Gray Times for the Browns
In 1944, the St. Louis Browns became the last of the 16 major league teams to make their first World Series appearance. The Browns, who made it to the World Series by sweeping the Yankees on the final weekend of the season, lost to the cross-town Cardinals four games to two.
Despite losing the World Series, 1944 was a successful year for the St. Louis Browns franchise.
Even though the Browns sold out Sportsman’s Park just once during the regular season, the team drew 508,644 fans, the first time since 1924 the Browns had an attendance of over a half-million people. The Brownsâ€™ combined attendance from 1941-43 had been just 646,249. What makes the Brownsâ€™ 1944 attendance more impressive is that fewer fans went to ballgames in ’44 than they did in ’41, when the Browns drew just 176,240 customers. Attendance around the majors in 1941 was 10 million; 8.8 million in 1942; 7.7 million in 1943 and 9 million in 1944.
The Browns rewarded their fans by winning 54 times in 77 tries at Sportsman’s Park, a resounding .701 winning percentage, a major factor in them finishing in first.
Along with a newfound fan base was a string of praise from the baseball world, a rare occurrence in the history of the club.
The Associated Press named the Browns as the “comeback” of the year and the surprise team in all of sports. Leo Peterson of United Press chimed in with similar thoughts, labeling the Browns “baseball’s Cinderella kids.”
Current Biography heaped praise upon manager Luke Sewell, naming him as the key factor for the Browns success. They wrote: “‘No man has ever did so much with so little’ was the typical reaction to Sewell’s 1944 team. His ‘odd assortment of talent’ consisted mainly of ‘guys nobody heard of and nobody wanted.’”
While the Current Biography description of Browns players may have been a little strong, the overall belief was that luck carried a great deal of weight with the Browns winning the pennant, a view not shared by the players themselves.
“When you go in and out of first place four or five times in September like we did and still come back and win the pennant, I think that’s proof enough that we were a good ballclub,” stated Don Gutteridge.
And to top it all off, for the first time since 1922 the team made a profit, albeit a slight one.
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Things were not all rosy, however. Despite the high fan turnout at home, the Browns still ranked just fifth in attendance in the American League.
Club officials thought that a winning ballclub wasn’t enough for the team to draw fans, especially when competing against the St. Louis Cardinals, whose large popularity was sure to only rise with yet another World Series championship. They needed someone to get people to the ballpark. They thought they needed Pete Gray.
Gray was indeed a curiosity. Gray, whose birth name was Peter Wyshner, lost his right arm in a childhood accident. Despite having just one arm, and even because of it, Gray advanced through the minors and had numerous major league scouts follow him while he was with Memphis of the American Association in 1943.
On paper, Gray’s statistics did stand out. He hit .333 with 21 doubles, nine triples and five home runs with Memphis. His 221 total bases were fourth in the league while his 119 runs were three behind the leader. One thing Gray definitely had was speed. His 68 stolen bases tied the all-time league record, which was set in 1928.
John Wray, sports editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was impressed by the numbers Gray was putting up. Of Gray’s statistics Wray wrote, “That, fellow, is a record which seems to prove that Pete with one arm, will be better than most of our big league outfielders with two.”
Even the Saturday Evening Post was amazed by Gray’s feats, in 1943 calling him a “one-armed [Joe] DiMaggio.”
Gray apparently was impressive in person as well. A scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Wid Matthews, reportedly told Dodger officials: “Buy him! He can play in the National League.”
While Brooklyn and other teams had an interest in Gray, it was the Browns that ended up signing the one-armed outfielder. On September 29, 1944, the Browns announced they had signed Gray as well as teammate Ellis Kinder, a pitcher, from Memphis and left-handed pitcher Charles Johnson from San Diego.
The Browns paid $20,000 for Gray, which was much higher than the normal signing price for minor leaguers. The cost was even more inflated considering that Gray couldn’t be considered a prospect. He was going to be 30 years old by the start of the 1945 season, although at the time of his signing it was announced that he was just 22.
Gray, though, displayed his marketability and earned some additional money as well prior to the season by playing in some exhibition games on the West Coast. He was able to turn a $5,800 profit by playing in just eight contests.
Finding a roster spot for Gray on the Browns was simplified because three players from the 1944 squad were off to the military – pitcher Denny Galehouse, outfielder Al Zarilla and catcher Tom Turner. The Browns had basically the same team in 1945 as they did in 1944 with the exception of Len Schulte, Babe Martin, who both played for Toledo in ’44, and Gray added to the bench.
The preseason judgment on Gray was mixed. In an article that looked at players that might help the Browns in 1945, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote of Gray that “scouts say he is such a fine outfielder that he could make any team in the majors.”
But a separate article in the paper written at a different time had another take on what baseball insiders thought of Gray:
“Bill DeWitt, GM of the Browns, declared that Gray was bought with the sole idea that he would make good as a player in major league competition, but baseball men find it hard to believe that any player so handicapped could make the grade in the A.L.”
It turns out that Gray wasn’t much of a ballplayer. He was able to boost his average in the minors by bunting for hits – something he couldn’t do as much of in the majors – and generally playing against a lower caliber of players.
He also was a constant distraction to the Browns.
“Even though he was a miracle man in a lot of ways, he still couldn’t do as good a job as a guy with two arms, let’s face it, there’s no question he cost us quite a few ballgames,” George McQuinn told author Kit Crissey. “I’ll be frank with you and say we did get to resent Gray being played over a player with two arms just to draw people into the ball park. We felt it was unfair to do that when we were trying to win a pennant.”
Adding to the frustration was the apparent favoritism shown Gray by official scorers. Press clippings touted Gray as being proficient in catching fly balls with a glove on his left hand, then shifting the glove to under his right arm pit (Gray had a slight stump where his right arm once was) and throwing the ball back to the infield in such a quick manner that baserunners dared not try to test his throwing ability. Whether or not that was true, Gray did have problems on non-fly balls hit to him.
“The trouble he had in the outfield – he was pretty quick – was on a low ball he had to stoop over and he couldn’t keep his balance if it was at his knees,” recalled former Detroit outfielder Jimmy Outlaw. “Like a low line drive, he had trouble with that one.”
During a doubleheader in Philadelphia, Gray made five errors but was charged with only two.
“When you do that it takes away from the rest of us because we know if we make some errors we’re going to go ahead and be hit with the errors,” explained Babe Martin.
Resentment for Gray was rampant, especially when he was on the field.
“He screwed up the whole team,” Ellis Clary said. “If he’s playing, one of them two-armed guys is sitting in the dugout pissed off.”
The player who saw his playing time dip the most was Mike Kreevich, the team’s leading hitter in 1944. The sparkplug of the Browns offense late in the ’44 season played sporadically in ’45, the inactivity affecting his play. In 81 games with the Browns he hit just .237. Kreevich didn’t want to be in St. Louis anymore and he was finally sold to Washington on waivers on August 8, 1945. Playing regularly with the Senators, Kreevich hit .278.
“Having him on the team was a publicity stunt as much as anything,” Kreevich later said.
The team also made fun of Gray or pulled practical jokes on him. Whenever Gray was playing center field, pitcher Jack Kramer, who did a great impression of Bugs Bunny, turned to his teammates and in the voice of the cartoon rabbit said, “Eh, don’t look now, there’s a one-armed man out there in center field.”
On trains, teammates gave Gray hotfoots or tied his shoes together. Sometimes they’d take his sweater and tie the arms in knots.
“He couldn’t get the damn thing off, someone would have to help him. And a one-armed man can’t tie his shoes you know. He’d have to get someone to tie his shoes for him,” said Clary. “They were on his ass – kidding, not in a mean way. Kidding him and teasing him and fooling around with him, pissing him off all the damn time.”
But there were other reasons that Browns players took a dislike to Gray. One former Browns player, who wished to remain anonymous, said that “Pete, morally, was corrupt.” Gray often cheated at cards. Once, after his dishonest playing was discovered, Gray’s teammates held the outfielder outside a window at the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit and threatened to drop him.
According to the former Browns player, there was an even more disturbing incident that shed light on Gray’s depravity.
“Charles DeWitt took him out to California to put him out on display out there and [Gray] got caught with an attempted rape on an elevator with an 8- or 9- or 10-year-old girl. And somehow or other they were able to quiet it because he was Pete Gray, and this is one of the bad things about professional athletes. We do get treated a lot different than ordinary people and when I look back, it’s not fair at all.”
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The Browns finished in third place in 1945 with an 81-70 record, six games in back of pennant-winning Detroit. Gray played in 77 games hitting .218 with six doubles, two triples, 26 runs, 13 RBI and five steals. Even worse, he hadn’t provided the attendance boost the club expected. The Browns drew 482,986 fans in 1945, 25,685 less than they had the previous season despite a 2.1 million increase in overall attendance in the major leagues.
Whether or not the Browns could have won the pennant if Gray wasn’t on the roster is up to debate, but former Browns players believe the team should have won the American League flag in 1945.
“It’s possible they would have (repeated in 1945),” said Denny Galehouse, who didn’t play that season because of a military commitment. “There was a very disturbing influence in that Pete Gray was there, that one-armed guy, and he tended to hurt things, I think.
“They might have been able to do the same thing (as in 1944) but they got a little too complacent about things. And then the Pete Gray thing kind of interrupted the normal routine of things.”
Said Babe Martin: “Nelson Potter, he said … that the worst thing that happened to our ballclub in 1945, which we should have won the pennant, was Pete Gray. And honestly I think if we hadn’t had Pete … we could have won the pennant in 1945.”
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Players started to return from the military in 1945 and by 1946 there was a major infusion of past talent coming back to the game. To accommodate the transition of welcoming the old ballplayers back, rosters were expanded to 30 players. Still, some players demanded their old jobs back, pursuant to new re-employment privileges outlined in the newly formed G.I. Bill. One of those players was the Browns’ Steve Sundra. Despite the threat of numerous lawsuits, most players never made it to the courts, instead settling out of court and eventually returning to their old teams.
As players returned, others had to leave. Several players who toiled during the war years, such as Ellis Clary, were farmed out and never reached the majors again.
Another player that was sent to minors in 1946 was Pete Gray, who was shipped to Toledo. He bounced around the minors, going from Toledo to Elmira to Dallas. His playing career ended June 28, 1949 when he was arrested in Dallas for drunkenness. Gray had a problem with drinking and the club had called the police and asked them to throw Gray in jail if he was ever found intoxicated. One day after his arrest, Dallas team officials called Gray to tell him he had been released from the club. According to reports, Gray was drunk when he received the phone call. Nevertheless, Gray was eventually championed as a hero for battling his handicap. There was even a television movie made about his life entitled A Winner Never Quits.
Several players returned to the Browns from military duty, such as outfielders Walt Judnich and Joe Grace and infielders Johnny Lucadello and Johnny Berardino, each of whom got significant playing time in 1946, except for Grace who was eventually involved in a trade for outfielder Jeff Heath in June.
But it was one player that didn’t receive much playing time that helped the downfall of manager Luke Sewell. Bob Dillinger was a 25-year-old rookie third baseman who had been in the military since 1944. For some reason, Sewell didn’t want to play Dillinger, despite management’s wishes otherwise. After guiding the Browns to a 53-71 record in 1946, Sewell was fired, replaced by bench coach Zack Taylor for the rest of the season.
Perhaps Sewell should have played Dillinger more often after all. Dillinger hit .294 with a league-leading 34 steals in 1947 under new manager Muddy Ruel, then .321 in 1948 while leading the A.L. in hits (207) and steals (28), this time under Taylor, who replaced Ruel after just one season.
By 1948, the Browns of 1944 were all but broken up. Only Al Zarilla remained on the Browns roster just four years after the team won the pennant. As in the pre-war years, Browns owners became strapped for money and had to sell off their best players. Chet Laabs was sold to the Philadelphia A’s and Mark Christman to Washington, each on April 9, 1947, while Denny Galehouse was sold to the Boston Red Sox two months later.
Following the 1947 season, Vern Stephens and Jack Kramer fetched six mediocre players and $310,000 from the Red Sox while Bob Muncrief and Judnich got the Browns three players and $25,000 from Cleveland. Nelson Potter was sold to the Athletics for $17,500 in May of 1948.
Zarilla was finally dealt on May 8, 1949 to the Red Sox for Stan Spence, the noted Brownie-killer, and cash. But by that time, the numerous selling of players had already transformed the Browns from American League champions back into also rans.
The club managed to draw 526,435 fans in 1946 despite a seventh-place finish. In 1947, with the purging of players starting to take place, the Browns slipped into last place, the first time they had occupied the A.L. cellar since 1939, sporting a 59-95 record. Fans took note, as attendance dropped off by more than 200,000 from the previous season.
The Browns managed to finish in sixth place in 1948, but won just 59 games compared to 94 losses. Dillinger hit .324 in 1949 and led the A.L. in steals for the third consecutive year, but the Browns still finished 53-101 and in seventh place. With Dillinger now a star and having significant value, St. Louis traded its top player in the offseason, along with a weak-hitting outfielder named Paul Lehner, to the A’s for four players and, more importantly, $100,000.
Taylor guided the Browns to a 58-96 record and another seventh-place finish in 1950, then, despite the presence of 20-game winner Ned Garver, to a 52-102 last-place finish in 1951. That same year Bill Veeck, now the owner of the Browns, signed 3-foot-7, 65-pound midget Eddie Gaedel to a contract and had him pinch hit in a game. Despite stunts like this, the Browns still didn’t draw spectators. From 1949-51, the Browns drew under 300,000 fans each season.
The Browns’ attendance skyrocketed to 518,796 in 1952 but the team, under the guidance of Rogers Hornsby for 51 games and then by former Cardinal shortstop Marty Marion, who replaced Hornsby, managed to win just 64 times, good for seventh place. By 1953, it was more than apparent that St. Louis was not a two baseball team town. The Browns trudged through one more last-place campaign, the 11th and final time the franchise ended the season with the worst record in the American League, finishing with a 54-100 record. Veeck sold the team and the club was moved to Baltimore where they were renamed the Orioles.
The Baltimore franchise quickly tried to sever itself from its St. Louis past. While several players made the move from St. Louis to Baltimore, an 18-player trade in the winter of 1954 helped erase the Browns identity. Even in today’s Oriole media guides, despite the roots of the club, there is little mention of the Browns, any of their great players or the 1944 American League pennant.
In 1966, just 12 years after moving from St. Louis, the Baltimore Orioles did something the Browns could never do in their 52-year existence. They won the World Series.
The above was meant to be included in Dave’s book, As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns, published by Arcadia in 2003.Â Though some passages made it into the book, the rest had to be left out due to space constraints.
On Deck: “Whatever Happened to the 1944 St. Louis Browns?”