World War II deprived Major League Baseball of many star ballplayers, some in their prime. Some of the greatest players to play the game found themselves losing at least a season or more serving in the armed forces. Ted Williams. Joe DiMaggio. Bob Feller. Stan Musial.
With many Major League rosters depleted of their superstars, teams found themselves in the unique position of bringing along ballplayers who might not normally find themselves in a Major League uniform.
One of the most unusual players to find themselves in the Major Leagues in part because of this need for ballplayers, was the St. Louis Browns’ Pete Gray.
Even before acknowledging Gray’s handicap, it should be noted that he had the talent, backed up by his minor league statistics, to be a major leaguer. In fact, he hit .308 over the course of six minor league seasons, hitting as high as .381 in 160 at-bats at Trois Rivieres (in Quebec) in 1942 and managing a .333 average in 501 at bats in 1944 at Memphis (about the equivalent of Double-A ball today) a season in which he also managed 5 homers and 21 doubles, while stealing 68 bases and winning the Southern Association MVP Award. In his one major league season, he even managed three outfield assists.
Certainly Pete Gray isn’t the only minor leaguer to have some degree of success. His stat lines don’t indicate a lot of power. And three outfield assists seem like a number that even a mediocre major league outfielder with enough starts would run into.
What made Pete Gray unique is that he put up his statistics and found his way onto a Major League Baseball roster with only one arm, his left, having lost most of his right arm as the result of a childhood accident.
Gray’s minor league success in 1944 led him to have an opportunity with the St. Louis Browns during the 1945 season, and for 77 games, Pete Gray lived his dream. Although the outfielder only hit .217 as a major leaguer, he showed speed on the base paths, and was able to field the ball cleanly. To play the outfield effectively, Gray would catch the ball, pop it in the air quickly while slipping the glove off his left hand and under his right arm pit, catch the ball bare-handed with his left-hand, and return it to the infield.
Gray also served as an inspiration to other players with handicaps to play the game. World War II era baseball featured not only Gray, but a one-legged pitcher named Bert Shepard who made a single appearance for the Washington Senators during the 1945 season, when he pitched 5 1/3 innings while giving up only one run, on three hits, after being brought into a game during which Washington was being blown out by Boston by a score of 14-2.
Gray’s methods also were utilized (and modified accordingly to his position) by Jim Abbott, who despite being born without a right hand, was able to pitch in the Major Leagues over the course of a 10-season career which, while it had many ups-and-downs, did feature a season in which he won 18 games with a 2.89 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting (1991), compiling an 87-108 record with a 4.25 ERA and tossing a no-hitter.