Grove's trophy back in spotlight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONACONING - Robert Moses Grove - "Lefty" to anyone who knows baseball - was universally considered among the best southpaws ever to pitch professionally. In 1931, he compiled a record of 31 wins and four losses and won the first Most Valuable Player trophy given by the American League.

Grove died in 1975, leaving the trophy to the people of his hometown, this hardscrabble coal-mining community in the hills of Western Maryland. The puzzling thing is what the people of Lonaconing did with the trophy: not a whole lot.

For years, it sat in storage at the high school, blending in with school basketball and volleyball trophies. But the principal worried about its safety, and it was moved in 1995 to a bank vault downtown, where it has remained hidden ever since.

This is the story of a town of 1,100 on the fringes of Appalachia, blessed with one of baseball's treasures, but with neither the incentive nor the resources to give it a proper home. Here's the uplifting conclusion:

Lonaconing will open a new $950,000 library later this month, the first to serve a handful of communities that dot Georges Creek in Allegany County.

In the library's multipurpose meeting and history room will soon be a display case - now being built at a cost of $30,000 raised by residents - that will house Grove's trophy.

"It will be totally, totally secure - bulletproof," promises Sandra Grandstaff, chairwoman of the Georges Creek Regional Library fund-raising committee. "We are a proud community that lost its backbone when we lost coal mining. This is the town's way of saying to Lefty, 'Thanks for putting us on the map.'"

The value of the trophy, a silver statue of a pitcher standing above an oversized baseball, is difficult to estimate. As the league's first MVP trophy given, it is one of a kind. The rumor in town is that it's worth more than $500,000. Hunt Auctions Inc., a Pennsylvania auction house specializing in sports memorabilia, estimates it would sell for $20,000 to $30,000.

"It is something that is coveted," says Jeff Idelson, spokesman for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He says he can't confirm whether the Hall ever approached the town to get the trophy [people in Lonaconing insist it has] but adds that Cooperstown will accept Grove's desire to keep it in Maryland.

"If that's his wish," Idelson says, "it's not something you want to tamper with."

Humble man, humble town

One reason the town never treated Grove's award with fanfare is that its residents never treated Grove himself with much. He's remembered here as the kid who tossed homemade baseballs (wool socks wound around a cork stopper) on local fields, then, during his career, ran a bowling alley whenever he came home.

They were proud of him but never grasped the extent of his fame.

"Whenever you went to bowl, you had to sign up with him, and he seemed like an all-right fellow," says Paul Johnson, 78, enjoying a lunch of vegetable soup and coffee recently at Marshall's Confectionary, a diner that opened in 1901."[Grove] just acted like a normal person," Johnson says. "He was one of the guys. I don't think it got to his head."

Betty Grove Holshey, Grove's 75-year-old niece, says his fame was something to be thankful for, rather than something to celebrate. She recalls looking forward to each of his victories because that meant a shipment of 50 small boxes of Wheaties cereal to the family, as part of a contract Grove had signed.

"My dad made $15 a week," Holshey says. "When your dad doesn't make that much money, that's a big thing."

Lonaconing is an unassuming place that would balk at taking advantage of a famous resident to attract attention.

In addition, after Grove's trophy was granted to the town around 1960, nobody thought it would ever be a big draw. Lonaconing residents believe, for example, that the only thing drawing Baltimoreans to Western Maryland was Interstate 68.

"We are usually surprised, and sometimes annoyed, to learn that most natives of Baltimore apply the term 'Western Maryland' to any point beyond Ellicott City," wrote one resident in a 1965 essay reprinted recently in a local history book. "To come from beyond Cumberland, really, is inconceivable. There is no Maryland out there - Montana or Idaho, perhaps, but no Maryland."

Set in one of Maryland's poorest regions, this town also never had the resources to put up a shrine or museum for Grove. This is a place accustomed to just surviving. The once-bustling town was devastated by the Depression, which arrived at the height of Grove's career and shut down many of his hometown's mines, causing much of the population to flee.

Natural roadblocks

More recently, the community suffered through a powerful flood in 1996 that washed away many buildings, including Grove's old bowling alley. A drought in 1998 dried up reservoirs and turned water in many residents' sinks brown.

The library project brought good news and seemed like the opportunity to give Grove's trophy the most fitting display. Yet even that was an uphill fight. Residents expressed desire for a library in 1987 but faced skepticism from county officials. Once ground was broken, the project was held up for several years after one contractor went bankrupt and another abruptly abandoned it.

The building, constructed in an archlike shape with dark brick to resemble a coal mine, was completed last month, funded with $400,000 from Allegany County, $400,000 from the state, and $150,000 in local money raised, in part, from silent auctions and raffles.

"There was no library here," Grandstaff points out. "So we went to meetings. We went to Annapolis. We went to Cumberland. We never let up."

The trophy is to be moved into the library in March. The town recently paid to have it cleaned and polished. Before that, it was receiving little care, lying on its side on the top shelf of a filing cabinet inside the bank vault.

"We really didn't have a safe-deposit box that big," says Donna Buskirk, manager at M&T; Bank. "And it was in terrible shape, almost yellow. It wasn't in anything - no wrapping."

From the beginning

Lefty Grove was born in 1900, one of eight children, in a miner's family. He grew up watching his father and brothers venture underground each morning.

He was taken to work in the mine for two weeks in 1916 to replace a brother who sprained an ankle. According to Lefty Grove's biography, written by Jim Kaplan, the future pitcher told his father he never wanted to go underground again:

"Dad, I didn't put that coal in here, and I hope I don't have to take no more of her out," Lefty said.

So, gifted with strength and height - 6 feet 3 inches was tall for the time - Grove began a baseball career with the old International League Orioles, compiling 109 wins and 36 losses before the team sold him in 1925 to the Philadelphia Athletics for a record-shattering $100,600.

Grove, who finished his career with the Boston Red Sox, had the lowest earned run average in the league nine times, led in strikeouts seven straight seasons and was an All-Star six times.

The pitcher was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. Visitors to Cooperstown can see one of his Red Sox uniforms, a glove from the 1929 World Series and a 1933 trading card, but not the MVP trophy.

That, Lefty gave to his friend, John Meyers, a teacher at nearby Valley High School, before the retired pitcher moved to Ohio. Meyers died several years ago, but his sister, Mary, remembers what the pitcher told her brother.

"He said 'very few from 'Coney will ever make it up to Cooperstown,'" she recalls. "'So I want it to stay here.'"

So it did. The high school kept it in its trophy case.

When Valley High was consolidated with another school and renamed Westmar High in the late 1980s, old Valley trophies were taken into storage, and Lefty's MVP award went along with them.

The MVP award was apparently discovered in 1995 by former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk, a West Virginia native who was attending a girls basketball game here.

"Kruk said, 'You're kidding me!' " recalls Jay Walbert, Westmar's principal.

"He said, 'This thing is just sitting here. You know how much it must be worth?'"

That's when Walbert decided he should transfer it somewhere more secure - the bank.

Residents are excited that it will soon be back on public display. But don't think folks in Lonaconing expect it will become a major tourist attraction.

Says Mary Meyers: "It will be a great drawing card for the library."

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