I was reading “My Turf,” William Nack’s anthology of features he wrote for Sports Illustrated, when I came across this in a 1996 article he wrote about the Philadelphia A’s:
Tales of [Lefty] Grove’s exploits abound. One afternoon while leading the Yankees 1-0 in the ninth inning, Grove gave up a triple to the leadoff hitter, shortstop Mark Koenig. Throwing nothing but darts, Grove then struck out [Babe] Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig and Bob Meusel. On nine pitches.
Talk about studly! Only it never happened.
I’ll take advantage of the tools Nack didn’t have — Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com — to try to verify this tale. Turns out Grove pitched only four of the 35 shutouts he threw in his 17-year major league career against the Yankees. Of those, only one ended in a score of 1-0: a game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park on September 3, 1927. But a quick check of the box score shows Koenig was hitless in that game. Ruth, Gehrig and Meusel did bat behind Koenig, in that order, but the number of plate appearances in the box score shows Gehrig, not Meusel, made the last out of the game. And Retrosheet has the play-by-play of the ninth inning:
Combs grounded out (pitcher to first); Koenig lined to center; Ruth singled to left; Gehrig was called out on strikes.
That’s a whole different story than Nack told. In fact, the play-by-play shows the Yankees never got a runner as far as third base in the game.
Of course, something happened in this game that IS part of Nack’s tale: Grove did strike out the side. But the Retrosheet play-by-play shows it came in the second inning, not the ninth….and the batters were not Ruth, Gehrig and Meusel but Meusel, Tony Lazzeri and Joe Dugan. Nor did Grove need just nine pitches to fan them, although according to the New York Times of September 4, he came close. John Drebinger wrote:
There was a deafening roar from the crowd as Grove struck out Meusel, Lazzeri and Dugan in the second inning on ten pitched balls. None of the statisticians present could recall when any pitcher had done anything like this against the Yanks this year. Dugan alone managed to get as much as a foul off the lean left-hander in this round.
Drebinger does not clarify whether Dugan’s foul came with two strikes on him — meaning all ten of Grove’s pitches in the inning were strikes — or if one of the pitches was called a ball.
So if Nack’s account isn’t exactly true as told, perhaps the sequence he described happened in another game that wasn’t a 1-0 shutout? Maybe with a leadoff triple in the ninth inning of a one-run game, followed by three successive strikeouts? Grove had only one other complete game one-run victory over the Yankees in which he gave up at least one triple, a 2-1 triumph in the first game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1926. Retrosheet doesn’t have play-by-play of that game, but the New York Times game story the next day doesn’t tell any tale that resembles Nack’s yarn. Koenig had but two triples against Grove as a Yankee, both of them in games the Yankees won easily: Opening Day 1927 and June 27, 1928. Retrosheet has play-by-play of the 1927 game; Koenig’s triple came with two out in the sixth inning, and he scored on a single by Ben Paschal pinch-hitting for Babe Ruth (the last player ever to bat for the Babe). There is no play-by-play of the 1928 game, but Grove struck out only two batters in the game, so the strike-out-the-side-after-a-triple scenario isn’t possible.
I haven’t checked all of Grove’s 300 career wins, let alone his 457 career starts, to see if the triple-strikeout-strikeout-strikeout sequence appears in any of them, but it’s safe to say Grove never did what Nack said he did. Where Nack got the idea that he had is not credited in the article, but he did quote several of Grove’s contemporaries — all then in their late 80s or early 90s — so it’s likely one of them passed on this misremembered story and Nack swallowed it as fact, with no objections from SI’s fact checkers. It’s a great story that would have been even better if it were true.