Gene Autry, keen to add proven talent and well known prospects to his new franchise, took the recommendation of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Grba fit the mould perfectly, becoming the Angels’ first choice in the draft.
Angels in the UK Editor Matt Thomas, writes on the illustrious heritage of our Angels.
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Eli Grba isn’t exactly a name that slips off of the tongue but it is a name that forever will be remembered by Angels fans, as an answer to a trivia question, something which Grba himself found a great amusement. Not only was he the first Angels player selected in the very first expansion draft, prior to the inaugural Halos season in the American League, but on the 11th of April 1961 he also threw the first pitch for the Angels. In winning that Opening Day game, versus the Baltimore Orioles, Grba secured another first, then added another as he was also named in the starting line up of the first Angels home game. On many counts Grba will be forever remembered as the ‘original Angel’ and by his own admittance the ‘fallen Angel’.
As the 1960 season drew to an end and with the New York Yankees chasing down the Orioles to the American League title, Grba found himself named in the Yankees World Series roster and appeared be set for a breakthrough. It was something of a surprise then that the Yankees chose not to protect their young pitcher in the upcoming draft. Gene Autry, keen to add proven talent and well known prospects to his new franchise, took the recommendation of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Grba fit the mould perfectly, becoming the Angels’ first choice in the draft. Halos manager, Bill Rigney, appeared to be getting the best out of his starlet, and the 1961 inaugural season ended with Grba throwing eight complete games, including the Opening Day win over the Orioles.
Grba was apoplectic, asking at the time; “how a guy can be good enough to pitch the opening game two years in a row and then isn’t even good enough to pitch in the bullpen?”
The journey to the major leagues had not been easy for the bespeckled pitcher, having had his progress halted by military service in 1957 and 1958, and his fresh start with the Angels should have been the launching point of a steady career. The 1961 season saw Grba go 11-13 with the Angels in 40 games, starting 30 and ended with a 4.25 ERA, his best season in the majors. On the field there were perhaps hints that not all was well with him, a public feud with future Hall of Famer and former Yankees teammate, Micky Mantle, made him the talk of the town. Pitching for the first time in an Angels uniform at Yankee Stadium, Grba screamed abuse at Mantle as he rounded the bases, from his mound. It was no surprise that he had not been keen to join the Yankees when traded away by the Chicago Red Sox, so no love was lost.
Despite being named starting pitcher in the Angels Opening Day rosters for both 1961 and 1962 Grba was proving to be inconsistent with form and was used increasingly as a reliever, until 1963, when he was sent down to the minor leagues. Grba was apoplectic, asking at the time; “how a guy can be good enough to pitch the opening game two years in a row and then isn’t even good enough to pitch in the bullpen?” Alcoholism was gripping Grba by 1963 and it never allowed him to recover to the major leagues, despite numerous attempts, including one with his beloved Chicago White Sox. His life became that of a journeyman ball player, who enhanced his earnings by doing odd jobs. Following a drunken fall, in 1981, Grba finally found the spark to get sober and stay sober, and eventually a route back into baseball as a profession.
In his later career a sober Grba held down a number of roles, including in the Philadelphia Phillies’ wider system, thanks to 1961 Angels teammate, Lee Thomas, then the Phillies’ general manager. He also spent time as pitching coach with the Vancouver Canadians [his Canadians baseball cards were something of a must have for me, with my family ties to Vancouver], of the Milwaukee Brewers organisation. Grba always took great pride in his status as an Angel and of his place in the franchise history, but his proudest moment was arguably his return to Angel Stadium in 2011, when threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season in celebration of the Angels’ 50th anniversary. On this 60th anniversary of that first season we as Angels fans once again remember Grba, the man who had to lose it all to find it all. In 2016 he wrote about his battle for sobriety and baseball in his book “Baseball’s Fallen Angel,” a must read for Angels fans in the UK and Ireland. Grba passed away in January 2019, at the ripe old age of 84.
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