NANTICOKE, Pa. -- That a one-armed man could play in baseball's major leagues stands as one of the most astonishing achievements in all the history of sports. It was a half-century ago, with World War II coming to an end, that Pete Gray played for the St. Louis Browns and, since then, has preferred to fade into the background, resisting most attempts to talk about the experience.
He's reclusive and gives the impression that even the smallest interest in him must be based on some kind of one-man "freak show" curiosity. His days are almost all the same, visiting a restaurant for morning coffee, sitting a spell in Patriot's Square, stopping by the Town Tavern operated by a cousin, Bertha Vedor, and picking up his mail.
Pete is 80 but doesn't look it. He's as slender as a fungo bat. Walks with a fast-paced, almost nervous stride, as if at all times he's in a hurry to get some place for an important appointment. He never married, lives in the same house where he was born and doesn't have a telephone.
When sportswriters call friends to intercede for interviews, he says, "Tell them I'm out of town." Or he might explain he isn't available in summer or during the winter, depending upon the season of the year. It's all an excuse.
Obviously, celebrity status has made him uncomfortable. He protects his privacy by being elusive. No doubt, he has been wounded by previous meetings with reporters so, as personal policy, prefers to reject all requests.
We sat on a bench in Patriot's Square with Gray and Mayor Wasil Kobella and, once Gray began to reminisce, the stories of his boyhood and entrance into professional baseball came with a rapidity that belied an earlier reluctance to talk about himself. Nanticoke, with close proximity to Wilkes-Barre, had a population of 38,000 in the mid-1930s, when Pete was growing into manhood.
Now, with the coal mines, cigar factory and silk mill all memories of the past, Nanticoke has lost many of its once basic employment opportunities. The last census showed a total of 12,267 residents, predominantly Ukrainian and Russian, according to the mayor, and the community is 70 percent Catholic. Gray is of Lithuanian ancestry; his real name is Peter Wyshner.
The city has a cleanliness and order to it that makes it immediately attractive. It was here that Pete Gray grew up in the rolling greenery of Luzerne County, where men going underground to work in the mines always faced the inherent danger of losing their lives.
Nanticoke is where at age 6 he jumped off the running board of a
vegetable truck, owned by a huckster who was allowing Pete to make deliveries for pocket change, and an accident occurred that changed his life.
When he fell to the ground, his right arm was caught in the spokes of the wheel and almost torn from his body. Amputation was necessary. "I don't remember," he said, "but my brother Tony always said I was a natural right-hander, that I held a pencil and fork that way. So I had to become a left-handed ballplayer."
A man with a system
This makes what Pete was to achieve later even more remarkable. By necessity, he changed over to bat and throw with his left hand, the only one he had. With one arm he had to devise a system to play the outfield.
He caught the ball in his glove, pushed the glove under the stump of his right arm, let the ball roll across his body, grasped it in his bare hand and made the throw -- all in a split-second motion.
The glove, now on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., was given to him by an undertaker who lived in nearby Hanover. "I took out all the padding," he explained. "I went to a shoemaker who put a piece of stiff leather on one side of the glove that gave it firmness. When the ball hit the glove, it kind of closed."
At the plate, he batted from the left side and held the bat in his left hand. His reputation as a young player became established in the Wilkes-Barre area and led to his joining Three-Rivers of the Canadian-American League in 1942, where he batted .381 in 42 games. The surprised owner didn't know he was getting a one-armed player but, because Pete had made the trip, decided to give him a chance.
"You could hear a pin drop when I came up the first time," recalls Gray. "They announced my name in French and English. The bases were loaded in the ninth inning, a tied game. I hit a line drive on a 1-1 count and we won, 2-1. The fans took up a collection. They gave me $850."
He once had what he thought was an opportunity to go to Philadelphia for a tryout with the A's. He entered the club office at then-Shibe Park but, while waiting to see owner-manager Connie Mack, met his son, Roy.
'Don't waste my time, kid'
"Where's the kid we are supposed to look at?" asked Roy. He was stunned to learn that the prospect was standing there in front of him, a one-armed man. "I was told then that Connie was busy and couldn't waste his time seeing me," remembers Gray.
Mack was quoted as saying he had enough trouble finding capable players with two arms and didn't see any future for a one-armed candidate. In 1944, Mack finally met Gray when the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association honored him as the "most courageous athlete of the year."
Mack, talking to Gray, said, "There was a one-armed fellow one time who wanted a tryout. Are you the same boy?" Gray, of course, answered in the affirmative. The next year, Gray particularly enjoyed dominating a series when the Browns beat the A's in St. Louis and Connie, the rival manager, was there to watch him do it.
Another similar incident happened in Miami, where the other Philadelphia team, the Phillies, was in training camp in 1940: "All I wanted was for manager Doc Prothro to look at me. I went down to the field and asked him to let me work out. He said, 'Get off the field, Wingy, or I'll have the police come get you.' "
That scenario had a similar postscript, too. In 1944, he played for the same Prothro when they were together at Memphis in the Southern Association, where this one-armed marvel batted .333 and led in stolen bases with 68.
He won the league's most valuable player award, and his contract was sold to the St. Louis Browns.
Gray, by his performance, made Prothro revise his opinion. The Memphis manager, after seeing what he could do, said, "The majors are in for a big surprise. They'll be amazed to find out a fellow with just a left arm can do things better than a lot of two-armed guys around. I'm sure he'll stick." Remember, a war was on and baseball rosters had been depleted.
Gray batted only .218 with the Browns in 1945. The most impressive thing was that in 234 at-bats he struck out only 11 times. "Fastball pitchers never bothered me," he said. "I was weaker on change-ups."
The reason is that once he began to offer at a pitch he couldn't "stop the bat" because he didn't have two hands to use as a brake. With only one hand, off-speed deliveries had him out in front and vulnerable with little to hit with.
The 1945 Browns were defending champions and had a chance to win again. Some teammates were critical, saying that rival clubs were taking an extra base on balls hit to Gray in center field.
Strong, fast and mean
"That's the way I remember it," said Irv Hall, who played for the A's. "But let me tell you, it was amazing what he could do. Infielders knew they couldn't make a mistake on any ball he hit because we all found out how fast he could run."
Another surprising thing is that Pete used a 36-ounce bat, heavier than most players were swinging then and now. He was doing it all with one hand. About the only thing he couldn't do was tie his baseball shoes, so a coach or another player had to assist him.
His reputation was of a tough hombre, who could fight effectively with one arm if he had to, and that he was distant in personal relationships. We once asked a Browns' coach, Zack Taylor, if it was true that Pete was a "mean SOB."
Taylor answered, "Let me put it this way. To play in the big leagues with one arm you better had be a mean SOB."
Bob Feller, Hall of Fame pitcher, says Gray provided "an enormous emotional lift for wounded veterans coming home from World War II who saw what honest-to-God determination could do."
Gray made $5,500 with the Browns but remembers that Bill DeWitt, a team official, gave him a bonus of $1,500.
The saga of Pete Gray, 50 years from his emergence in the majors, is intriguing and exciting. He's an everlasting credit to the human spirit, a man who sits on a park bench with his memories and only rarely shares them with others.
John Steadman is a sports columnist for The Baltimore Sun.