Baseball was desperate. A large number of its greatest players had been called to arms to fight in The Big One-World War II-and major league team owners were left scrambling to fill their depleted rosters with any warm bodies they could find. Former major leaguers now in their 40s, whose bodies were beginning to cool, suddenly found themselves with a new lease on life playing alongside teenagers too young to be sent off to die in the Pacific.
There were teens playing the major leagues who were too young to fight in the war, you ask? In 1944, 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall pitched in a game for the Cincinnati Reds, who apparently had no regard for child labor laws. Equipped with a permission slip from his mommy, Nuxhall made one appearance for the Reds and showed that he wasn’t quite ready for primetime: one inning pitched, two hits, five walks, five runs, and a 45.00 ERA (For those of you unfamiliar with baseball statistics, that means if he were to pitch like that an entire nine innings, Nuxhall would allow 45 runs!). After that sterling performance, the youngster was given a Saturday detention and didn’t return to the major leagues until eight years later as an old man of 23.
And speaking of old men, in 1945, no less than 20 different 40-somethings turned in their AARP cards and cancelled their afternoon naps for another chance to put on knickers and act like kids again. Included among the oldsters was 42-year-old Paul Schreiber of the New York Yankees whose last major league action had been in 1920-just two years after World War I ended. The man apparently only worked when the country was at war.
Baseball was indeed desperate, and nowhere was that desperation more apparent than in the city of St. Louis where the Browns-already considered second class citizens to their cross-town rivals, the Cardinals-looked everywhere for help and ended up with an unknown, lifelong minor league outfielder on their roster by the name of Pete Gray. At age 30, Gray was coming off a great year in the minors where he had won the Southern League Most Valuable Player award. Yes, Pete Gray seemed to have everything any team could want. Everything, that is, except a right arm.
If you are unfamiliar with the game, having two arms would seem to be one of the prerequisites for anyone seeking employment as a baseball player, what with the hitting, throwing, catching and all. But again, these were desperate times and a one-armed baseball player, dear friends, is desperation personified. Of the thousands of available men in possession of varying degrees of baseball talent-and presumably all of their body parts-the St. Louis Browns weighed their options and decided to go with the guy with one arm. Throughout the minor leagues were players hoping for a shot at the majors and yet they just weren’t good enough to beat out a guy missing large quantities of the bone and flesh that normally hangs from the right shoulder.
Can you say “discouraging”? Imagine the letters home from those who didn’t make the cut.
Dear Mom & Dad,
Well it looks like another year in the minors for me. Got beat out by a guy with an amazing arm. Gotta go now…
Hell, at least the kid didn’t really lie to his parents.
But give Gray credit. In 77 games with the Browns, he managed to bat .218, which, after some simple math, means he would have hit an incredible .436 with two arms! That’s a pretty amazing thing, hitting a ball with one arm, and playing the outfield had to be quite a challenge as well. Gray had to catch the ball in his glove, then in one quick motion tuck the glove under his stump while pulling the ball out, and then finally throw the ball to the infield. It’s a wonder there weren’t times when it was the glove and not the ball that would come sailing in towards a startled teammate. Click here to see Gray in action.
Unfortunately for Gray and the others, World War II ended and in 1946, able-bodied, fully-limbed men returned to the major leagues putting an end to the careers of the aged, the adolescent, and the disabled.
But the end of World War II wasn’t just bad news for the one-armed man. With a depleted talent level weakening many of the better teams, the Chicago Cubs wound up the 1945 season representing the National League in the World Series, which 65 years later still stands as their last appearance in the “Fall Classic.” For Cub fans who’ve spent their entire lives waiting for their beloved team to make another visit to the World Series, a third World War appears to be their only hope.
Now that’s desperate!