WILKES-BARRE — When Luzerne County Community College professor Bill Kashatus was 6 years old, he asked his father who the one-armed man was walking around the Hanover section of Nanticoke.
“He said he was a Major League Baseball player,” Kashatus said, admittedly full of disbelief at the time. But Kashatus asked his father if he could meet him.
So Kashatus was introduced to Pete Gray, who lost his right arm in a childhood accident but persevered to play for the American League’s St. Louis Browns in 1945.
“It was wonderful. He was very kind. He showed me how he managed to get the ball out of his glove and throw it,” Kashatus recalled after presenting a slideshow and lecture on Gray at the Luzerne County Historical Society’s third annual Stars of the Valley dinner Wednesday night.
Gray began describing the atmosphere in Nanticoke and the Wyoming Valley in the 1930s, when the local coalfields were in decline and mining jobs were lost. Slovak and Lithuanian miners believed the mine owners favored the Welsh and English miners with more steady employment. A dissident union was established and violence eventually erupted.
Pete Gray’s family, whose original name was Wyshner, worked for the Glen Alden Coal Co. Pete was employed as a water boy.
“But he had bigger plans for his life, plans that would allow him to transcend the ethnic tension, violence and poverty of his childhood,” Kashatus said. “Everything young Pete Wyshner did was predicated on his dream of becoming a professional baseball player.”
Hoping to be noticed by major league scouts, he adopted the surname Gray, thinking it would be easier for people to remember and perhaps distance him from the prejudice he experieneced as the son on Lithuanian immigrants.
Gray refined his skills playing in the local Anthracite Leagues for the Hanover Lits — an abbreviation for Lithuanians. The team later became the Hanover Athletic Association. Eventually, Gray was noticed by the Browns and played with them for one season.
His onfield exploits and impressive statistics — he smacked 51 hits in 77 major league games — became an inspiration to many servicemen returning from World War II with missing limbs, Kashatus said.
A TV movie on Gray’s life starring Keith Carradine — “A Winner Never Quits” — came out in 1986. It piqued Kashatus’ interest. He reintroduced himself to Gray in 1989 and spent five years covertly working on a book about the then-reclusive Gray who shunned publicity. The book, “One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball and the American Dream,” was published in 1995.
Gray was honored locally on the 50th anniversary of his season with the Browns and received a congratulatory letter from President Bill Clinton. A historical marker at the Lackawanna County Stadium notes his accomplishments.
Among those attending Wednesday’s dinner were Mark Torbik, 60, of Wilkes-Barre, who brought with him a baseball Gray had signed for him about a dozen years ago.
Also attending was John McKeown, of Wilkes-Barre, who asked not to have his age published, but recalled playing against Gray for the East End Eagles in 1936. McKeown recalled being impressed with Gray’s strength and speed. “And he was very clever, the way he handled the ball,” McKeown said.