Still swinging

Former All-Star Grubb a hit at 15th annual Celebrity Golf Tournament

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In golf, as in baseball, if you can hit the ball, you can play.

That was certainly the case for Johnny Grubb over the course of his 16-year major league baseball career.

Grubb, who lives in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, made the trip to Wilson on Wednesday for his first appearance at the North Carolina Baseball Museum’s Celebrity Golf Tournament at Wedgewood Public Golf Course.

Grubb was one of 36 celebrities, many of whom competed on the 27 teams in the 15th annual tournament that benefits the museum.

Grubb hit the golf ball pretty well Wednesday, at least enough to help his team, the Gnats, claim the championship of the captain’s choice superball tournament. Of course, Grubb could swing a bat pretty good, too. He posted a career batting average of .278 with 1,153 hits, including 99 home runs, and 475 RBIs while playing for the San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Detroit Lions.

“I think it’s at every level, if you can swing the bat, they can probably find a place for you somewhere,” Grubb said.

Grubb, who played mostly outfield in San Diego until going to the American League where he could be a designated hitter, made his major league debut in 1972 with the Padres, who drafted Grubb out of Florida State in January, 1971. The previous spring, Grubb helped the Seminoles to a runner-up finish in the College World Series, where he was named to the all-tournament team.

He was actually drafted four times — first by the Boston Red Sox and then the Cincinnati Reds in the secondary phase after his sophomore season at Manatee Junior College in Bradenton, Florida, and then by the Atlanta Braves in June of 1970.

“I was felt like I was more committed to the college at the time,” Grubb said. “Especially my junior college coach helped me out a lot when I was young, so I felt like I wanted to stick through that. Then when I went to Florida State, I had to make a tough decision that last year whether to sign with San Diego or go back to Florida State.”

He finished sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1973, his first full season in the big leagues, when he hit .311 in 113 games. In 1974, Grubb was picked as a reserve for the National League All-Star team.

Grubb was eventually traded to the Indians, where he spent the better part of two seasons, and then to the Rangers, with whom he played from 1978 to 1982. He fortuitously was dealt to Detroit during the 1982 offseason and became a contributor to the Tigers’ 1984 World Series champion.

“It was the best team I played for,” Grubb said. “We had a real good ball club and so that makes it easier going to the ball park when you feel like you’ve got a great chance to win a game. I think we started that season off with 35 wins and five losses, so that’s pretty hard to beat right there! We led from start to finish and had a pretty good playoffs and World Series, so it was just one of those years.”

He also got to play for Sparky Anderson, who managed the Cincinnati Reds to back-to-back World Series titles in the 1970s before moving over to Detroit.

“For me, he was the best,” Grubb said. “I liked Don Zimmer a lot — he was my first major league manager.”

Zimmer managed him again with the Rangers. Grubb also played for hall-of-famer Frank Robinson, who became baseball’s first black manager with the Indians in 1975 as a player-manager, as well as Jeff Torborg (Indians), Billy Hunter (Rangers) and Pat Corrales (Rangers).

“I was lucky I had really good managers,” he said.

Grubb was an above-average outfielder but he ended up playing DH more over the final years of his career. That and his propensity towards good health allowed him to play until he was 38.

“I didn’t have any major injuries,” Grubb said. “I had little nagging injuries like a broken bone here and there but nothing that jeopardized my career for playing. ... I could swing a bat a little bit so (being) a left-handed hitter helped a lot. Just being in the right place at the right time!”

He had one of his best seasons as a 37-year-old in 1986, hitting .333 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs in 210 at-bats. However, the next season, his productivity plummeted and Grubb was released after the Tigers were defeated by the Minnesota Twins in the American League championship series. He did, however, get a hit in his final at-bat and finished with a .571 average in the ALCS.

Grubb, without hesitation, named Nolan Ryan (he of the seven career no-hitters and MLB-record 5,714 career strikeouts) as one of the toughest pitchers he ever faced, along with former Tigers teammate Jack Morris.

As far as the best players that he played with, Grubb preferred the Tigers keystone combo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whittaker.

“I tell you, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were probably the best two everyday players, the best double-play combination I ever saw,” Grubb said.

Now retired, Grubb spends time in Richmond, where he once was the head coach at his alma mater, Meadowbrook High, dabbling as a hitting coach for young baseball players.

He still keeps up with major league baseball and even though it’s changed a bit since Grubb last played 30 years ago, he thinks that if he were a young player today he would still be able to find a way into a big-league lineup.

“It’s the same old game — if you can hit, you’re going to play somewhere — so I think I could compete with the guys nowadays,” he said.

paul@wilsontimes.com | 265-7808