The Yankees are full of memorable moments and unforgettable players. Winning 27 World Series comes with its share of historical events. But on this day in 1945, the Yankees were on the opposing end of one of the most feel-good stories in baseball’s rich history.
On May 20th, 1945, one-armed outfielder Pete Gray stepped into the batter’s box to begin a doubleheader between the Yankees and the St. Louis Browns. Due to World War II, major league rosters were depleted. Names like Joe DiMaggio were not in the lineup, and teams needed exciting characters to draw in fans. The Browns’ solution was Gray, who lost his right arm to an amputation after falling off of a farmer’s wagon when he was six years old. The natural righty still dreamed of playing baseball one day, and here he was, stepping in to face the Yanks’ Atley Donald, gripping the 35-ounce bat that he wielded with one hand.
Many members of the Browns resented Gray for the clear attempt at raising ticket sales at the cost of the team. After all, Gray and his one-armed swing entered the day with an OBP of just .206, and the Browns were planning on competing for a pennant after winning it the year before. However, on May 20th, Gray did far more than just draw a crowd. He shocked that crowd of 20,507 (the Browns’ largest of the young season) with his enormous day at the plate.
Gray ripped three singles in five at-bats in a game one rout of the Yanks, as the Browns won 10-1. Gray drove in two and scored another in the offensive outburst. Gray’s single to start the game ignited a furious rally that chased Donald after just two-thirds innings pitched. His three tremendous catches in the outfield helped extinguish any chances of a miracle Yankees comeback.
In game two, Gray recorded another single in the bottom of the fifth, and eventually came around to score the game-winning run in a 5-2 Browns win, which completed a four-game sweep of the Bombers. In just one day, Gray raised his batting average from .156 to .225 thanks to his 4-for-8 afternoon.
Despite torching Yankee pitching, Gray was greeted to a raucous ovation one week later when the Browns visited Yankee Stadium for a three-game set. Gray was held to just one hit in his second time around against the Yankees, but weeks later, in a twin bill against Cleveland, Gray shined once more, going 5-for-9 in a doubleheader split.
The Sunday outburst on May 20th would be the high-water mark of Gray’s one-year major league career. Pitchers turned to a steady diet of breaking balls which Gray had difficulty adjusting to, and finished the 1945 season with a .218 batting average and 47 OPS+. Most of the top tier talent returned from the war prior to the 1946 season, and Gray was sent back down to the minor leagues, where he stayed until leaving baseball in 1949. He passed away at 87 years old in 2002.