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?