- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

The way it was

There are three ways for baseball historians to remember Pete Gray. He was a courageous athlete who overcame the early loss of an arm to reach the major leagues. He was a surly sort whose presence might have cost his St. Louis Browns a second consecutive pennant and even altered the game's history. Most enduringly, he was a symbol of the lousy quality of major league play during World War II.
Although Gray got into only 77 games for the Browns in 1945, batting .218 with no home runs and 13 RBI, he endures alongside such other physically challenged men as William "Dummy" Hoy, the first deaf player; Bert Shepard, the Washington Senators' one-legged pitcher; and Jim Abbott, who enjoyed a fine career and even pitched a no-hitter despite having only one hand.
When Gray (real name Pete Wyshner) died June 30 at 87, it summoned up memories of baseball in a very different era one when players performed for the love of the game rather than for huge salaries. And surely there is great irony in the fact that this statistically obscure player died during the same fortnight as Ted Williams, often called the greatest hitter ever.
Gray was only 6 or 7, he once recalled, when a peddler offered him a quarter to help him sell potatoes and apples in his hometown of Nanticoke, Pa. As Pete jumped off the man's truck afterward, his right arm caught in a wheel's spokes and was mangled so badly that amputation was required.
Nonetheless, the boy grew into a fine player, teaching himself to throw with his left arm and excelling in sandlot and high school competition. In 1938, when Gray was 23, a friend who owned a baseball school recommended him to a semipro team in Canada. When Gray arrived, the manager looked at him and, we may assume, did a double take.
"What's the matter with your right arm?"
"I don't have one."
"My God!"
Nonetheless, the manager took Gray along and sent him into a one-sided game as a pinch hitter.
"When I came out of the dugout, you could have heard a pin drop," Gray recalled. "I got a base hit, we won the game and the fans started throwing change on the field. It was like a guy wrote a book or something."
After that, Gray played semipro ball in the New York City area for several years before Mickey O'Neill, his manager in Canada, persuaded the Class AA Memphis Chicks to sign him. In 1944, he batted .333, stole 68 bases and was voted the Southern Association's Most Valuable Player. Then Browns owner Don Barnes bought his contract for $20,000, and Gray became a major leaguer at the advanced age of 30.
Always the second team in St. Louis, the Browns had drawn only moderately well in 1944 despite winning their first pennant in 43 seasons. Barnes saw Gray as a gate attraction as much as a ballplayer, but his presence immediately alienated teammates because it meant an able-bodied outfielder like 1944 regular Mike Kreevich might be sitting on the bench while Gray played. His personality also created problems.
"Pete was a loner he thought the whole world was against him," teammate Don Gutteridge told author Peter Golenbock. "He also got the idea the Browns were exploiting him. There was some resentment from some other pretty good outfielders [who] would say after a loss, 'If only I had been in there '"
Gray, who needed help to tie his shoes, once asked pitcher Sig Jakucki for assistance. Replied Jakucki, a persistent tormentor: "Tie your own [expletive] shoes, you [expletive]."
If others doubted his ability, Gray never did. "I was a pretty good hitter, and a good bunter, too," he said years later. "Center field was my position, and I could cover a lot of ground."
Using a special technique he had developed, Gray caught flyballs with a glove that had no padding, rolled the ball on his chest, took it in his left hand and threw it back. On grounders, he flipped the ball a couple of feet in the air, tossed the glove aside, caught the ball and threw.
At bat, Gray swung with a smooth, level stroke but had no power. Opposing outfielders soon learned to play him shallow, making it harder for his drives to fall in. And infielders, knowing his speed, played him up close and personal to take away bunting opportunities.
On Opening Day, Gray singled sharply off Detroit ace Hal Newhouser and later was robbed of a double. On May 21, against the New York Yankees at old Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, he had three hits, drove in two runs and made a spectacular catch. But his heroics were short-lived.
Though Gray could tag a fastball, it soon became apparent that he couldn't adjust in midswing to hit a changeup. At the end of April, his batting average was .188; by the end of June, .224. He began to play less and less. When manager Luke Sewell used him as a pinch hitter, Gray was 1-for-12 (.083). Meanwhile, several sadistic teammates continued to harass him on and off the field. Gray, always reclusive, retreated further into his shell.
"Pete did great with what he had," said shortstop Mark Christman, one of the few teammates who liked Gray. "But he cost us the pennant. We finished third behind Detroit and Washington, only six games out."
When most major leaguers returned from the war in 1946, both Gray and the Browns were done. Sent to Toledo in the Class AAA American Association, Gray played one year, sat out the '47 season and ended his career with Class AA Dallas in 1949 at 34.
Meanwhile, his team sagged back into its prewar depths, posting an average record of 58-96 over the next eight seasons before being sold and transferred to Baltimore in 1954. It is possible to speculate that if the Browns had won another pennant in '45, they might have challenged the Cardinals' hold on most St. Louis fans. If so, would the major league Orioles have come into being? And if they hadn't, would the original Senators still be in Washington?
Such conjecture is pointless, of course, but nonetheless fascinating. Which can be said, too, of Pete Gray's big league career.
When that career was over, recognition for his accomplishments brightened the dour Gray's outlook somewhat. A California sportswriter offered this tribute: "[He] must be the symbol for returning wounded veterans who have lost the services of a limb. His inspiration no doubt will speed many of them to useful lives once again."
A briefer tribute came from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association: "With less, he achieved more."
In the 1980s, a TV movie about Gray called "A Winner Never Quits" was released. Asked how he might have done with two arms, Gray replied, "Maybe not as well. I probably wouldn't have tried as hard or been as determined."
For many years, Gray's special glove was on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. a fitting symbol of a man who deserves credit for overcoming great odds, regardless of the circumstances.


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