He led the nation in strikeouts and threw a no-hitter in college; then tossed a shutout in the majors. But the careers -- both college and pro -- and the life of Grover Powell were shorter than they should have been.
Grover Powell's a tragic figure.
He died young and his major league pitching career aborted after a promising start. Powell grew up in Wyalusing, Pa., and was a multi-sport athlete before a football injury made him concentrate on baseball. Majoring in economics at Wharton, he led all college pitchers nationwide with 166 strikeouts his sophomore season -- still a Penn record. He went 4-0, and threw a no-hitter against Lafayette.
The next season he was thrown off the baseball team.
The coach at the time was Penn Athletic Hall of Famer and future NBA general manager Jack McCloskey, who built the Detroit Pistons team that won two NBA titles in 1989-90. He also played briefly for the Philadelphia Warriors and coached the Portland Trail Blazers from 1971-74.
McCloskey described Powell as "always loud, overbearing to a point, and somewhat unusual -- in a way that I had to drop him off the team. It was just an accumulation of things that Grover did," he explained. "Once he wanted to come out of a game because he was cold. One day, he swore a lot at the equipment guy and threw clumps of grass. Then he missed a team bus. I finally said, 'Enough is enough.'"
In doing so McCloskey removed from the team Penn's only major leaguer in 38 years. Powell's career falls between that of Tom Upton, who last played shortstop for the Washington Senators in 1952, and Steve Adkins, who would pitch briefly for the New York Yankees in 1990. Penn's team, meanwhile, went from a record of 13-7 in Powell's last season to records of 7-9 and 8-10 in what would have been his junior and senior seasons.
After his strikeout-leading sophomore season the fledgling New York Mets, who had yet to play a game, offered Powell $8,000 to sign. After leaving the team, however, the Mets only offered $2500. Powell gratefully accepted, signing with the team in February 1962.
Despite a losing record in the minors, the Mets called him up in July 1963, where he joined fellow Ivy Leaguer Ken MacKenzie (Yale) on the pitching staff. He pitched well in relief, maintaining an ERA just under 2.00. When manager Casey Stengel ran short of starters in August, he plugged Powell in for a start against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Pitching 30 blocks from Penn at Connie Mack Stadium Powell showed the school what it missed, shutting out the Phillies 4-0 on four hits. It was a spectacular start. "The 22-year-old left-hander, a virtual unknown, blossomed into a star overnight" trumpeted the New York Times, "The Mets had, in the opinion of one reporter, "the first pitching phenom in the young history of the franchise." Casey Stengel himself called his performance "amazing," and said Powell "pitches like he's been around a long time and he will be."
This would be Grover Powell's only major league victory.
In his next start, against Pittsburgh, Powell pitched four shutout innings. In the fifth Donn Clendenon smacked a line drive off Powell's cheek. He went down, but then resumed pitching and retired the side before heading to a local hospital.
His pitching was never the same. He slumped the rest of 1963 and bounced around the minors the rest of the sixties, never regaining the form that brought him his only major league win. Powell did return to Penn, earning an economics degree in 1966. He worked at a series of jobs after leaving baseball, including managing a bank branch.
In 1985 his son Grey (named after fellow Penn baseball star and western writer Zane Grey) was in a near-fatal auto accident. Visiting him in the hospital, Powell was diagnosed with acute leukemia. He died on May 21, 1985.
For someone who only won one major league game, Grover Powell left a sizable legacy. The Mets were bad when he joined them, and his glimpse of pitching prowess was an all-too-brief respite from the dreary play of the team. Powell "was the life of the team," remembered longtime sportswriter Maury Allen, who covered the Mets.
Powell's tombstone in Wyalusing has an image of his only baseball card on it. "He achieved his dreams," it says. That says it all.
Note: A special thanks to the Topps Company for permission to use Grover Powell's baseball card.
— Stephen Eschenbach