Before There Was Adam Bender, Before There Was Jim Abbott, There Was Pete Gray
It appears to me that my readership is interested in the story of Adam Bender, the one-legged Little League catcher from Kentucky. Most of you will probably remember Jim Abbott, the pitcher for the California Angels in the late-80s and early-90s. But how many of you have heard of Pete Gray?
Jim Abbott was missing the business end of his one arm, but Pete Gray was missing an entire arm. He played in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) for just one season, 1945. Nothing magical, in fact he only batted .218, well lower than an “average” hitter. But plenty of lower-than-average batters come and go every season in the major leagues. Having one arm had little to do with it. As you will see from any photo of Gray at bat, having one arm left him able to swing more freely than he would had he had two arms.
And, one could argue that the only reason Pete Gray was given a call-up to the Browns that year was because we were still in the midst of World War II, and many of the game’s greats were still away in the South Pacific or Europe. But if Major League owners were trying to fill the empty spots left by greats like Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Stan Musial, I find it hard to believe that the first place they’d look was toward a one-armed man. No, Gray had to have earned his tryout, and then his spot on the team.
For all of you baseball history buffs, no the Browns were not owned by Bill Veeck yet in ’45, so Gray was not one of Veeck’s sideshows (see Eddie Gaedel), though some have claimed that Gray’s tenure with the Browns was a “gate attraction” and that he was being exploited. This may be true and it may not be. But if he had not reasonably held his own at the plate and had not shown pretty good glove work and foot work in the field and on the base path, he would not have lasted even as long as he did. And guys like Jim Abbott never would have had a chance, and kids like Adam Bender would be a complete side show. Thankfully Bender is far from that.