewed Grzenda at his home in Covington Township. Grzenda’s son Joe Jr. was there. In 1971, 11-year-old Joe was allowed to hang around the dugout and batting practice with the Senators. He even had a Senators uniform. He was there that last crazy night. During the Gildea interview Joe Jr. came up wth an idea: have his father’s last Washington Senators ball be used as the ball for the Nationals ceremonial first pitch.
The idea turned into a reality. On April 19, 2005, on the field in front of the Senators dugout at RFK Stadium, Joe Grzenda, under strict orders from the Secret Service handed the 1971 ball to President George W. Bush. Before Bush walked to the mound to throw the pitch, he said to Grzenda, “This is going to get us in the hall of fame.”
Excited as he was, Grzenda was worried about his ball. It had been reported Nationals catcher Brian Schneider was planning to keep the ball to add to his collection of 200 autographed balls.
Grzenda told the Secret Servicemen the ball was his. After Bush threw the pitch one of the Secret Servicemen made sure the ball got back to Grzenda.
The Senators devastated Grzenda by trading him to St. Louis after the ’71 season. He liked Washington and Ted Williams. “If Ted was still alive I’d knock on his door and ask him why he did it, but it was probably Short who did it.” Bob Short was the Senators owner.
St. Louis in 1972 was a miserable season. Though it was his highest paying season ever, $29,000, the Cardinals didn’t use him. He pitched only 35 innings. In 1973 he was went to spring training with the Yankees, but was assigned to Syracuse in the International League (IL). He had a great season with a 2.43 ERA and a league-leading 18 saves, but never got called up to New York. He spent 1974 with Richmond, Atlanta’s franchise in the IL and had another good season, 7-2 with 11 saves, but he was 38 by then, so he retired. The Yankees offered him a pitching coach job in West Haven, Connecticut, but Grzenda had just bought his house in Covington Township, and with two kids, the coaching job didn’t pay enough. When a new battery factory opened in Dunmore, Grzenda was the first one hired. He worked there 22 years.
Post-career honors didn’t end for Grzenda with the Nationals opening night in 2005. In 2014 he was inducted into the Birmingham Barons Hall of Fame where he had pitched for two championship teams in five different seasons, where he had endeared himself to fans by requesting to be sent to AA Birmingham instead of AAA Vancouver and where he had met his wife.
After the on field induction ceremony he posed with his wife Ruth in front of the dugout near which he had first spotted her in 1958. He told a reporter for alabamalife.com “It was a special place.”
Grzenda finished his career with a 1.000 fielding percentage. In 219 games and 308 innings pitched he never made an error. The errorless career and the in famous last inning in Washington in 1971 keep Grzenda on fan radar. He gets 10 to 15 letters a month from fans with baseball cards to sign. Sometimes they send $5 or $10.
He signs and sends back the cards — and the money.