Black and White and Shades of Pete Gray

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with the Pete Gray story. On the one hand, it’s very inspirational. It’s about persevering in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s one of the great underdog stories: A determined young man loses his arm in a childhood accident, grows up during the Great Depression, then fulfills his dream to play big league baseball. Who doesn’t love that?

Actually, I can think of lots of people who probably didn’t love it at the time. They played baseball in what was called the “negro leagues,” because they were barred from playing so-called “organized ball.” That’s the other hand.

Pete Gray grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, coal mining country. He was a natural right hander before losing his arm in a wagon or truck accident when he was seven or eight. But he became a bona fide superstar in the minor leagues and then played a year in the American League with a good St. Louis Browns team. Granted, this was during World War II, when Major League lineups were depleted as men went off to war or to play baseball for one of the service teams or both. So if ever there was an opportune time for a one-armed outfielder (or a good St. Louis Browns team), this was it.

But still – a one-armed outfielder! Pete Gray was a miracle in cleats, who developed a foolproof (for him) technique to play defense, catching flies and rolling the ball across his chest, sticking his floppy glove under his stump while rolling the ball into his throwing hand, seamlessly; or bouncing ground balls into the air with his glove, then dropping it and grabbing the ball as it hovered in front of him then firing it back to the infield, all of this in the same time it took a two-handed man (if not faster).

He was equally incredible at bat. Swinging from the left side of the plate (of course), he batted a mere .218 in 77 games for the Browns, but this was still the Major Leagues, and he did hit .333 and stole 63 bases in 1944 as a minor leaguer. He legitimately had game, and I’ve been in awe of Pete Gray since my father first told me about him almost 50 years ago. But not very long after that, as I descended ever deeper into baseball geekdom, I developed a decent grasp of the game’s social history. And I started wondering.

I wondered why “organized baseball” would take in and promote a one-armed man – even an immensely gifted man like Pete Gray – but would not consider hiring proven superstars like Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige or Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin or Buck Leonard or Cool Papa Bell or any of the excellent players from the negro leagues. Pete Gray broke into whites-only “organized ball” in the early 1940s, several years before Branch Rickey signed Robinson.

There was plenty of first-rate talent available, for many decades before the war and during the war and before Jackie Robinson, all considered off limits for the most ridiculous and hateful of reasons. Racism. Baseball’s white ruling class would rather hire a one-armed outfielder, or a one-legged pitcher (Bert Shepard for the Senators in August 1945), or 15-year-old pitcher (Joe Nuxhall for the Reds in June 1944) – all of them white, all of them remarkable athletes, but none of them better than a Gibson, a Paige, or an Irvin. Or a Robinson.

So, I honor the memory of Pete Gray (who died in 2002) as a truly marvelous and inspirational baseball player – I’m a fan for life. But his story tells me as much about the sanctioned senseless (and yes, evil) policies that once ruled the game, as it does about Pete’s indomitable spirit and amazing athletic skills. And for almost 50 years I’ve been plagued by a nagging rhetorical question: What the hell?

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