100 winning years for oldest Buc
He played with the Waners and Pie Traynor, but it's his medical career he's most proud of
Sunday, April 09, 2006
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Former Pirate ballplayer Howdy Groskloss, with his wife Mary at their home in Vero Beach, Florida. Groskloss, who went on to a career in medicine, celebrates his 100th birthday this week, making him the oldest living major league baseball player.
Howdy Groskloss: The baseball record
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The doctor doesn't go out much anymore, a good walk being pretty much accomplished when he makes it from the dining area to a luxuriant family room sofa in this beautiful home on John's Island.
He sinks into the cushions to talk some baseball, and resists admirably any notion to quote Casey Stengel, who said famously, "Most people my age are dead."
A visitor wonders aloud, real loud in fact, what the doctor remembers about playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"I remember there were a lot of women standing around after the games," he says with a kind of joyous candor. "You couldn't get through all the women."
Mary, his wife of 30 years, smiles from across the room, as does a long-time friend, Dick Durrell, both nodding and knowing and accepting that for the rest of us, it is time again, after all these years, to observe and absorb the relentless wisdom of Dr. Howard Hoffman "Howdy" Groskloss. It is not because he is the world's oldest living Pirate, or because he is the oldest living big league player of any description, but just as much because he was born in Pittsburgh exactly 100 years ago tomorrow.
In baseball's ever-exploding cyberspace, you can find at least three dates of birth for Howdy Groskloss: April 9, 1907, April 10, 1907, and April 10, 1906. Suitably flummoxed, we tried the ancient journalistic technique, of, you know, asking the man.
"April 10, 06," Howdy says definitively, which means that he's either 100 tomorrow or that on Tuesday he'll officially have been born yesterday.
So happy birthday, Howdy Groskloss, the old second baseman who played with Pie Traynor, both Waners (Lloyd and Paul), Arky Vaughn, and who was just breaking into the game in the months after Babe Ruth defended his $80,000 salary, more than President Hoover's, with a roaring, "I had a better year than he did."
That's right. Babe Ruth.
Howdy is one old second sacker.
"He's physically stronger than I am," says Mary, herself still lovely at 79. "Maybe he'll play ball again."
Nothing would, or ever really has, surprised anyone relative to the extensive accomplishments of this son of a Pittsburgh opera singer who once listed on his formal curriculum vitae, under "societies," the following:
Diplomat, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG)
Fellow, American College of Surgeons (ACS)
International College of Surgeons (ICS)
Irrelevant -- Pittsburgh Pirates, National League, shortstop, second baseman, 1930-32 (While at Yale University).
Sure, playing for the Pirates would to most of us be worth a more prominent place in a dossier, but the truth is, Howard Groskloss was so good at so many things, and so intent on becoming a doctor after watching, at age 12, his father die from pneumonia, that he played big league baseball almost as a lark, or at least partly to the loving memory of his father.
"My father was a great, great fan of the game," Howdy says. "I grew up watching it with him. He'd take me to see the Pirates. He knew I could get around pretty good and he was a friend of Barney Dreyfuss, so I guess he got Mr. Dreyfuss to take a look at me."
Mr. Dreyfuss, who owned the Pirates from 1900 until his death in 1932, thought so much of Howdy's baseball aptitude that he offered to pay him not to play football and risk injury in college. Howdy declined that offer, which was great news to the athletic department at Amherst College, his first stop in a lifetime of groundbreaking academic and medical accomplishment.
Mary goes to a shelf and takes down the hardware, a large silver double-handled trophy known as the Mossman Cup, given annually to the top student-athlete at Amherst. It was presented to Howdy by Amherst alum and, even then, former president Calvin Coolidge.
Howdy played baseball, football (tailback), basketball (point guard), tennis, joined the swim team and ran track at Amherst, and Mr. Dreyfuss still signed him to a $10,000 bonus in 1930. This was decades before he took up golf and starting winning tournaments all over South Florida and the Bahamas.
"It wasn't publicized, I think because it was at the start of the Depression," Howdy says, "but that was a big, big bonus. I gave it to my mother to pay off the house."
On June 23, 1930, a month after his Amherst commencement and acceptance into the medical school at Yale, Howard Groskloss made his major league debut as "Howdy" mostly because nicknames were almost mandatory in that era. Josephy "Arky" Vaughan got his name because he was from Arkansas. Harold Traynorbecame Pie. Paul Waner was Big Poison, his brother Lloyd, Little Poison. Pitcher Henry William Meine was called either Heinie Meine or The Count of Luxemburg.
In 1930, there were way more nicknames than night games. In fact there was as many night games as All-Star Games; there were none of either. The All-Star Game hadn't been invented yet. The Empire State Building was still a work in progress and batted balls that bounced over an outfield fence were still considered, at least in the National League, home runs. The word "Pirates" first appeared on Pittsburgh's uniforms only that summer, and the league still didn't allow uniform numbers.
The next summer, when the Bucs drew only 260,392 to Forbes Field (the worst attendance in the league) was Howdy's season in the sun. Manager Jewel Ens had some major difficulty up the middle, using four different second baseman to pair with slick shortstop Tommy Thevenow: George Grantham, Tony Piet, Bill Regan, and Howdy Groskloss. Howdy played in 53 games and hit .280 with seven doubles and two triples.
"I remember Traynor and the Waners; they were great guys and good friends," Howdy says. "But the Pirates knew I was more serious about school. They knew they weren't going to keep me."
Howdy was there long enough to see Pie Traynor win both games of a doubleheader against Philadelphia, his ninth inning homer winning the first game 2-1, and his three-run 13th-inning homer winning the second, 16-15. He saw Rogers Hornsby, then the player/manager of the Cubs, hit three consecutive homers at Forbes Field to beat the Pirates 10-6. He saw Kiki Cuyler break his foot in an April, 1932 game against the Pirates, and he saw Big Poison stroke four doubles in one game on his way to setting a National League record with 62.
It was all quite swell, he remembers, but none of it interested him quite so much as, say, the inside of a cadaver.
"I remember one Saturday, I really had to work on this cadaver because it was a very important part of our studies at that particular time," Howdy told a Florida newspaper for a story on his 90th birthday. "I remember working on the cadaver in the morning, then leaving to go play an afternoon game."
Beginning at Amherst and later at Yale and Penn, and then teaching positions at the University of Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Miami, Howdy set out into an almost Zelig-like existence that took him from an exhibition game against Jim Thorpe, to a job as chief medical officer and flight surgeon on the carrier USS Makassar in the Pacific Theater during World War II, to the Mayo Clinic, to a roomful of consulting physicians who helped launch the medical school at the University of Miami. His Amherst roommate's brother-in-law was Charles Lindbergh. Howdy lunched with him in New York on a Pirates road trip.
"He's one of the most remarkable men I've ever met," says Mr. Durrell, whose own athletic feats helped launch a career with Time Inc. that led to his becoming founding publisher of People Magazine. "He's just a pleasure to be around. His mind is so keen that you can talk about just about anything with him. I retired to Vero Beach years ago and there used to be these Bach concerts at a local church every month. We go all the time. He knew a lot about music. His mother made him choose between music and sports. He played the violin. She was afraid he'd damage his fingers."
And she was right.
"Look at his hands," Mary says.
Howdy extends his surgeon's hands, which are much larger than his 5-foot-9 frame might indicate. Every finger it seems, has been broken at least once.
"Gloves weren't much when I played," he says. "You broke one [finger], you just snapped it back into place and kept on playing."
Howdy's got about 20 good stories for every fractured metacarpal, and though he's still highly lucid, we're well into the era in which his friend Mr. Durrell tells them better than he.
"His dad was a friend of Honus Wagner," Mr. Durrell says. "Wagner picked him to play on a barnstorming team one summer in Zanesville [Ohio]. Wagner was the shortstop and Dr. Groskloss [Mr. Durrell always calls him Dr. Groskloss] was in right field. The last play of the day was a fly ball to Dr. Groskloss. He caught it, but Jim Thorpe, playing on the Zanesville team, ran out and took the ball out of his glove. Wagner took it back from him."
Just months before Barney Dreyfuss died, he'd coaxed out of retirement one George Gibson, who'd managed the Pirates 10 years earlier with some success. Mr. Gibson guided the 1932 Pirates to 86 victories and a second-place finish, but he didn't much take to his studious second baseman.
"[Gibson] didn't like him," Mr. Durrell says. "Dr. Groskloss would always be studying medical books on the train. He and the manager didn't hit it off. That year in St. Louis, Dr. Groskloss met Branch Rickey. Rickey liked him because he was so smart."
At the mention of Mr. Rickey, Howdy interrupts.
"He told me he was hopeful of getting Negro players into the game," Howdy says. "He was very sure about it. He was a very religious man. That was 15 years before Jackie Robinson."
In August of '32, Howdy left the Pirates for good to begin a pioneering medical career. He left baseball pretty much because it was getting in the way. He declined a Rhodes scholarship because he thought that would only further delay his life's work. He wound up teaching obstetrics, gynecology, and endocrinology for more than 50 years and is credited with helping to introduce ultra-sound technology to various disciplines. He met Mary a few years after his first wife died.
"A mutual friend introduced us," Mary says. "He was a very prominent man in Miami. He's doing very well. There was a very pretty nurse here the other day. Howard didn't want her to leave."
Howdy doesn't watch much baseball he says. "Not religiously," is how he puts it.
As for the mandatory question for anyone who lives to be 100, Howdy fielded it effortlessly, stylishly. Doctor, how did you get to be 100?
"Well, I wasn't much for the vices. I didn't drink much. Of course, I could have had plenty of vices."
Baseball was probably as