I'm always amazed at the strength of the human spirit.
Watching the World Series, we marvel at the extraordinary abilities of these great athletes representing teams from St. Louis and Texas. Of all the major sports, I consider pitching and hitting a baseball – traveling at close to 100 miles an hour – to be the toughest to excel in on a professional level.
As a youngster growing up in Luzerne County, I remembered being amazed to learn there was an old ballplayer living nearby who made it all the way to the big leagues. Pete Gray was indeed special since he was able to bat and play the outfield professionally despite missing an arm!
Pete, who died in 2002 in his hometown of Nanticoke, had lost his right arm when he fell off a wagon as a small boy. He overcame that disability, however, and kept his passion for playing baseball and his goal of making the big leagues. After playing sandlot ball in the coal regions, he worked his way up, excelling in semi-pro ball and earning himself a pro contract with the St. Louis Browns.
Pete never had glowing statistics but he did achieve his dream of being a major leaguer, appearing in 77 games in 1945. But mere baseball statistics could never measure the impact Gray had on American morale during the war, and especially on the wounded servicemen who came back from Europe or the Pacific missing a limb.
Being able to play the game at that professional level with all limbs attached is a wonder in itself to me. Playing in a major league outfield with only one arm is almost beyond comprehension.
Before Gray passed away in 2002, I was fortunate enough to talk to him about his amazing career. He once said he could always hit a major league fastball but it was the curve ball that gave him fits. He could anticipate well and see pitches but being able to check his swing on a breaking ball with the one hand was most difficult for him.
While Pete Gray was an inspiration to American servicemen 66 years ago, there's a new group of Americans – a team of Marine and Army veterans who were wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq – who are excelling in the sport they loved before entering military service. Today, members of the Wounded Warrior Amputee softball team are shining examples of the strength of the human spirit and the ability to overcome.
Last March, the team members, all wearing prosthetic limbs, decided to resume playing the sport they loved so much before being wounded in war. It began as a pick-up game in Arizona and has now developed into a national tour. Supported by private donations and playing against able-bodied teams, they won 10 out of 17 games this season.
Josh Wege, who lost both legs when a bomb exploded under his armored vehicle in Afghanistan in 2009, pitches and plays first base for the Warriors. The team's only double amputee, Wege said playing baseball means the world to him and considers it a very humbling experience to be able to play for the team in front of fans.
While it may be humbling to Wege and the rest of the Warriors, it's also incredibly inspiring to everyone who watches the team compete.
The team motto is: Life without a limb is limitless.
Pete Gray proved that fact over six decades ago by making it to the major leagues. Today, the Wounded Warrior Amputee players are carrying that same competitive fire, inspiring all the rest of us who consider it an honor just to watch them play baseball.
By Jim Zbick