PHOTO COURTESY JOHN J. GUINOZZO
Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder of the Memphis club, as “Most Courageous Athlete” of 1943
Dear Vance: What can you tell me about a Memphis baseball player named Pete Gray, who had only one arm? That seems like an unbelievable story. Is it true? — T.G., Memphis.
Dear T.G.: It seems like an unbelievable story only because you have never encountered a man, a prince among men, who bravely overcame all obstacles thrown in his path, ignored the naysayers, and eventually became an inspiration to the entire nation, and certain parts of South America.
I’m talking, of course, about me, and what I just wrote comes directly from the next installment in my Bound for Glory autobiography. In fact, I’m thinking about calling Chapter 37 “Charging Towards Danger” but I’m not sure it really conveys the bravery that I have shown during my many adventures. Why, just the other day …
Wait, you asked about that one-armed baseball player, didn’t you?
His story is also remarkable in its own way, though you may have some of the facts wrong. Pete Gray wasn’t a Memphian, and his name wasn’t Gray. Peter Wyshner was born in 1915 in the little coal-mining town of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. I don’t know why he changed his name to Gray, and I don’t know exactly how he lost his right arm. All biographies mention that he suffered an accident as a young boy, but one account says he lost it in a farming mishap, another says it was a truck accident of some kind, and another says that he fell beneath the wheels of a train. Either way seems pretty horrible, if you ask me.
Despite a handicap that would have kept most people off the field, Gray was determined to play baseball, and he got his chance in 1942, when he was 27 years old, playing outfielder for the Trois-Rivieres Renards team in the Canadian-American League. Gray batted by swinging with just one arm, which wasn’t easy, but still managed 61 base hits that first year. In 1943 and 1944, he headed south and played for the Memphis Chicks, where he became quite a sensation here. Actually, an inspiration would be a better word, especially for young kids who had suffered similar misfortunes, as well as veterans injured during the war, and he often visited hospitals to encourage the patients there.
People flocked to the games to see how Gray played. He developed a method of catching the ball in his glove, flipping the ball in the air, tucking the glove under his armpit, then catching and throwing the ball back to the infield.
My pal JJ Guinozzo knows more about sports than anyone I know, and he mentioned Gray in his Memphis Baseball Encyclopedia: “While World War II was raging around the globe, one-armed sensation Pete Gray continued to amaze the sports world with his style of play. The lanky outfielder hit .333 and led the league in stolen bases with 58.” As a result, says Guinozzo, Gray was named the Most Valuable Player of the Southern Association.
His achievements here weren’t overlooked by his home state. The Philadelphia Sporting Writers Association named him the “Most Courageous Athlete” of 1943, presenting him with a nice plaque, noting that “With Less, He Achieved More.”
Gray so impressed the scouts that he was called up to the big leagues in 1945, where he joined the St. Louis Browns as a left fielder and center fielder, and played in 77 games. But not all fairy tales have a happy ending. For one thing, professional baseball isn’t elementary school t-ball. These guys are playing for money, and they want to win, and that means the opposing team isn’t going to lob you any softballs just because you happen to be missing an arm. It seems the opposing pitchers soon figured out Gray couldn’t really change his swing as quickly as someone with two arms holding the bat, so they struck him out with curve balls. His batting average dropped to .218, and team owners decided that wasn’t good enough for the majors. Yes, I know, it sounds mean, but that’s the way it was.
Another factor was the war — or the end of it. During World War II, most of the able-bodied players joined the armed forces. To keep the game alive, team managers hired people they might normally not consider. I’d like to think that Pete Gray would have been promoted, regardless, but the sad fact is that when the war ended and better players came home, he was sent back to the minor leagues. He played one year for the Toledo Mud Hens, one year for the Elmira (New York) Pioneers, and then one year for the Dallas Eagles before hanging up his bat and glove and returning home to Pennsylvania.
It’s not clear — to me, anyway — how Gray spent the remaining 50 years of his remarkably long life. Guinozzo describes him as “a very quiet and bashful person who did not like or want attention due to his arm. After retirement in 1949, he spent a quiet life in his hometown of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.” Gray passed away in 2002 at the age of 87. He’s buried in St. Mary Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where the inscription on his gravestone remembers him as “The One-Armed Wonder.”
I’m glad that, upon his death, he hadn’t been completely forgotten after all these years. The New York Times published a long obituary, noting that “his achievement was viewed as an extraordinary testament to his determination and athleticism, and it resonated beyond the sports world.” His glove is on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Memphis Mystery Photo
Dear Vance: Sometime around 1917, my great-great-aunt and great-grandmother came to Memphis and snapped pictures of themselves on the roof of a downtown building. Can you tell me where the photos were taken? — K.Y., Memphis.
Dear K.Y.: What with my photographic memory and enough brainpower to power a town the size of Itta Bena (when I really concentrate), it normally takes me about 20 seconds to answer such questions. And on quite a few occasions, I’ve had to tell the person: It wasn’t even taken in Memphis.
But in this case, K.Y. knows the photos certainly were taken in Memphis, because one of the women in the photos remembered their trip here. First of all, the great-great-aunt was Ouida Louise Russell (also known to friends and family as “Aunt Ezzie”), and the great-grandmother was Cleopatra Blanche Russell (also known as “Mimi”).
I know what you’re thinking: Wow, this family sure came up with great names for their kids. Ouida and Cleopatra! The young women grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Sometime around 1917 or 1918, according to family lore, the two girls ran away to Memphis and, among other adventures, scampered to the top of a downtown building and took pictures of each other. I don’t know if this is Ezzie or Mimi, but that’s not our concern here. Our problem is: Where was the photo taken?
Years later, it seems, Ezzie wrote to another relative, and remembered this: “They were made on top of a building in Memphis shortly after we ‘migrated’ from Mississippi. I recall the day they were made, but am not sure of the building or what business we had up there.”
The photo provides just a few tantalizing clues. Taller buildings are dimly visible in the background, but not clearly enough to identify them. More intriguing, however, is the curious object visible over the top edge of the rooftop. It seems to be a sign mounted on a metal framework, with large script letters below a large circular company logo. We’re looking through the back of the sign, so everything is reversed, but I still can’t make out what it says.
K.Y. points out that the two posts (if that’s what they are) supporting either side of the sign bear a striking resemblance to the twin smokestacks of a riverboat, but if that’s a boat, it seems awfully close to the building shown here. And what are we to make of all that smoke in the sky? Or is that just some smudge on the original negative?
I rarely admit this, but I’m stumped. Any suggestions, anybody?
Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103