Amherst Magazine

Howard “Howdy”
Groskloss at Amherst
in 1930.

Howdy hits 100

Amherst is saddened to report that Howard “Howdy” Groskloss passed away on July 15, 2006. Howdy is survived by his wife Mary, and stepchildren Linda, Janet, Marie and Joanna.

Driving across Florida in search of the world’s oldest Pirate, one can imagine any number of stories.

GrosklossGroskloss at home with his wife, Mary.

At best, meaning at its most interesting, maybe it’s the story of a guy who played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1930s and now has the whole thing entangled in a brain that just turned 100 years old. Maybe he’s living on a bobbing pontoon in the Atlantic, with an eye patch, a parrot on his shoulder (also wearing an eye patch), and a reflexive proclivity for the all-time No. 1 Pirate cliché: “Aarrrgh.”

Short of that, would this particular Amherst College grad even remember being a professional contemporary of Babe Ruth, playing for the Pirates of Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers? At 100, God bless him, would he remember Monday, this being Tuesday?

As it happens, if there’s a better baseball story out there right now, a perfectly interesting story of a near-perfectly spent life, it’s nowhere on the worn landscape of public discourse as much as it is in this beautifully appointed home on John’s Island, part of Vero Beach.

It is here that Howard Groskloss ’30 remembers things vividly, mostly because there is so, so much that is simply unforgettable.

“I remember there were a lot of women standing around after the games,” he said joyously. “You couldn’t get through all the women.”

From across the room, Mary, his wife of 30 years, smiled at her 100-year-old husband. Perhaps she’s heard that observation before.

“There was a very pretty nurse here the other day,” said Mary, herself still lovely at 79. “Howard didn’t want her to leave. He’s doing very well.”

That he is, and it’s only been that way now for about 100 years.

The son of a Pittsburgh opera singer who envisioned for him the future of a violin prodigy, Groskloss came to his first crossroads when it became clear that he loved sports as much as music. His mother, who feared he’d ruin his fingers playing baseball, advised him to pick one or the other and not look back.

“My father was a great, great fan of the game,” he said. “I grew up watching it with him. He’d take me to see the Pirates. He knew I could get around pretty well, and he was a friend of Barney Dreyfuss, so I guess he got Mr. Dreyfuss to take a look at me.”

Dreyfuss had been the Pirates’ owner for more than a generation when Howard Groskloss came into view, but he thought so much of the kid’s aptitude that, fearing injury, he offered to pay him not to play football at Amherst, where Groskloss planned to begin his studies in the fall of 1926. It was his first stop in a lifetime of groundbreaking medical and academic achievement.

Groskloss declined that cash, which was a fine thing for Amherst’s athletic interests over the next four years.

Mary got up and went to a shelf, from which she pulled down the large silver trophy Amherst calls its Mossman Cup, given annually to the college’s top student athlete. This particular chunk of hardware was presented to Groskloss in 1930 by former president Calvin Coolidge (even then, he was a former president), another Amherst alum (Class of 1895) of some note.

At Amherst, Howard Groskloss played baseball (shortstop), football (tailback), basketball (point guard) and tennis; he also was a member of the swim team, and he ran track. In his seconds of spare time, he studied medicine and waited tables at a local boarding house. Decades later, he took up golf and started winning tournaments all over South Florida and the Bahamas.

His first big break, however, came from Dreyfuss, who gave him a $10,000 bonus when he signed to play for the Pirates.

“It wasn’t publicized, I think, because it was at the start of the Depression,” Groskloss said, “but that was a big, big bonus. I gave it to my mother to pay off the house.”

So it was on June 23, 1930, the month after Amherst’s commencement and Groskloss’ acceptance into Yale Medical School, that “Howdy” Groskloss made his major league debut at second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was an era when few players dodged nicknames. Among his Pirate teammates were Joseph “Arky” Vaughan, who got that name for being from Arkansas, Harold “Pie” Traynor, Paul “Big Poison” Waner and his brother Lloyd “Little Poison.” (No word on a brother named “Moderate Toxicity.”) Pitcher Henry William Meine was called either Heinie Meine or The Count of Luxembourg. (Don’t ask.)

In that climate, Groskloss was relatively fortunate to get away with “Howdy.” He’s most commonly called Dr. Groskloss.

“He’s one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met,” said longtime friend Dick Durrell, whose own athletic feats helped launch a career with Time, Inc. as the founder of People magazine. “He’s just a pleasure to be around. His mind is so keen that you can talk about just about anything with him. I retired to Vero Beach years ago, and there used to be these Bach concerts at a local church every month. We’d go all the time. He knew a lot about music. We’d go to see the Dodgers in spring training, and he’d watch the infielders’ footwork and tell me about that. He’s fascinating.”

Dr. Groskloss wound up playing parts of three seasons in the major leagues, most notably in 1931, when he appeared in 53 games and hit .280 with seven doubles and two triples.

“I remember Traynor and the Waners; they were great guys and good friends,” he said. “But the Pirates knew I was more serious about school. They knew they weren’t going to keep me.’

Groskloss stayed with the team long enough to meet some monumental figures, including Branch Rickey, who liked to chat with him because he was so smart. Rickey told Groskloss in 1932 that he hoped the game’s future would include black players.

“He told me was hopeful of getting Negro players into the game,” Groskloss said. “He was very sure about it. He was a very religious man. That was 15 years before Jackie Robinson.”

That same year, the Pirates changed managers, and the new boss, George Gibson, was less than enchanted that Groskloss, his utility infielder, spent so much time with his nose in a medical text. Late that summer, Howdy left the Pirates for good. It was not a terribly significant loss for the game, perhaps, but it was a veritable boon to medicine.

Groskloss studied at Yale and then at Penn, and eventually taught at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic. He was an important figure at the University of Miami, whose medical school grew from the brainstorming of consulting physicians that included Howard Groskloss. He declined a Rhodes Scholarship because he thought it would only delay his life’s work. He was chief medical officer and flight surgeon on the carrier USS Makassar in the Pacific theater during World War II, and went on to teach obstetrics, gynecology and endocrinology for more than 50 years. He is credited with helping to introduce ultra-sound technology to various medical disciplines.

On the day I talked with him, he was hurrying to see the dentist.

“He’s physically stronger than I am,” said Mary. “Maybe he’ll play ball again.”

If he didn’t seem to have broken every finger on both hands, even that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Howdy’s mother was right. He was going to ruin his fingers playing that dumb game.

“Gloves weren’t much when I played,” he explained. “You broke one [finger], you just snapped it back into place and kept on playing.”

I wonder if that particular treatment appeared in any of the medical texts of the day.

Groskloss doesn’t watch a lot of baseball on television these days.

“Not religiously,” is how he puts it.

I don’t ask if he can pull in the Pirates games on satellite. That would presume he’d want them.

He spends his days with Mary, and the occasional visitor like Durrell. He eats Mary’s cooking and makes note of a pretty nurse here and again. If there’s an Amherst reunion or even semi-official function though, he’s there.

With Dr. Groskloss, the obligatory journalist’s question for 100-year-olds gets fielded flawlessly, and with style.

“Doctor, how did you get to be 100?”

“Well, I wasn’t much for the vices,” he said. “I didn’t drink much. Of course, I could have had plenty of vices.”

Come to think of it, baseball was probably as close as he came.

— By Gene Collier

Gene Collier is a sports columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.