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Pirates star Dick Groat, who also played in NBA, dies at 92

Dick Groat wearing a Pirates cap.
Gene J. Puskar
FILE - Former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Dick Groat is shown during pregame ceremonies honoring his lifetime of service to the Pirates organization, before a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Pittsburgh, Monday, April 1, 2019.

Before Bo Jackson knew everything, before Deion Sanders introduced Prime Time, there was Dick Groat.

A wiry shortstop with a slick glove and a lightning-quick guard with a lethal set shot, Groat was a star on the baseball diamond and the basketball court in the 1950s, long before Jackson and Sanders made major sports multitasking a thing.

Groat, who parlayed a spectacular hoops career at Duke into a brief stint in the NBA before becoming an All-Star and the 1960 National League MVP while playing baseball for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, died Thursday. He was 92.

Groat's family said in a statement that he died at UMPC Presbyterian Hospital from complications of a stroke.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a beloved member of the Pirates family and Pittsburgh community,” Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement, calling Groat “a great player and an even better person.”

Groat, who was from Swissvale, earned All-American honors in both basketball and baseball while starring at Duke. His No. 10 jersey hangs in Cameron Indoor Stadium; the program retired his number following the end of his senior season in 1952.

“A true multisports icon, Dick represented Duke University and the city of Pittsburgh with the utmost of class and dignity, which resulted in universal admiration,” former Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Groat attempted to play both baseball and basketball professionally, signing with the Pirates and being drafted by the Fort Wayne Pistons of the then-fledgling NBA within weeks of each other in 1952. He is one of 13 players to play professionally in both the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Long before Jackson and Sanders made two-way playing en vogue in the 1980s and '90s, Groat was regularly shuttling from Durham, North Carolina, to Fort Wayne, Indiana in the winter of 1952-53 so he could split time between his classes at Duke — where he was finishing his degree after his eligibility expired — and the Pistons.

“I had a ball playing for them and had some of the scariest trips in my life,” Groat said. “I never had to practice, just play on the weekend.”

While basketball was Groat's sport of choice, a stint in the military and an ultimatum from Pirates general manager Branch Rickey redirected the arc of Groat's athletic career.

“Baseball was always like work for me,” Groat said in a 2014 interview. “Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball where I knew I would make a living."

Rickey agreed, telling Groat after he returned home and played for the Pirates in 1955 that the young shortstop needed to step away from basketball. Groat somewhat reluctantly agreed, a decision that morphed into a lengthy 14-year career with Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia and San Francisco. He made the All-Star team in five seasons and led the majors in hitting in 1960 when he batted .325.

The 1960 season ended with Groat earning NL MVP honors for a Pirates team that upset the New York Yankees in seven games to win the World Series.

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Groat finished with 2,138 career hits during a major league career spanning 1952-67. The Pirates announced last week that he would be inducted into the team's recently established Hall of Fame this summer.

A member of the college basketball and college baseball Halls of Fame, Groat was a two-time All-American guard at Duke and remains the second-leading scorer in school history, averaging 23.0 points for the Blue Devils. He was taken third overall by the Pistons in the 1952 NBA draft.

Groat played 26 games for the Pistons, averaging 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. His basketball career, however, ended after he enlisted in the Army in 1953. He spent nearly two years in the service and when he was discharged, Rickey essentially threatened to take away Groat's signing bonus if he didn't turn his attention to baseball.

Groat relented and became one of the most consistent shortstops of his era. He played in eight All-Star games (there were two games a season for a brief period in the 1950s and '60s) and during Pittsburgh's improbable run to a World Series title in 1960, it was Groat and not future baseball Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski who spearheaded the Pirates' unlikely rise from perennial also-ran to championship club.

The list of players who finished behind Groat in the 1960 NL MVP voting includes Hall of Famers Clemente, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Eddie Matthews.

A smooth defender who teamed with Mazeroski to lead the NL in double plays five times — a record that still stands — Groat played 1,290 games at shortstop for the Pirates, fourth on the club's all-time list for a player at that position.

Pittsburgh traded Groat to St. Louis in November 1962. He responded by having the best statistical season of his career in 1963, finishing second in MVP voting behind Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax while hitting .319 with a major league-leading 43 doubles. Groat won a second world championship that fall as the Cardinals toppled the Yankees in seven games.

Groat played briefly for Philadelphia and then the Giants before retiring after the 1967 season. He remained active in the Pittsburgh area following his playing days, running the golf course he owned in the Laurel Highlands about an hour east of the city and spending four decades as a color commentator for the University of Pittsburgh basketball team.

Current Pitt coach Jeff Capel said Groat lived “a storybook life.”

Groat is survived by daughters Tracey, Carol Ann and Allison, along with 11 grandchildren.