Once a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher with a bright future, Joe Grzenda’s major league career spanned eight seasons and 219 games, all but three of those appearances in relief for the Moosic High School grad.
And it was one of those appearances that turned Grzenda into the answer to a baseball trivia question, led to him meeting a president and made him part of baseball lore in our nation’s capital.
Grzenda, who started his pro baseball career two days out of high school in 1955, and capped it in 1974, died Friday at his Covington Twp. home. He was 82.
Long before he became the last player to throw a pitch in Washington for the Senators before the team moved on to become the Texas Rangers, Grzenda was hurling baseballs as part of the job in his teen years.
“He worked at Rocky Glen Park with the ball throw that would knock the dummies over,” said his brother Bob. “He worked there and kept throwing and knocking the dummies over. Slowly, I guess he built up. My father built a mound for him. We used to play catch. He threw every day. It was total baseball.
“He had a pole with a can. He kept throwing at the can with stones to get the accuracy. Funny thing about it, the only thing he ever did left-handed was throw a ball.”
He did that with zip seldom seen in his era. There were no radar guns, but Bob remembers his brother being compared to Herb Score, widely regarded as one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the majors.
But an arm injury suffered in spring training in the late 1950s with Detroit — Joe was trying to rush back after an appendectomy — took some of the life off his fastball and relegated him to a career primarily in the bullpen.
“He had good years all over,” Bob said. “He went up in the majors after he was going downhill.
The “super” Joe never made the majors.
He played in 18 cities in his major- and minor-league career, sometimes struggling with control, other times impressing managers like Billy Martin, who was at Class Triple-A Denver in 1968.
The following year, Martin was hired by Minnesota and led the Twins to the pennant and a berth in the first divisional playoffs, where he brought Grzenda with him. The lefty pitched ⅔ of an inning of scoreless ball as the Twins were swept in three games by Baltimore.
“My brother made him look great,” Bob said. “Who’s that guy with the Yankees who just retired? Mariano Rivera. He was like that for Denver. He made Billy Martin look good as a short stopper and Billy Martin never forgot him. He took him to (Minnesota) with him.”
There, Grzenda went 4-1 with a 3.88 ERA and three saves.
A year later, Martin was gone and Grzenda was off to Washington, where Ted Williams utilized him more and his sinkerball became an effective tool.
In 1971, he posted a 5-2 record in 46 games, registering five saves with a 1.92 ERA, best on the Senators’ staff. Sports Illustrated tagged him the American League’s best relief pitcher.
Could have been six saves, but his final appearance was Sept. 30, 1971, when the Senators led the Yankees, 7-5.
In short order, he retired Felipe Alou and Bobby Murcer, but the upcoming move to Texas was unpopular with the fans, and with two outs in the ninth, fans rushed the field, tearing up the basepaths and throwing a fright into the players.
“I was at that game,” Bob said. “It was scary. You could hear them like bees coming down on the field. The game never got finished. You could hear them slowly coming down and they took the field over. I remember (Joe) running off the mound. That’s when he had the last ball thrown with the old Senators.
“That’s the one he gave to the president to be thrown out.”
The Yankees won the game by forfeit and the story goes that Joe didn’t know whether to throw the ball to fend off charging fans or keep it and rush to the dugout. He kept it. Tucked it in an envelope and into a drawer, where it was when the Washington Nationals revived baseball in D.C. in 2005.
Grzenda was invited to RFK Stadium to hand that ball off to President George W. Bush, who would throw out that yellowing memento to bridge the old and new eras of Washington baseball.
Joe finished his major league career with St. Louis in 1972, and in 1973 was invited to New York Yankees camp.
There, he faced Dunmore native Rich Revta, who was in the Senators system the same time as Grzenda.
“I did talk to him several times,” Revta recalled. “I didn’t see him too much in spring training, but I remember back in (1973) he might have pitched for the Yankees in spring training. I played in a game down there and I hit a weak ground ball. I know I didn’t hit the ball against him. He was a two-seam, slider, sinker pitcher. He was pretty good.
“We talked about that a few times and had some laughs.”
Joe pitched that season for the Yankees’ Triple-A team in Syracuse where he had a 2.43 ERA and 18 saves, but never got the call to New York.
“He had shoulder problems come up and they took a different pitcher up instead of him,” Bob said.
The next year, he pitched for Richmond and retired after posting a 7-2 mark with 11 saves.
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