MANAGING DAY BY DAY : After Battle With Alcoholism, Original Angel Eli Grba Gets Another Opportunity

Times Staff Writer

Eli Grba fidgets with the ring on his finger. That same finger, at times, has been occupied by wedding bands--three of them.

In their place is a cherished memory. He earned the ring as a member of the 1960 New York Yankees and on it reads, “1960 American League Champions.”

Although he spent only two years pitching with the Yankees, Grba talks with pride about playing with Mickey, Whitey and Yogi. He also speaks in glowing terms about becoming the first Angel, the team’s No. 1 selection in the 1960 expansion draft.


“They can never take that away from me,” he says. “Think about it. The (pause) first (pause) person (pause) selected. It was quite an honor.”

Honor is also something Grba says he has retrieved after years of fighting alcoholism.

As he talks, a gold chain dangles from his neck. On it reads, “365 Happy Days.”

It’s not exactly a cherished memory. It’s a matter of perception.

As of Tuesday, Eli Grba has been sober for eight years. That might be Grba’s best stat.

“I had five DUIs (driving under the influence), six alcoholic seizures and numerous fights in bars,” he says. “I was in the hospital four different times and once they had to pump a pint of blood into me. Never once, in all those years, did I think I had a problem. I had a problem.”

Grba, 54, is in Riverside with the Reno Silver Sox, a Class-A independent team that he manages. It’s his first attempt at managing after seven years as a minor league coach.

The previous night against the Riverside Red Wave, there was a fight that resulted in a broken nose for one of the Reno players.

It took more than 20 minutes to restore order and four players were ejected. Yet Grba believes there will be no more trouble.

“It was blown way out of proportion,” he says. “These are young kids, they’re emotional. It’s forgotten.”

This is the same Grba that “would knock a batter down if he had to,” according to former Angel teammate, Lee Thomas.

The same man who was called the “Serbian Strongman,” a nickname that was only in part for his 6-foot-2, 205-pound menacing appearance on the mound.

But this is also a different Grba. The one with 2,921 happy days behind him.

“Alcoholics are the most cunning . . . you’ll ever meet,” Grba said. “We can get drinks out of people without them even knowing it. We’re very cunning.”

It took Grba almost 20 years to realize he fit that description.

Grba was released by the Angels in 1963 and washed up as a player in 1967 after three failed comeback attempts. His career was over, but the excessive drinking, which began as a minor league player during the 1950s, continued.

Grba spent the next 14 years working in odd jobs, shuttling between Southern California and Chicago.

During this time, the only baseball team that employed him was the Oakland Athletics. Grba worked as a scout from 1969-71 before being fired.

His drinking steadily increased to the point where he was spending more time in bars than at home. His first wife, Bonnie, left him in 1970, taking their two children.

“The drinking was getting worse and worse,” he said. “My wife couldn’t take it and I don’t blame her. It was slowly and surely downhill from then on.

“The ultimate goal of an alcoholic is death. And it’s a horrible death.”

Grba was on that path.

His health was deteriorating rapidly during the mid-1970s. He began having alcohol-related seizures and one time had to be hospitalized for internal bleeding.

After a second marriage failed, Grba returned to Chicago. He stayed there for two years, finding jobs in factories, then returned to California in 1979 for yet another fresh start.

“I came back here and immediately got arrested for drunk driving,” Grba said.

Still, Grba didn’t see that he had a problem. But his friends did.

Former Angel and longtime friend Ken Hunt owned a bar in Westchester, a place Grba frequented when in California. Although they had been close through the years and even rented a house together in 1961, Hunt wanted nothing more to do with Grba.

“He would come down and more or less embarrass himself, which was embarrassing to me,” Hunt said. “People knew who he was and they knew he was my friend. He was out of control. I finally had enough.”

Hunt and Grba had a fight, after which Grba stopped coming to the bar.

He moved in with a friend who lived in Temple City. The friend also had a drinking problem.

The arrangement lasted two months before his friend’s wife kicked Grba out of the house.

“She told me she could treat only one alcoholic in that house,” he said.

That night, Grba slept in his car. He awoke early the next morning, needing a drink. He wandered into a bar at 6 a.m. with $90 in his wallet, which at the time was his life savings.

“I put that money on the bar and started drinking,” he said. “I had five beers, but beer didn’t taste good to me anymore. It didn’t get me high quick enough.”

Grba switched to hard liquor. He also bought some rounds for the few people who were in the bar.

“I looked down and there was only $40 left,” he said. “I thought, this is getting to be a $200-a-day habit.’ I got up and walked down the street to a detox center and checked in. They took a blood sample and my alcohol content was two-point-something and it wasn’t even 9 a.m.”

It would have been a perfect movie ending if Grba stopped drinking at that moment. But this was El Monte, not Hollywood.

Grba also needed a place to stay and felt the Wayne Fanning Alcohol Education Center was as good a place as any.

Grba continued to drink on the side. He worked during the day and slipped out at night to go to bars.

“We ran a pretty stiff house, but it wasn’t unusual for someone to sneak out at night,” said Jim Goodwin, who was the center’s executive director. “I had a pretty good idea Eli was drinking, but I saw something in him. He had a lot of humility and seemed to really want sobriety. You make allowances for people like that.”

Rock bottom came on July 31, 1981.

As was his habit after a night of drinking, Grba slipped into his room through a window. Only this time, his foot got caught and he fell to the floor.

“I just started laughing,” Grba said. “I said, ‘God, it’s time. Take me now, I ain’t worth nothing to anybody.’

“I had contemplated suicide before, but the thing that always stopped me was I didn’t have enough guts to do it. That night, I really didn’t want to live anymore. All of a sudden, I started to sob and couldn’t stop. Then a feeling came over me, something I can’t describe. . . . It was the first good night sleep I’d had in many moons.”

The next morning, Grba met with Goodwin’s assistant, Brownie Bellmeaur. She told him they knew about his drinking, but, to his surprise, she didn’t kick him out of the center.

Instead, Bellmeaur offered him a job on the night desk, where he would help check people into the center. Grba accepted and began working the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift.

“That’s when all the dudes came in for help,” Grba said. “I saw Eli Grba walk in night after night. I got an education; I got a real good education. I haven’t had a drink since.”

Grba once had a fastball that blew past batters and a curve that left them swinging at air. He also had a mean streak that was 60 feet 6 inches long and a stretched from one batter’s box to the other. Or so many of his former teammates said.

“Eli had a psychological effect on hitters,” said Thomas, now general manager for the Philadelphia Phillies. “They didn’t dig in too often. He’d knock them down if they did.”

Grba also had a quick temper. It got him into trouble in bars and sometimes on the field.

Hunt’s most vivid memory of Grba was on a swing through New York in 1961.

The Angels were in town for a four-game series, but it rained the first three days. The weather cleared on Sunday and Grba was to pitch the first game of a doubleheader.

According to Hunt, word reached the Angels that Mickey Mantle had a huge hangover.

“I could see Eli thinking, ‘All I have to do is get past (Roger) Maris and I got it made,’ ” Hunt said. “Well, we were winning, 1-0, and Mantle comes up and hits a two-run homer off Eli. He was just fuming on the mound. We battled back and were leading, 4-2, late in the game. Mantle comes up with two runners on and hits a tremendous home run into the second deck.

“Eli ran to the edge of the infield and chased Mickey around the bases, shouting obscenities at him all the way. I was in the outfield with my glove over my face. I didn’t want anyone to see me laughing, especially Eli. Mantle hit home plate, with Eli right behind him, stumbled into the dugout and fell down on all fours, laughing. I’ve never seen Eli so angry.”

That competitive fire was one of the things the Los Angeles Angels liked about Grba when they made him their No. 1 selection, according to Bill Rigney, the team’s manager.

Born in Chicago, Grba was a three-sport star at Bowen High School. He signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1952 and spent three years in the minors and two in the service before being traded to the Yankees in 1959.

Grba was 2-5 in 1959 and 6-4 with one save in 1960. He was used as a short man, middle man, a long man and, occasionally, as a starter.

The 1960 draft was done by position and pitching was the first category. Rigney and general manager Fred Haney decided to pick Grba.

“Haney had some information on Grba,” Rigney said. “Fred was a great friend of Casey Stengel and Stengel told him that this guy was going to be a good starting pitcher.”

Grba won the Angels’ first game, a 7-2 complete-game victory over Baltimore. He finished the season with an 11-13 record.

“Eli liked to win, especially against the Yankees,” Thomas said. “He wanted to show them that they may have made a mistake. He had that kind of burning desire.”

Grba also liked to have a drink or two--or three or four. He and Hunt rented a house in Inglewood that became a watering hole for many of the Angels and other professional athletes.

“Eli enjoyed the life style of a rich and famous baseball player,” said Jim Fregosi, who roomed with Grba in 1962. “We had a lot of fun in those days.”

The Angels, as a team, quickly gained a reputation for their after-hours activity. This was, after all, a team that included Ryne Duran, another self-confessed alcoholic.

“I never knew what happened off the field, but I knew I could find a team meeting going on in some bar if I looked hard enough,” Rigney said.

“I remember one night in Baltimore, 16 of us went to dinner together,” Grba said. “When the bill came, the bar tab was more than the food.” In 1962 the Angels challenged for the pennant, staying in the race until September and finishing with an 86-76 record.

Grba was 8-9 that season, but he said his drinking was starting to affect his pitching.

In 1963, Grba pitched in only 12 games and had an 0-1 record. The Angels tried to trade him twice, but there were no takers.

Grba was sold to Hawaii and never returned to the major leagues, although he tried.

He pitched with Toronto in 1964 and Hawaii in 1965. In 1967, he tried to make it with the Chicago White Sox.

“I was drinking heavy and I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “My priorities were all gone. Bob Lemon saw me one day and said, ‘I’ve never seen a pitcher lose his stuff as fast as you did.’ It was the booze.

“I’ll always remember those years with the Angels. The closeness, the friendship, the foolishness. I’ll also remember the deterioration of a damn good athlete.”

Grba spent 10 months at the Wayne Fanning Alcohol Education Center--the last five of which he was sober.

He kept in touch with Hunt and the two patched up their differences.

That December, Dick Phillips, an old friend, dropped into Hunt’s bar. He had just been hired as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers’ triple-A team in Vancouver and was waiting for a flight.

Hunt and Phillips talked for a while over drinks and then Grba’s name came up. Hunt told him that Grba was sober and Phillips mentioned that he was looking for a pitching coach.

One thing led to another and Grba had a job.

“It’s ironic that I got back into baseball because of a conversation in a bar,” Grba said.

Grba was coaching in Vancouver on Aug. 1, 1982, when a man approached him.

“He said he wanted to do an interview, so we talked for a while,” Grba said. “When it was over, he handed me this little box. Inside was my medallion. He said, ‘Happy birthday, Eli.’ ”

The medallion was to mark his first year of sobriety.

“I’m never without it,” he said.

Grba spent seven years as a minor league coach with four organizations from 1982-88. He also married for the third time, during a second stint with Vancouver in 1985.

Neither marriage nor the job lasted. He left Vancouver last winter after repeated problems on both fronts. Problems that he prefers not to talk about in great detail.

“I didn’t handle some things very well,” Grba said. “I let people get to me and I was acting like my old self.”

Grba’s old temper was returning and he was worried that other former habits also might come back. So he went to Palm Springs to collect his thoughts and regain his perspective.

It was there that Jack Patton, one of Reno’s three owners, found him.

“He called me and asked if I wanted the job. I asked what it paid,” Grba said. “Jack said, ‘Not much.’ and I said I’d get back to him. I started thinking about how I always wanted to manage. I called him back and took the job.”

Grba is the manager, pitching coach and hitting instructor. He does it all with a calmness that even he says is a complete reversal from his former self.

Against Riverside, a Reno player was called out on a close play at first base. Grba, from the third-base coaching box, extended his arms to show he thought the runner was safe and then shrugged.

“When I played, nobody yelled more, no one jumped on umpires more or yakked more than me,” Grba said. “It wasn’t an act, it was my personality. I had to learn to overcome those things.”

Most of his players have little chance of making it in baseball. As an independent franchise, Reno gets mostly leftovers, players that major league organizations already have cut.

Grba has tried to pass along what he has learned. He has even had one-to-one talks with certain players, whom he believes might have an alcohol problem.

“I tell these guys to be prepared for when it’s over,” Grba said. “After this glorious life of baseball, there is still a lot of life left. It took me a long time to grow up. I don’t want these kids to make my mistakes.”