NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 24: SS DICK GROAT
Over the 12 seasons since giving Marty Marion his outright release in 1951, the Cardinals tried at least nine different players as his replacement at shortstop.
With three seasons under his belt, Solly Hemus — who gave maximum effort to compensate for minimal skill — was the most tenured among them.
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And Julio Gotay? He was the last straw. Sports writers unfairly hung the “the next Marty Marion” tag on the 23-year-old, and when he failed to deliver the goods in 1962 he became a target of their criticism.
“He was the butt of all the team jokes,” an unnamed team executive would tell Sports Illustrated. “You can’t win a pennant with a shortstop like that.”
St. Louis General Manager Bing Devine had already constructed an otherwise stellar infield with team captain Ken Boyer at third base, Bill White at first and Julian Javier at second. Despite the gaping hole at short, the Cardinals managed to win 84 games in 1962 and, with a good young pitching staff, Devine believed he was close to a contender.
Two weeks after the season’s end, on Oct. 17, he traded veteran right-handed pitcher Larry Jackson to Chicago for three players, including pitcher Don Cardwell. Then, on Nov. 19, Devine flipped Cardwell and Gotay to Pittsburgh for shortstop Dick Groat, who was just two seasons removed from being voted National League MVP.
Groat had a great range to either side, though he was prone to make some errors. But he hit better than the average shortstop and was possibly the best all-around athlete in baseball. Baseball, in fact, may not have been his best sport.
“I was a better basketball player than I ever was a baseball player,” Groat has said repeatedly through the years. “Basketball was always my first love.”
He was a two-time All-American basketball player at Duke and was named both the Helms and UPI National Player of the Year as the only NCAA player ever to lead the nation both in scoring and assists in the same season. Groat’s 48 points against North Carolina in his final collegiate game stood as the school record for 36 years and his No. 10 was the first retired to the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Fort Wayne Pistons made him the third overall pick of the NBA Draft, even though he had already signed a big-league contract with the Pirates. The Pistons desired his services badly enough that they allowed him to cut the basketball season short so he could be on time for spring training. The team would even fly him to Florida on a private jet.
Groat batted .284 for the Pirates to finish third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting and then, in 26 NBA games, averaged 11.9 points. In the interim, he returned to Duke to complete his law degree. But after two seasons of military service, Pittsburgh’s general manager Branch Rickey (yes, that Branch Rickey) told Groat his days on the hardwood were over.
“Mr. Rickey made the decision to give up basketball for me,” Groat told the Raleigh News & Observer. “I had a five-year contract with the Pirates and when I came back (from the Army) I went right to baseball. I was ready to go back to the Pistons because I thought I could do that for a few years ... but Rickey said I couldn’t do that.”
Having grown up in the east suburb of Swissvale, Pennsylvania, Groat was at first devastated to be traded away from his hometown Pirates. But the 32-year-old veteran quickly found his place among the Cardinals’ team leaders and enjoyed the best season of his career in 1963.
Groat batted .319 with career highs in hits (201), doubles (43), triples (11), home runs (11), RBIs (73), runs scored (85), on-base percentage (.377), slugging (.450), and OPS (.827). He finished runner up to Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax for what would have been his second MVP.
“I hit in front of Stan Musial the whole season and I had never seen so many good pitches to hit,” he said.
Better still, the Cardinals improved just as Devine had hoped, winning 93 games and chasing the first-place Dodgers into the final week of the season. With another daring transaction in June of 1964, Devine added the last missing piece of a pennant when he acquired speedy young outfielder, Lou Brock, from the Chicago Cubs.
Groat made a major contribution again that season, batting .292/.335/.371 with 70 runs batted in and 70 more scored and stabilizing what had been a revolving door on the Redbirds’ infield. St. Louis rallied from 11 games back at the end of August with 21 wins in its final 29 games to catch Philadelphia and clinch the league championship.
The Cardinals then met the New York Yankees in what would be a thrilling seven-game World Series.
In 1960, Groat was on deck when Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 walk-off home run against the Yankees clinched a championship for Pittsburgh. Four years later in St. Louis, he stood on first base as the tying run when Boyer’s Game 4 grand slam gave the Cardinals a 4-3 win and all the momentum they needed to close out their first World Series title in 18 years.
Groat’s stay in St. Louis was brief. After the team fell into seventh place in 1965, the Cardinals dealt the 34-year-old shortstop to the Phillies for a trio that included catcher Pat Corrales. He played only two more seasons before retiring from San Francisco and returning to Pennsylvania to design, construct and manage Champion Lakes Golf Club.
In 1969, Groat reunited with his first love when he became the radio voice of the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team, a job he still enjoys at age 88. In November of 2007, the six-time Major League Baseball all-star was inducted to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1963-65
.289/.343/.380 in St. Louis | WS rings | 2x All-Star | 12.4 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.93