75 Years Ago: One-Armed Player Shocks MLB in Career Day

Jordan Cohn
May 20, 2020 - 2:39 pm

On May 20, 1945, St. Louis Browns outfielder Pete Gray went 3-5 in the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees, driving in two runs and leading the team to a 10-1 victory. In the second game, he collected one hit and drew one walk, scoring in the bottom of the fifth to give the Browns the lead that would eventually win them the game.

Why on earth do we care about a solid performance from a one-year St. Louis player that happened 75 years ago, today? 

For one, it's probably the baseball hiatus getting to us. After all, what better way to fill the void than to look back on some of the greatest or quirkiest moments of our game, recalling events that we may have missed so that it's just as fresh as ever?

But in this case, it's because Pete Gray was nothing short of extraordinary. He may have put up numbers like your typical, uninteresting player, lost in history to the tens of thousands of players who never quite found their way. His .218 career batting average and grand total of zero home runs don't exactly suggest he's a player worth paying tribute to. But Pete Gray wasn't your typical baseball player.

Pete Gray only had one arm.

It happened when he was a child. According to Mel Marmer of the Society of American Baseball Research, the naturally right-handed Gray lost his right arm when he was just six years old while attempting to catch a ride along the running board of a produce truck. When the truck came to an abrupt stop, Gray's arm got caught in the wheel, and though he was taken to the hospital immediately after the accident, they ultimately found it best to amputate his arm above the elbow.

You can read the rest of his biography linked above to learn more about his journey; Marmer did an exceptional job researching Gray meticulously. One particularly interesting nugget comes out of Gray explaining how he went about getting the ball out of his glove after making a catch -- kind of an important skill if your aspiration is to become a Major League outfielder.

"I'd catch the ball in my glove and stick it under the stub of my right arm," Gray said, further explaining that he'd squeeze the glove under that arm until it popped out, fell into his left hand and made the throw in an efficient-enough manner to catch runners looking to take advantage of the handicapped outfielder.

You may think that a player with the physical limitations of Gray may have been one of Bill Veeck's classic publicity stunts, but it wasn't until 1951 that Veeck became the majority owner of the Browns. It seems like a Veeck-ian move, though, fitting in nicely alongside players like the three-foot, seven-inch Eddie Gaedel who had a grand total of one plate appearance in his MLB career. He drew a walk, was pulled from the game as a pinch runner, and that was it.

But no, Gray came before the Veeck era, and lasted a heck of a lot longer than Gaedel. In fact, Gray rose through the Browns' Minor League system, batting .333 in 1944 with 21 doubles, nine triples and five home runs. You try and hit a home run with one arm, which, by the way, isn't the arm you're naturally dominant in... it's not so easy.

Though Gray's numbers in the Majors weren't great, as mentioned previously, they weren't horrible. In case you forgot, he was doing everything with one arm. It was enough for him to play in 77 games for the Browns -- a competitive team in 1945, by the way, with an 81-70 record -- though he was said to have primarily been brought on to help boost financial success of the team.

Marmer noted that Gray's teammate, Don Gutteridge, didn't believe Browns manager Luke Sewell brought Gray on because he thought he could help them win. But baseball is business first, as we're seeing in an especially interesting lens during the coronavirus pandemic, and if Sewell believed Gray could help bring in fans, it was worth the risk.

Unfortunately, the reviews on Gray's personality aren't great. Marmer notes that Gutteridge called him a "loner", upset because he didn't want to be viewed as the one-armed baseball player instead of just a regular baseball player. Another teammate, Ellis Clary, said that he was "ornery" and that feelings of sympathy quickly dissolved after you got to know him.

Gray's career only lasted one year, as the return of several World War II veterans prompted his dismissal. All-Star left fielder Al Zarilla and right fielder Wally Judnich reclaimed their spots in the outfield after serving time, and Gray was out of the majors.

Nonetheless, Gray's legacy is deeply ingrained in baseball lore. Jim Abbott, born without a hand, is usually the first one-handed/one-armed MLB player to come to mind, whether it's because of recency bias or because he found more Major League success, recording an incredible no-hitter with the Yankees. Whatever the case, today serves as a reminder that Pete Gray shouldn't be forgotten given the unbelievable challenges he persevered through in order to achieve his dream as a ballplayer.

"One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream" was a book written in 1995 by William C. Kashatus that you can check out for more information and a thorough look at that very interesting era of baseball history.