Don Grate, a major league pitcher who once held the record for the longest baseball throw, passed away on Saturday November, 22, 2014, according to a representative at the Fred Hunter’s Funeral Home in Hollywood, Florida. He was 91.
Born August 27, 1923 in Greenfield, Ohio, Grate was a standout athlete at McClain High School before making his way to Ohio State University. He was a two-sports star, lettering in both baseball and basketball, leading the way to a professional career in both sports.
He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, and was quickly brought to the majors to fill a roster that was depleted by the exodus of players serving in World War II. He made his debut against the Chicago Cubs, who were headed for the National League pennant. It was a tall order for the young hurler.
“I had the misfortune of playing the Chicago Cubs at that time,” Grate said to me in a 2009 phone interview from his home in Miami. “The Phillies were the last in fielding at that time. I had to throw five singles, five walks, and the Cubs got five runs. That was my only loss that I had in the majors.”
Grate was roughed up in his subsequent three outings in 1945, finishing with a 17.28 ERA. Despite his struggles during his first major league season, Grate returned to the Phillies in 1946 after posting a 14-8 record at Class A Utica. He fared better in his second campaign, winning his only decision on September 22, 1946, but what a pyrrhic victory it was.
“In the Polo Grounds [Ben] Chapman told me to sidearm the third baseman for the Giants at that time,” he said. “Of course, I was not a sidearm pitcher. When I got to throw a sidearm pitch, something snapped in [my] shoulder. I had been improperly warmed up. He told me to go down to the bullpen in the Polo Grounds. It was a long way down there. I go down there and he said, ‘Tell [Dick] Mauney that he’s coming in, if he gets in trouble, you’re next to start warming up.’ He changed his mind when I got down there. The umpire said, ‘Who do you want?’ He said, ‘The big, tall man down there.’ I came in without any warm up. The umpire only allowed me eight pitches to warm up without delaying the game. Sid Gordon I think it was [the batter]. Chapman said to me, ‘Sidearm the S.O.B.’ I did and of course got a sore arm. I told him he better get somebody to warm up. We were behind two runs, but we scored about three-to-four runs and I won the game.”
Unfortunately, Grate never returned to the major leagues. He spent the next few years trying to work out his sore arm with various farm clubs across the Phillies, Braves, and Red Sox organizations. In the subsequent off-seasons, he played professional basketball to stay in shape and pick up some extra money until the baseball season started again. In 1949, he played two games for the Sheboygan Red Skins of the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA).
“You have to go to work in the winter months and get a lunch bucket,” he said. “I played in the industrial league in Columbus, Ohio just to stay in shape.”
His luck changed when he signed with the Washington Senators franchise in 1951. Grate was working as a physical education teacher when the Chattanooga Lookouts, a farm club of the Washington Senators called in 1951. He decided that he had enough of pitching and wanted a new lease on his baseball life, this time as an outfielder.
“I won two or three trophies at Ohio State for my ability to hit,” he said. “When I wasn’t pitching, I played center field. I was a regular ballplayer, I played every day. Since I had a sore arm, I had moved around pitching enough, so I said I was going to be an outfielder.”
While he wanted to make the transition to a full-time outfielder, he discovered his pitching was still in demand. Seeking another opportunity to revive his career, Grate agreed to play.
“I got a call from Joe Engel in Chattanooga,” he said. “I told him I was teaching school until June. He told me I’d have an opportunity to be a utility man and pinch hitter. I said, ‘I can’t come down there unless I had batting practice.’ He told me he needed pitching really bad and said pitchers didn’t take batting practice. When he [finally] told me I could take batting practice, I came down and I had a 3-1 record before I switched to the outfield. I got into the lineup in center field because the guy had a stiff neck and couldn’t play that night. It was like 500 feet to dead center. I hit a few balls in the crack and I could run. I hit two inside the park home runs, so I stayed in the outfield.”
Grate consistently hit near or above the .300 mark for the remaining six years of his career, finishing up with the New York Giants AAA team of Minneapolis in 1957. It was there in Minnesota where he launched his record toss during a contest in 1956.
“The last one I threw was 445 feet,” he said. “I had to go outside the ballpark in Minneapolis. It was 401 feet to dead center and 45 feet from home to the back stop. There was a crosswind going from right to left so I didn’t have any help with the wind. Another guy from Omaha’s throw went about halfway between the 405 mark and home plate. His ball reached home plate. Mine hit 3/4 the way up the backstop. He quit and I threw about three-to-four more pitches and they only measured to the screen; there was no way they could measure because it went half way up to the press box. One [judge] said it probably went 470. Half way up to the press box would have been another 30 feet at least. It was 455 feet and one inch to the backstop!”
Even though his awesome feat was surpassed by Glenn Gorbous in 1957, over 50 years later, it remained a popular topic with fans and collectors. He was honored by the Florida Marlins in 2006, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game. In 2009, he was still receiving correspondence about his throwing feats.
“I still get two-to-three requests per week that have something to do with the longest throw,” he said.
He used his professional experience in athletics to better serve his 27-year teaching and coaching career at Miami-Norland Senior High School. One of his prized pupils was his son Jeff, who was a three-sport athlete at Miami-Norland. He went on to Harvard University, following in his father’s footsteps by playing baseball and basketball on the collegiate level. After a successful career at Harvard, Jeff spent three years as a short stop in the Boston Red Sox organization.
“I was a major in health and physical education,” he said. “I had a master’s degree in administration and supervision. I taught 27 years. In basketball I had a very successful year (1964), when we made it to the finals to the state tournament. I got some satisfaction that we got to go to the state tournament.”