Pete Gray played 77 games for the 1945 St. Louis Browns – with one arm.
Gray played one season in the Major Leagues, hitting only .213 with no homers and 13 RBI. But his story was cathartic to a war-torn country, especially to disabled servicemen returning from World War II.
Displaying incredible focus and determination, Gray overcame astronomical odds to land in the big leagues. Playing with only a left arm, the speedy outfielder collected 51 hits, scored 26 runs and stole five bases in his lone MLB season. Defensively, Gray recorded 162 putouts with three assists while compiling a .959 fielding percentage.
Dubbed the One-Armed Wonder, Gray was a living embodiment of what was possible. His resolve gave hope to the disabled. Gray went on USO tours, visiting Army hospitals and rehabilitation centers. He spoke with amputees, encouraging them that they, too, could lead productive lives.
In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gray attempted to join the Army. He was denied on the basis that he was an amputee, which infuriated him. “If I could teach myself to play baseball with one arm,” said Gray, “I sure as hell could handle a rifle.”
Pete Gray was born Peter James Wyshner March 6, 1915, in the small coal mining town of Nanticoke in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, 20 miles from Scranton. He was the youngest of five children born to Lithuanian immigrant parents. His father worked as a laborer in the local mines. At six, Gray lost his right arm after falling off a produce truck and getting his arm caught in the spokes of a wheel. He was rushed to the hospital but the arm could not be saved and was amputated above the elbow.
Gray had been right-handed before the accident. He learned to use his left arm to do everything.
Gray quit school at 13 to work in the coal mining operation of the local railroad. He took up baseball and dreamed of becoming a great player. The fleet-footed Gray possessed a keen eye and a strong wrist. Hitting was the easiest part of the game for him. Fielding and throwing were more difficult because he had to perform four more steps than a two-armed player. Gray wore a glove with little padding. He would catch the ball, pop it in the air quickly while slipping the glove off his left hand and placing it under his right armpit. Gray would then catch the ball bare-handed with his left hand and throw.
Described by scouts as a “dead pull” hitter, Gray was unusually strong. Batting from the left side of the plate, he wielded a 38-ounce bat, choking up about six inches from the knob. To bunt, Gray planted the knob of his bat against his side and then slid his hand about one-third of the way up the bat.
Gray broke into the minors at 27, appearing in 42 games with the Class C Three Rivers club of the Canadian-American League. He was promoted to the Single-A Southern Association the following year, where he collected 131 hits and batted .289 for the Memphis Chicks. In 1944, Gray was named MVP of the Southern League after hitting .333 and stealing 68 bases. At the end of the season, the Philadelphia Sports Writers named him as Most Courageous Athlete. “Boys, I can’t fight, and so there is no courage about me,” said Gray in accepting the award. “Courage belongs on the battlefield, not on the baseball diamond.”
Major league rosters were depleted in the early 1940s due to the Second World War. Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial all spent several years in the service. Prior to the 1945 season, the St. Louis Browns bought Gray’s contract for $20,000, the largest sum ever paid for a Southern League player. He made his big league debut April 17, 1945, starting in left field and singling in four at-bats in a 7-1 Browns victory. But as the season progressed, Gray struggled at the plate. Once he started his swing, he couldn’t change his timing because he had no second hand to check the swing. Pitchers quickly caught on and fed Gray a steady diet of breaking balls.
As Gray’s average plummeted, so did his patience. He began to argue with umpires and teammates, while opposing runners began to exploit his weaknesses, taking an extra base on the split-second longer it took Gray to get the ball back into the infield. By September 1945, he was relegated to the bench, appearing only occasionally as a pinch hitter.
After joining a local semi-pro league in 1938, Wyshner changed his name to Pete Gray to avoid ethnic prejudices.
Many of Gray’s teammates resented him, believing the one-armed outfielder was on the roster only as a publicity stunt designed to boost ticket sales. In the race to repeat as American League champions, some Browns players felt Gray, who wasn’t hitting well, hurt the team. In fact, the Browns had a winning percentage of .600 with Gray in the lineup and only .425 when he was not. The Browns finished third in 1945. It would be their last winning season before moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles in 1954.
Most of baseball’s top-tier talent returned from the war for the 1946 season, and Pete Gray was sent back down to the minor leagues, where he stayed until leaving baseball in 1949. He returned to Nanticoke, never married, and struggled with gambling, alcohol and poverty in his later years. Gray was the subject of a 1986 television movie, A Winner Never Quits, starring Keith Carradine. His biography, One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball and the American Dream published in 1995. Gray, whose glove is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, died June 30, 2002, at 87.
On this date in 1945, Pete Gray helped the St. Louis Browns win both ends of a doubleheader over the New York Yankees. Leading off and playing left field in a Game 1 rout, Gray went 3-for-5, driving in two runs and scoring another. He also made three putouts. In Game 2, the One-Armed Wonder singled and scored the winning run as the Browns completed a four-game sweep of the Bronx Bombers.