Ask any Eau Claire baseball fan if there were any Hall of Fame players that got their start in the city and you will likely hear a story about Henry Aaron and the magical 1952 Bears season. Forty years before Aaron began hammering out his legendary status, though, another future Hall of Famer began his career in Eau Claire with much less fanfare.
In 1912, Burleigh Arland Grimes was an 18-year-old kid fresh off the Cecil “Nick” and Ruth Grimes farm near the small town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Nick managed Burleigh on the Clear lake town ball team, but never let him pitch in home games because he wasn’t sure he was ready to pitch. In early May of 1912, though, Nick apparently changed his mind in a big way. He gave his son $15 and sent him to Eau Claire for a tryout with the Commissioners, a professional team in the Minnesota-Wisconsin League. The investment paid off and Burleigh was quickly signed to a contract that paid him $80 a month.
On May 16, 1912, Danny Kick, Eau Claire’s veteran shortstop, was ejected for arguing with the umpire. Burleigh came off the bench to replace him, marking his official professional debut. Five days later, Eau Claire manager Russ Bailey did something that Nick Grimes refused to do – start Burleigh on the mound for a home game. That game was the season’s home opener at the Driving Park. He was understandably shaky and took the loss, but had enough promise to get another start a few days later, when he gave up just one run and five hits, earning his first win.
Only four teams comprised the once-mighty Minnesota-Wisconsin League in 1912. On June 30, just 177 fans saw Burleigh take a tough loss at Driving Park. The low attendance that beautiful Sunday afternoon was the final straw: Eau Claire no longer had enough money to field a team and was forced to disband. After finding no other teams to fill in, the league had no choice but to shut down operations a few days later. Burleigh’s first professional season was over. He ended with a 4-4 record and an earned run average of around 3.50, walking only 15 and striking out 47 in 69.1 innings.
Four years later, Burleigh made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Known for much of his career as “Ol’ Stubblebeard”, Burleigh won 270 games over a 19-year career and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964. His bread-and-butter pitch, the spitball, was outlawed after 1920 but certain pitchers, including Burleigh, were grandfathered in. Grimes was the last one of those pitchers to retire, so he threw the last legal spitball in the major leagues.
The Eau Claire Express and Royal Credit Union are proud to recognize Burleigh Grimes for his extensive baseball accomplishments with a bobblehead showing him getting ready for yet another spitball in the Eau Claire Commissioners uniform he wore when it all began more than a century ago.
Join us at Carson Park on Wednesday, July 31, for the Burleigh Grimes Bobblehead giveaway sponsored by Royal Credit Union!
The Eau Claire Express are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The 25-year old summer collegiate league is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 22 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, over 200 former Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS), two-time World Series Champions Ben Zobrist (CHC) and Brandon Crawford (SFG) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (BOS), Jordan Zimmermann (DET) and Curtis Granderson (MIA). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit www.eauclaireexpress.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store or on Google Play and set the Express as your favorite team.