Dick Groat, Pirates legend and hoops star, passes at 92

April 27th, 2023

Dick Groat was a true two-sport athlete, an All-American in baseball and basketball at Duke University before going on to play in both the Major Leagues and the NBA.

The 1952 National College Basketball Player of the Year, Groat’s retired No. 10 jersey hangs from the rafters of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. In 2007, while serving as a color commentator for University of Pittsburgh hoops, Groat was inducted into the National College Basketball Hall of Fame. And mere days ago, Groat was told he would be in the Pirates' 2023 Hall of Fame Class.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a beloved member of the Pirates family and Pittsburgh community,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said. “The National League MVP and World Series Champion in 1960, Dick remained a very active and cherished member of our Alumni Association. We were honored to have just recently informed Dick and his family that he had been selected to the Pirates Hall of Fame. He was a great player and an even better person. Our thoughts go out to his three daughters, eleven grandchildren and the entire Groat family. His was a life well lived. He will be missed.”

He always maintained basketball was his favorite sport, but it was as an All-Star shortstop at which Groat achieved his greatest success. Groat, who passed away on April 27 at age 92, enjoyed a 14-year playing career, mainly with the Pirates and Cardinals. He played in eight All-Star Games, encompassing five seasons, and was the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player. He went right from Duke to the Major Leagues without ever playing in the Minors.

His quiet, respected leadership was considered instrumental to the 1960 World Series champion Pirates, and again in 1964 when the Cardinals won it all.

Standing 5-foot-11 without great speed or strength, Groat hardly fit the typical image of the great two-sport athlete. But there was no doubting what he accomplished in both sports; it just came down to which would end up being his livelihood. He was the first man ever to be inducted into both the National College Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame.

“I was a better basketball player than I ever was a baseball player,” Groat told the Charlotte News & Observer in 2018. “Basketball was always my first love. Baseball was work.”

He wanted to play both sports professionally. It was only through the persuasion of Pirates general manager Branch Rickey that Groat decided to concentrate on baseball. At the time, Major League Baseball stood atop American team sports, and the NBA, despite the popularity of college basketball, was still trying to establish itself.

Groat played both sports at Swissvale High School, just outside of Pittsburgh. When it came time to take the next step in his life, Groat accepted a basketball scholarship from Duke. He was able to play both sports there and caught the attention of Rickey, who had just moved over from Brooklyn to take over the struggling Pittsburgh franchise.

After Groat’s junior year in the summer of 1951, Rickey offered him a significant bonus to sign with the Pirates. Rickey said if Groat accepted the offer, he would immediately go into the Pirates' starting lineup. Groat declined, telling Rickey he intended to fulfill his four-year basketball commitment to Duke. But he promised the legendary GM that if the offer was still there the following summer, he would sign with the Pirates.

Groat did just that after leading Duke to both the NCAA basketball tournament and the College World Series. At the age of 21, he became the starting shortstop on the 1952 Pirates team that finished in last place. He hit .284 in 384 at-bats, but of his 109 hits, there were just six doubles, one triple and one home run. His hitting mentor was Paul Waner, the former Pirates outfielder and Hall of Famer.

Groat lacked great speed for a middle infielder but another Hall of Famer and Pirates executive, Pie Traynor, observed, “He’s fast on his feet, has a good arm and splendid coordination from playing basketball.”

Groat had been drafted by the Fort Wayne Pistons with the third overall pick in the 1952 NBA Draft. He spent the winter playing for the Pistons during an era when players could play both sports. His 11.9 points per game was the second-highest on the team.

His season was cut short after 26 games. The Korean War was still going on and Groat was drafted into the Army. He spent two years at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, where he was able to play both sports on the post teams.

When his military service was up, Groat wanted to play both sports. Rickey warned him it would be difficult to be a starter in both baseball and basketball and play at the necessary high level.

Despite his professed love for basketball, Groat chose baseball after a significant pay raise from Rickey. He became part of a growing nucleus of young talent that would lift the Pirates from National League bottom-feeders to the top of the baseball world.

That group included two future Hall of Famers in outfielder Roberto Clemente and second baseman Bill Mazeroski. Right-handers Vern Law, Bob Friend and Roy Face were the major building blocks to the pitching staff. Another big step was acquiring center fielder Bill Virdon from the Cardinals.

"He's the player the Pirates can least afford to lose," Hall of Famer Warren Spahn said in Roy Terrell's cover story on Groat in Sports Illustrated in 1960.

There were some discussions about moving Groat to third base, but that disappeared once Danny Murtaugh took over as manager during the 1958 season. Groat and Mazeroski combined to give the Pirates the best double-play combination in the game.

It all came together for the Pirates in 1960. Groat led the National League in hitting with a .325 batting average despite missing much of September with a broken left wrist after being hit by Braves pitcher Lou Burdette. Groat returned in time for the World Series and the Pirates won in seven games on Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7.

Groat spent two more years with Pittsburgh before being traded to the Cardinals, another young team emerging into a powerhouse. Cardinals manager Johnny Keane believed Groat’s veteran leadership was just what his young players needed, and that proved to be the case.

Groat had his best offensive year ever in 1963, hitting .319 and leading the league with 43 doubles to go with a career-best .827 OPS. The entire Cardinals infield of Groat, third baseman Ken Boyer, second baseman Julian Javier and first baseman Bill White made the NL All-Star team. That was a first for any team’s infield.

The Cardinals finished second that season, and Hall of Fame outfielder Stan Musial announced his retirement after it was over. But the following season, the Cardinals rode to their first World Series since 1946 after a June trade brought another future Hall of Famer, Lou Brock, to St. Louis.

Groat was selected to play in an All-Star Game for the eighth and final time of his career and the Cardinals emerged as champions by taking down the Yankees in seven games.

The Cardinals slipped to seventh place in 1965 and Groat was traded to the Phillies after the season. Phillies manager Gene Mauch was hoping Groat would do for his team what he did for the Pirates and Cardinals. The Phillies won 87 games with Groat as their regular shortstop but finished fourth.

Severe inflammation in his right ankle limited Groat to just 10 games in 1967 and he was sold to the Giants late in the season. After hitting just .171 in 34 games for San Francisco, Groat decided to retire in the Pittsburgh area.

He stayed active in Pirates alumni events, but two other sports occupied his attention. He and former Pirates teammate Jerry Lynch owned Championship Lakes Golf Course in Laurel Valley, east of Pittsburgh. Groat also spent 40 years as a color analyst on University of Pittsburgh basketball games before stepping down after the 2018-19 season.

Groat also loved returning to Duke for alumni celebrations, a fitting reminder that he was one of the most accomplished two-sport athletes to ever suit up in a uniform.