Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pete Gray, The "One-Armed Wonder"

When the nation was put on a war footing after the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt decreed that professional baseball continue as a home front morale booster. Obviously the quality of the product would change due to manpower shortages, and MLB's 16 teams were stocked with older veterans, kids, men who had been classified 4-F (not fit for service), and other players who for one reason or another could not join the fight in Europe or Asia, but who could still swing a baseball bat. It was a situation, for example, in which a 15-year old by the name of Joe Nuxhall could find himself going from a high school mound to suddenly wearing a Reds uniform and staring down Stan Musial. (After leaving Cincinnati with a 67.0 ERA, Nuxhall returned to the Reds in 1952 and pitched for them for 15 seasons,and then became a beloved Reds broadcaster after his playing days).

It was also a situation in which a one-armed man wound up in the outfield of the St. Louis Browns. The brief black and white footage of Pete Gray in his Browns uniform always was conflated in my mind with the image of the midget Eddie Gaedel, who had one at-bat with the Browns in 1951: symbols of Browns ineptitude and desperation, publicity stunts, freak shows. (Side note about Gaedel: After the American League president voided Gaedel's contract, Brown's owner Bill Veeck demanded a ruling on whether Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was a "short man or a tall midget", but we'll deal with Veeck another day.)

However the story of Pete Gray is much more complicated and interesting, as Gray was quite a ballplayer. Pete Wyshner was born on March 6, 1915 in Nanticoke, in the anthracite coal filed region of northern Pennsylvania. Six-year-old Petey lost his right arm when he was thrown from a truck and it had to be amputated above the elbow. The boy was right handed, so it took fierce determination on his part to learn how to use his left arm to bat and field, a determination that eventually led all the way to the big leagues.

Having exhausted his prospects in the local anthracite leagues, Wyshner (having changed his name to Gray to appear less "ethnic") set out for New York, where he impressed Max Rosner, owner of the Brooklyn Bushwicks. The Bushwicks were one of the top semi-pro teams in the country and faced talented opposition, including the best teams in the Negro leagues. Gray was a crowd pleaser from the beginning, and his baseball abilities attracted the attention of a scout for Trois Rivieres of the Canadian-American League. The scout had failed to mention that Gray had only one arm, and when Pete first met the Foxes manager he was, to say the least, quite surprised at his new prospect.

In the outfield, Gray developed a technique by which he could transfer the ball from his glove back to his hand and throw to the infield almost as fast as a two-armed player. It involved catching the ball, then quickly tucking his glove under the stump of his right arm while rolling the ball across his chest and into his hand. He did this so effortlessly he seemed to achieve these maneuvers in one smooth motion. At the plate Gray was an effective bunter and despite having only one arm, he managed to have very quick bat speed, although his power was limited for obvious reasons. His good eyes meant that he did not often strike out, and he was an aggressive and speedy baserunner.

Pete Gray's fielding technique

After an impressive season with Trois Rivieres, Gray's contract was purchased by the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, one step away from the majors. However after making the first cut, he was released by Toronto. (One account has it that an insult about manager Burleigh Grimes got back to the manager and that Gray was cut in retribution). After contacting over a dozen teams and coming up empty, he was finally given a shot by veteran manager Doc Prothro of the Memphis Chicks. Gray performed admirably for Memphis in 1943, batting .289 with 231 hits and 42 RBI. He distinguished himself with the gritty style of play which he had learned back in the Pennsylvania coal leagues. Gray also inspired servicemen fighting overseas, many of whom had returned home with missing or amputated limbs. He often visited recovering servicemen, and his exploits were documented in newsreels which were shown all over the country. The Memphis club invited a young boy named Nelson Gary who had also lost his arm to meet his hero and watch Gray play, and in a performance worthy of the legends associated with Babe Ruth, Pete responded by hitting two singles, a double, and a triple during the game.

But it was in 1944 that Gray peaked as a ballplayer. He hit all five of his career home runs during the '44 campaign, and his .333 average, 60 RBI and 68 stolen records (tied for the league record) were enough for him to be voted Southern Association MVP for 1944. His accomplishments did not stop at his offensive exploits, as he boasted an incredible .996 fielding percentage as well. I mention these statistics because it is important to note that despite the manpower depletion caused by the war, Pete Gray earned his promotion to the majors due to his achievements on the baseball diamond. Gray was also enormously popular with Memphis fans.

The usually lowly St. Louis Browns had seen their fortunes change in 1944 when they won the American league pennant and faced off against their intracity rivals the Cardinals in the World Series. Although the two teams shared a stadium - Sportsman's Park - that's about all they had in common, and it was usually the Redbirds who had the upper hand in the standings, as well as the box office. Led by crafty manager Luke Sewell, the Browns pitching and defense was just good enough to capture the pennant despite a .252 team batting average and no fewer than 13 players with a military 4-F classification, the most of any team in the majors. But despite the Brown's change of fortunes on the field, the club still was in a precarious financial state, and there is no doubt that owner Donald Barnes saw Gray as not just a ballplayer, but as a gate attraction, an idea that was anathema to Pete Gray, who wanted to make it purely on his skills.

Gray singled in his first major league game, against the Detroit Tigers, but then went into a slump and was removed from the starting lineup. He soon returned to form, however, and began to see more playing time. Pete was so popular with St. Louis fans that many would call the Browns' box office the day of a game to see whether he would be in the lineup before deciding to head to the park.

At left, Pete Gray's St. Louis Browns cap.

Browns' manager Luke Sewell had a dilemma. Because of Gray's popularity with fans both at home and on the road there was pressure to play him. The Browns fell behind the pace early in the season, and it was Sewell's job to win ballgames, not please fans, so although he treated Gray fairly he gave him less and less playing time as the season wore on.

Events conspired on and off the field to ensure that 1945 would be Pete Gray's only season in the majors. Pitchers soon found out that without a right arm, Gray could not check his swing or adjust very well to curve balls, so rather than trying to overpower him with fastballs, Gray was fed a steady diet of breaking pitches. Outfielders, knowing his lack of power, would play him in. Runners were able to exploit the small amount of extra time it took Gray to deliver the ball to the infield and would routinely take the extra base. VJ day meant the end of the war, and the beginning of the return of major leaguers to their rosters. When Donald Barnes sold his interest in the Browns in August, Gray no longer had a champion in the front office. Pete Gray finished the 1945 season with a disappointing .218 average and 13 RBI in 77 games. He managed to steal only five bases.

Pete's relationships with his teammates were also complicated. A few grumbled (unfairly) that he cost them a chance to repeat for the pennant because management chose to play him as a gate draw rather than a more able player. Outfielder Mike Kreevich, who had hit .301 the previous season, resented having to platoon with him. Gray, like many ballplayers of the time, was also a heavy drinker, and any tension with his fellow players could not have been helped by his alcohol intake.

The Browns organized a West Coast barnstorming trip for Pete after the season, and even arranged for him to appear in a Hollywood movie, playing himself. But when he learned he would only be paid $15,000 for his services and would have to wear a hairpiece, he nixed the idea.

Pete Gray in a Memphis Chicks uniform.

After being released by the Browns, Gray was offered a contract by the Toledo Mud Hens but almost lost his eligibility when he held out for the first month of the season. He was suspended in 1947 for failing to report, but came back and hit .290 for Elmira in '48. Pete Gray ended his professional baseball career with the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1949, then returned to his hometown of Nanticoke where he lived quietly, avoiding the limelight and most interview requests, until his death in 2002.

Our Flannel Of The Month is of course Pete Gray's 1944 home Memphis Chicks jersey. It has the war-era "Health" patch on the right sleeve and Indian head patch on the left. The back is adorned with Pete Gray's #3.