By Scott A. Rowan
Grover Cleveland Alexander was such a masterful pitcher that he gave opposing batters fits. What many people didn’t know was that Alexander suffered fits too—except his were caused by epilepsy. Sadly, history has remembered him as a drunk who was rumored to keep a liquor bottle in the dugout, rather than as a quiet hero battling demons few people knew about.
As of 2013, five epileptics have reached the major leagues; only one is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Alexander’s 20-year career spanned from 1911 to 1930. He won 30 games or more three times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1938. As mentioned earlier, Ronald Reagan was proud of his portrayal of Alexander in the film The Winning Team (1952) because he liked the perseverance the Cubs pitcher displayed despite numerous setbacks.
Early in his career, Alexander was hit in the head by a baseball while trying to reach second base. The blow knocked him out and he suffered from double vision for months afterward. While this head injury likely contributed to his epilepsy years later, there were other complicating factors.
The Nebraska native pitched only three games for the Cubs before he was drafted into World War I, during which he served on the front lines in France as an artillery sergeant, was gassed by the enemy, and lost hearing in one ear due to exposure to numerous concussive explosions. Upon his return from the war, teammates saw a difference in the pitcher that went beyond his alcoholism. “I don’t believe Alex was much of a drinker before he went into the Army,” said catcher Bob O’Farrell, Alexander’s batterymate in both Chicago and St. Louis. “After he got back from the war, though, he had a real problem.”
Alexander’s drinking was legendary, not so much for the amount he could consume, but for the myths that grew about him. The most notorious was that the Cubs kept a bottle of liquor in the dugout to help the pitcher steady his hand during games. However, while there was a bottle in the dugout to help Alexander, it didn’t contain alcohol.
“Sometimes a fit would strike him while he was out on the mound,” said his ex-wife, Aimee (portrayed by Doris Day in The Winning Team). “He always carried a bottle of spirits of ammonia with him. They would have to carry him off the field. Some thought he was drunk. They would take him into the locker room, Alex would whiff the ammonia, fight to get control of himself, and then go right back out and pitch again. . . . I remember once in Pittsburgh, I saw Alex signal the umpire suddenly and call time. I knew what was happening. He went into the locker room for about 15 minutes, came out again, and pitched the entire game.”
Sadly, few people understood just how much Alexander was suffering.
In 2012, Major League Baseball helped CURE (Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy) and S4 (Sarah & Southbury Strikeout Seizures) by holding an auction to raise money for these two organizations. The League was partly inspired to take this action due to Buddy Bell, an MLB manager for nine years (three each with the Tigers, the Rockies, and the Royals) after an 18-year playing career, who is also an epileptic. Hal Lanier (who played from 1964 to 1973), Tony Lazzeri (1926–1939), and Greg Walker (1982–1990) are the only other known epileptic players in MLB history.
“There were a couple of times where I wasn’t able to play because of a seizure,” Bell explained in 2012 for an MLB.com article. “I remember one night in New York, I was taking a shower in the morning, and next thing I know, I woke up in the tub. Obviously, I wasn’t able to play that day.”
In 1988, Walker was playing for the Chicago White Sox when he nearly died due to a seizure that he suffered in front of his teammates during batting practice. White Sox trainer Herm Schneider was pulled out of the training room to a horrific scene that few sports trainers would be prepared to handle. “It was an ugly, ugly situation,” Schneider told Sports Illustrated the following year. “Walk was blue, his lips were purple, his eyes had rolled back in his head. Guys were going in to throw up at the sight of it. Some guys just went into the clubhouse probably because they didn’t want to see him die. When I got to him, on a scale of one to 10, he was nine-plus dead.”
Worried that Walker was choking and unable to breathe, Schneider used a pair of tape-cutting scissors to force the player’s mouth open, chipping part of a tooth in the process. As Schneider used a rubber tongue depressor to clear Walker’s windpipe, the player bit down on the trainer’s finger so hard that it drew blood. Moments later, Walker recovered and was rushed to the hospital. Walker survived, but epilepsy activists were furious, contending that many unnecessary mistakes were made that derailed decades of epilepsy education for the general public. But since few people ever witness a seizure, it’s hard to fault a trainer for not knowing how to handle the situation.
Walker’s tale only underscores the toughness that made Alexander a Hall of Fame selection. There were times when the right-handed hurler collapsed on the field in much the same way, only to have his teammates save his life. After he recovered moments later, the stoic Alexander would brush off the incident and continue playing the game, to the disbelief of everyone who had seen him collapse moments earlier.
“Sometimes he’d have one of those spells out on the mound and we’d get around him and pull his tongue out,” said teammate Pinky Whitney. “And then he’d get up and throw the next ball right through the middle of the plate.”
Even more amazing, Alexander was the first epileptic pitcher to throw to an epileptic player (only the second in the history of the game). What’s more, it happened in Game 7 of the World Series with the bases loaded. On October 9, 1926, Yankee Stadium was filled with 46,615 fans yearning to see the Yankees win the World Series. Alexander stunned them all, scattering eight hits in a 10–2 spanking that tied the Series with the Cardinals at three games apiece.
Rogers Hornsby, the player/manager of the 1926 Cardinals squad, swore that Alexander never arrived drunk at the ballpark when he was supposed to pitch. On the other days, however, anything could happen. In fact, it was a good bet that if Alexander wasn’t scheduled to pitch the next day, he was going to be drunk that night. Once during the regular season, Alexander nearly had his face destroyed taking the field during batting practice because he was so drunk that he couldn’t move out of the way of balls hit toward him at third base.
Knowing he would not start in Game 7, Alexander had been drinking the night before. Jessie Haines started Game 7 for the Cardinals, but in the bottom of the seventh inning, he pitched himself into a jam he could not escape. The Cardinals led 3–2 in the seventh when Haines managed to get two outs—but he had also loaded the bases. Hornsby pulled Haines and called for Alexander. Surprised to be called in for relief, Alexander needed to be roused from his slumber (others would later say it was more of a stupor) in the bullpen. Not usually one to need much warm up, this time Alexander took his time getting to the pitcher’s mound, first stopping to check with his outfielders and then his infielders.
While it may have seemed that Alexander needed the extra few minutes to shake the pickled cobwebs from his mind, there were other possible reasons for his methodical stroll to the mound. At the plate stood a rookie in the most pressure-packed situation any hitter could imagine: Game 7 of the World Series, losing by one run, bases loaded, two outs. The player at the plate was Lazzeri. The only two epileptics in the game were squared off against each other in a duel that would make one a hero and the other a forgotten footnote to history.
“I wasn’t worried about the spot I was in,” Alexander said later. “I always had one motto, and it was this: ‘I’m a better pitcher than you are a hitter.’”
Lazzeri managed to rip one foul ball that, had it straightened out, would have been a home run. But the wind helped it hook into the left-field stands for a strike instead. Alexander threw two more unhittable pitches, Lazzeri struck out, and the Cardinals went on to win Game 7 by the same margin, 3–2, that they had had when Alexander took the mound.
Alexander’s playing career ended following the 1930 season, and with it went his self-control. His drinking became worse than ever while he tried to earn money playing for barnstorming teams that used gimmicks to lure people to the ballfield. One team he played for, the House of David, had their players wear long beards to emulate Orthodox Jewish men for publicity. Ever the contrarian, Alexander remained clean-shaven on his bearded team.
While Alexander may have looked well kempt, his life was falling apart. His wife divorced him, remarried him, then—realizing his drinking would never end—left him again. Drifting from jobs both meaningless and demeaning, Alexander worked as a security guard, a hotel employee, and a sideshow attraction at Hubert’s Museum, a flea circus in New York City where he told the story of that famous World Series moment to paying customers. He was working that sideshow in 1939, the year after he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Determined to help the troubled pitcher, baseball officials secretly approved a $50 per month pension for Alexander. The pension was then raised to $100.
Sadly, Alexander seems to have been beyond help. Epileptic, alone, and deaf, Alexander continued to drink away the demons that haunted him. On Christmas Eve 1949, Alexander was found unconscious in a Los Angeles alley, near death. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, his ex-wife was by his side; she was forced to scribble notes on paper to help the hurler understand where he was. When the penniless pitcher, who had once been one of the toughest players ever to take the field, realized what had become of his life, he wept into his hands.
Less than a year later, on November 4, 1950, Alexander was dead. Immortalized in Hollywood films, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the minds of fans everywhere, Alexander is the only epileptic to overcome his condition and be inducted into his sport’s Hall of Fame. The most notable epileptic athletes outside of baseball are former NFL players and twins Tiki and Ronde Barber, along with retired lineman Alan Faneca. All three were All-Pros during their careers and may one day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are several organizations dedicated to educating the public about epilepsy, including the Epilepsy Foundation (EpilepsyFoundation.org), the Alliance for Epilepsy Research (EpilepsyResearch.org), and Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CUREepilepsy.org).
Golenbock, Spirit, 113.
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 101.
Anthony Castrovince, “Baseball world teams up to strike out epilepsy,” MLB.com, May 8, 2012.
Bruce Newman, “Just Happy to Be Here,” Sports Illustrated, April 17, 1989.
Barbara L. Dershin, “What To Do, Not Do, In Seizure Cases,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1988.
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