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An interview with Pittsburgh sports legend Dick Groat

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Start naming the greatest two-sport athletes of all time, and Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders usually come up right away. But there’s another multi-sport star who deserves to stand right beside them.

Dick Groat is best known as an eight-time MLB All-Star, a two-time World Series Champion and the 1960 NL MVP, but in addition to his efforts on the diamond, he was also the third overall pick in the 1952 NBA Draft by the Fort Wayne Pistons.

While his career in professional basketball was brief, his talent on the hardwood was arguably greater than his ability in baseball. Starting from his days of growing up in Wilkinsburg, Groat took a liking to basketball far before his start in baseball.

As he tells Bucs Dugout, his time as a dual-sport athlete didn’t begin until high school.

"I played probably 20 times more basketball than I did baseball. Nobody in my neighborhood played Little League in those days, so the first time I really started to play was during my sophomore year," Groat says.

After standing out at Swissvale High School, Groat had a number of potential options for college. He chose Duke, a prestigious university that gave him a chance to play both basketball and baseball.

It ended up being the right choice for both sides -- Groat starred in both sports. As his senior year rolled around, the Pirates signed him after he was named an All-American in baseball and the Pistons drafted him after he was named an All-American in basketball (while also scoring 23 points per game over the course of his career).

While he was still finishing his education, the Pistons and the Pirates both wanted him to join their teams immediately. After some finagling, he started his careers while still attending school.

"I signed with the Pirates during my last semester with Duke, so I played with them during the summer of 1952. Branch Rickey treated me really well and he agreed that he would give me the chance to play in the big leagues," he says.

Groat joined the Pirates' major league squad in June, facing the New York Giants.

"I was intimidated. I never felt that way in basketball because I was much better at it, so this was kind of new," he says. "I remember everything about my first at bat, though -- I was facing Jim Hearn and I took the first pitch because I was shaking like a leaf. I stepped out of the batter’s box and wondered what I was doing there. Then he threw me a slow pitch and I hit it right back to the mound. After the game, the manager told me to get my rest because I was going to be in the lineup the next day."

The next day, Groat got his first hit, a two-run single. That helped calm him, and he went on to hit .284 over the course of 95 games. After the season, he returned to Duke, and though he planned on just finishing his degree and continuing his baseball career, the Pistons made an offer that he couldn't refuse.

"It was around then that the Pistons drafted me, but I had just assumed that I wouldn’t play in the NBA because they were in Fort Wayne and I was in Durham," he remembers. "They said they would fly me out for the games, so I flew out and played an exhibition and scored a bunch of points and they wanted to keep me around. So they just flew me into wherever they were playing."

At one point, however, this hectic schedule almost caused him to end his basketball career earlier than he had planned.

"At one point I was out there, but the weather grounded me in Detroit and I had to cut a class. In those days, if you cut three classes during one semester you were kicked out of the school. My father would have killed me if I didn’t graduate since I only needed nine credits, so I called the Pistons and told them that I quit. They told me that they had to have me back and that the owner would get me a private plane to get me back for my classes on time. Along with that, they doubled my salary, so I was making more in basketball than in baseball. With the new arrangement, I would play with my team on Monday and play at places like Madison Square Garden, and then I’d go to class Wednesday and then fly out to the next game. It was really so much fun for me."

Groat's two careers had begun to take off, but they would have to be put on the back burner so he could serve in the military. After a two-year hiatus, he was hoping to jump right back into basketball, but Branch Rickey had other plans.

"Mr. Rickey made the decision to give up basketball for me. I had a five-year contract with the Pirates and when I came back I went right to baseball. I was ready to go back to the Pistons because I thought I could do that for a few years [since] I was making more money, but Rickey said I couldn’t do that. If I had one disappointment in my life, it would be that I wasn’t able to play basketball for at least a few more years."

Though he didn’t consider himself as talented at baseball, he started to make his mark on the league and became a vital part of the Pirates. Within a few years he had received some votes for MVP and in 1959 he made his first All-Star team.

"That year the All-Star Game was in Forbes Field. I was asked to bump Willie Mays over to second base and he eventually scored the winning run. It was really a great experience for me even though I wasn’t able to start."

The following year, Groat put it all together and captured the NL MVP as well as winning the World Series.

"The Pirates were such a bad baseball team in the early years, but then we grew up and came in second in 1958 and we all just kept improving together," he says. "We became a very strong ball club and we had learned how to win. When the World Series came around, I was coming off a broken wrist and had only played two games before the series. The wrist was not where I would have liked it to be, so I couldn’t open my glove all the way, but obviously it ended up working out for us."

In Game 7, of course, Bill Mazeroski hit the most memorable home run in Pirates franchise history.

"The team was a team of destiny," Groat says. "We came back 40 times after the seventh inning and we just didn’t think we were ever supposed to lose. That’s what we thought going into that game and Maz ended up coming through."

After two more seasons and another All-Star appearance, Groat headed to St. Louis after spending his first nine years with the Pirates.

"I was heartbroken to hear that I had been traded. Pittsburgh is my hometown and I never wanted to leave. It’s the greatest city in the world and I never wanted to leave. That was one of the toughest winters that I’ve ever spent, but I had the best year of my career in 1963 with the Cardinals. I hit in front of Stan Musial the whole season and I had never seen so many good pitches to hit."

He had finished in second in the MVP voting in 1963 and he parlayed that into yet another All-Star appearance in 1964, a year in which the Cardinals also went on to win the World Series.

His time in St. Louis, though it was successful, was short lived. He was moved to Philadelphia with Bob Uecker, a player who he credits with helping the World Series team achieve what they did.

"Bob Uecker and I are still very good friends. I’m not surprised at all that he ended up doing so well in broadcasting. He’s a very special guy one of the most humorous people I’ve ever been around. He was a real asset in keeping that 1964 team loose."

Though he was 35 years old by the time he arrived in Philadelphia, Groat was still able to provide a reliable presence at shortstop. By the time the following season had come to an end however, he knew that it was time to call it a career.

"It wasn’t a tough decision at all. I had such a bad knee injury that I couldn’t even play golf for the next three years because I couldn’t walk well enough. I had a great career, but it was time to move on."

Since he hadn't been happy to be traded away from Pittsburgh a few years earlier, it was natural for him to return to the area that he had called home for so many years. Since his retirement in 1967, Groat has continued to be a presence in the area.

"Jerry Lynch and I were teammates from Pittsburgh and we designed and built our own golf course just a bit away from Pittsburgh. It’s been 50 years now and my daughter and I still run it."

Along with the golf course, Groat was able to return to his first true love. In 1979, the University of Pittsburgh reached out to him about becoming a basketball broadcaster and he has not looked back.

"I could have never pictured myself becoming a broadcaster, but thank God that this has happened because it’s an absolute joy to me and I’ve loved every minute of it. I love college basketball. It was my first love. And just being around all of the kids keeps me young. Every day that I walk into a basketball arena is a joy to me."

From having his basketball number retired at Duke to being an eight-time MLB All-Star on the baseball field, Dick Groat's career has been as varied as it is impressive. Even at 85, he remains a vital presence in Pittsburgh sports.