He was a hot-shot pitching prospect in the spring of 1942, only 17 years old, fresh out of Highland Park High School. He signed with his hometown Detroit Tigers, who sent him to Winston-Salem, their Class B affiliate in the Piedmont League. In a game against the Greensboro Red Sox, he was throwing bullets and racking up K’s. The Sox’ forty-year-old manager, Heinie Manush, himself a former batting champion with the Tigers and a future Hall of Famer, kept riding the pitcher from the bench, trying to rattle him. The youngster would have none of it. “If you think I’m just a punk busher, why don’t you get up there with a bat?” he shouted. Manush accepted the challenge, inserted himself as a pinch-hitter, and quickly struck out on three pitches. “He’s one of the best left-handed pitchers I ever saw,” Manush admitted.
The pitcher’s name was Ted Gray, and today he is all but forgotten.
That first summer in organized ball, with Winston-Salem, the lefthander fashioned a 13-14 record. Not much to write home about, but his 2.07 ERA was certainly impressive.
Immediately following the season, Gray enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He spent time at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, playing on the Great Lakes team. It was an excellent club, coached by Mickey Cochrane, and featured major league stars Schoolboy Rowe and Dizzy Trout. Gray also pitched while stationed in New Hebrides, in the Pacific Theater, where he was a ship’s cook, second class.
With his blazing fastball, Gray averaged 17 strikeouts per game while in the service, winning twelve in a row at one point. One of his teammates raved, “He has the left arm of Hal Newhouser, (and) the speed of Dizzy Trout.” Following his success in an Army-Navy New Hebrides all-star series in which he struck out 19 in one game, The Sporting News gushed, “You can’t tell any of the fellows in this war sector that when peace is restored, Ted Gray won’t match the records of Grove, Hubbell, Pennock, Newhouser, and the other great lefthanders. He has a world of stuff…”
Following the end of World War II, Gray headed back home, where he pitched for Buffalo in the International League in 1946. He struggled with his control, walking more than he struck out. Still, he was called up to the Tigers and got into three games, losing two, with an ERA of 8.49.
After another summer at Buffalo in 1947, he was back up to the big club in 1948. For the first four months of the season, manager Steve O’Neill used him only in relief. The young Gray, itching to get a start, finally lost his cool one afternoon when O’Neill pulled him after he had walked two consecutive batters. “When are you going to get the ball over the plate?” O’Neill asked as Gray ducked into the dugout. “When don’t you give me a starting assignment and find out?” Gray snapped back. O’Neil, admiring the youngster’s confidence, let him start a game on August 6 against Washington. Gray threw a complete-game 10-inning shutout, for his first major league win. In the final two months of the season, he went 6-2.
He worked his way into the Detroit rotation for good by 1949, posting a solid 10-10 season with a 3.51 ERA. In spring training, before the 1950 season, he was wild and prone to serving up long balls, but remained self-assured. “It’s my control. If I can find it I’ll be all right. Wait till that bell rings to start the regular season. I’ll have it by then. Wait and see.” In the first half of 1950, he certainly did have it. He won ten of thirteen decisions, while holding opponents to a .229 batting average. By the end of June, there was talk that the Tigers might boast no less than three 20-game winners in Gray, Hal Newhouser, and Art Houtteman.
Gray was gaining notoriety around the league for his uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor Alan Ladd. “He is clean cut and trim, and handsome enough to pose for a collar ad,” wrote Lyall Smith of the Detroit Free Press. “But his looks are misleading,” Smith went on. “When he puts on his baseball uniform he suddenly becomes a cocky little bantam rooster with — if you’ll excuse the expression — the intestinal fortitude of a burglar.”
He was selected to the American League All-Star squad, pitching 1 1/3 innings and suffering the loss in the game at Comiskey Park, the first-ever televised midsummer classic. Gray’s performance after the break, however, was a nightmare. In July, he began feeling shoulder pain, and pitched only one game in August. His second-half numbers were definitely ugly: Ten games, seven starts, an 0-4 record, 6.00 ERA, and 1.692 WHIP. Opponents teed off on him for a .292 batting average. Gray’s problems could be attributed to what was diagnosed at the time as bursitis in his shoulder. As for the Tigers, they wound up with no 20-game winners, although Houtteman and Newhouser won 19 and 15, respectively. Fred Hutchinson won 17. Gray finished at 10-7 with a 4.40 ERA. Over the next three years, Gray combined for a record of 29-46, with a mediocre 4.25 ERA. By 1954, no longer a kid at 29, Gray pitched through aches and pains and finished with a 3-5 record and hefty 5.38 ERA for a Tiger team that finished 68-86. By the end of the season, the Tigers had finally seen enough. On December 6, he was traded, along with Walt Dropo and Bob Nieman, to the Chicago White Sox for Leo Cristante, Ferris Fain, and Jack Phillips. Sox GM Frank Lane hinted that the trade “could turn into a wonderful one” should Gray return to form.
Lane’s hopes quickly turned to dust. Gray pitched for the Sox, the Indians, the Yankees, and the Orioles in 1955, was released by all of them, and won a total of one game. In his final appearance in a big league uniform, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, he entered a tie game in the tenth and promptly gave up a home run and a walk, before being pulled.
A career that had once shown such promise finally ended with a record of 59 wins, 74 losses, and a 4.37 ERA. Gray retired from baseball and began a career in the automotive industry, before finally settling down in Florida in his later years. He passed away in 2011, survived by his wife, four children, five grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.