August 9 – Happy Birthday Eli Grba
In the eulogy Bob Costas gave at Mickey Mantle’s funeral, he talked about how thrilled people my age used to be when as kids, we opened up a pack of baseball cards and found a Mantle lying in their between a Pumpsie Green and an Eli Grba card. I had a lot of those Grba cards back in the early sixties and many of them would end up clothes-pinned to the forks of my Schwinn bicycle, rattling like a Harley engine against the spokes of my bike’s front and rear wheels. Grba came up in the Yankee organization in the late fifties. He was a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who would pitch mostly out of the bullpen for Casey Stengel during the 1959 and ’60 seasons, with an occasional start thrown in. He was 2-5 with an ERA over six in 1959 and then improved to 6-4 the following year and lowered his ERA to 3.68. It began to look as if he had a future in pinstripes. Two things prevented that from happening.
The first was booze. Stengel’s Yankees loved to drink it. Grba fit right in. Teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would invite the wide-eyed rookie to join them for a cocktail or two and Eli was thrilled to accept. He might not have been able to keep up with those two superstars on the baseball field but he quickly proved he could do so in the bars of American League cities around the country. By the end of the 1960 World Series, Eli Grba’s drinking problem was in full swing.
The AL was expanding to ten teams in 1961 and Eli Grba became the number one pick of the Los Angeles Angels in the 1960 expansion draft that was used to create the initial rosters of those two added ball clubs. The newly formed Angels may have had more drinkers on their team than the Yankees. They included Grba and his former Yankee teammates Ryne Duren and Ken Hunt. Eli won the first game in franchise history and went 11-13 during his first season wearing a halo’d hat but the drinking problem also advanced to a full-scale disease. He finished 8-9 in ’62 and found himself out of the big leagues for good by 1964. His post-playing life was mired in failed marriages and jobs until he finally quit the booze in the early eighties.
He shares his August 9th birthday with this former Yankee manager.