Second in an occasional series on the 100th anniversary of the Phillies' first pennant.
The late-inning drama that produced the Yankees' 3-2 win in Game 3 of their 1950 World Series matchup with the Phillies was enough to occupy the sportswriters in Yankee Stadium's press box. The strange visitor seated in a back-row corner hardly crossed their radar.
Some of those who noticed the old man were spooked. His right ear was missing. His face was an angry red, his scowl embedded. A thick shock of white hair was as disheveled as the clothes he wore. And his hands fluttered like the outfield flags.
Those in the crowded workspace who inquired about this beaten-down intruder were stunned to learn that he had been a major-league superstar, a pitcher with 373 victories, who in 1938 was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame's third induction class.
One hundred years ago this summer, when the 1915 Phillies captivated the city by winning their first pennant, Grover Cleveland Alexander, the player most responsible, seemed to be on top of the world. Not long afterward, the pitcher would begin a long and steep descent toward an unthinkable hell.
The man Philadelphians lovingly dubbed "Alexander the Great " suffered shell shock and a serious hearing loss in World War I. The trauma triggered epilepsy that afflicted him the rest of his life. Out of baseball, he endured severe financial hardships, was divorced twice by the only woman he ever loved, and, wracked by guilt and depression, died alone and broke in a Nebraska hotel room.
To cope, he drank to excess, as his father and grandfather had, a failing so severe that while it was whitewashed in a 1952 Hollywood biopic starring Ronald Reagan, it remains attached to his legacy. Many still believe he was drunk or seriously hung over during his signature moment, a bases-loaded strikeout of the Yankees' Tony Lazzeri in the 1926 World Series.
"It's cold here today," a despondent Alexander wrote his ex-wife, Amy, a few days before his death in November 1950, "and we had rain all day yesterday. So it looks like [I'll] just stay in and think of the past."
The morning following his Yankee Stadium visit, the 63-year-old Alexander was featured in a Hartford Courant story. It lamented that "one of baseball's immortals" had been virtually ignored at the game.
"I doubt that I felt sorrier for any man who ever worked for me," said legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey, "than I did for Alexander."
One of 13 children of a poor St. Paul, Neb., farm couple, Alexander saw baseball as the quickest way out of a town he came to despise.
"I feel the end is near," Alexander correctly surmised in a 1950 letter, written in a St. Paul hotel, "and I don't want it to come here."
A hard thrower with a windmill motion and unhittable curve, Alexander was playing for Syracuse in 1910 when the Phillies purchased him for $750. He debuted in the majors in 1911, throwing five no-hit innings in a City Series exhibition against the Athletics, defending American League champs.
That year, for the 79-73 Phillies, the spectacular rookie recorded 28 wins, 31 complete games, 367 innings pitched, and seven shutouts.
By 1915, he was a local and national sensation. As Pat Moran's Phils charged to a pennant, Alexander accumulated mind-blowing numbers. He went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA and 241 strikeouts. He threw 3761/3 innings, 36 complete games, 12 shutouts, and four one-hitters.
"He could pitch into a tin can," sportswriter Grantland Rice said. "His control was the finest I have ever seen."
On Oct. 8, 1915, before an overflow Game 1 crowd at Baker Bowl, Alexander outpitched the Red Sox' Ernie Shore in a 3-1 Phillies victory, even though, according to the New York Times, "he had little or nothing." Alexander would lose Game 3, and it would be 65 years before the Phils won another Series game.
In seven Phillies seasons, Alexander had 190 victories. Then, with World War I raging, owner William Baker made one of the worst deals ever.
Either because he needed the money or because he feared Alexander was about to be drafted, Baker sent the 30-year-old pitcher and catcher Bill Killefer to the Cubs on Dec. 11, 1917. In return, the Phils got Pickles Dillhoefer, Mike Prendergast, and $55,000.
Alexander would win 183 games for the Cubs and Cardinals before returning to the Phillies as a washed-up 43-year-old in 1930. He went 0-3 with a 9.14 ERA and retired to his booze.
Teetotaling executives such as Rickey and alcoholic managers such as Joe McCarthy had tried without luck to monitor and curtail his drinking habit.
"His only enemy was himself," Rickey said. " 'I don't want to drink,' he told me. 'But once I taste that first sip I'm lost.' "
As the drinking and epilepsy worsened, his demeanor grew more surly and erratic. Teammates described him as "grumpy," "ill-mannered," and "unapproachable." His wife, who would twice marry and divorce him, admitted he was "beyond redemption."
A final burst of fame came in the '26 World Series. His Cardinals were leading, 3-2, in the seventh inning of Game 7, but the Yankees loaded the bases. With Lazzeri at bat, manager Rogers Hornsby summoned Alexander.
Nearing 40, he'd earned complete-game wins in Games 2 and 6 and assumed his work was done. Differing accounts suggest he was either drunk that afternoon or recovering from a massive hangover. When he reached the mound, Hornsby wordlessly tossed him the ball.
"Rog knew there wasn't anything he could tell me," Alexander recalled.
Lazzeri lined a 1-1 pitch into the outfield stands, just foul. Alexander then struck him out with his curve and held New York scoreless over the final two innings.
It didn't stop the drinking, and in 1929 the Cardinals sent him to a sanitarium. On the day of his scheduled return, Alexander was a no-show.
After his brief Phillies stint, the minor-league Toledo Mud Hens signed him. Fourteen thousand fans showed up for his debut. Alexander didn't.
Destitute, rootless, and in ill health, he was pitching for the traveling House of David team in 1938 when he got the call from the Hall of Fame. Trying to capitalize, he appeared at Hubert's Museum, a tacky Times Square flea circus. Paid to talk primarily about his Lazzeri strikeout, he shared the stage with acrobats and freaks.
"The last two decades of Alexander's life are the picture of a man spinning out of control," wrote Ian Finkel in his Society of American Baseball Research biography.
In 1941, the pitcher's wife divorced him a second time. In 1946, he suffered a heart attack. A year later, he was seriously hurt in an epilepsy-related fall.
That was the last anyone saw Alexander in public until he turned up at Yankee Stadium in October 1950 to watch his old team battle the Yankees.
Ignored, he returned to his lonely room in Nebraska, where in his final weeks he conveyed a growing gloom in heartfelt letters to his ex-wife.
"It looks like I am here for another week at least," he wrote. "I did get out of a few bad innings in my baseball career so I still have hopes."
Those hopes were quickly extinguished. On Nov. 4, after mailing a letter, he collapsed in his room - perhaps the result of another seizure - and died.
At his Cooperstown acceptance speech in 1939, Alexander urged baseball to adopt a pension for players like him. It didn't happen until 1965.
"They gave me a tablet in the Hall of Fame," Alexander said. "But I can't eat a tablet."