Eli Grba, the first player to throw a pitch for the Angels, died Monday night in Florence, Ala., after a three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Grba, a bespectacled pitcher with a penchant for partying and a competitive spirit, was known as the Original Angel. With the opening selection of MLB’s first expansion draft in December 1960, Angels general manager Fred Haney made Grba the first addition to the Angels’ inaugural roster.
“I’m a trivia question until I die,” Grba said in a 2011 television interview. “I’m the first guy that’s ever been drafted — and the first Angel. You know, that’s kind of nice.”
Haney’s selection of Grba was influenced by the commendation of 70-year-old New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who guided Grba for two seasons and was encouraged by the right-handed pitcher’s potential.
Grba proved himself a durable fixture for the early Angels teams led by manager Bill Rigney. Grba appeared in 40 games in 1961 and 1962 and threw eight complete games in the Angels’ first season.
He expressed his fiery personality often too. Offended when his former teammate hit home runs in consecutive at-bats against him, Grba circled the mound and shouted insults at Mickey Mantle as the future Hall of Famer rounded the bases in Grba’s first visit to Yankee Stadium in 1961.
An addiction to alcohol lay waste to what might have been a promising career.
Grba was out of baseball by 1967. He jumped from job to job in Southern California and his hometown of Chicago, struggling to remain sober for more than a decade. A drunken fall through an open window at a rehabilitation facility turned Grba’s fortunes in summer 1981.
“I just started laughing," Grba told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “I said, ‘God, it's time. Take me now, I ain't worth nothing to anybody.’ … 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.”
Grba never drank again. Within a year, he had returned to baseball as a minor league pitching coach. He was a scout for the Phillies in the 1990s before retiring.
Soon after marrying his fourth wife, Regina, in 1993, Grba settled in Alabama.
Born to Serbian immigrants in Chicago on Aug. 9, 1934, Grba learned to play baseball participating in a game called Strikeouts at a young age. He became a three-sport star at Bowen High and signed with the Boston Red Sox after graduating in 1952. Grba debuted with the Yankees at the age of 24 on July 10, 1959, shortly after finishing a two-year stint with the United States Army. He helped the 1960 Yankees win the American League pennant and logged his only appearance of the 1960 World Series, which the Pittsburgh Pirates won, as a pinch-runner.
A few months later, the Yankees left Grba unprotected for the expansion draft, cementing his place in Angels history.
Grba won the first game the Angels ever played — a complete game in which he allowed only two runs to the Baltimore Orioles in Maryland on April 11, 1961 — and collected an additional 19 victories before being released in 1963. He compiled a 28-33 record and 4.48 ERA in 135 games over five seasons.
Grba, who wrote about his journey in baseball and his grappling with sobriety in the 2016 book “Baseball’s Fallen Angel,” did not return to Angel Stadium in an official capacity until 2011. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season in celebration of the Angels’ 50th anniversary.
“He had a great sense of pride in having been part of the Angels at the outset of our franchise,” Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead said in a statement. “I know he followed each and every season with great interest through the years. I will never forget the smile on his face when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch during our 50th anniversary celebration home opener in 2011. His love of baseball was always an inspiring conversation.”
Grba is survived by his wife, Regina, his children Stacy Grba Draves, Nick Grba and Donnie Kellum, and five grandchildren.