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His name was Robert Moses Grove. They called him Lefty, and in the late 1920s and early '30s, when he starred for the Philadelphia Athletics, they called him baseball's greatest pitcher. There were other words for Lefty, too, ones that described his moods, his personality, his temper: stormy, dour, explosive.
And now there he was, sitting on the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y., motionless in a high-backed rocker, gazing out upon the waters of Otsego Lake. He was silver-haired now, and bulkier than he appeared in those old photographs in which he posed with Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons and his other teammates from Connie Mack's championship teams of 1929-31.
Invited, as is the annual custom, with the rest of the Hall of Fame members to attend Cooperstown's 1974 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Grove was one of the true ornaments of the occasion, a legendary pitcher, a legendary character. I stood there staring at him, mustering the courage to approach. It wasn't that he'd never heard of me. I'd contacted him a few weeks earlier at his home in Ohio to ask if we might talk in Coopers-town. I explained that I was working on a book of baseball nostalgia. "Sure," he shouted into the phone. "I'll see you there." Then he hung up. He hadn't sounded interested or uninterested, friendly or unfriendly. He had just sounded like Lefty. But he had said yes.
Now he saw me out of the corner of his eye as I approached. He kept looking straight ahead, as if hoping I would keep walking. He frowned when I stopped and introduced myself. I reminded him of our appointment. "Thought you were one of those autograph hounds," he said sourly as I sat down in the rocker next to him and began to set up my tape recorder. "That's why I came out here. Must've given my signature to a thousand people this afternoon. On books, pictures, baseballs, paper napkins." I could hear the famous Grove choler in his voice. I had to agree that it was a bother and a nuisance.
But he was right. Our conversation ran for almost an hour, and during that time we must have been interrupted at least 20 times by autograph seekers, young and old, male and female. He obliged them all, handing up the prized scrawl with a scowl and a brusque nod. "Don't know what they do with them," he said. "End up throwing them away probably."
And then the interview was over. He had been patient and responsive, telling me about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Walter Johnson and all the other luminaries of his era, among whom he had stood as tall as any. As I packed up and prepared to leave I got the feeling he was glad to see me go, that I had just been a long interruption of his reveries. I thanked him, received the same brusque nod as the others and departed.
When I reached the lobby, I had a sudden horrifying thought. I had promised to bring my older brother a souvenir of my meeting with his boyhood idol—Grove's autograph. In my pocket was an index card brought along for that use. I turned around and looked at Grove. He was still sitting there, as motionless as before, gazing out upon the lake. I hesitated, biting my lip. I'll be damned, I told myself, if I'm going to walk out there and ask him for his autograph. But still....
I looked around the lobby. Standing by herself was a little girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old. She was wearing a blue dress with white buttons. She had neatly brushed blonde hair and an angelic face with wide, wondering eyes. She was adorable. I decided to send her into the lion's den.
I went up to her and asked her to do me a favor. Then I handed her the card and a pen and pointed to the lone figure on the porch. She took the pen and card and walked dutifully out to the porch. I moved out of sight, walking to the middle of the lobby, and waited.
My little angel of mercy returned a few minutes later. Still wordless, she handed me the card. I thanked her. When I looked at the card, there it was: Grove's autograph. Beneath it was a P.S. that read: "Didn't have the guts to ask me yourself, did you?"