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07/17/2002 1:59 pm ET
A teammate recalls Pete Gray
Al LaMacchia still regrets the change-up he threw to Pete Gray in batting practice in the spring of 1945. "Pete was so badly fooled by the pitch that he nearly fell down as he made his swing," recalls LaMacchia.
LaMacchia and Gray were teammates on the St. Louis Browns during the 1945 season. It was the only season that Gray, who had lost his right arm in a childhood accident, spent in the Major Leagues.
When LaMacchia heard the news that Gray had passed away on the final day of June, he couldn't help but think back to that change-up so many years ago.
"I can recall I was mad at Pete for some reason. He had a way of making a lot of people mad at him. Anyway, I threw him a change-up in batting practice and he swung and missed and really stumbled.
"It wasn't a very nice thing to do and I still regret it. It showed everyone who was watching that Pete Gray was going to have trouble with off-speed pitches. But I'll tell you one thing -- Pete could hit the fastball as good as anybody."
Al LaMacchia knows a thing or two about judging players. He has been a professional baseball scout for nearly 50 years, having started with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. Al spent 16 years with the Braves, 20 years with the Blue Jays and now serves as a scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
LaMacchia has seen and known a lot of players during his long career in the game, including three seasons in the Majors with the Browns and Washington Senators, but Pete Gray remains one of the unforgettable people to the baseball veteran.
"You had to marvel at Pete Gray. He was driven to succeed like few people you have ever seen. But I think the loss of his arm caused him to be bitter and distrustful of people," says LaMacchia.
Gray was born Peter Wyshner on March 6, 1915 (he changed his name when he began his professional baseball career) in Nanticoke, Pa., one of five children of a coal miner.
At the age of six, Pete fell off a farmer's wagon and his right arm was caught in the spokes. The arm had to be amputated above the elbow.
A natural right-hander, Gray was determined to be a professional baseball player. He had to learn to both bat and throw left-handed. "Pete would catch the ball, flip it in the air two or three feet and then make the throw," recalls LaMacchia.
Gray was 23 years old when he made his professional baseball debut with Three Rivers in the Quebec Provincial League in 1938. He spent seven seasons in the minor leagues and in 1944 he was named the most valuable player in the Southern Association as be batted .333 for the Memphis Chicks. He stole 68 bases that year and led the league's outfielders in fielding percentage.
Gray's big year with Memphis, combined with the fact that Major League rosters were depleted because of World War II, earned the one-armed outfielder a chance to play for the St. Louis Browns in 1945.
The 1945 season was the only one Gray was to play at the Major League level and, according to LaMacchia, it was a very lonely year for the man from Nanticoke.
"Pete really didn't socialize with anyone," recalls LaMacchia. "There were guys who tried to be friends with him but he would just turn everyone away. And there were times when he would go off in a rage."
In the book "Even the Browns," Gray's manager Luke Sewell is quoted as saying: "He (Gray) didn't belong in the major leagues and he knew he was being exploited. Just a quiet fellow, and he had an inferiority complex. (They) were trying to get a gate attraction in St. Louis."
In LaMacchia's view, Gray had big league ability and would have enjoyed a successful Major League career had it not been for the loss of the arm.
"Pete Gray, even with one arm, could hit a fastball real good," says LaMacchia. "And he had above-average speed. He could read the ball off the bat, chase down balls in the outfield and he could steal a base.
"The thing that really caused Pete trouble was the off-speed pitches. He could time the fastball and get his bat started to make good contact. You couldn't throw a fastball past him. But if you threw him an off-speed pitch it showed his real weakness. That's why, to this day, I regret throwing that changeup even though it was in batting practice. It exposed the real weakness Pete had as a hitter."
Gray played in 77 games for the Browns in 1945, batting .218 (51-for-234) with six doubles, two triples, 26 runs scored and 13 runs batted in. He struck out only 11 times in his 200-plus at-bats. He stole five bases and committed seven errors while recording 162 put outs and three assists.
In 1946, players were returning from the service and Pete Gray was back in the minor leagues.
Al LaMacchia encountered Pete Gray again in 1949, when they were teammates in Dallas in the minor leagues. "By this time, Pete seemed to have mellowed. He didn't seem as angry about things any more.
"Even so, when the team owner decided to send Pete down to a Class B team, Pete retired rather than go to the low minors. As far as I know that marked the end of his professional baseball career."
LaMacchia said he had heard Pete Gray returned to Nanticoke and operated a pool hall and a bar. And then he lost track of his former teammate until the news came on June 30th that Pete Gray had passed away at the age of 87.
"When I used to scout in Pennsylvania and would get near Nanticoke I often thought about stopping by to see if I could find Pete Gray," says LaMacchia.
"I wish I had stopped by to see Pete. I wanted to tell him that I thought he was a real good player. And I wanted him to know that I was sorry for throwing that changeup in batting practice."
Fred Claire joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1969 and was a member of the front office until June 1998, advancing to Executive Vice-President and becoming general manager in 1987. He currently lectures on sports at USC, is a consultant for the investment group Bullpen Baseball Partners and is a strategic consultant for SportsTrac Systems of Boulder, Colo. He can be emailed at email@example.com.