Sports Legend Revealed: Was Grover Cleveland Alexander drunk when he struck out Tony Lazzeri in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series?
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BASEBALL LEGEND: Grover Cleveland Alexander was drunk and/or asleep in the bullpen when he was called out to face Tony Lazzeri in the 7th inning of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.
STATUS: I’m Going With False.
Modern baseball fans certainly recall the heroics of Jack Morris pitching a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, or Randy Johnson pitching an inning and a third of scoreless relief on one day’s rest in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Well, right up there in the annals of World Series pitching heroics is Grover Cleveland Alexander’s performance in the 1926 World Series.
The 39-year-old Alexander had joined the Cardinals earlier in 1926 after being cut by the Chicago Cubs (Alexander was still a pretty productive pitcher for a bad Cubs team, but he did not get along with the manager of the Cubs and the thought was that the next good Cubs team likely would not have Alexander on it due to his age, so why not just cut ties with him now?) and had won Game 2 of the ’26 Series against the New York Yankees. In Game 6 of the Series, with the Cardinals trailing 3 games to 2, Alexander pitching nine innings in a 10-2 Cardinal victory.
Now, in Game 7, played the very next day, the Cardinals were clinging to a 3-2 lead when the Yankees loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh inning with future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri (the Yankees’ #6 hitter) at bat with two outs. Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby went to Alexander. Alexander came in an struck Lazzeri out. Alexander then proceeded to retire the Yankees over the next two innings, with the last out famously coming on an attempted steal of second base by Babe Ruth, for a Cardinals World Series victory.
Great story, no? Well, over the years, the story has almost always included the extra ‘fact’ that Alexander, figuring he was not going to be pitching Game 7, spent the night of Game 6 drinking so much that by Game 7 he was dozing off in the bullpen with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket when he was roused to go save the Cardinals’ season. Supposedly, Hornsby met him in left field as he entered from the bullpen to see if he could even see straight, noted that he was hammered but figured that a drunk Alexander was better than a sober anyone else, so stuck with the future Hall of Famer. Even better story, right?
But is it true?
For almost all of it, definitely not. For some of it, I still lean towards false. Read on to find out why!
Grover Cleveland Alexander (also known as Pete Alexander) was one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, and has the third-most wins in the history of Major League Baseball. Alexander was drafted during World War I and spent much of 1918 in France as a sergeant with the 342nd field artillery. Alexander certainly drank alcohol before the war, but after the war he became an extremely heavy drinker as he suffered from severe post traumatic stress and drinking was the only thing that would calm him down. Combined with hearing loss and eplietic seizures, Alexander was not in great shape throughout the 1920s. And yet he still managed to have some dominant years for the Chicago Cubs (who had acquired him from the Philadelphia Phillies right before Alexander was drafted). By the time he came to St. Louis, though, Alexander was a bit of a mess due to his constant drinking.
The legacy of the Alexander Game 7 story mostly comes down to the fact that Bob O’Farrell, Alexander’s catcher in St. Louis in 1926, did not die until 1988 and was quite open when it came to telling stories about the old days. O’Farrell’s version of the story is the one that most folks rely on when it comes to what happened that day. However, for one thing, even O’Farrell never alleged that Alexander did not know that he could be pitching in Game 7. When pitchers now are willing to pitch on short rest to help their teams, you better believe that pitchers back in 1926 were ready. So the notion that Alexander drank on the night of Game 6 because he thought he would not have to pitch the next day doesn’t make any sense, and, again, not even O’Farrell has asserted that aspect of the tale.
For the rest of the story, while O’Farrell is on one side of the tale (O’Farrell told the story in a few places, but most famously in Lawrence Ritter’s legendary 1966 baseball tome The Glory of Their Times: The Story Of The Early Days Of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It i), there are two other explicit accounts of the game in the baseball annals. One is from Rogers Hornsby, who gave a detailed account of the game to Francis Stann in a Washington Star article that was later reprinted in a 1953 issue of Baseball Digest. Another is third baseman Les Bell, who gave his take on the game to baseball historian Donald Honig for a 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated. Now do note that Honig worked with Ritter on a couple of baseball books, so it is not like Honig is a guy who is trying to go out of his way to discredit Ritter.
What is astonishing is how closely attuned Hornsby and Bell’s stories are - they are practically identical, and both men make it clear that Alexander was not sleeping when he was summoned to pitch in Game 7, that he knew he might be needed to pitch in Game 7 (Hornsby announced it in front of the whole team) and that Alexander was not out getting wasted all of the previous night. Bell notes seeing Alexander the night before at the hotel. Hornsby goes into further detail, claiming that he and a Cardinals coach Bill Killefer actually went to Alexander’s room the night before Game 7 to search it for alcohol and, after finding a few stashed bottles, took them with them.
All three men agree that Alexander told Hornsby that he was not going to warm up in the bullpen, that he would warm up on the mound (this was typical behavior for Alexander). They differ, perhaps, on whether Alexander said this because he wanted to sleep off his hangover until the last possible moment. Flint Rhem, a fellow Cardinals pitcher, claimed that Alexander did sleep off the whole game with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket. The Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, years later stated that he saw Alexander during the game awake and paying attention to the game. For what it is worth, Alexander himself claimed he was awake and sober during the game. Hornsby did say later in a memoir that he would rather have a drunk Alexander than a sober anyone else in that moment. That line is true. However, Hornsby said in the same memoir (as well as in the Baseball Digest piece) that Alexander was not drunk and that he was wide awake and sober when he came in to pitch Game 7. Also, all accounts of the game acknowledge that Hornsby did not leave the infield to talk to Alexander - he waited for Alexander to reach the infield before saying anything to him. Do note that in Murray Polnar’s great Branch Rickey biography he quotes Rickey as saying Hornsby told him he wasn’t sure if Alexander was drunk or not.
So what really happened that day? Was Alexander really sleeping in the bullpen? Was he drunk? I find it hard to believe that he did not have something to drink the night before (and Bell acknowledged that he couldn’t rightfully say that Alexander was dry the previous night), and would I be shocked if he had something to drink the day of the game? Of course not. However, I think Bell and Hornsby’s first-hand accounts (as opposed to Branch Rickey decades later saying what Hornsby told him) are just so in tune that when you combine them with Alexander himself saying he was not drunk or sleeping and with the commissioner of baseball saying he was not sleeping and with O’Farrell’s story occasionally changing (sometimes it was ‘he was sleeping’ while occasionally it would be just ‘feeling the effects of the night before’) I am willing to go with an overall false to the idea that Alexander was sleeping in the bullpen when he was roused to go face Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series.
Thanks to all of the great baseball researchers out there that I relied on to make this determination, plus the baseball players who shared their stories over the years that informed their research!
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Top photo: Grover Cleveland Alexander. Credit: AP. Bottom photo: Tony Lazzeri. Credit: AP.