The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

This is the second installment of this series.  You can read Part 1 here.

As a young boy growing up a Mets fan in the 1970’s, I always liked Jerry Grote.  Looking at the back of his baseball card, I realized he wasn’t going to ever win a batting title, but watching him play on WOR-Channel 9, I watched him catch enough to know that he was a true professional behind the plate.

Even with the advances made in modern statistical calculations, including dWAR, it is difficult to put a real value on how much a catcher like Jerry Grote was worth to the Mets while he was their primary catcher from the late ’60’s through the mid ’70’s.  Thumbing through a copy of the 1974 Mets yearbook, I found this entry:

“Fortunes of Mets continued to revolve in great measure around availability of bulldoggish, fiery competitor ranked with elite N.L. receiving corps; Shea troupe’s decline began to set in after Ramon Hernandez pitch fractured his right arm bone in Pittsburgh May 11, while pennant push coincided with return to steady full-time duty July 21.”

Perennial stolen-base leader Lou Brock considered Jerry Grote the toughest catcher he ever tried to steal off of, and Johnny Bench himself once remarked that if he’d been on the same team as Grote, he (Bench) would have been relegated to third base with Grote being the regular catcher.

Joe Torre, who both played for and managed the Mets, once compared Grote to Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.  He said that while Bench and Simmons were hitters that caught, Grote was a catcher who hit.  While that may have been an oversimplification of the abilities and careers these three fine players enjoyed, it does reflect on the high level of respect accorded to Grote by his contemporaries, especially concerning his defense.

Tom Seaver worked with a total of 25 catchers during his MLB career, including Grote, Bench and Carlton Fisk.  No catcher caught Seaver more than Grote did.  Grote was behind the plate for a Seaver start 239 times.  Bench was a distant second at 94 times.  Mets backup catcher Duffy Dyer caught Seaver 55 times.  Seaver made 395 starts as a Met.  Grote was behind the plate in 60% of those starts.  It’s hard to imagine Seaver developing quite the way he did without the defensive prowess of Jerry Grote.

Grote was the Mets starting catcher 1,105 times during his 11 1/2 seasons as a Met (1966-77.)  During that time, he was named to two All-Star teams, led N.L. catchers in putouts in 1970 and ’71, in Range Factor / Game six times, and in Fielding Percentage once.  He never led N.L. catchers in runners caught stealing largely because most base-runners just wouldn’t test his arm.

A .252 career hitter with just 39 career homers, Grote was never a great hitter, but he always viewed his defense as his primary job.  With Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, a bit earlier, Nolan Ryan to catch, the question is, was his reputation partly enhanced by having the good fortune to catch those excellent pitchers, or were those pitchers so highly productive at least in part because they were lucky to have Jerry Grote behind the plate?

Certainly, a young pitching staff has a lot to learn, and a catcher as assertive and competent as Grote could only have reinforced their development.

Grote’s toughness behind the plate was legendary.  Out of San Antonio, Texas, Grote was an old school guy who was not afraid to call out Seaver or any of the other pitchers when they made a mistake.  He often had run-ins with umpires who earned his wrath, including one alleged incident when he allowed a pitched ball to hit an umpire in the mask.

Pitchers who shook him off could expect him to come barking out from behind home plate, so it didn’t happen very often.  And in 1988, seven years after he’d retired as an MLB catcher, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote inserted himself into a game as his team’s catcher when no one else was available.  At age 42, it was the final time he suited up for a game.

Perhaps we should allow Tom Seaver to have the final word regarding the career of Jerry Grote.  Seaver once remarked on national television that even having had Bench and Fisk behind the plate at one time or another in his career, the finest catcher he ever enjoyed as a battery-mate was Jerry Grote.

If Jerry Grote  was good enough to win high praise from none other than Tom Seaver, who are the rest of us to judge?

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14 thoughts on “Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

  1. Timothy Noles on said:

    I grew up in Northern NJ rooting for the Mets and expecially my all time favorite pitcher Tom Seaver and my role model as a catcher Jerry Grote. During this time period most baseball fans, expecially growing up in the NYC area, Thurman Munson was the man and of course Johnny Bench. But to me being a student of catching he was my teacher. He epitomized and defined catching. I watched him every night on WOR channel 9, studying carefully his style. I knew if I played the game like Jerry, I would be successful. On my highschool team I wore no. 15 of course, and they called me Jerry. Beside his intense competitive style I mimicked the following signature Grote style
    1. His catching crouch with his left leg forward so you could get into a deeper low pitch crouch, and also ready to throw to any base.
    2. Rolled the ball up the foul line closer to his dugout, so the pitcher had to go further to chase it.
    3. He threw the ball to third base from the crouch on strike three with nobody on. Seemingly crossing the batters face just inches from his nose.
    4. Threw to second from the crouch dirctly at the pitcher’s head, but amazingly going through all the way to second base to pick off a runner. Ive never seen any catcher do this. I practiced this often. Not an easy thing to do.
    5. Pound the glove waiting for the pitch while easing into the perfect crouch for the pitch location. He moved his glove ever so slightly around the plate. He was an artist at doing this. The Braves catching style with Maddux, Glavine, etc was blantly crouching outside the catchers box for an outside pitch, which would be considered illegal in Grote’s day. I hated to see catchers do this, when I saw Grote do it legally and ever so subtlely.
    6. He threw with his whole shoulder while curling the ball behind his head, throwing hard with precision because of his perfect footwork.
    7. Throwing the ball back to the pitcher immediately from the crouch accurately to the pitcher to keep the pitcher in a rythm. He knew the pitcher had an advantage of keeping the batter in the box, giving him no time to regroup. Jerry never got up from the crouch, except on contact he would hustle somewhere t to back up a throw from an infielder or outfielder).
    8. Call the curve ball 0r off speed pitch when its least expected, not just when you are ahead in the count. He was a master of calling a game.

    Jerry should have written a book on being a catcher. I loved to watch him catch.

    • My God, man, you should write a book yourself on Jerry Grote. I thought I was a big fan of his, but you blow me out of the water. Not sure I ever read such a detailed study of any catcher before. This is the kind of comment I look forward to.
      Thanks very much for adding this comment to my post,
      Bill
      BTW, do you coach baseball? You probably should.

  2. Jerry Grote is an appropriate name for a catcher: short and compact and unpretentious. It does sound like a guy who might put himself into a game out of necessity, long after his career was supposed to end.

  3. Glen Russell Slater on said:

    I’m glad that you wrote about Grote. Good ol’ Jerry. I’m trying to picture his idiosyncrasies. Remember how he used to always gather up dirt as he came up to bat? Seems to me he always went to the pine tar rack a lot, too. Very fidgety at the plate. I was at a game at Shea in 1976 (with my father and one of my stickball pals) against the Dodgers. In that game, two Mets hit home runs—- Steve Garvey and Jerry Grote, who pulled one into either the mezzanine or the upper deck straight down the line in left field. It’s funny; he was normally a punch hitter— great at hitting behind the runner— but the home runs that I recall of his were always pulled and hit very, very well. I remember him hitting one off his former battery-mate, Tug McGraw, in 1975, and Grote pulled a high and long home run down the left field line.

    The other thing I remember, of course, was his gung ho style of catching, always flipping that mitt around while waiting for the pitch from the pitcher. It seems to me that he also pounded the glove, too, but I could be wrong.

    I had the thrill of my baseball life (at least as a spectator) on Old-Timers game in 1976. I was with a bunch of my friends and we were sitting in the mezzanine, I believe, down the third base line. I sneaked down by myself after a few innings and got the second seat behind the screen! Tom Seaver pitching for the Mets, Joaquin Andujar for the Houston Astros. What a thrill! Seaver pitching, Grote catching, and I had the best seat in the house to watch Tom Terrific’s classic windup, with the ball seemingly coming right at me. Some guy on the Astros hit a pop foul to the screen, and Grote ran like hell in our direction, and ran out of room at the screen, right in front of us. Boy, did HE look intense!

    Glen Russell Slater

    • Wow, Glen. You have far more direct memories of Grote than I do! I simply remember his intensity as a catcher, and how confident and aggressive he seemed behind the plate. Funny thing is, all of my memories of him are about his defense. I don’t think I remember a single at bat of his.
      Thanks for sharing those memories,
      Bill

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  5. The thing about Grote that always pops into my mind was how well he tracked pop-ups. He also would go five rows deep into the stands to catch one.

    Defensively I never saw anyone better, he had the entire package.

  6. I`ve heard pitchers say they don`t really care who catches. It was most often during spring training after a trade brought in a new catcher. I wonder if it has more to do with some catchers being bad communicators, ego maniacs, space cadets, and what not with most of the others simply doing the job. Or maybe some pitchers are superstitious or prima donnas.

    • It’s probably true that some pitchers don’t care much, but I would guess most have at least some preference. I know that Greg Maddux did not like throwing to Javy Lopez of the Braves. In fact, I remember watching part of one game where Maddux was visibly angry at the game Lopez was calling. After that, I believe he usually worked with Eddie Perez, if I’m not mistaken.
      Thanks, man
      Bill

  7. I remember that late in his career, Grote was playing third base for the Royals–at one point, Jim Frey said Grote was his starter at third; he ended up being released less than a week later. Jim Frey, ladies and gentlemen.

    • I also believe that Grote somehow managed 7 RBI’s in one game for the Royals at about that time. I think he even stole a base in that game. Must have been saving it up after all those years playing in the Shea Stadium Canyon.
      Cheers,
      Bill

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