If you twist my arm, slightly mind you, I might just claim that Groh is the single greatest defensive third baseman of all-time. The man’s career fielding average is a whopping 22 points higher than the league average: Brooks Robinson’s is just 19 points higher than league average. Once, in 1924, Groh had a .983 fielding average (unheard of for a third baseman) for a full season’s workload. The great Brooks Robinson never exceeded .980 in any given season in his career.
Groh was that commonality: a player that his original team gave up on too soon and spent the rest of his days terrorizing his original club until that team got him back. In Heinie’s case, it, his original team, was John McGraw’s Giants. When Groh broke into the Majors in 1912, McGraw already had an established third baseman in Buck Herzog so Heinie bounced around the infield just to get some playing time. His playing increased drastically when he was packaged in a deal (a steal for Cincy) with underrated pitcher Red Ames and outfielder Josh Devore for pitcher Art Fromme, whose better days were behind him. Fromme pitched one full year with the Giants while Groh became one of the top hot corner men of the late Deadball Era.
Joining the Reds early in the 1913 season, Heinie smashed the pill at a .282 clip for Cincy, playing primarily at second base. The following year Heinie led NL second basemen in batting average and slugging average. It was his last year as a second baseman.
Groh moved to the hot corner in 1915 and fielded at a .969 clip while registering 153 putouts and 280 assists. At the plate he was just as good, leading all third basemen with a .290 batting average and 170 hits. The little fellow who employed the “bottle bat” became a star in Cincy. His “bottle bat” was a bizarre instrument that resembled a paddle more so than a baseball bat. The handle was thin, whittled down by Groh to accommodate his small hands, while the barrel was thick. Groh choked up on his “bottle bat” and punched at the ball, not swinging from the heels like folks do nowadays.
Groh’s 84 walks led the NL in 1916 while pacing NL hot corner custodians in runs scored. Although a fine ballplayer, Groh established himself as one of the game’s elite in 1917 when the led the senior circuit in hits (182), doubles (39) and on-base percentage (.385). Groh and the great Rogers Hornsby were the only NL infielders to slug over .400 in ’17. However, with World War I underway, Groh was eager to enlist in the Armed Forces and passed his physical. The story goes that after Groh passed his physical, he shook hands with the Army doctor who conducted the exam. Once the doctor got a look at Groh’s digits – which were broken, mangled and deformed from playing in the days of crude gloves – he was rejected for military duty.
Since Uncle Sam rejected Heinie he was able to play the 1918 season and led the NL in runs scored, doubles and on-base percentage. Groh finished third in batting and was the only .300 hitting infielder in the NL during the war interrupted season.
1919 is the year of infamy as far as baseball is concern and Heinie Groh was right in the middle of it. As one of the Reds best players, Groh led his team to an NL pennant and a World Series showdown with the White Sox of Charlie Comiskey. Underpaid and possessing a collective misanthropic mindset, the Sox rolled over for the Reds in the Series and Heinie won his first championship.
After 1919, the official end of The Deadball Era, Groh got to take his cuts at a new, more livelier ball, but his stats didn’t take a sharp upward swing like many batters of the time. Employing his bottle bat, Heinie’s game never was based on power. His method was striking the ball out of the reach of the defense – not over the fence. In 1920, the first year of The Lively Ball Era, Heinie hit .298 while leading all third basemen in walks.
A brief holdout interrupted his 1921 season. Heinie payed in just 97 games but hit a robust .331. Disgruntled with their star third baseman’s holdout, the Reds shipped Groh back to John McGraw who regretted dealing the “bottle bat” man away years ago. The trade worked wonders for Groh who went on to three straight World Series with the Giants.
In the 1922 World Series, Groh led all participants with nine hits and a .474 average. He led the Giants to another World Series in 1923, which they lost to the Yankees. In 1924, Heinie finished second to Hall of famer Pie Traynor in hits among NL third basemen while his Giants copped their third straight NL pennant. However, in the ’24 World Series, Groh was injured and appeared in just one Fall Classic contest which opened the door for rookie Freddie Lindstrom to start at the hot corner during the Series. Fate had it that two grounders bounded over Lindstrom, thus dealing defeat to the Giants by the hands of the Washington Senators and a pebble.
Groh’s 1924 season was his last great campaign. He played sparingly in 1925 and ’26 before catching on with the Pirates as a reserve in 1927. The Pirates, employing the batting wizardry of the Waner Brothers, went to the World Series and Heinie’s final Major League at-bat came in the Fall Classic.
A defensive wiz, Groh would often exceed 250 assists and 150 putouts at the hot corner while leading his peers in fielding by substantial margins. The Gold Glove Award was not around in Groh’s day, but had it been, he would have had the market cornered on the hardware like Greg Maddux did during his career.
G 1,676/R 920/H 1,774/2B 308/3B 87/RBI 566/BB 696/SO 345/SB 180/BA .292/SA .384