January 26, 2018
My Eli Grba Story & A Review of His Book
In the spring of 1993, I was sitting in the basement of a church in Nashville, Tennessee. The room was set up for a children’s Sunday school class, but this was a Tuesday night and there were no children in attendance. The space was instead occupied by a group of adults sitting in chairs arranged in an imperfect circle. We were there having a casual meeting to share our experiences on living sober. At least that was the idea.
Having been a Tuesday-night regular at this spot for about three years, the faces in the room were familiar to me except for a middle-aged gentleman in the chair next to mine. This was not unusual of course. New faces were part of the goal of these meetings. In this particular case the man was a visitor from out of town. He had been sober for a few years, and he had some hope, strength and experience to share.
Introducing himself as “Eli,” I noticed he was wearing what at first glance appeared to be a fancy “class” ring on his rather over-sized hand. But, as something of a baseball historian, I recognized it as an American League Championship ring. If the ring was legit, I figured he must be Eli Grba, a pitcher for the Yankees and Angels in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
After the meeting was over I shook his hand and asked if he was indeed Eli Grba (mispronouncing his name in the process—having been a toddler when he played, I had only read his name, never heard it. But he did not correct me. After all, he had played for Casey Stengel and with Yogi Berra—mispronunciation artists.) He laughed softly and said that I probably knew him from his bubblegum card, as at that time baseball card collecting was a popular hobby. He wasn’t far off the mark. I did have his card, but I had also read books in which he was mentioned.
We chatted for about thirty minutes before he was finally able to break away and head for his hotel. Mr. Grba (it’s pronounced “Ger-bah,” with the accent on the second syllable) was very personable and seemed genuinely glad to swap some baseball stories as well as share a little bit about his sobriety with me. If I were to sum up my impression of the man, the word would be “humility”—and the humility he demonstrated was far deeper than modesty about having been a friend and teammate of Mickey Mantle’s. In fact, I’m not sure he was modest about that fact. Who would be?
So that’s my Eli Grba story.
When I recently came across Baseball’s Fallen Angel by Eli Grba with Douglas Williams, naturally I clicked the “buy” button without hesitation. Given the title and the subtitle, A Major Leaguer’s Life Story of High Expectations, Hidden Pitfalls, and His Ongoing Fight in Recovery, I expected the book to strongly focus on alcoholism and sobriety—and in subtle ways it does just that. But this is a book about being a baseball player striving to make the Major Leagues and then working to stay there. Grba is not trying to use his time in the spotlight as a chance to preach from the recovery pulpit. It’s a real-life baseball book first and foremost.
And yet the greatest strength of Baseball’s Fallen Angel is that the author demonstrates the wisdom of a recovering alcoholic who has applied himself to seeking growth in all things without losing focus on the story. For instance, when Grba describes any circumstance that might involve being unfairly treated by a team owner or manager, he always takes responsibility for his role in the situation. On the mound Grba was a skilled pitcher who knew how to complement his overpowering fastball with a repertoire of other pitches; similarly, as a writer he interweaves the lessons of recovery with the events of his career as a baseball player. He takes the reader inside the author’s view from childhood pick-up games through the final pitch-for-pay. The realities of life are here too, but always with baseball as the central theme.
And a quick word on the writing: Eli does an excellent job of telling a good story, but he wisely has a writer serving as the literary closer. Douglas Williams pulls the story together and makes sure the words flow smoothly in a prose style that keeps the reader engaged.
The bottom line is that Baseball’s Fallen Angel: A Major Leaguer’s Life Story of High Expectations, Hidden Pitfalls, and His Ongoing Fight in Recovery is well-worth the read. If you enjoy baseball memoirs or histories—especially those that take place before steroids and multi-million dollar salaries—you’ll love this one.
Eli Grba packed a lot of notoriety into a five-year major league career. First, his unusual last name, with its lack of vowels in the middle of the word, got immediate attention. Second, he appeared in the 1960 World Series as a pinch-runner with the New York Yankees after going 6-4 as a pitcher in the regular season. Third, he was the first pick by the Los Angeles Angels in the 1960 expansion draft and threw the first pitch in franchise history (Grba got the win in the Angels’ first game). He spent his last three seasons in the majors with the Angels.
He was a pretty good hitter for a pitcher, with a lifetime batting average of .219. In 160 career at-bats in the majors, he had 5 doubles and 4 home runs.
He was first signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1952 and was in the minors with the Salisbury Rocots in 1953, Corning Red Sox in 1954, San Jose Red Sox in 1955 and San Francisco Seals in 1956. He was traded to the Yankees before the 1957 season but was in the military in 1957 and 1958, then appeared with the Richmond Virginians in 1959 and 1960. In 1964 he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs – by then he seemed to be having difficulties seeing the catcher’s signals through his thick spectacles.
He was a pitching coach for various minor league teams from 1982-1988, and was a minor league manager in 1989 and 1990. He was a pitching coach again in 1991, and scouted from 1992-1997.