DURHAM -- One of the first real heroes of Duke athletics was Richard Morrow Groat, better known as Dick Groat. His number 10 hanging in Cameron Indoor Stadium was the first jersey ever retired at Duke. At 5-11, 185 pounds, the Swissvale, Pa., native was truly a gifted athlete, enjoying a star-studded baseball career and an incredible basketball career.
After being selected a consensus All-America and being named the national basketball player of the year in 1952, Groat signed a professional baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was the 1960 National League MVP when he won the batting title with a .325 average and led the Pirates to the World Series title from his shortstop position. In his 15-year major league career he was named an all-star eight times and was on the 1964 World Series champion Pirates as well.
Even today at 83 years old he stays a part of the game he loved the most — basketball. Groat serves as a radio color analyst for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball games and has been part of Pitt basketball broadcasts with partner Bill Hillgrove since 1979. Johnny Moore caught up with Groat on a visit to the Triangle during the 2013-14 basketball season.
Moore: Why did you play professional baseball instead of professional basketball?
Groat: Baseball was always like work for me. Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball where I knew I would make a living. I made a deal with Mr. Rickey (Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at that time). I was a junior at Duke. I went home and worked out for the Pirates in the summer before I went back to Duke. After I had worked out he invited my mother and father to come to a game at Forbes Field where the Pirates played. I was sitting in his booth and he turned to me, remember I am only 20, I’m still a minor, he says to me, “Young man, if you will sign a contract tonight, I’m going start you against the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night.”
I said, “Mr. Rickey that’s not even fair. You know I want to play major league baseball, but I owe my senior year to Duke and I am going back to play basketball and baseball. But I promise you, you make the same offer to me next spring and I will sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
He shook hands with me and said we had a deal. He lived by that handshake. I never heard from him again that winter. Actually I saw him for a moment at the Teague Award dinner, but he really didn’t say anything. We had a great year in baseball at Duke that year, winning the Southern Conference championship and then playing in the College World Series at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. I got home on Sunday night, Mr. Rickey contacted me on Monday, I signed Monday night, showed up at the Pirates on Tuesday, watched the game Tuesday night, pinch hit on Wednesday and was in the lineup the rest of the season.
Moore: You were also the No. 3 pick in the 1952 NBA Draft and played for the Ft. Wayne Pistons for a season. How did that come about?
Groat: After that first summer with the Pirates, I went back to finish my degree at Duke. I was taking classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I had an AAU basketball team that played all over the state of North Carolina in the evenings so I was pretty busy. The Ft. Wayne Pistons drafted me pretty high, said they would fly me in commercially for games, so I signed a contract, and played two or three weekends. I got grounded one Sunday night in Detroit and couldn’t make class on Monday. So when I got back to Durham, I called the Pistons and told them I loved playing for them, but I couldn’t afford to cut myself out of school and not graduate. I had worked too hard and my father would kill me if I didn’t graduate from Duke. They told me they understood and I figured my pro basketball career was over.
A week later they called me back and said they needed me and they had it all worked out. They had a private plane that would get me back to Durham on Sunday night after our game so I could make my 8:15 Monday morning class. They upped my salary to where I was making twice what I was making in baseball. I had a ball playing for them and had some of the scariest trips in my life. I never had to practice, just play on the weekend. I averaged 12 points per game and had a ball. After that season I served two years in the military, and when I got out the Pirates doubled my salary and I never went back to the NBA.
Moore: What was it like to score a stadium record 48 points against UNC in your final home basketball game at Duke — still the most points ever scored by a Blue Devil against the Tar Heels?
Groat: We had a pretty good lead and Carolina made a run at us. I started shooting and it seemed like everything I shot went in the basket. (Editor’s note: Groat hit eight straight shots after North Carolina rallied to draw within 58-50 in the second half. Duke won 94-64.) Shooters know when they get that hot hand. It’s so strange — as a senior in high school I had the most points I ever scored in my last game at home, and at Duke it was the most I had ever scored in my final game at Duke. Once you get going, it seems like everything would go down. It’s a wonderful feeling.
I knew it was my last game at Duke, and I thought it might be my last basketball game as well, since I had the Pirate contract waiting for me. I didn’t even know my parents were there until I heard that the game was delayed because my father had fallen on the way to the game. My mother and sisters were with him and they had taken him to the hospital to have him checked out. Everything turned out fine and they were able to make the game. The student body was so good to me. I remember them putting me up on their shoulders carrying me off the floor, and they asked me to return to say something. When I got back in the locker room the entire Carolina team came in to congratulate me. It was a very emotional day. After the game, in the locker room, I was sobbing and I didn’t even know my dad was standing beside me and he said to me “Christ, Richard — you didn’t even want to come down here and now you don’t want to leave.” Duke was a very special time for me.
Moore: What was it like to play in Duke Indoor Stadium in the 1950s?
Groat: When I first walked into Duke Indoor Stadium, you had never played anywhere growing up like this. No one had a palace to play basketball in like this arena. I remember saying to myself the first time I walked into the building, “Wow, this is where I get to play basketball.” It was something very special and I really enjoyed playing in the Indoor Stadium. Because of television coverage it has become a place where so many people want to see a game. It is really a very special place.
I remember my first real initiation into the world of college basketball. It was my freshman year and I was very homesick. N.C. State had rented out Duke Indoor Stadium to play a game against Pittsburgh. I knew some of the guys on the team and I went over, slipping in the back door to see some of the guys from Pittsburgh. I went by the N.C. State locker room — this was Everett Case’s second year at State — and all the State players looked so old and mature. There was Dick Dickie, who was an All-America, Norm Sloan, Ed Bartels and Leo Katkaveck. They were sitting there smoking cigarettes. They were all basically ex-servicemen and Case let them do whatever they wanted. I turned and thought, “Wow, I’m going to be playing against these old men next year.”
Moore: At 83, why do you keep travelling around calling college basketball games?
Groat: I love basketball and love being around the players and the program. Jamie (Dixon) has built a very special program at Pittsburgh and they have been kind to me to allow me to be part of this program. The game of basketball is an amazing game that has changed so much since I played. But I still love to watch the shooters and remember what it was like to hit those shots. I have been very fortunate to have such a great life.