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The Phenomenal Johnny Groth

Earlier this year, I began helping Retrosheet with a project to deduce play-by-play accounts from box scores and newspaper stories for games for which formal complete play-by-play accounts are not available. I love the logical challenge of building a plausible play-by-play account that matches the box score based on the clues from the newspaper stories. And even more, I love the history, learning more about the players who would have been the major-leaguers of my father's baseball-fandom youth.

The first season for which I helped deduce games, 1949 (when my father would have been 14), has now been released in full by Retrosheet.

One of the players who I had the great pleasure to learn about in deducing 1949 games for the Detroit Tigers was their 22-year-old rookie centerfielder "the phenomenal Johnny Groth"*.
*John C. Hoffman, Chicago Sun Times, April 22, 1949

Opening Day
After appearing in 12 games as a September call-up over the previous three seasons, Johnny Groth made the Opening Day roster and broke camp with the Detroit Tigers as their starting center fielder.

The Tigers opened at home against the Chicago White Sox on April 19th. Johnny Groth started in center field, batting 7th for the Tigers. Groth's first time up to bat, in the second inning, Groth flew out. It would be the last out he made batting that day.

In the fifth inning, with one out, Groth drove the ball deep into the right-field corner. The ball landed fair by inches, but White Sox rightfielder Pat Seerey changed direction at the last minute to avoid the concrete wall, and White Sox second baseman Cass Michaels got to the ball before Seerey. Groth flew around the bases and didn't stop until he crossed the plate with an inside-the-park home run. Groth's next time up, he decided that all that running was exhausting. So this time, he went ahead and put the ball over the fence.

For the game, then, Groth went 2-for-3 with 2 home runs (both solo shots). Defensively, he handled three chances flawlessly in center field.
Game 2
It turns out that Opening Day was just an opening act for Johnny Groth. The next day, Groth came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning with the bases loaded and the Tigers trailing 2-1 - with Groth having already doubled home their first run of the game - and proceeded to hit a grand slam to propel the Tigers to a 5-2 victory. The legend of Johnny Groth was set.

Groth "Cools Off"
In the Tigers third game of the season, Groth reached base three times in four plate appearances with a single, walk, and hit-by-pitch and scored one of the Tigers' two runs. A .500 batting average and .750 OBP by Groth prompted the Detroit Free-Press to open their article on the game (by Lyall Smith) as follows:
Rookie Johnny Groth did NOT hit a home run. The Detroit Tigers did NOT win another ball game.
Tough crowd.

Johnny Comes Marching Home
Johnny Groth was born and raised in Chicago. His first major-league game(s) in his hometown was a double-header against the White Sox on Tuesday, April 26th.

The Detroit Tigers had played 5 games before coming to Chicago. In those five games, Johnny Groth had gone 9-for-17 plus 2 walks and one HBP, with 1 double and 3 home runs. That's a batting line of .529/.600/1.118 (note: that's not an OPS of 1.118; that's a slugging percentage of 1.118 - Groth's OPS was 1.718). Johnny Groth had scored at least one run in each of the Tigers' first 5 games (6 runs scored total) and driven in 8 runs. The Tigers were 3-2 and had scored 20 runs in the 5 games. Groth had scored or driven in (or both) over half of the Tigers runs.

Johnny Groth's homecoming was a very big deal.

Johnny Groth, 22 years old, having played in 17 major-league games to that point in his life, got his very own story on the front page of the sports section of the Chicago Tribune. It included a picture of some of the fan signs at Comiskey Park - "Yea Groth", "Welcome Home Johnny Groth" - and a picture of Groth and his fiancee, who attended the game (they were married that fall and were still both alive and married at the time this biography was written). Not only was Groth's fiancee there, so were his sister and his mother who, according to the Tribune "was seeing Johnny play his first baseball game, except for sandlot contests when he was young." Groth's alma mater, Chicago Latin School, "was let out for the afternoon to honor Johnny" and the Comiskey crowd included "a number of present and former Chicago Latin students", including at least one former high-school teammate, as well as his high school coach.

Johnny Groth's first major-league at bat in his hometown came in the top of the second inning. The game was scoreless, but Groth had two teammates on base. With Johnny at bat, White Sox pitcher Howie Judson balked, putting Tigers on second and third with nobody out. The hometown hero "smashed a single off Floyd Baker's glove ... to drive home the first two Detroit runs."

It all seemed too good to be true. And then, for a while, it seemed like maybe it was over. The next seven times Johnny Groth came to bat he made an out. Was the legend of Johnny Groth ready to end?

Not quite.

Game 2 of the doubleheader was a terrific back-and-forth affair. The Tigers scored 2 in the top of the first, but the White Sox answered with 3 in the bottom of the second. The Tigers regained the lead, 5-3, in the top of the third, but the White Sox cut that in half in the bottom of the fourth, and scored the tying run with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Luke Appling got as far as third base with the potential winning run but was stranded there.

And so, the game moved to extra innings. The top of the 10th inning started with two Tiger walks. A successful sacrifice bunt put both runners in scoring position and an intentional walk loaded the bases. But pinch hitter Don Lund struck out with the bases loaded for the second out of the inning.

Two outs, bases loaded, tie game, extra innings. And up to bat stepped the hometown hero, Johnny Groth. His first at bat of the double header produced two runs. What would his last at bat of the double header produce?

"With the count 2-2 Groth laced one down first. The ball barely nicked the top of first base and rolled into foul territory in right for a double, scoring two big Tiger runs." (James Zerilli, Detroit Free Press)
The legend lived!

The Sensation Piles On
From Chicago, the Tigers returned to Detroit to face the St. Louis Browns for two games.

The Tigers lost both games, but neither was the fault of Groth.

In the two games, Johnny Groth extended his season-opening hitting streak to nine games, going a combined 5-for-8 with a triple, a home run, 2 runs scored, and 5 RBI. And that home run: a 3rd-inning grand slam (his second of the season) in game 2 of the series which gave the Tigers a momentary 5-1 lead. At the end of the day on April 28, 1949, Johnny Groth was batting .471/.538/.941. All three of those led the American league with the batting average and slugging percentage leading the major leagues. He also led the major leagues with 17 RBI and was tied for the major-league lead with 4 home runs.

In their game story for the April 28th game, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Johnny Groth as "[t]he young man [who] has already won more newspaper space and radio time than any baseball hero here since Mickey Cochrane's day."

Mickey Cochrane's last season as the Tigers' starting catcher was 1935. From 1936 - 1948, the Tigers won two American League pennants and one World Series and three Hall-of-Famers won four MVP awards as Detroit Tigers.

Johnny Groth was arguably bigger than all of them.
I'm going to end my story there: with the phenomenal Johnny Groth on top of the world.

If you want to know what came next, the numbers are here and there's a very good biography of him as part of the SABR Bio project here.

All articles are written so that they pull data directly from the most recent version of the Player won-lost database. Hence, any numbers cited within these articles should automatically incorporate the most recent update to Player won-lost records. In some cases, however, the accompanying text may have been written based on previous versions of Player won-lost records. I apologize if this results in non-sensical text in any cases.

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