Howard Herman: Dick Groat was certainly a great
There's been a lot of talk about Mount Rushmores, and what athletes are immortalized on your mountain.
So much of the discussion is generational and it is best served over a pitcher and a pizza. If you're a certain age, you'd be a Russell and Chamberlain guy for the NBA, or you might be Gretzky and Lemieux for the NHL and you might even be Joe Montana and Jerry Rice for an NFL Mount Rushmore. There isn't a wrong answer.
Sometimes, some great athletes get overlooked because their profiles weren't as high or their championship seasons were decades ago. So it is with one athlete who I believe has to be on anyone's list of the all-time greats -- Dick Groat.
Groat is a two-time World Series champion, a former National League most valuable player, a first-round pick in an NBA draft and is the only person I know who is in two different Halls of Fame as an athlete.
Groat is probably best known for a 14-year baseball career that spanned four different teams. Yankee fans around here remember him for playing on the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates team that beat the Yankees in seven games to win the world title. He was the National League's MVP that year.
Three seasons later, Groat was traded to St. Louis, where he played on a World Series winner in 1964 -- also over the Yankees.
Much like Pittsfield's Mark Belanger, who garnered great fame as a shortstop with the Baltimore Orioles, Groat was just as good, if not better, in another sport.
Groat played college baseball and basketball at Duke University, and as I mentioned earlier, is the only athlete inducted into both the College Baseball and College Basketball halls of fame. He was drafted in the first round, and was the third player chosen, in the 1952 NBA Draft by the Fort Wayne Pistons.
Interestingly enough, Gene Conley was taken in the 10th round by Boston, and played six big league seasons with Milwaukee and the Red Sox in between his time with the Celtics.
In a bit of full disclosure, Groat was a childhood hero of mine. He was in Boston on Wednesday, traveling with the University of Pittsburgh radio broadcast crew. At 83, he's still the color commentator for Pitt.
"I wanted to [play in the NBA]," Groat said. "I had played the one year and realized I was a better basketball player than a baseball player, and I could make it in the NBA.
"I played my rookie year and then went back to Duke to finish my diploma. That's when I played for the Pistons that winter. They got me a private plane that flew me from Durham, N.C. to Fort Wayne, Ind. Unbelievable. I never had more fun in my life."
In between college courses, Groat averaged 11.9 points in 26 games for the Pistons in his one NBA year.
Pittsfield's Belanger was also an outstanding basketball player who could have played college hoops. He chose baseball, and like Groat, the rest was history.
Groat must have had a tough father, because it was dad who steered him back to baseball.
"When I came back [from the military] it was February and I went right to spring training with the Pirates," he said. "I had my contract to go back making more money, even though Mr. [Branch] Rickey doubled my salary when I came out of the service, the Pistons offered me more money than that. I wanted to go back.
"I had a five-year bonus contract and I still had a year or two left on that. My father would not allow me to break the law. He said ‘You signed that, son, you're going to live by it.' "
Think how baseball, and basketball history might have changed had Groat stayed in the NBA. Maybe the Pistons win a title or two. Certainly without him, the Pirates and Cardinals might have come up short in 1960 and 1964.
"I'm proud of being an All-American at Duke in both basketball and baseball. Baseball was just great to me. It was a great career," he said. "I played on two world championship teams. I don't know what more you could ask for?"
Maybe he could get a spot on somebody's Mount Rushmore.
To reach Howard Herman:
or (413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.
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