For 21-year old Jerry Grote of San Antonio, Christmas of 1963 must have been an especially joyous holiday season. After all, the young Houston Colt .45 signee at catcher had just finished his first full year of professional baseball, even got to play for his home town San Antonio Bullets, batting .268 on the year with 14 homers. Even though he made 18 errors in 867 chances in the field, all of his miscues were correctable with experience and he seemed to have a way of building confidence in his pitchers, even at that early age.
Grote made it up to the Astros for a few times at bat in September of 1963, but I didn’t get to see him play until the summer of 1964. I was completing my graduate school studies at Tulane University in New Orleans at the time and had to hook short trips to Houston to see the Colt .45s for a few games. I liked what I saw in Grote, even though he wasn’t hitting “Mendoza” in his first real major league trial. He was a little guy who played with a lot of energy and with an attitude of alertness about what was going on with his pitcher and everywhere else. He played on top of the ball; he didn’t allow the ball to play him; same for the game. Grote was on top of what was going on. He held runners at first and he threw a bunch of them out when they tried to steal. He talked to his pitchers constantly with his body language and I don’t know how many times I saw him follow a quick mound trip with a called or swinging strike on the batter. I thought: “Forget the batting average for now. This guy is going to be a leader. He already knows how to handle pitchers.”
It didn’t happen. Not for Houston, anyway. After a .265, 11 HR season for AAA Oklahoma City, the newly renamed Houston Astros dealt Grote away to the New York Mets on October 19, 1965 for a pitcher named Tom Parsons, some cash, and, I presume, the conventional bag of balls. Parsons was out of baseball before he ever threw an official pitch for the Astros and Jerry Grote was on his way to a different destiny among the “Amazin’ Mets.”
I had a bad feeling about the trade when it came down. I had just seen too many things in Grote that I
liked to feel nothing about a transaction that basically came down as a player dump. Sadly, Mr. Grote proved a lot of us Astros fans who felt that way justified in our concerns. Soon enough, Jerry Grote found an acceptable level of offensive production with the Mets. By 1968, he even batted .282, his second best average for a full season. He had no power, but he could handle pitchers, hold or throw out base runners, and play the game on top of the ball. In 1969, Grote handled two future Hall of Famers, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, on the Amazin’ Mets march to a World Series title in their ninth year of existence. He also made only 11 errors in 788 chances in the field that championship year too.
Grote ended up playing on a second Mets National League pennant winner in 1973 and, all tolled, he played for 16 seasons in the big leagues (1963, 64-81) with Houston, the Mets, the Dodgers, and Royals.
Jerry Grote finished his major league career with a batting average of .252, but he clouted only 39 homers in 4,339 times at bat. Slugging definitely was not one of the tools in Jerry’s war chest, but it didn’t matter. He had so many others.
Anyway, I doubt that the bag of balls the Astros got for Jerry Grote in the deal with the Mets lasted quite as long as he did. Oh well. We can’t get ‘em all right, can we?