The Lookout Shot for Gray

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.

 

 

Photo credit: https://www.pristineauction.com/a1217907-Pete-Gray-Signed-Browns-8×10-Photo-JSA-COA#images-1

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Gray

 

 

 

 

The Curious Case of Gentleman George

George Sisler is a name seldom brought up when discussing the greatest ballplayers of all time. Given his career accolades and Hall of Fame status, that’s an injustice.

“Gentleman George”, also nicknamed “Gorgeous George”, was unquestionably the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history, and one of the games first truly elite first basemen. A quantifiable five-tool player, Sisler would play 12 of his 15 MLB seasons with the Browns, ending with a brief cup of coffee in Washington before finishing his career playing for three seasons with the Boston Braves. In that time, Sisler amassed a lifetime batting average of .340, good for 17th all time. Within that span, he would enjoy a mammoth 1920 campaign in which he hit .407 with 257 hits, a record that would last for 84 years.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 1922, Gentleman George would hit a whopping .420, while leading the league in hits, triples, stolen bases and runs scored. For his career, Sisler hit over .300 in 13 of his 15 seasons, over .350 five times, and over .400 twice. His offensive prowess, along with his base stealing ability and defensive wizardry that garnered him much comparison to the great Hal Chase, earned Sisler a rightful place on the stage at the inaugural induction ceremony in Cooperstown in 1939.

But like some other stars that rose through the deadball era, Gentleman George began his big league life as a pitcher. Albeit a short lived stint on the bump, Sisler did enjoy one or two grand accomplishments.

After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1915 (an extremely rare occurrence for ballplayers in that era), Sisler joined Branch Rickey’s Browns staff and posted a 4-4 mark with a 2.85 ERA in 15 games, a very strong body of work for a rookie on a second tier team. The highlight of those, and one that Sisler himself referred to as his greatest thrill in baseball (1), was a 2-1 complete game victory in which he out-dueled the great Walter Johnson. The game, in which George limited the Senators to six hits while striking out three, effectively was saved in the eighth inning by perfect execution of the infamous hidden ball trick. Ray Morgan opened the Senators’ eighth reaching on an error by shortstop Doc Lavin. Skipper Clark Griffith inserted Horace Milan as a pinch runner, who was then sacrificed over to second. On the bunt, Browns second baseman Del Pratt covered first, and after securing the putout, quickly tucked the ball under his right arm, unseen by everyone except Sisler. Moving about the hill in faux-preparedness to pitch to the next batter, Milan began his leadoff from second, when Pratt dove toward him with the ball. Umpire Billy Evans ruled the out and the Washington rally was stopped. Sisler would then finish them off in the ninth for the win.

Shortly thereafter, Sisler’s bat and glove were proving more valuable than his pitching arm, and so a few random appearances on the bump notwithstanding, he would be an every day position player instead, a path that would end in the Hall of Fame.

A year later however, in his second-to-last career start, Sisler would ironically again go up against Walter Johnson. On September 17, 1916, the two would square off at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and again it would be Gentleman George with the upper hand, shutting out Johnson and the Senators 1-0. Sisler would go the distance, allowing six hits and striking out six for the final victory of his pitching career.

In 111 career innings, Sisler would run up a 5-6 total record, with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.2 WHIP. While not staggering, and certainly nowhere near the echelons of his offensive numbers, this snapshot proves that he was more than capable of being an effective pitcher.

Due to often being on second division teams and having never played in a World Series, George Sisler is often overlooked and rarely discussed. While his Hall of Fame numbers as a first baseman are forever impressive, he did enjoy a few shining moments as a hurler as well.

Sources:  https://books.google.com/books?id=jlDWBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=Browns+Senators+Hidden+Ball+Trick+1915&source=bl&ots=dGdDK-vRMi&sig=7uIqRXW5p59q65bUmxwNM5zdCRo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1sYOTr6zWAhWL64MKHWQeAwIQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=Browns%20Senators%20Hidden%20Ball%20Trick%201915&f=false

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sislege01.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLA/SLA191508290.shtml

http://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/past-inductions/1936-1939

http://baseballhall.org/hof/sisler-george

(1) https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f67a9d5c