By Glen Sparks
On this date in baseball history, May 20, 1945, Pete Gray enjoyed his greatest day as a baseball player. He collected five hits and two RBI as the St. Louis Browns swept the Yankees in a doubleheader.
Pete Gray lost his right arm in a boyhood accident. Not that he quit playing baseball over that.
Gray, born Peter James Wyshner on March 6, 1915, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, grew up in the mining town of Naticoke, Pa. Doctors amputated young Pete’s arm when he was six years old. One story is that he tumbled off a wagon and caught his arm in the spokes.
The youngster didn’t feel sorry for himself. A natural right-hander, he just switched to being a lefty. Anyway, that put him one step closer to first base when he was batting.
He was a tough kid. One time, as a 13-year-old, he barreled into the catcher during a sandlot game. Following the collision, the catcher threatened to beat up Pete. “If only you had two arms,” the catcher said. That would make it a fair fight. Young Pete fought him anyway.
Pete Wyshner changed his name to “Gray” at the start of his semi-pro career. Ethnic prejudice was a still a big deal at the time. Pete didn’t need his last name amounting to one more challenge for him to overcome.
Not surprisingly, Gray never found his way onto any team’s fast track to the major leagues. Finally, though, in 1943, the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association signed him to a deal. He was 28 years old. In his second year down south, Gray was named the Association’s Player of the Year. He batted .333 and stole 63 bases.
The world was at war, of course. Great ballplayers like Ted Williams and Bob Feller, and many more, were off fighting the Japanese and the Germans. The big leagues needed ballplayers. And, Pete Gray ended up with the unlikeliest of defending pennant winners, the St. Louis Browns of 1945
Fans remember the Browns for being one of baseball’s perennial cellar dwellers – “St. Louis … first in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League.” But, for one glorious season, the Browns were better than everyone else in the A.L., even the mighty New York Yankees.
In 1944, the Browns met the crosstown Cardinals in the Fall Classic. The Redbirds won the Streetcar Series, but the Browns gained a measure of respectability, at least for a time. The Browns bought Gray’s contract from the Chicks for $20,000 and paid Gray $4,000.
Gray got into 77 games for the Browns. He collected 51 hits in 234 at-bats for a .218 batting average. He didn’t hit a home run, but he did slap six doubles and two triples. The outfielder stole five bases, but opposing catchers nailed him six times.
The problem was that Gray couldn’t hit breaking balls. Without the use of one arm, he couldn’t check his swing in order to adjust his timing. Pitchers being ruthless sorts, they pounded Gray with curveballs. (Gray held the bat with his arm about six in inches up from the handle. He usually pulled the ball.)
The so-called “One-armed Wonder” fielded like this: Gray wore a baseball without padding. He caught fly balls with his glove directly in front of him at about shoulder height. When the ball hit the glove, he would roll the ball and glove across his chest. On ground balls, he let the ball bounce off his glove in front of him at about knee height. He’d flip off his glove and grab the ball in the air. It worked OK. Gray threw out runners but made seven errors.
World War II officially ended Aug. 15, 1945 (Aug. 14 in the U.S.), V-J Day. That signing of the peace treaty aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in effect ended Gray’s major league career. The boys, including the ballplayers, were coming home.
Gray continued to play exhibition ball. Unfortunately, he drank heavily at times, wondering if he was simply a war-time sideshow, signed to put fans into the ballpark. (”He didn’t belong in the major leagues, and he knew he was being exploited,” Browns Manager Luke Sewell said in Even the Browns by William B. Mead. Sewell also said, “He shows us something every day. You really don’t believe some of the things he does.”) Pete Gray died June 30, 2002, at the age of 87.