It is strange how the human mind works. My father, who was born on January 28, 1908, died in 1984, at age 76, recently would have celebrated a Birthday, were he alive. Although it is certainly unusual to celebrate a Birthday of a person long since dead, I created a Memorial to him on this Blog because, of late, he has been much in my memory. My father had a profound influence on my life, as did my wonderful Mother.
On January 25, 2012, I celebrated my 76th Birthday with some trepidation. Perhaps that is why thoughts of my father are coming to mind! Last night I relived a moment in time as if I was watching a motion picture show. The year was 1944, the occasion was a Memphis Chicks Baseball game. The Memphis Chicks were a minor league team that actually were officially know as the "Memphis Chickadees." My father asked me if I would like to go to a Memphis Chicks baseball game? Would I? In 1944, I was eight years old; aside from the fact that was always ready and willing to go anywhere with my father, a Memphis Chicks baseball game was special.
For 1944, the Memphis Chicks had a decent ball field, located very close to downtown Memphis, it looked almost like a Major League stadium. It had the requisite fold down, slatted seats and the high overhanging roof so typical of stadiums of the time.
I don't recall who the Chicks were playing on that particular evening, but it really doesn't matter. My Hero, aside from my Dad, was playing in center field; Pete Gray.
Pete Gray was special, not only for his playing ability in the field and at the plate, but he was noted for the fact that he only had one arm.
At the age of six, Gray lost his right arm when he slipped off of a farmer's wagon and his arm became caught in the wagon’s wheel spokes. Too badly disfigured to be saved, the arm had to be amputated above the elbow. Undeterred, Gray (a longtime baseball fan) taught himself how to bat and field one-handed, catching the ball in his glove and then quickly removing his glove and transferring the ball to his hand in one fluid motion.
Pete Gray's .333 batting average and league-leading sixty-eight stolen bases earned him the Most Valuable Player award of the Southern Association in 1944 and the nickname the "One-Armed Wonder."
I am not going to repeat the statistics of his playing career here. Pete's dream was to play in the major leagues and in particular he dreamed of playing in Yankee Stadium in New York. In 1945, Pete Gray's contract was picked up by the St. Louis Browns and shortly thereafter he attained his dream of playing in Yankee Stadium.
Gray's major league career ended on V-J Day, 1945 when many of baseball's regular stars returned from the front. From 1946 to 1949, Gray bounced around as a journeyman player, working for a number of minor league and semi-pro organizations. Left to wonder if he had made the majors on his playing abilities or because of his one arm, Gray eventually gave up baseball in 1950 and returned home to Nanticoke, where he struggled with gambling and alcohol additions, living in near poverty for most of his post-baseball days. In 1986 the made for television-movie A Winner Never Quits and the publication of a 1995 biography renewed public interest in Gray and his playing career. Such attention helped to restore a sense of dignity to Gary’s career before his death in 2002.
In truth, I did not follow Pete Gray/s career after he left the Chicks in 1945, bit I remember those wonderful occasions when my father and I went out to the ballpark to watch the Memphis Chicks. Pete Gray was always an inspiration to me in the years that followed as I played baseball at age 11, 12 & 13. Back then it was a loosely organized group of independent teams put together by dedicated volunteer coaches that had to scrounge and borrow just to put uniforms on the kids that they could recruit. Little League Baseball was a long way off!
Thanks, Dad, for many wonderful memories and a wonderful childhood!
And so it goes...