Before the World Series titles, before beating the Yankees, before being a National League MVP and all-star shortstop, there was Duke basketball for Dick Groat.
“I was a better basketball player than I ever was a baseball player,” Groat said. “Basketball was always my first love.”
At 87, Groat has a lifetime of memories, sharing a few Saturday before Duke’s ACC game against Pittsburgh. Standing courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils warming up just a few feet away, his eyes twinkled as he talked of days gone by and moments that mattered, gazing about the arena.
“You know, this is why I came to Duke,” Groat said. “Seventy years ago, I had never seen a facility like this. When I walked in this place I said, ‘This is it. This is where I want to play my college basketball.’ And I’ve always loved coming back.”
Born in Wilkinsburg, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, Groat is best remembered as the shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 World Series champs, vanquishing the New York Yankees in a heart-thumping seventh game won on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer at Forbes Field.
“You have no idea what a feeling and what a thrill that is, to win a world championship in your own hometown,” Groat said.
But there was that one basketball game when he was at Duke, the last he would play for the Blue Devils in what then was Duke Indoor Stadium.
Groat was having another All-America season as a senior. The high-scoring guard was selected the Helms national player of the year as a junior and would average 26 points a game in 1951-52, his final season.
The last home game was against North Carolina on Feb. 29, 1952. Groat said his parents and sisters drove down for the game, and that the starting time had to be pushed back 10 minutes after his father slipped and fell in the parking lot and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.
But once the game began, Groat couldn’t be stopped. He was hitting every shot, or so it seemed, as the Blue Devils broke open a close game in the second half and won 94-64.
Groat finished with 48 points, the most allowed in a game by the Tar Heels. “The basket looked about that big,” he said, holding his hands four feet apart.
Talk about having a Senior Day. Groat, the hero, was carried off the court on the shoulders of Duke students. He returned to make a “senior speech,” then was sobbing in the locker room.
Groat recalled his father’s reaction at seeing the tears, of him saying, “Richard, you didn’t like it here when you were a freshman and now you don’t want to go home.”
True enough, Groat was homesick his freshman year at Duke. He also was a bit intimidated after watching a game between N.C. State and Pittsburgh that was played at Duke the year before the Pack opened Reynolds Coliseum.
Groat said he knew many of the Pitt players. But N.C. State, coached by Everett Case, had Dick Dickey and Sammy Ranzino, Vic Bubas and Norman Sloan. Groat said he spotted a few of the Wolfpack players sitting in the locker room, smoking cigarettes.
“Some of them were ex-servicemen and were older,” he said. “They were men.”
The next season, Groat was on the court against them. In his first game against the Pack, the Blue Devils won 58-55 at Duke.
Those were the days of the Southern Conference. In Groat’s senior year, Duke was 24-6 and 13-3 in conference play, finishing 12th in the final AP poll.
The Blue Devils knocked off West Virginia, the top seed, in a 90-88 thriller in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament in Reynolds Coliseum. But the Pack was waiting in the championship game, ending Groat’s college basketball career with a 77-68 win.
“That West Virginia game, which was a great game, took too much out of us,” Groat said. “I remember my legs had cramps that were so bad it was unreal.”
The Fort Wayne Pistons of the NBA wanted Groat, making him the No. 3 pick of the 1952 NBA Draft and even offered the use of a private plane to get him to games. Groat did play some NBA games for a year but had made a promise he would honor – to play baseball for the Pirates.
Branch Rickey also wanted Groat. Not many people today can say they were signed by Branch Rickey, the legendary general manager, but Groat is one of them.
On June 18, 1952, Groat played his first game for the Pirates, his hometown team. Eight years later, he was standing in the Pirates dugout at Forbes Field, adjusting his batting helmet, with Mazeroski at the plate in Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees.
“Maz” was the Pirates’ second baseman, teaming with Groat to form one of the best double-play combos in the National League. Mazeroski had hit 11 homers in the regular season and had a little pop, and was facing the Yankees’ Ralph Terry with the score tied 9-9.
Mazeroski, leading off the inning, lifted a fly deep to left field …
“When he hit it everybody was saying, ‘Get off the wall, get off the wall,’–” Groat said. “And then it went out. We had beaten the Yankees.”
Groat beat the Yankees again in the Series four years later, but with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates traded him to St. Louis after the 1962 season, a move that rankled him for almost 30 years.
Groat was the National league MVP in 1960, when he hit .325 and won the batting title. To be traded away, by his Pirates, stung him deeply.
Groat still lives in Pittsburgh. He’s the color analyst on the Pitt basketball radio broadcasts, setting up Saturday at the end of press row at Cameron.
The Blue Devils honored Groat during a halftime ceremony, presenting him with a framed No. 10 jersey. That was the first basketball jersey number retired by Duke and No. 10 hangs in rafters.
Groat proudly pointed up to it Saturday before the game, again saying, “I always love coming back to this place.”