A Conversation With Johnny Grubb

During the recent Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown, I talked to former major league outfielder Johnny Grubb, a .278 hitter during a 16-year career with the San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers. Thought he fit the description of a journeyman, Grubb forged a lengthy career as an effective platoon outfielder and DH, culminating with a world championship three years before his retirement.

As part of our interview, Grubb discussed his post-playing career, his memories of his first major league game, recollections of controversial Padres owner Ray Kroc, and some of the more unusual teammates that he encountered along the way.

Markusen: First off, Johnny, it’s been awhile since you last played back in the eighties, having retired from the Tigers; you’ve got the Tiger uniform on today. What are you up to these days?

Grubb: Well, actually I was a high school coach for the last ten years. Right now I’m pretty much retired, trying to spend some time with the grandchildren. I’ve got two granddaughters and two grandsons and I’m just trying to spend some time with them. So I’m lucky that I could retire and play a little golf.

Markusen: Were you the head coach [of the high school team]?

Grubb: I was the head coach, yes. Yeah, last year was actually the last year that I coached. I was there ten years—at the high school that I went to. It was a neat experience. We had a lot of nice young players. Actually, one of my players was Cla Meredith, who’s pitching with the Padres now.

Markusen: Did you find that as a former major league player, the kids paid more attention to you? Or did it not matter?

Grubb: [laughing] It depends on who you’re talking to. Some of the kids I think really took in the information and knew they were getting information from an ex-major leaguer. It depended on the person. For the most part, I think they did a real good job listening.

Markusen: In preparing for today’s interviews, I was looking at career statistics for a lot of the players here, including yours. You had a very good on-base percentage lifetime–.366. That wasn’t emphasized back then the way it is today, with the Sabermetric movement and some of the new scouting tools that we have. Do you think you would have been more appreciated today because of the on-base percentage and the emphasis on it?

Grubb: I think it’s hard to say. I don’t know. That was my job, when I was coming along [with the Padres], they had me as a leadoff hitter early in my career. So my job was to get on base and I tried to do that. I was more of a doubles, line-drive hitter. You’e got a role to play on each team. When I got hooked up with Detroit, I was more of a DH, utility type player. I just tried to do what the team needs.

Markusen: As you look back, Johnny, at your career with the Padres, Rangers, Indians, and Tigers, any one highlight that you say was the ultimate, the top of the peak?

Grubb: I would say the World Series. That would be the first thing, off the top of my head. Winning the World Series when I was with the Tigers in 1984. That’s what every kid dreams of, of being on a major league team and getting to the World Series, and winning the World Series. I was lucky enough to be with a great organization. Sparky Anderson was a great manager, we had great coaches, teammates that were fantastic. It was just one of those magical years. That was my highlight.

Markusen: Going back to your debut, 1972 with the Padres, how much do you remember from your first major league at-bat?

Grubb: I remember we played against Atlanta and Ron Reed was the first pitcher I faced in the major leagues. He got me out the first time I came up; I got a base hit—the single—the second time up. It’s funny things like that that you remember: your first home run, your first hit, your first at-bat, those things stick in your mind.

Markusen: That had to be intimidating, Reed was a tall, six-foot-eight right-hander who threw fairly hard as I recall.

Grubb: You know, it’s funny, I never felt like I was intimidated, but he did throw hard and he was a good pitcher, and I knew I had a battle up there. I think with most players, it’s hard to intimidate ballplayers.

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Markusen: Johnny, I’m doing a book on unusual characters in baseball history. You had a chance to play with a few during your career. Let’s start with an owner who was somewhat offbeat, Ray Kroc?

Grubb: I loved it because it looked like San Diego was going to move to Washington. And then along comes Mr. Kroc, who bought the club. He really and truly did care about the city and the team; I thought it was great that we had an owner like that, doing whatever he could to get a winner there in San Diego. So I thought it was fantastic.

Markusen: Were you there the day that he berated the team over the public address system? Tell us about that.

Grubb: Actually, I believe that I was on deck and suddenly I heard this voice come over, it sounded like God. He was getting on us and apologizing to the fans. He was not going to put up with this type of baseball. I think the players appreciated it because we were playing pretty bad at the time. Once again, it showed that there was an owner there who cared a lot and was not going to put up with poor baseball.

Markusen: I was talking with Nate Colbert, who visited Cooperstown last year and he had a similar reaction, that he didn’t mind, that he thought it was kind of a good thing, that it showed that the owner cared. He didn’t have much of a problem with it, [a reaction] that I was surprised by.

Grubb: Yeah, well, I wasn’t upset by it either. I know that after the game—I think John McNamara was the manager and he mentioned to us, ‘Just be careful what you say to the press when they come in.’ I think all of the players felt like we needed it. And I think Doug Rader, it might have been the next day, loosened it up by going out and exchanging lineup cards while wearing some kind of chef hat on or an apron or something [because Kroc had likened the Padres players to short order cooks]. He kind of loosened the atmosphere and made it a little bit looser in the clubhouse.

Markusen: You played for a couple of years with an interesting guy, Willie Davis.

Grubb: Yes, Willie was with me in San Diego his last year probably and my last year with the Padres. He was an exciting ballplayer—I watched him go from first to home on a base hit to right field, a single, a hit to right field at Jarry Park [in Montreal]. Of course, he was running on the pitch—he might have been trying to steal a base—but he scored on a single and I don’t think I ever saw that again.

Markusen: As I recall, he was very much into Buddhism and some interesting rituals, including some chanting before games?

Grubb: You would hear him sometimes back there doing a little bit of chanting, I don’t know what religion he was practicing, or what beliefs he had, but I do remember him doing some chanting before the games sometimes.

Markusen: Texas had some real flakes, some really colorful guys. Willie Montanez, Oscar Gamble, Jim Kern. Any of those guys that really stood out for being offbeat?

Grubb: [laughing] And Sparky Lyle, throw him in there, too. They were loose, funny guys and you need at least one guy like that on every successful team, somebody who is going to keep the clubhouse light and jovial. Those guys were great teammates and outstanding ballplayers, too. And I think they’re necessary on every ballclub.

Markusen: Who was the wackiest of that group?

Grubb: Wow, that’s a tossup there. Jim Kern, I was with him in Cleveland and Texas, and I don’t think you can get much looser than that. But all of them were funny. We had some funny guys, like Dave Rozema in Detroit, who kept us loose in 1984 when we went to the World Series. And Tommy Brookens and guys like that who had a great sense of humor. You need ‘em!

Markusen: Did you really call Kern “Emu?”

Grubb: Yeah, Emu. Emu. It’s funny how the game goes. I faced him in spring training, there was this tall guy throwing gas—I was with San Diego and he was with Cleveland—and later on we ended up being teammates—twice.

Markusen: Johnny, thanks, I appreciate it very much.

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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.

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