Dick Groat, Hoops Whiz Who Became a Star Shortstop, Dies at 92
He was an All-American basketball player at Duke in the early 1950s, setting a single-season N.C.A.A. scoring record. He went on to play pro basketball. But Dick Groat was mostly known as one of major league baseball’s leading shortstops of his time.
“I’m remembered as a baseball player and not by the sport I played the best,” Groat once said. “North Carolina is the one place where I’m still remembered as a basketball player.”
“I didn’t have speed, power or the greatest arm,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Baseball was work, every day.”
Groat, who died on Thursday at 92 in a Pittsburgh hospital, performed that work superbly for 14 major league seasons. He helped take the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates to their first World Series championship in 35 years while winning the National League’s batting championship and Most Valuable Player Award. He anchored the infield for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 when they won the World Series. And he was a five-time All-Star.
Groat lacked range at shortstop, but he was adept at positioning himself and had quick hands, forming an outstanding double-play combination for the Pirates with the second baseman Bill Mazeroski, a future Hall of Famer.
Mazeroski hit the memorable 1960 World Series-winning home run off the Yankees’ Ralph Terry. But Groat, a right-handed batter who was skilled at stroking the ball to the opposite field on the hit and run and seldom struck out, won the batting title with a .325 average. He was the smooth-fielding captain of the Pirates, whose lineup also featured Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon in the outfield and the power-hitter Dick Stuart at first base.
“He makes a great play and makes it look easy,” Danny Murtaugh, the manager of the 1960 Pirates, was quoted as saying by Baseball Digest. “Then he comes back and plops in the dugout as if nothing has happened.”
Richard Morrow Groat was born on Nov. 4, 1930, in Wilkinsburg, Pa., and grew up in Swissvale, near Pittsburgh. He was a high school star in baseball and basketball, which he started playing at age 5.
In basketball, as a 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound guard at Duke, Groat had no hesitation about driving through the lane. He hit jump shots and was an outstanding playmaker. He was a two-time all-American and set an N.C.A.A. major-college single-season scoring record with 831 points as a junior in the 1950-51 season. He averaged 23 points a game for his three seasons at Duke.
Playing shortstop, he led Duke to its first College Baseball World Series appearance, in June 1952, then joined the Pirates, who were in the midst of a youth movement orchestrated by their general manager, Branch Rickey, who had come to Pittsburgh from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
While in high school, Groat admired Alvin Dark, the shortstop for the 1948 pennant-winning Boston Braves. In Groat’s rookie season, Dark, playing for the New York Giants, gave him tips on how make the double play pivot.
Groat batted .284 for the 1952 Pirates, then joined the N.B.A.’s Fort Wayne Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons), who had chosen him as a first-round draft pick. He averaged 11.9 points a game in the 1952-53 season but played in only 26 games while commuting to the Duke campus to complete his degree.
After Groat spent two years in the Army, playing military basketball for part of that time, Rickey told him that he would have to choose between baseball and basketball.
“I was heartbroken,” Groat said. “Basketball was my first love.”
But he returned to the Pirates in 1955 and flourished as they became a championship team five years later.
Groat hit .319 in 1963 when he was traded to the Cardinals, and he was runner-up to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax as most valuable player.
With a team that included Julian Javier on second, Bill White on first, Ken Boyer on third, Lou Brock and Curt Flood in the outfield, Tim McCarver catching and Bob Gibson pitching brilliantly, the Cardinals defeated the Yankees in the 1964 World Series.
McCarver once recalled that Groat was a team leader but also “an antagonist.”
“He was a tough competitor,” he told Danny Peary in the oral history “We Played the Game.” (1994). “You had to play it his way, ‘the right way.’”
After three years in St. Louis, Groat played for the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants, then retired after the 1967 season with a career batting average of .286 and 2,138 hits.
He was a longtime radio analyst for the University of Pittsburgh basketball games and a founder and owner of the Champion Lakes Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa.
On Tuesday of last week, Groat was at his home in Edgewood, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb, when the former Pirates pitcher and broadcaster Steve Blass appeared on his doorstep with a camera crew. They informed Groat that he had been elected to the Pirates Hall of Fame, and conducted an impromptu interview.
Two days later, on his way to watch a telecast of the interview before a Pirates game, Groat had a stroke, his daughter, Allison DeStefano, said. He died on Thursday, she said.
In addition to Ms. DeStefano, who manages the Champion Lakes club, Groat is survived by two more daughters, Tracey Goetz and Carol Ann Groat; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, Barbara (Womble) Groat, died in 1990.
When Groat concentrated on major league baseball and put the then-struggling National Basketball Association behind him, he was choosing the pre-eminent American sport of his time and the chance for good paydays. But he had a personal consideration as well.
“I confess that one reason I chose baseball over basketball was that my father didn’t like basketball,” he said in “We Played the Game.”
“He loved baseball,” Groat added. “He threw out his arm pitching when I was just a boy, and he dreamed of having a son be a major league player.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.