Greetings, all. It’s been over two months since my last post, as work and a myriad of other projects continue to take precedence (and somewhat of a shortage of ideas, I admit. Wait, a shortage of baseball stuff to write about? Nah, that’s only an excuse. Digressing now.) On this final day of 2019, I figure it is a good time to pen something – another odd coincidence in over 150 years’ worth of them in our game.
“If I could teach myself how to play baseball with one arm, I sure as hell could handle a rifle.”
– Pete Gray, 1941
Pete Gray was no stranger to challenges.
A right arm amputee following a childhood accident in 1923, Gray was told repeatedly throughout his life that he would never make it as a professional ballplayer. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was told he’d never be a soldier, either.
Breaking into professional baseball in 1942, due, in part to the manpower shortage from the war effort, Gray began to produce immediately. While it may have been easy for some to say he was playing due not only to the limit of available players – but also to boost ticket sales – he was in reality a lightning fast base runner with excellent outfield range. He was more than a capable hitter as well, amassing a lifetime minor league average of .308.
He eventually broke into the majors in 1945 with the St. Louis Browns, hitting .218 in 77 games. During those years, Gray bashfully became considered something of a stateside hero. The continuation of baseball served to be an important boost to national morale, and something for the troops overseas to hold onto, and Gray was a not-so-small part of that.
1944 was a big year for Pete. As a member of the Class A Memphis Chicks, he was awarded MVP of the Southern Association, after a season in which he batted .333 with 68 stolen bases. He was also recognized as the “Most Courageous Athlete” by the Philadelphia Sports Writers, to which he immediately replied with “Boys, I can’t fight, and there is no courage about me. Courage belongs on the battlefield, not the baseball diamond.”
Stoic almost to a fault, Gray would still achieve one singular personal milestone that season.
Visiting Chattanooga, TN to take on the rival Lookouts at historic Engel Stadium, this was to be a highlight, if overlooked, day for Pete Gray. With the score tied 3-3 in the eighth, Gray stepped into the box to face Bob Albertson, a career minor leaguer who never made the show. Albertson uncorked a fastball, and Gray dropped the barrel of his club on the pill, launching it over the 20-foot high right field fence, 330 feet away from home plate.
Pete Gray, the one-armed ballplayer from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, had finally hit his first career home run as a professional ballplayer – another thing they told him he could never do.
Outside of the attendees at Engel Stadium that day, few people knew of this feat, and even fewer cared, even though this was the only professional ballgame played in the country on this particular date. After years of unwanted attention and suffering endless ridicule, nobody cared what Pete Gray did during this game. It was ironic.
All other pro games had been cancelled, with flags everywhere flying at half-staff.
The date was June 6, 1944.
Sources: Klima, John. The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015