.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Kevin Braun
May 22, 2009
“I was so much better at basketball, there’s no comparison,” said Groat. “Baseball was work.”
History shows Groat could lay claim to excellence in both sports. He was the shortstop on a World Series winner in Pittsburgh in 1960, the year he also was National League MVP and batting champion. He also played short for another world champion, the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals.
But if he were to rank achievements, the diamond defers to the hardwood. Being inducted in 2007 into the National College Basketball Hall of Fame, he said, was “the greatest honor I ever received, especially for the sport that I thought I played the best, anyway.”
Groat starred at guard for the Duke University basketball team, earning first team All-American honors for two years. He also was named an All-American in baseball for the two years he played that sport at Duke. “They advertised me as Duke’s Double All-American,” said Groat, a native of the Pittsburgh area who still lives there.
Groat, who signed a five-year bonus contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, actually played in the NBA for the 1952-1953 season. He was flown by private plane from Durham, N.C., where he was finishing his degree, to games he was able to play around his class schedule.
"I should have been killed 14 times, with some of the trips we made,” Groat joked. “I’m the only guest on the plane, and there’s one pilot. He has a heart attack, it’s all over.”
After graduating, Groat served in the Army during 1953 and 1954, as many athletes did at the time. He had a contract for 1955 to return to the Pistons, making more money than he did in baseball. But his basketball career hit a dead end when he sat down with Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey before 1955 spring training.
“All of a sudden Mr. Rickey would not let me go back to basketball,” Groat recalled. “I still had two years left on that bonus contract, and my father would not let me break that contract.
“It was a tremendous disappointment. Many a night in 1955 and ’56 when I was hitting. 260 and .270, I was walking the streets thinking I had made a horrible mistake.”
In a baseball career that lasted from 1952 to 1967 (with those two years out for military service), Groat batted .286. His career high of .325 came in 1960, when the Pirates beat the Yankees in a dramatic seven-game World Series, winning on Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning homer.
“We had such a phenomenal year, we didn’t think anyone could beat us,” he said. “We’d come from behind 40-some times from the seventh inning on. That becomes contagious. You pretty much believe you’re not supposed to lose.”
Groat continued to shine for the Pirates in 1961 and ’62, then was dealt to St. Louis. “I had three wonderful years in a Cardinal uniform,” he recalled. “Even though I won the batting title in 1960 and the MVP in 1960, 1963 was, in my opinion, the greatest year I ever had in baseball. Why wouldn’t it be? I hit in front of Stan Musial all year. Who was gonna walk me to get to Stan Musial?” Groat hit .319 that year with a career high 73 RBIs.
The 1964 Cardinals got hot in September and won the pennant with the help of a late collapse by the Philadelphia Phillies. Then St. Louis vanquished the Yankees in the World Series.
Groat sees many similarities between his two world championship teams. “Both were excellent base-running teams. Both were excellent defensive teams. Both were not what you would call power-hitting ball clubs.”
Groat also played with the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants.
Groat believes people identify with him more as a Pirate than a Cardinal because of his lifelong ties to the Pittsburgh area. “Pittsburgh fans have been great to me, whether I was wearing a gray (road) uniform or a white one,” he said. “This is a very special city. A lot of guys who come in here and play settled here and live here the rest of their lives.
“The Pirate alumni association is the most active alumni association in all of baseball,” said Groat. “Mazeroski, Elroy Face, Bob Friend, we all live here in the Greater Pittsburgh area.” The group does a lot of charity work and holds an annual alumni golf tournament at Champion Lakes Golf Course (www.pagolf.com) in Ligonier, Pa., a course Groat and Pirate teammate Jerry Lynch designed during their playing days. “We always said, ‘Only two dumb baseball players would be dumb enough to build a golf course in Arnold Palmer’s back yard,’ ” Groat joked. At one time his handicap was down to two, but now it’s 15.
The golf course only takes up part of Groat’s time. He has three daughters and six grandchildren, many of them who are involved in one sport or another.
Groat maintains his hoop connection through broadcasting University of Pittsburgh basketball games, which he’s done for 30 years. “I’d love to broadcast the Final Four,” he said. Unfortunately, the Panthers came up just short of that this year, losing to Villanova in the East Regional finals.
Kevin Braun, a lifelong baseball fan, is a freelance writer in Atlanta, GA.
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