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The Forgotten Reign of Vean Gregg

Southpaw Vean Gregg dominated the Major Leagues from 1911 to 1913, his first three years with the Cleveland Indians. Peers touted his curveball as the best in the business, but after 1913 the pitcher couldn’t maintain consistency. In this essay, Graham Womack recalls the phenom’s quick fall from the spotlight.

By Graham Womack, June 7, 2017
Vean Gregg is the only pitcher in the 20th century to win at least 20 games in his first three seasons in the majors.

On October 13, 1913, a pitcher few fans today would know of pitched one of the greatest games that won’t easily be found in any record book.

It was Game 6 of the Inter-City Series and do-or-die time for the Cleveland Indians. The opposing Pittsburgh Pirates had taken a 3–2 lead in the best-of-seven contest, a postseason exhibition held periodically throughout the early 1900s. For players whose one-year contracts expired in early October, it was a chance to earn a little extra money, maybe $50 to $100 per game.

Their chances flickering, the Indians turned to 29-year-old ace Vean Gregg, who had just completed his third straight 20-win season. Over the course of 13 innings that brisk October day at Forbes Field, Gregg hurled a five-hit shutout, striking out 19 Pirates including Honus Wagner twice late in the game. In the final inning, with the moon starting to rise and the game in danger of being called, Gregg rapped a double and then scored the winning run on a single to center.

In 1930, future Hall of Fame umpire Billy Evans wrote of the game as one of the greatest he’d ever worked.

Vean Gregg should be rated as one of the top five southpaws in baseball history. I umpired Rube Waddell when he was at his best, Eddie Plank when he was outstanding and all other great lefthanders of the last 25 years but none of them boasted a curveball that compared with Gregg’s. When he had control, he was almost unhittable. Gregg’s curve was a fast breaking drop ball and was as puzzling to right handers as left.

In October 1913, Gregg might have looked like a surefire baseball legend, a future Hall of Famer if the concept had existed back then. In truth, there was only one way for Gregg’s baseball career to go: Down.

The Deadball Era’s Dwight Gooden

Many baseball fans know of the meteoric rise of Dwight Gooden, how the 19-year-old phenom debuted with the New York Mets in 1984 and went 58–19 with a 2.28 ERA his first three years. Gooden had 15.6 Wins Above Average those first three seasons, tops in baseball history for this span, before he became an addict and a cautionary tale. Gooden wasn’t the first of his kind, though. Truth is, every baseball generation has its Dwight Gooden, a supreme talent felled by any number of issues.

Dwight Gooden was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 2010. Gooden had many struggles during his career as well as many successes–1984 Rookie of the Year and 1985 Cy Young Award Winner. 
Source: slgckgc on Flickr

https://creativecommons.org/license/by/2.0/

For Vean Gregg, perhaps the issue was health and a left arm that became increasingly fragile. Or maybe his problem was misuse or simple lack of focus. The first thing to know about Gregg’s career is that it almost didn’t happen. It began and ended as if Gregg hardly grasped the magnitude of the opportunity. Granted, in an era where players made a fraction of what they do today and sometimes earned more in non-baseball pursuits, a playing career might have seemed like an uncertain luxury.

“I am a plasterer by trade, do a lot of contracting work, and can make $10 a day when business is good,” Gregg said in 1912, a year after he finally broke in with the Indians shortly before turning 26. “I always like to play ball and regarded it simply as a side issue.”

All the same, the former plasterer was phenomenal soon after he finally got the chance to play. He broke into the minors as a 24-year-old in 1909, going 6–13 with Spokane of the Northwestern League. The following year, he went 32–18 with a 1.52 ERA for Portland of the Pacific Coast League. Gregg then went 23–7 with a 1.80 ERA as an MLB rookie in 1911, followed by 20–13 with a 2.59 ERA in 1912 and 20–13 with a 2.24 ERA in 1913.

“Vean Gregg of Cleveland is one of the best southpaws I ever faced,” future Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins wrote for American Magazine in 1914. “The best compliment I can think of is to call him a left-handed [Walter] Johnson. To Gregg pitching comes natural; he possesses abundant speed, but it is a wonderful curve ball that rounds him out as a great pitcher.”

Collins, reputed to write his columns without the aid of a ghostwriter, added of Gregg, “If he had to, he could almost put that curve ball of his through a knot hole. It seems to have a break on it like the letter S.”

Great southpaw pitcher Vean Gregg had a roller coaster career of ups and downs.
Source: 
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

But by this point, other problems were starting to surface with Gregg. Money had been an issue from the outset of Gregg’s career, with him refusing in December 1910 to report to the Indians unless they gave him a $2,400 salary his first year. He engaged in protracted negotiations before the 1912 season for a $3,500 salary and $1,500 bonus if he won 25 games. At one point in negotiations, Gregg even signed to manage a stock ranch in Alberta, Canada, while his father notified the Indians that he thought it unlikely his salary demands would be met.

Gregg had also developed control problems, walking 124 batters in 1913, tops in the American League. In addition, there was talk he clashed with Indians Player-Manager Joe Birmingham. So on July 28, 1914, the Indians cut their losses and traded Gregg to the Boston Red Sox.

“Vean Gregg, who was a sensation with Cleveland a couple of years ago, went home to Boston from here,” the Pittsburgh Press reported on April 13, 1915. “It is said that his arm is completely gone and that it is very unlikely whether he will pitch a game this year or any other year. His arm seems to be entirely gone for pitching purposes. Gregg is signed to a $6,000 contract and will collect even if he does not play a game of ball.”

For the next two years, Gregg worked only intermittently, throwing 152.2 innings. His arm eventually recovered, but his workload with the Red Sox didn’t increase much. After the 1916 season, Gregg made his displeasure known.

“In batting practice, the Boston players insisted I showed as much stuff as ever, but that was about the only place I would get a chance to work,” Gregg said in a November 26, 1916, wire story. “Every now and then I would be injected into a game, but would then find my control lacking, with the batter working me to the limit. I believe all that I need is regular work to recover my old time form, but regular work with a team having a pitching staff like Boston is some compliment.”

Gregg soon requested a trade, and Boston loaned him out to Providence of the International League. After Gregg went 21–9 with a 1.72 ERA for the Grays in a resurgent 1917 season, the Red Sox then traded Gregg to the Philadelphia Athletics. By this point, though, Gregg was losing interest in baseball. The 33-year-old Gregg went 9–14 with a 3.12 ERA for the A’s in 1918 before quitting to run a ranch. Connie Mack tried wiring Gregg in 1919 to come back, but to no avail.

“Connie hasn’t time nor inclination to travel clear to Montana as Manager Miller Huggins did to Maryland when Frank Baker looked like a holdout, so Connie has no idea what’s bothering Gregg,” the Winnipeg Tribune noted. “The next move is up to Vean.”

Vean Re-emerges

In August 1921, Gregg resurfaced, signing a contract with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada League. The Associated Press, in reporting the signing, noted that Gregg had pitched in an independent circuit earlier in the summer. A few months later, Gregg signed on with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League, where he would spend three seasons, peaking in 1924 when he went 25–11 with a 2.90 ERA. His work would earn him a call-up from Clark Griffith and Bucky Harris of the Washington Senators the following year.

“Vean seemed to have more stuff than ever before,” syndicated sportswriter Norman E. Brown wrote of Gregg’s 1924 season. “It worked easily and seriously. It was on the advise [sic] of friends on the coast that Griffith and Manager Harris decided that he could give them one good year at least.”

Alas, Gregg struggled with his control with Washington in 1925 and wound up back in the minors. He was sold to Birmingham the following season but announced instead that he was through with organized baseball and would open a business and pitch semiprofessionally in Hoquiam, Washington. Gregg being Gregg, he went on to pitch professionally again, though by then his glory days were all but forgotten.

Baseball Magazine, July 1925.

 

 

 

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