Pete Gray met the challenge Major leaguer: A Pennsylvania man refused to let the loss of his right arm in a childhood accident keep him from playing professional baseball, and playing it well.

October 01, 1995|By John Steadman

NANTICOKE, Pa. -- That a one-armed man could play in baseball's major leagues stands as one of the most astonishing achievements in all the history of sports. It was a half-century ago, with World War II coming to an end, that Pete Gray played for the St. Louis Browns and, since then, has preferred to fade into the background, resisting most attempts to talk about the experience.

He's reclusive and gives the impression that even the smallest interest in him must be based on some kind of one-man "freak show" curiosity. His days are almost all the same, visiting a restaurant for morning coffee, sitting a spell in Patriot's Square, stopping by the Town Tavern operated by a cousin, Bertha Vedor, and picking up his mail.

Pete is 80 but doesn't look it. He's as slender as a fungo bat. Walks with a fast-paced, almost nervous stride, as if at all times he's in a hurry to get some place for an important appointment. He never married, lives in the same house where he was born and doesn't have a telephone.

When sportswriters call friends to intercede for interviews, he says, "Tell them I'm out of town." Or he might explain he isn't available in summer or during the winter, depending upon the season of the year. It's all an excuse.

Obviously, celebrity status has made him uncomfortable. He protects his privacy by being elusive. No doubt, he has been wounded by previous meetings with reporters so, as personal policy, prefers to reject all requests.

We sat on a bench in Patriot's Square with Gray and Mayor Wasil Kobella and, once Gray began to reminisce, the stories of his boyhood and entrance into professional baseball came with a rapidity that belied an earlier reluctance to talk about himself. Nanticoke, with close proximity to Wilkes-Barre, had a population of 38,000 in the mid-1930s, when Pete was growing into manhood.

Now, with the coal mines, cigar factory and silk mill all memories of the past, Nanticoke has lost many of its once basic employment opportunities. The last census showed a total of 12,267 residents, predominantly Ukrainian and Russian, according to the mayor, and the community is 70 percent Catholic. Gray is of Lithuanian ancestry; his real name is Peter Wyshner.

The city has a cleanliness and order to it that makes it immediately attractive. It was here that Pete Gray grew up in the rolling greenery of Luzerne County, where men going underground to work in the mines always faced the inherent danger of losing their lives.

Nanticoke is where at age 6 he jumped off the running board of a

vegetable truck, owned by a huckster who was allowing Pete to make deliveries for pocket change, and an accident occurred that changed his life.

When he fell to the ground, his right arm was caught in the spokes of the wheel and almost torn from his body. Amputation was necessary. "I don't remember," he said, "but my brother Tony always said I was a natural right-hander, that I held a pencil and fork that way. So I had to become a left-handed ballplayer."

A man with a system

This makes what Pete was to achieve later even more remarkable. By necessity, he changed over to bat and throw with his left hand, the only one he had. With one arm he had to devise a system to play the outfield.

He caught the ball in his glove, pushed the glove under the stump of his right arm, let the ball roll across his body, grasped it in his bare hand and made the throw -- all in a split-second motion.

The glove, now on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., was given to him by an undertaker who lived in nearby Hanover. "I took out all the padding," he explained. "I went to a shoemaker who put a piece of stiff leather on one side of the glove that gave it firmness. When the ball hit the glove, it kind of closed."

At the plate, he batted from the left side and held the bat in his left hand. His reputation as a young player became established in the Wilkes-Barre area and led to his joining Three-Rivers of the Canadian-American League in 1942, where he batted .381 in 42 games. The surprised owner didn't know he was getting a one-armed player but, because Pete had made the trip, decided to give him a chance.

"You could hear a pin drop when I came up the first time," recalls Gray. "They announced my name in French and English. The bases were loaded in the ninth inning, a tied game. I hit a line drive on a 1-1 count and we won, 2-1. The fans took up a collection. They gave me $850."

He once had what he thought was an opportunity to go to Philadelphia for a tryout with the A's. He entered the club office at then-Shibe Park but, while waiting to see owner-manager Connie Mack, met his son, Roy.

'Don't waste my time, kid'

"Where's the kid we are supposed to look at?" asked Roy. He was stunned to learn that the prospect was standing there in front of him, a one-armed man. "I was told then that Connie was busy and couldn't waste his time seeing me," remembers Gray.

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