Saturday, January 28, 2017

81. Pete Gray: Single-Handedly Destroyed The Browns?

Back in 1989, my very first client as a graphic designer was Will Arlt, owner of the late Cooperstown Ball Cap Company. They made the greatest reproductions of old-style ballcaps ever. The company is no longer around, but don't worry, it is re-emerging in a slightly larger form as the Ideal Cap Company. Anyway, I traded my services for caps, I thought (and still do) they were the greatest thing ever made out of wool, and every delivery bearing the Cooperstown label made me rip the box open like a kid at Christmas! Ever once in a while Will would slip in an unsolicited cap. One of those was a 1944 St. Louis Browns cap. It had a brown bill, white crown with orange and brown stripes - the friggin' ugliest cap before the Astros and Padres dirtied up the 1970's. For some reason I really came to like this bastard cap, wearing it often and getting comments from more fashion-minded folks and every so often a wink from an oldster who'd mumble "hey, the Brownies!"

The Browns are the goats of baseball history. Even their greatest moment, winning the 1944 American League pennant, is dismissed as an anomaly brought on by wartime deprivations. At a glance, that's pretty much correct - after '44 they just sank lower and lower, settling into position as the league's whipping boy and occasional headline grabber when owner Bill Veeck would stage one of his wacky stunts. The Browns were also known for their hiring of one-armed Pete Gray, who perhaps more than anything else underlined the desperate straits major league baseball found itself in during World War II. But just like everything else, peel back the skin and there is much more under the surface: One can make the point that by hiring Pete Gray, The St. Louis Browns destroyed any chance their franchise had in turning around their fortunes. Yeah, I said it: Pete Gray destroyed the Browns.

The Browns team that won the pennant in 1944 did so by expert management by skipper Luke Sewell. He cleverly platooned his players and was able to secure the services of a few guys who, because of their defense plant jobs, could play only on weekends. Often disparaged as a bunch of cast-offs and boozers, that perception is only partly correct. Sure they had some first-class tipplers like Sig Jakucki and Mike Kreevich, but on a whole the quality of players the Browns fielded wasn't any worse than what the Yankees were putting in pinstripes at the time. After the excitement of the 1944 season, The Browns had formed a tight-knit team that carried themselves with pride. Despite losing the World Series the team had confidence going into spring training that they had essentially the same group of guys and the rest of the American League was, if anything, weaker due to the draft.

The only thing the Browns lacked in 1944 was popularity in their own home town. St. Louis was a Cardinals town and had been since the 1920's. Even though while traveling on the road fans flocked to see the upstart Browns, attendance at their home games, even when in first place, was much less than the Cardinals. Management knew they needed a little something more than just fielding a good team. Enter Pete Gray.

Like many American boys he grew up with a passion and talent for baseball. Unfortunately a fall from a delivery truck crushed his arm and it had to be amputated just above the elbow. Unlike many boys who would have given up his dream of playing professionally, his disability only made Pete bear down harder. Through countless hours of practice he developed his own way to adapt his body to play the game he loved.

For fielding, Pete stripped out all the padding on his glove to make it light and easy to manage. After catching a ball he would raise the glove to his right stump letting the ball roll backwards out of the pocket, down his wrist and against his chest. He then pulled his fingers out of he glove, now clamped securely under his stump, and let the ball roll into his hand. Performed in one well-practiced motion it seemed to defy gravity and sportswriters all around the country made Pete demonstrate it in every town he passed through.

At the plate Pete utilized a 38-ounce bat, heavier than the norm. Holding the bat aloft with his one hand he left a space at the bottom of the bat where his missing right hand would normally have been. He get the bat in motion earlier than a two-handed player and later on in the big leagues this would lead to his downfall. But at a lower level of ball Pete could compensate successfully. He even worked out a way to control his bat in order to bunt - Pete was a very fast runner and he used this that speed to his advantage.

It's hard to say whether or not Pete would have been picked up by a minor league team had it not been for the war. So many players were in the service that the low minors were signing anything they could get their hands on, only to see them slip away as the majors siphoned off the best and then just as fast would in turn lose them to the draft. With only one arm, Pete wasn't going overseas and he first broke into organized ball with the Three Rivers Renards of the Canadian-American League in 1942. Batting a staggering .381 he was bought by the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs but was sold because of an incident that occurred during spring training: Hiding behind a potted plant in the lobby of the Leaf's hotel, skipper Burleigh Grimes eavesdropped on Gray criticizing his management abilities.

Now property of the Memphis Chickasaws, Pete hit .289 and had only 8 errors for 1943. Not too bad but the next year he positively dominated the Southern Association by hitting .333, 21 doubles, 9 triples and even slugged 5 one-handed homers. He stole 68 bases and in the outfield his fielding percentage was a perfect 1.000. On top of that Pete won the league's MVP Award. A side-show? Yeah, but he also proved he could play ball professionally. An MVP Award is an MVP Award and they don't hand those things out for charity cases.

Now I can go one and easily turn this into a feel-good piece on Pete Gray's determination and how how he inspired countless disabled American servicemen returning from the war but that's not what I want to do. Baseball history is littered with testiments to Pete Gray's courage and determination. Hell, there was even a television movie about it. By the same token I can slip into socially-conscious spiel about how sick and twisted the racial sensitivities were at the time that when the lack of talent was so bad, Major League Baseball in all it's Jim Crow glory couldn't see to sign some of the hundreds of qualified blacks in the Negro Leagues. Instead they chose to utilize a 15 year-old kid (Cincinnati's Joe Nuxhall), a 36 year-old garbage man (Ed Boland of Washington), a one-legged war veteran (Bert Shepperd, again of Washington) and of course, a one-armed guy named Pete Gray.

Where I aim to take the rest of this story is to make the argument that The Brown's signing of Pete Gray in essence became the torpedo which sank the franchise.

The Browns that turned up for spring training was essentially the same team that won the league pennant the previous year. The common perception of the team was of one that was in perpetual shock of how far above their station they had come and that no one had even a slight glimpse of hope that the team would repeat in 1945. None of that is true. Through the long hard summer of '44 the Browns had been forged into a cohesive team. Because Luke Sewell had cleaned house when he took over as skipper, none of his players had gotten used to long futile careers with a bad team. The Browns of 1945 were eager youngsters and seasoned vets. They were winners and knew they were just as good or better than the rest of the American League. There was no reason they couldn't expect to repeat.

Enter Pete Gray. Maybe if he was a whole, healthy young ballplayer it would have gone easier. It's one thing to have a new young buck brought up to the big club fresh off of an MVP season in the minors. But this guy had one arm and along with that came the press freak show eager to cover the whole thing. For a bunch of guys serious about defending their pennant in a tough war year, a side-show was the last thing they needed.

If he sat on the bench or maybe just gave catching and throwing exhibitions during batting practice, maybe everything would have gone well. But Pete Gray was a St. Louis Brown for one reason only: to attract fans to the ballpark. And that wasn't going to happen with him riding the pines in the dugout. The Browns needed to play the guy.

Inserting a novelty into the lineup of the defending American League champions spelled trouble from the outset. The other guys knew Pete was there as a freak attraction. As major leaguers, they all knew that this wasn't no Southern Association and real pitching with real curveballs was going eat this guy alive. And the flawless motion that he used to field his position? To his teammates that added up to one thing: extra base hits for opposing batters. On top of all this, who was going to have to take a seat while the one-armed guy made history? Mike Kreevich, that's who.

Kreevich was a former White Sox prodigy who nearly drank himself out of the game only to find redemption on The Browns. He hit just over .300 in 1944 to lead the team and although he was up there in age, was still a valuable cog in The Browns machine. Still a heavy drinker, losing playing time to a one-armed guy just sent Kreevich spinning out of control. By being an everyday player helped keep Kreevich sober and responsible. Being platooned with Gray not only threw off his timing at the plate but took away the lifeline to sobriety he precariously clung to. The other players looked on in shock as management appeared to want to sacrifice their success on the field for some modest bump in attendance. The team's cohesiveness broke down.

As infielder Ellis Clary eloquently put it: "He screwed up the whole team. If he's playing, one of them two-armed guys is sitting in the dugout pissed off."

The press, used to poking fun at the Browns lowly status now turned the novelty of Pete Gray against them as well. How lousy are The Browns players that management has to dig down and come up with a cripple to play on the team? The rest of the team seethed with resentment as they tried to hold it together and win the pennant.

The race was pretty tight. Detroit won it all and while the Browns finished in 3rd place, they were only 6 game behind the Tigers. Pete Gray played in 77 games that season and batted .218. How much better could Mike Kreevich have done had he been the team's constant outfielder? We'll never know, but it's not that far of a jump to assume Kreevich's bat could have been the deciding factor in winning, say, 6 or 7 games that season. The same could be said for team spirit. How much of a difference did it make with the press side-show that surrounded Pete Gray. How much did it get in the heads of the players, knowing that management seemed to be sabotaging a pennant for box office success?

What the hell do I know? I'm just a simple artist born more than 25 years after the Browns won their only pennant. But I can say that things such as this really makes the game of baseball so fascinating to me, even after 40-something years on the planet. Just think about it - if the Browns had repeated in 1945, that could have signaled the resurgence of their team. Maybe they wouldn't surpass the Cards as St. Louis' favorite boys, but what if they stayed contenders? St. Louis had supported 2 teams for decades and with a decent record, who's to say support wouldn't dwindle away like it did when the team sank to the bottom of the standings and stayed there for the next 7 years. Look at Chicago. The Cubs and the White Sox exchanged seasons futility for decades and still attracted enough fans to continue sharing the same city. Philadelphia is another example. Both the A's and Phils stunk up their respective leagues for years, yet remained side-by-side residents of the same burg. Maybe it would have been another 2-team city that would have lost a team to Baltimore in 1954.

And just think about it: What would the San Diego Padres colors have been had the Browns stayed put? Things like that are likely to keep an avid baseball fan up at night with the night terrors...

Just to wrap this whole thing up, I don't want to overlook what an accomplishment it was for Pete Gray to make it to the big leagues. Sure, he was a gimmick used to attract fans, but he wasn't an Eddie Gaedel or a Jackie Mitchell. Pete really did hit .333 at Memphis and was MVP of the Southern Association. The man could play ball - just not at a major league level. As an inspiration to people all over the world, his story is a life lesson in perseverance and for that I tip my well-worn Cooperstown Ball Cap 1944 St. Louis Browns cap to him!

If you'd like to read the best book on the 1944 Browns and their pennant winning season get yourself a copy of David Alan Heller's book "As Good As It Got." Heller does a hell of a job profiling all the players on this fascinating team, puts wartime baseball in perspective and takes you through the entire '44 season, demonstrating how this remarkable team captured their one and only pennant.

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