Richard Morrow Groat (November 4, 1930 – April 27, 2023) was an American professional baseball and basketball player who was an eight-time All-Star shortstop and two-time World Series champion in Major League Baseball.
He rates as one of the most accomplished two-sport athletes in American sports history, a college All-America in baseball and basketball as well as one of only 13 to play both at the professional level.
Groat was the National League Most Valuable Player with the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, when he won the batting title with a .325 average. He finished his career with a .286 batting average and 2,138 hits with four National League teams in 14 seasons.
Groat was more naturally gifted in basketball, which was his real passion. The 5-foot-11 guard attended Duke University as a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, where he was a two-time All-America, two-time McKelvin Award winner as the Southern Conference athlete of the year and the first basketball player to have his number (10) retired in school history.
Groat was selected for the 1950–51 Helms National Player of the Year Award, when he became the first player to lead the nation in points (26.0) and assists (7.6) per game in one season.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a beloved member of the Pirates family and Pittsburgh community,” Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement, calling Groat “a great player and an even better person.” – AP
In 1952, the Fort Wayne Pistons selected Groat at the No. 3 pick of the National Basketball Association draft, but his early success was interrupted by a two-year stint in the armed forces. When Pirates management forced him to make a career decision upon his return, he chose his hometown team and Major League Baseball largely because of financial considerations.
For seven seasons from 1956 to 1962, Groat teamed with future Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski to give the Pirates one of the most efficient keystone combinations in baseball history. He led the NL in double plays a record five times, putouts four times and assists twice. He ranked ninth in major league history in games played at shortstop (1,877) and fourth in double plays (1,237). He also was among the NL career leaders in putouts (10th, 3,505), assists (8th, 5,811), and total chances (9th, 9,690).
In 2011, Groat was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. In doing so, he became the first person to be admitted to the college basketball and baseball halls of fame.
Pro baseball career
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Groat sliding into third base for Duke (1952)
In his formative years, many scouts were unimpressed by Groat’s foot speed and arm strength in particular. In college, he was regularly clocked at 4.1 seconds from home plate to first base, which was merely average for his size.
After Groat completed his junior year of college, general manager Branch Rickey offered him a chance to play professional baseball and complete his degree in the off-season. He respectfully declined out of deference to Duke and its scholarship commitment. At the same time, Groat assured Rickey that, if the same contract offer was extended one year later, he would accept it.
The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants also expressed interest in Groat, but Pittsburgh had the home field advantage. He had always hoped to play in near his hometown of Swissvale, a mere six miles from Forbes Field, which the Pirates called home.
When Rickey repeated his offer in 1952 as expected, Groat signed his first professional contract believed to be worth $35,000 to $40,000, which included a lucrative $25,000 bonus. The 21-year-old joined the parent club on June 17 in New York, and without a day of minor league experience, he batted a team-high .284 for the remainder of the season.
After his MLB debut, Groat embarked on his second career, this one with the Pistons of the NBA. Four months into the season, he enlisted in the Army. He chose that time so his release would coincide with the start of baseball training camp two years later. During his military stint, he led Fort Belvoir teams to worldwide Army championships in baseball and basketball, the first time a single base had achieved the feat in the same year. He hit .362 on the diamond and averaged 35 points per game on the court.
When Groat returned to the Pirates in 1955, he led the last-place team in hits (139) and the NL in putouts at shortstop. One year later, he set a dubious MLB record – most at-bats (520) without a home run or stolen base in one season. In an attempt to improve their tenuous relationship, manager Bobby Bragan named him team captain midway through the season. Groat hit a .273 overall, but after his average tailed off in the final two months, he spent more time on his mechanics in the off-season.
Joe Brown was Pirates general manager in the final seven seasons that Groat spent with the team. In a 1961 Sport magazine story, Brown described his value like this: “(Groat) sets an example for the rest of the team. If he goes 5-for-5 and the team loses, he’s unhappy. If he goes zero-for-5 and the team wins, he’s happy. He’s a constant reminder to the other players that a fellow can make himself a star without having all the tools.”
At the outset of the 1957 season, Groat hit .319 in April and .370 in May, which put him in early contention for the NL batting title. He finished with a .315 average (fifth in the league) and a career-high seven home runs. On September 29, he threw out the final Giants batter in the last game they played at the Polo Grounds before moving to San Francisco in 1958.
In 1958, Groat hit .300 and led the NL in putouts and double plays, as the Pirates surprised the baseball world with a second-place finish. It marked the first time that they had placed higher than seventh in nine years.
While the Pirates failed to build on the momentum in 1959, Groat was selected to an All-Star team for the first time in his career. He hit .275 and paced the NL in putouts and double plays once again. The team finished last in home runs in the league, which convinced Brown to pursue a power hitter in the offseason. One potential trade would have sent Groat to the Kansas City Athletics in exchange for Roger Maris, a highly regarded 24-year-old outfielder. Manager Danny Murtaugh opposed the move.
In 1960, as the team captain, Groat became the first Pirate to be selected Most Valuable Player since Paul Waner in 1927. He hit .325 to become the first right-handed Pirates hitter to win the batting title since Honus Wagner in 1911. He sat out 20 days after his right wrist was fractured by a Lew Burdette pitch on September 6. Originally, Groat was expected to be sidelined for at least one month but he lobbied hard for an early return in order to be better prepared for the expected trip to the World Series.
Groat was considered one of the most difficult hitters to defend against in his era and a master of the hit-and-run play, a skill that he developed under Pirates batting coach George Sisler, who was a future Hall of Fame hitter back in the day. He walked more than he struck out in six of his 13 full seasons
1960 World Series
While Groat hit a mere .214 against the Yankees in the 1960 Fall Classic, partly because of his fractured wrist, he made contributions in three of the four victories. In the series opener, Groat tied the score on a double in the first inning. He came around on a Bob Skinner base hit to give the underdog Pirates an early 2–1 advantage. The lead held up, 6–4, as Groat and Mazeroski teamed up on a double play for the final outs.
In the fifth game, with his team ahead, 3–1, Groat doubled to lead off the third inning. Roberto Clemente followed with an RBI single for what proved to be the decisive run. The Pirates went on to a 5–3 triumph that gave them a 3–2 lead in the series.
In Game 7, the Pirates trailed 7–4 in the seventh inning. Groat delivered an RBI single to ignite a five-run rally that staked his team to a 9–7 advantage. The Pirates went on to win 10–9 on Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in the ninth inning.
Trade to the Cardinals
In 1961, Groat batted .275, and teamed with Mazeroski to lead the league in double plays. One season later, he improved to a .294 batting average and finished third in the league in doubles (34). He also led the NL in putouts, assists, and double plays.
While the 1962 Pirates bounced back with a 93-win season, Brown had grown concerned about a pitching staff that relied heavily on veterans whose best days were behind them. The 32-year-old Groat had an inkling that he would be traded while he still had value, and his fears were realized in November, when he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Don Cardwell, a 15-game winner the previous season. Groat was deeply hurt by the trade, having hoped to become a Pirates coach and possibly manager after his retirement as a player. He subsequently severed ties with the organization until a 1990 reunion of the 1960 World Series team.
Fully intent to prove that Brown had made an egregious mistake, Groat responded with a vengeance in the 1963 campaign. In his best season in the big leagues, he set career marks in RBI (73), hits (201), doubles (43), triples (11), on-base percentage (.377), and slugging percentage (.450) to finish second to Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax in the NL Most Valuable Player vote. His .319 batting average ranked fourth in the league, seven points behind the leader Tommy Davis (Dodgers).
While Groat produced a career-high 73 RBI in his Cardinals debut, manager Johnny Keane became convinced that he could be even more valuable as a run-producer. The veteran batted either third, fifth or sixth in the order on a regular basis in the 1964 season, when he drove in 70 runs. He hit .292, played consistent defense, and continued to mentor younger teammates in a leadership role, as the Cardinals captured their first NL pennant in 18 years. He earned the final All-Star selection of his career and led the league in assists and double plays once again.
1964 World Series
For the second time in five years, Groat played against the Yankees in the World Series, this time as a member of the Cardinals. And once again, his team prevailed in seven games.
In the crucial fourth game, Groat was involved in one of the turning points in the series. The Cardinals trailed 3–0 in the sixth inning and were on the verge of a 3–1 deficit in the series. With two runners on base, he hit a ground ball to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who made an errant relay toss near the bag to load the bases. Ken Boyer followed with a grand slam home run that held up for a 4–3 victory. Three innings earlier, Groat tagged out Mickey Mantle on a pickoff play that thwarted a two-on, two-out threat.
Groat reached base on a fielder’s choice groundout and scored on Tim McCarver’s three-run homer in the 10th inning of Game 5, which saw the Cardinals score a 5–2 victory. He had an RBI groundout in the 7–5 win in the Game 7 clincher.
Statistically, the 1965 season was the worst for Groat as a regular in his career. Afterward, as part of a six-player transaction, he was traded with catcher Bob Uecker and first baseman Bill White to the Philadelphia Phillies, whose manager Gene Mauch had been impressed by his skills and leadership for years. Groat hit .265 in his only full season with the team, after which his contract was sold to the San Francisco Giants in June of the following year. He spent the final months of the 1967 season mostly as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-hitter before he announced his retirement.
In his career, Groat totaled 829 runs scored, 707 runs batted in, 352 doubles, 67 triples and 39 home runs in 1,929 games. He helped turn 1,237 double plays at shortstop, the 14th most at the position in MLB history …