Thursday, September 19, 2013

Booktoberfest author Joe Niese and his book Burleigh Grimes: America's Last Legal Spitballer

Author Joe Niese holds his recently published book, Burleigh Grimes: America's Last Legal Spitballer
Burleigh Grimes may not be a household name—except in those houses that contain baseball fans—but local author Joe Niese is doing his part to bring the once-lauded baseball player out of obscurity. Niese, a librarian in Chippewa Falls and father of three, became intrigued when he read references to Grimes and his career in a book about Hank Aaron, A Summer Up North. As a result, he spent the next two and a half years researching and writing his recently published book, Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer.

Grimes, a Wisconsin native, overcame the odds to pursue his career in baseball. He initially began with the Eau Claire Commissioners as a back-up player grudgingly allowed to stay with the team—while paying his own expenses—by manager Russ Bailey. “He wasn’t even supposed to be there for his first game,” Niese observed; Grimes was called in at the last minute to replace an injured player.

He played so well, however, that he became part of the team, and his baseball career was born. Over the years, he played for seven different Major League teams. Niese pointed out that his career didn’t consist of non-stop glory: “He ended up losing 13 games in a row at one point.”

At another point, the Brooklyn Dodgers—then called the Brooklyn Robins, for whom Grimes played—     lost a “barnstormer” game to a team from Augusta, WI, at the Chippewa Falls Fair Grounds.

His setbacks, though, were overshadowed by his 270 victories and his unique status as baseball’s last legal spitballer. (Major League officials made throwing spitballs illegal in 1920; however, Grimes had performed so admirably that they made an exception for him and 16 other pitchers. Grimes was the last of the 17 legal spitballers to retire.) He was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, one of only four Wisconsin players to receive this honor.

Niese drew on many resources to create his account of Grimes’s life and career. In addition to doing standard Internet research, he was given access to a large collection of Grimes-related primary sources, including photos and scrapbooks, by Ardeth and Charles Clark, who run the Clear Lake Historical Museum.  He also used many library resources, especially microfilm machines. “I’m a microfilm junkie,” Niese explained. “The Internet only gets you so far.”

The long hours and considerable effort Niese put into his book paid off; it’s currently on its third print run, and copies have been sold all over the world. Thanks to Niese, Burleigh Grimes may become a household name—even in houses without baseball fans—after all.

Anyone interested in Joe Niese and his work can find out more at

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