Friday, October 29, 2010

Pete Gray At Bat: A Remarkable Baseball Tale

It's the middle of World Series 2010, and I'm lucky enough to have tripped over a baseball story so different it has merited a Pennsylvania State historic marker--no mean distinction. It is the story of the first amputee to play Major League baseball.
Pete Gray was born and christened Peter J. Wyshner in the anthracite mining town of Nanticoke. He was the son of immigrants.Somewhere along the line he took, or was given, the more "American"-sounding last name, Gray.
When he was only six he lost much of his right arm in a fall from a wagon. But his love for baseball was so keen that he taught himself to play effectively despite a handicap which would have stopped anyone of lesser determination.
He played left and center field for a variety of semiprofessional and minor league teams, and in 1944 was named Most Valuable Player of the Southern League. Around that point he was signed by the St. Louis Browns, a major league team that either does not exist any longer or has long since morphed into something else . He batted 218. for the Browns.
World War II was going on during this period, and Pete Gray made many visits to hospitals to encourage wounded veterans, especially amputees. The end of the war, though, limited his baseball career. The famous players who had been in the service returned, shed their uniforms, and rejoined their teams.
Could Pete Gray have competed in this new climate in the Majors? Perhaps; perhaps not. It seems the proposition was not tested by anyone. Gray went back to minor league baseball for a while, and then returned to Nanticoke, where he died in 2002. His last years were spent in disappointment, and in battling problems with alcohol and gambling. He was admired by his fellow townspeople, though; and now he is remembered by the blue and gold marker put up by the state.
One of his wishes had been to play in Yankee Stadium. It was granted. As a nice touch, his Browns "whupped" the Yankees the day it happened.
Pete Gray was the subject of the 1966 made-for-television movie "Winners Never Quit."

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