It was an arrangement that wouldn’t fly today.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ official scorekeeper also working as a sports editor for the local paper?
John Gruber served as both at the turn of the 20th century. It was an era when the Pittsburgh baseball club and newspaper sports sections were in their infancy.
“Uncle John,” as he was known to colleagues, friends and fans, came to Pittsburgh by train from Baltimore in the mid-1800s. Baltimore was where he learned his printing craft, and in Pittsburgh he started with the Beobachter, a German language newspaper.
When it went defunct, he latched on with The Pittsburgh Times, and there he began to give Pittsburgh baseball fans a primitive way to follow professional leagues. When pro ball started in the 1880s in Pittsburgh, sporting news was barely a blip in the papers. He thought people might like to see some baseball standings.
But he didn’t like how they looked alone on the page, he later said. “So I says to myself, ‘I’ll write a few lines of introduction.'” [1. “Gruber, Pittsburgh’s First Sports Editor.” W.G. Lytle, Feb. 4, 1929, The Pittsburgh Press.]
For a man who never played baseball beyond the school yards near his boyhood home in New Albany, Ind., he sure loved the game.
He started to make his mark beyond the printer’s shops at the Times and The Pittsburgh Post. The Pirates hired him as scorekeeper in 1893, their third season as Pirates and not Alleghenys.
Gruber’s moonlighting as scorekeeper overlapped both his tenure as sports editor at The Pittsburgh Post (1890-1905) and at the Gazette (1905-1911).
And it coincided with his entanglement in a famous baseball card story. Honus Wagner’s T-206 card remains the most valuable ever made, selling for more than any amount Wagner made in a season — even when adjusted for inflation. Tim Wiles delved into the story for the Baseball Hall of Fame:
[American Tobacco Company] signed players up for inclusion in the set by hiring local sportswriters to get the players to sign contracts. Wagner returned his contract to sportswriter John Gruber, along with a check for $10, writing “I don’t want my picture in cigarettes, but I don’t want you to lose $10, so I’m enclosing check for that sum.”
Gruber made $10 in 1909, and owners of the cards went on to make thousands.
As he aged, he remained a fixture in Forbes Field’s press box and a beloved figure in Pittsburgh sports circles.
“He has a sense of humor touched by the golden glow of sympathetic age,” W.G. Lytle wrote in 1929 for The Pittsburgh Press. “He is a conversationalist who can talk so entertainingly that one forgets the passage of the hours, which is remarkable in a period which has almost permitted the radio and kindred diversions to kill the art of conversation.”
Yikes. What would they think of today’s styles of conversation?
John Gruber, Pittsburgh’s singular sports hybrid, died Dec. 17, 1932, at his home on 50 Fordham St. in West View. After his death, Sam Waters, vice president of the Pirates and one of Gruber’s friends, gave the go-ahead to hang this plaque in Gruber’s honor in the Forbes Field press box.
If any readers of The Digs know where it is today, we’d love to see a photo.
Update, Oct. 27, 2015: During a slow day last week at her home in Colorado, Mary Beth Kelley looked over at something hanging on a wall.
Kelley, the great-granddaughter of John H. Gruber, has always had difficulty finding information about him online, even on sites like Ancestry.com. She decided to pop his name into a search engine once more, and up came the above story.
And that something hanging on her wall?
Mary Beth Kelley told her mother, Patricia Kentzel Gotsch, about this story on The Digs, and they each reached out with a few memories. Among them:
- Gruber and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, had 10 children; four died at birth or very young. This sad rate was not uncommon 100 years ago. Their youngest daughter, Mercedes, was Gotsch’s mother. Mercedes’ husband, Henry, worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass for more than 50 years — first in Pittsburgh, then transferring to the south, where Gotsch and Kelley were raised. Gruber’s only other son to live into adulthood had polio, but he worked as a linotype operator at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.
- A story went around their family for many years that Gruber either invented or helped perfect the box scoring system still used in baseball today. While Henry Chadwick is widely credited with that invention, it’s possible Gruber also played a role in its 1800s development. Mary Beth has scorebooks in her home from 100 years ago, but one of the sadder things for both women are the piles of scorebooks left behind in Gruber’s West View basement. When the family had to sell the home in the 1970s, Gotsch had a day and a half to remove as much as she could. Books containing players like Honus Wagner’s daily performances had to be left behind. Can you imagine their worth today?
- Similarly, Gruber had a baseball signed by early 20th century baseball legends like Wagner and Babe Ruth that the family apparently sold at one point, according to Gotsch. She recently looked at the price for such items on eBay and saw them going for $30,000 and up.
- The item the family never left behind or sold: the plaque that was hung at Forbes Field in Gruber’s memory. In the last five years, Mary Beth Kelley’s area of Colorado has experienced massive wildfires. The plaque honoring old “Uncle John” was one of the items she packed in her car during the evacuation. It’s heavy, weighing somewhere around 20 pounds. The family is still unsure how it ended up back in the Gruber’s West View home — perhaps leading up to Forbes Field’s demolition.
- Also hanging in Kelley’s home: a cartoon honoring the German’s love of drink. Click the image to read the lines up close.
- Unsurprisingly, one of his sons also went into the newspapering business: John Harry Gruber, composer at the Pittsburgh Sun. He’s seen here in the composing room, at left, third from the front.
- John Gruber’s death at 79 was a sign of poor medicine at the time. Patricia Gotsch still knows the 1932 story: “He always wore long underwear, my mother said. He never took his long underwear off, even in the summertime. He caught a cold, and the doctor came to the house… He said, ‘Oh, he’s got a fever. We’ll take off his underwear and cool him down.’ Wrong. He caught pneumonia and died.”
- With so much baseball history in the family’s blood, it’s no surprise Gotsch’s son played the game through high school. “He knew all the statistics,” she said. And now that interest “has transferred down to my grandson, a math whiz on scholarship at Georgia Tech.”