for The Frostburg Express
Editor’s note: Each week “Miner Recollections” will spotlight Georges Creek coal heritage, and the sacrifices made by those who mined it, by drawing upon biographical sketches, family narratives and historical research.
Life in the Appalachian coal fields of Western Maryland in the late 1800s and early 1900s was often a desperate, day-to-day existence. Low wages and inconsistent coal production made it a necessity for families to have more than one wage-earner. At age 10, or in some cases even earlier, a boy could expect to sacrifice his schooling in order to go to work to help support the family’s daily necessities.
John Robert Grove and his wife Emma Catherine (Beeman) Grove lived in the Charlestown section of Lonaconing. The Groves were a typical coal mining family, but standing tall at 6 foot, 6 inches, John Robert Grove was anything but a typical miner. John supported the family by working at the Maryland Coal Co.’s Kingsland Big Vein Mine located at the top of Douglas Avenue in Lonaconing. By 1910, John and Emma were the parents of four boys and two girls.
Almost two decades earlier, John and Emma had suffered a succession of tragedies that took the lives of two of their children and John’s younger brother. William E. Groves (the spelling of the last name was later shortened to Grove) was born to John and Emma on Feb. 11, 1893, but only lived 11 months. William died of pneumonia on Jan. 23, 1894. In March of the following year, John’s 15-year-old brother, Benjamin Thomas Groves, was killed when he was run over by mine cars at the Jackson Mine in Lonaconing. In early December 1898, John and Emma’s daughter Emma Catherine (named after her mother) was kicked by a horse. Little Emma lingered for two weeks before passing away on Dec. 16. Surely, the death of their young daughter cast a pall over Grove family Christmas celebrations for many years to come.
By 1912, John and Emma’s 12-year-old son, Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove, had quit school to help provide for the family. Lefty inherited his middle name from his maternal grandfather, Civil War veteran Moses Beeman, and from his great-great grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, whose name was also Moses Beeman. After working in an underground coal mine for only a day (to fill in for his brother who had suffered a minor injury) Lefty pleaded with his father: “Dad, I didn’t put that coal in there and I hope I don’t have to take any more of ‘er out.”
Lefty found employment at the Utility Glass Works in Lonaconing and later as a bobbin boy at the Klotz Throwing Mill (silk mill) in Lonaconing. While helping to support his family, Lefty found time on Sundays to pursue his passion for baseball. A typical Sunday consisted of church, the family dinner and baseball games at First Field on Big Vein Hill in the Charlestown section of Lonaconing. An anecdote recounted in the Maryland Historical Magazine, written by Lefty’s childhood friend Ruth Bear Levy, conveyed the excitement of the Sunday baseball games. Levy wrote that former Charlestown resident Bertha Hutton recalled how her father and brothers would always seem to be in a hurry to finish Sunday dinner. When questioned, the guys said that they wanted to go to First Field, because Lefty Grove was pitching. Bertha brushed off the excitement, saying “I’ll bet that Lefty Grove does not pitch a baseball better than anyone else.” “Oh, yes he does,” responded Bertha’s brother Karl. “Lefty’s fast ball is like a shot out of a gun.”
Lefty’s reputation preceded him and he soon found himself playing for the Midland Mightys in the Cumberland and Georges Creek League. The story of Lefty’s ascent to baseball stardom is well-known.
In a 1974 recorded interview with Lefty, conducted at the home of his daughter-in-law Jean (Rogers) Grove in Norwalk, Ohio (only a year before Lefty’s death), the interviewer repeatedly tried to draw a response from Lefty about the glory. Lefty responded, “We weren’t crazy like that in those days.” The interviewer and Lefty obviously had a different perspective. The 45-minute interview is available on the Cleveland Public Library’s website – www.cpl.org.
Often maligned for his obsessive commitment to winning baseball games, it’s likely that Lefty was motivated not only by his innate competitive passion, but by a fear of failure. If he didn’t succeed in making a living at baseball, it most likely meant going back to those dreaded underground coal mines. Two years before Lefty quit school, Western Maryland had experienced the two deadliest years in the history of underground coal mining in Allegany County. In 1909 and 1910, 35 miners had lost their lives in the mines. In 1912, there was still no hospital in the Georges Creek area to treat injured miners. Lefty was well aware of the occupational hazards; his great uncle William Beeman was killed at the dump site of the New Detmold Mine, just south of Lonaconing, in 1875.
Considering the atmosphere in which he grew up, it’s understandable that Lefty was happy to make a living doing something that he would have done for free. When author Jim Kaplan wrote Lefty’s biography, which was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2000, the title that Kaplan submitted was “Coal Miner’s Son.” The publisher didn’t like the title, however, and Kaplan was compelled to change it to “American Original, Lefty Grove.”
Grove was perhaps as much of a cultural hero as a baseball hero. Unlike many of his boyhood friends, he found a way to escape the dangerous underground coal mines, an almost certain life of poverty and a premature death from injury or black lung.
Lefty’s father, John Robert Grove, worked as an underground miner all of his life; miraculously, he did not contract the respiratory ailments common to coal miners. John passed away on Jan. 5, 1957, at the age of 91. John and Emma Grove are buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park in Cumberland.