“The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of
Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War”
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
Released March 1, 2021
The review in 90 feet or less
Imagine how upside down Los Angeles would be if there was this war building on the other side of the world and just as the baseball season started, Clayton Kershaw was plucked off the roster to put on another uniform and serve his country.
Imagine how the city of Chicago faced that dilemma when its future Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, at age 31 — a year younger than Kershaw — found out he was among the many big-leaguers drafted to serve in World War I. He’d throw three games to start the 1918 season, then head to basic training in Kansas, then off to France with the other Doughboys.
It would be a story made for Hollywood. But not one well told.
There’s this horribly false impression we all shouldn’t have that Alexander, born in rural Nebraska and named after the 22nd president of the United States who held office at that time (and circled back to be the 24th president), looked an awful lot like Ronald Reagan, the actor who would become the 40th leader of the free world.
No more than Gary Cooper really looked a lot like Lou Gehrig, but that’s the lasting image thanks to the image makers of the time.
The 1952 Warner Brothers flick called “The Winning Team” soft-tosses Reagan, years after he played George Gipp in the Knute Rockne biopix, as what was assumed to be the lead role of Alexander – better known as Alex or Pete or Ol’ Pete. The title sequence declares this to be the “true story” of his life. IMDB.com graciously refers to it as “an average and generally somewhat interesting.” The 6.5-out-of-10 stars seems generous.
It’s as much a “baseball” movie as it tries to follow the “Pride of the Yankees” template to push it as a drama/romance. Doris Day, as Alexander’s wife, Aimee, is the true lead, but Reagan had to do a lot of heavy lifting with not only a better-than-average pitching motion but also many scenes to show the anguish and distraught circumstances of Alexander’s troubled existence. “Pride of The Yankees” landed about 10 years earlier. It also came out about 13 months after Gehrig’s early demise from ALS.
In “The Winning Team,” Alexander had died just 15 months earlier, and his somewhat estranged but protective wife was hired as an advisor (and credited as “Mrs. Grover Cleveland Alexander”).
In Leeke’s bio, the movie only gets a brief mention, and for good reason. On the next-to-last page, he pulls a review from Alexander’s hometown paper, the St. Paul (Nebraska) Phonograph, showing how it didn’t know what to make “of the fact-bending film … What puzzled local moviegoers is how Hollywood could produce a full-length ‘true life story’ of Alexander and NOT ONCE mention St. Paul, his acknowledged home town, where he returned each season, where he died, where he was buried. This important fact was entirely rubbed out of the movie’s script.” Leeke also finds a baseball historian who writes this is “not the definitive word on the subject.”
Especially if one was interested in how Alexander’s World War I really changed his life.
In “The Winning Team, barely two full minutes are spent on that pivotal time. The telling scene is highlighted by gun blast and an explosion that causes Reagan to grab his ears, stagger, and explain, “I just got dizzy all of the sudden,” as a swirl of ominous violins play. The next scene has the newspaper headline declaring “Armistice!” and now we’re at a parade celebrating.
Yet that brief but vital time fending off the Germans (while also getting to play a little Army baseball) is critical to what the Alexander story — a clear dividing line between the success he had prior with the Philadelphia Phillies (1911-1917, ages 24-30, winning 190 games, including 28 as a rookie) and the mental and physical struggles he endured after for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals (1918-1930, despite posting incredible numbers) – there’s an overdue need for a deeper dive.
The movie tries to explain some of the health issues, including a scene where he collapses on the mound for the Cubs in Pittsburgh, then passes out in an alley trying to drink his pain away as the sportscaster’s voice goes on about how this man one once called “Alex The Great” turned from “baseball to the bottle” and into “a stumbling has-been.”
The film extracts an heroic climax, where Alexander, at age 39, becomes the key player in the Cardinals’ 1926 World Series win over Babe Ruth’s Yankees. After complete-game wins in Games 2 and 6, Alexander saunters back out in relief (sober, we’re led to believe) based on the confidence of player-manager Rogers Hornsby, to finish off Game 7. The key moment is getting out of a bases-loaded situation against Tony Lazerri to end the seventh-inning with a strikeout. The moment was enough to become oddly part of his Cooperstown plaque, even though the posted far more impressive stats that could have been immortalized as his long-lasting achievements. (Seriously, that’s the best they could come up with? Even Encyclopedia.com does a better job finding balance: “While perhaps not the model or disciplined athlete—in fact, by most accounts, he was far from that—Alexander was a product of the times in which he lived. His adult years spanned two World Wars, the first, in which he served as an army sergeant in France. He lived through Prohibition, two marriages and divorces from the same woman, the Great Depression, and ill health due to epilepsy, alcoholism, and in later life, cancer. He was described as a soft-spoken yet cantankerous man who did not appreciate having rules dictated to him. Above all, Alexander was a phenomenal pitcher with an attitude, who, despite personal demons that haunted him throughout most of his adult life, established major-league records, many of which still stand today.)
Alexander didn’t end his career at the point. He actually played four more seasons – a 21-game winner for the Cardinals in ’27 — and at 43 was the NL’s all-time wins leader, and ended up tied for 10th all time in wins with another WWI star-crossed victim, Christy Mathewson. Alexander’s sharp 2.56 ERA is just out of the Top 50 all-time.
So here comes Leeke’s 200-plus page exploration about the important moment in Alexander’s life that doesn’t have to slosh through a quagmire of statistical rehash. Alexander’s 373 career victories are as less the focus than how the soldier with serial number 2845730 with the 89th Division of the 342nd Field Artillery Regiment represented his country.
There’s a notation that Alexander pitched complete-game wins in both ends of a Labor Day doubleheader for the Phillies against Brooklyn (the pre-Dodger-named Robins) at Ebbets Field in 1917– a four-hit complete-game shutout in the opener, and a 9-3 win in the second game for his 22nd and 23rd wins of the season. But that’s more to spotlight his ability to shine as he was like many concerned to watch the war ramping up and he was waiting to see if he’d get drafted amidst his third straight 30-win season.
This is also more documentation about how Sergeant Alexander could keep playing the game along with a unit full of current and future MLB players, including two Dodgers who also became sergeants – spitballer/first baseman Clarence “Mitch” Mitchell and infielder Chuck Ward.
By enlisting Leeke, a prolific SABR bio contributor whose 2017 book, “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War” (also by University of Nebraska Press) won the organization’s top book award, we are led into an information forest by someone with the experience and ability to examine to document what happened during that brief but impactful time “over there.”
Leeke naturally gravitates toward this particular star at this particular time based on previous research that includes the 2013 “Ballplayers in the Great War: Newspaper Accounts of Major Leaguers in World War I Military Service,” which he dedicates to those ballplayers who died from illness or who were killed in the war: Alex Burr, Larry Chappell, Eddie Grant, pictured on the book cover, Newt Halliday, Mark Milligan, Ralph Sharman and Bun Troy).
In this re-examination, we first seek to know: Was Alexander truly “shell shocked” when he came home after the traumatic conflict?
Leeke shows that based on his military records Alexander wasn’t really forthcoming about his medical past at the entry point. He was already likely the victim of what today would be called Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) because of a 1909 minor-league injury when he was running toward second base and was hit in the left temple with a ball thrown by the shortstop toward first. It knocked him out for more than two days (as a scene depicts in “The Winning Team” but doesn’t really connect to his post-war issues). Alexander’s seizures and blurred vision after that had been attributed to his epilepsy, but again, that was not well publicized as it was another taboo ailment in those days because of stigmas attached to it.
Moreso, Leeke finds no records of a particular incident that would have caused Alexander specific harm in the war. Still, a gunner on the eight-team 155-millimeter howitzer crew could easily be labled “shell-shocked” as a result of “psyche-rending sights and sounds experienced on a battlefield.” Today, it would be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Leeke adds: While “he didn’t say so himself, it helps to explain his later self-medication and hard drinking. … He clearly had emerged from the army as a troubled and damaged man.”
Even if Alexander could have avoided being drafted altogether — he claimed early on during registration that he be declared draft exempt because he was the “sole support of his mother,” and he didn’t marry Aimee until two months into awaiting deployment, which, if done earlier, would likely have delayed his call to duty — neither should be seen as a misstep, Leeke explains on page 112 as to why someone like Alexander would feel no different than anyone else wanting to serve.
America needed the millions of young men like Alexander – the men who sensibly waited until called, then did their duty simply because it was their duty. No country could win a war without them. But in dangerous times people also needed heroes, even if they were inventions or exaggerations. Alexander the Great had to live up to his grand nickname and to the expectations of the writers and fans who had bestowed it. Through no act of intention of his own, the big-time pitcher and reluctant soldier became in the public’s mind a lion-hearted cannoneer, hurling high-explosive shells instead of baseballs. Perhaps in reality Alexander was an amalgam of both.”
Alexander pitched three games for the Cubs in the 1918 season, including Opening Day, before he departed. Even after the war was declared over in November of that year, his unit stayed behind through the new year before he could come back and return pitching to a hero’s welcome in Chicago, back to sporting his reddish-brown pompadour haircut. It’s heroic to see how he continued to perform on the mound with all else crumbling around him, including his marriage that was off, then back on, then …
Even 20 years after his retirement at age 43, allowed to return one last time for the Phillies, Alexander was back at the VA Hospital complaining of nervousness, problems with his skin, ears and stomach, and rheumatism. Although he lived much of his post-career in Southern California, having been treated for skin cancer at L.A. County General Hospital in 1949, he was dead a year later, alone, back in Nebraska, at age 63.
How it goes in the scorebook
A medal of honor for a model approach to providing context based on one’s expertise.
Those anticipating a full Alexander bio need to understand the intent and execution is to magnify this critical time and what it did (or maybe didn’t do) based on record keeping.
It’s also noteworthy that Leeke follows up on Aimee Alexander, who died at a Los Angeles-area nursing home at age 86 in 1979. He said she “tirelessly guarded (her husband’s) reputation for nearly 30 years after his death. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times was among many sportswriters who heard from her whenever she thought Alexander had been neglected in an article or column. Most patiently took her calls. Readers remembered Alexander, not because he had died alone and alcoholic, but because he had accomplished so much for so long, despite his ghosts and dark shadows.” Leeke even pulls a paragraph from a Murray story in 1974: “No one came back from Flanders and World War I shell-shocked and deaf in one ear and went on to win 183 more major-league games. No one made the Baseball Hall of Fame with epilepsy.”
And perhaps no one but Leeke could ever connect those dots for us.
More to cover
== Artist Matt Veasey nicely dressed up this photo of Alexander in action along with this 2014 bio. Compare it to this:
== Babe Ruth, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s first group with Alexander, once said of him: “Just to see Old Pete out there on the mound, with the cocky little undersized cap pulled down over one ear, chewing away at his tobacco and pitching baseballs as easy as pitching hay is enough to take the heart out of a fellow.” In that 1926 Yankees-Cardinals World Series, Game 7 ended with Ruth, after drawing a walk off Alexander, trying to steal second base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth as he represented the tying run — not with Alexander striking out the final batter (whomever No. 15 was) as depicted in “The Winning Season.” Here’s the box score. When Alexander won Games 2 and 6 with complete-game efforts in that World Series, Ruth went 0-for-7 facing him. They met again in the 1928 World Series — Alexander lost Game 2, giving up eight runs and unable to get out of the third inning. Ruth walked and singled against him in that game. Alexander also pitched the last two-plus innings in the Game 4 loss, as the Yankees finished a sweep, and Ruth homered off him in in the eighth inning.
== Alexander’s draft card (displayed at top) comes from The Strawfoot, a New Yorker’s American history blog, in 2018.
== During his March, 2020 bio of Alexander for The Athletic that ranks him No. 26 on the 100 greatest players of all time, Joe Posnaski adds: “ ‘The Winning Team’ is a spectacularly bad movie. No, seriously, as bad as you think it might be, it is so much worse than that. Even if you are a devotee of bad old movies — and I like to think of myself as one of those — ‘The Winning Team’ will break your spirit.”
== The 2001 bio on Alexander, “Ol’ Pete” by Jack Kavanaugh for Diamond Communications was followed up in 2006 with a bio “Wicked Curve” by John C. Skipper, a political reporter for the Mason City (Iowa) Globe Gazette, from McFarland and Company books.
== In July, 2019, The Independent of St. Paul, Neb., covered a musical done on the life of Alexander at the St. Paul American Legion Club as part of the local Grover Cleveland Alexander Days festival.
== University of Nebraska Press also has a bio of Tony Lazerri, the Yankee who Alexander struck out in a moment so critical in the 1926 World Series that it was included on his Hall of Fame plaque. Coming out in April by Lawrence Baldassaro. Another Nebraska title, “Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago & The Cubs During the Jazz Age,” includes plenty of referneces to Alexander in his time with the team post-WWI. Published in 2013 by Roberts Ehrgott.
== The Nebraska Baseball Hall of Fame bio on Alexander notes: “Military service in World War I cost Alex one-plus years after three straight 30-win seasons, and a shell that burst in his ear may have triggered the epilepsy and led to the alcoholism that plagued him for the rest of his days. A gas attack in a training drill eventually cost Mathewson his life. … Grover retired to St. Paul, the town he called home. In August of 1950, battling cancer and other ailments, Grover showed local St. Paul youth the art of pitching. In November after having attended the World Series died in a boarding house at 617 6th Street, St. Paul of heart failure. Alexander a veteran of the first World War, was buried with full Military Honors. His grave is clearly market north of Veteran’s Circle at the Elmwood Cemetery, south of St. Paul.”
== His Nebraska Historical Marker also includes: “Military service and bouts with epilepsy and alcoholism probably limited his career totals.”
== A somewhat recent relatable example of a story of this nature might be that of Roy Gleason, who the Dodgers brought up at the end of the 1963 season, doubled in his only at bat, won a World Series ring that he lost in his time in Vietnam after he was drafted into the army, earned a Purple Heart, and came back to play in the team’s farm system in ’69 and ’70 but couldn’t regain his athletic skills because of the war injuries. His life is told in the 2005 book “Lost In the Sun” with Wallace Wasinack and Mark Langill.