More famous for other pursuits, Howdy Groskloss had two brief moments as a footnote in baseball history. In the 1930s, Groskloss was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates – a teammate of the Waner Brothers, Pie Traynor, Arky Vaughn, and other great Steel City players. Later in life – much later actually – for a few months the 100-year-old Groskloss was the oldest living baseball player, having lived to see his 100th birthday in his luxurious retirement home in Vero Beach, FL.
Born on April 10, 1906, Groskloss was the son of an opera singer and learned at an early age to play the violin. His father also was a huge baseball fan and a friend of Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss. Groskloss himself was a fine athlete – and Dreyfuss actually offered Groskloss cash NOT to play football – which Howard declined. Groskloss played sports – a lot of them – as a hobby but his true love was medicine. At twelve, Groskloss watched his father die of pneumonia and Howard decided then to pursue a career as a doctor.
Groskloss went to Amherst College, where he was awarded the Mossman Cup as the best student athlete after playing tailback, baseball, track and even participating on the swim team – an award handed to him by former United States President (and Amherst alum) Calvin Coolidge. Dreyfuss then gave Groskloss a $10,000 bonus to sign with the Pirates even as Groskloss knew he would be continuing his medical career. On trains between cities, Groskloss would read medical textbooks – much to the chagrin of Pirate managers who didn’t want someone who treated baseball as a hobby playing second base.
You can look it up – of the guys that played second base for the Pirates in 1931, the best one was probably Groskloss. He just had better things to do. In 1932, his baseball career was over – but his better career was just beginning.
Howard went to Yale and later Penn to study medicine, turning down a Rhodes Scholarship because he didn’t want to delay his becoming a doctor. He was a surgeon in the Pacific theater of World War II, and eventually a teaching and pioneering doctor – among the first to regularly use an ultra-sound to monitor the status of the women whose pregnancies he shepherded. Later in his career, after practicing and teaching at the University of Pittsburgh hospitals and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he moved to Florida and was among the founders of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine.
Interviewed on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2006, Grosklosss was asked what he remembered about Pirate games.
“I remember there were a lot of women standing around after the games,” he replied. “You couldn’t get through all the women.”
He also remembered barnstorming with Honus Wagner and playing games against Jim Thorpe, meeting (and liking) the intelligent Pirates general manager, Branch Rickey, and having a meal with Charles Lindbergh, who was the brother-in-law of Groskloss’s college roommate.
I found two articles about Groskloss written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gene Collier, the first of which was written when he turned 100 on Opening Day, 2006, and the last of which was written when he died three months later. Unfortunately, the SABR website is down right now and I can’t dig through old Sporting News articles. Maybe later this week if time allows… Collier’s articles are very well done.
Remember that scene near the end of Field of Dreams, where Moonlight Graham gives up playing baseball in the corn to help Kevin Costner’s daughter who was choking? Graham said he was grateful for the chance to play baseball, but his life was better served serving others. One imagines that Graham and Groskloss would have gotten along just fine.