Everyone who achieves something of great value overcomes some kind of adversity along the way. But few people have ever defied the odds as much as former major league player Pete Gray.
No one will confuse Gray as one of the all-time greats, as he played just 77 games in the big leagues. But after losing his right arm as a child, Gray was still able to have a distinguished minor league career and made it to the show for one season in 1945, and his story is one that deserves recognition.
There are several versions of the story explaining how Gray came to have his right arm amputated above the elbow around the age of 7. Perhaps the most common version involves Gray falling off a truck and getting his arm stuck in the spokes of the wheels used on vehicles in the 1920s. There’s even a portion of the story that claims the driver of the truck simply dropped him off at home and ran off.
Regardless of how it happened, Gray was left to go through life with just one arm. However, his family treated him no different following the accident, providing no sympathy or special treatment. That sense of normalcy inspired Gray to pursue the dream he had of playing professional baseball, no matter how difficult that may be with one arm.
His first challenge was learning to hit and throw left-handed after being naturally right-handed. Growing up, Gray would practice hitting with a rock and a stick to help develop a quick wrist so he could hit solely with one hand on the bat. He also had to come up with his own unique way of fielding the ball, transferring it to his left hand, and throwing it.
“I’d catch the ball in my glove and stick it under the stub of my right arm. Then I’d squeeze the ball out of my glove with my arm and it would roll across my chest and drop to my stomach. The ball would drop right into my hand and my small, crooked finger prevented it from bouncing away”
Gray eventually figured out that by removing the padding from his glove and wearing it on his fingertips he would be able to catch and throw the ball in one motion. By proving he could both field and hit, combined with his great speed, he proved himself a competent baseball player and had several productive seasons in the minor leagues.
After hitting .333 in 1944, Gray finally got his chance in the big leagues with the St. Louis Browns in 1945. Unfortunately, batting with one hand made Gray susceptible to major league breaking balls, as he could not adjust his bad speed accordingly, a weakness pitchers were able to exploit. He fielded his position in the outfield well, but after hitting a modest .218 in 1945, Gray never made it back to the big leagues, although he did continue to be a productive minor leaguer in the years to follow.
“I’ve been turned down by more big-league managers than any other man in history. I’ve spent more money trying to get into baseball than I’ve earned on the game.”
After his season in the big leagues, Gray became a motivational speaker of sorts, speaking at army hospitals and rehab facilities to soldiers who returned from World War II with amputations or other serious injuries. He was admired for his courage, yet ironically, was not allowed to sign up for the army after Pearl Harbor because he had only one arm. However, Gray becoming such a public figure did great things for the perception of disabled people in society.
“Boys, I can’t fight, and so there is no courage about me. Courage belongs on the battlefield, not on the baseball diamond. But if I could prove to any boy who has been physically handicapped that he, too, can compete with the best—well then, I’ve done my little bit.”
Sadly, many of Gray’s big league teammates resented him, believing he was only there to sell tickets. He spent many years after his playing days wondering whether he even deserved to be there in the first place. But the truth is that Gray earned his way to the majors fair and square. He deserved his cup of coffee in 1945 after proving himself over several years in the minors. Most importantly, he never felt sorry for himself in the face of adversity.