Johnny Gray, a veteran of four major league seasons with the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s, passed away May 21, 2014 in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 87.
Gray starred in three sports at West Palm Beach High School before he entered the United Stated Army during World War II. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Rollins College, where his play for their baseball team eventually earned him entry into their Hall of Fame in 1979.
The New York Yankees signed Gray in 1950, and his signing immediately paid dividends, as he posted a 10-4 record for their Class C team in Amsterdam, N.Y. Gray reached as high as Triple-A with the Yankees in 1953, before he was included in a massive 11-player deal at the end of the 1953 season with the Athletics. The major chip in that exchange was Gray’s Kansas City Blues teammate, first baseman Vic Power.
“Vic was always a happy-go-lucky guy,” Gray said in a 2010 interview. “He was easy to get along with. He was a great club man; there were no two ways about that.”
Leaving the crowded Yankees system opened the door for Gray to the major leagues. He made his major debut on July 18, 1954, pitching 4.1 innings in a loss to the Chicago White Sox. He struggled with his control during the season, finishing with a 3-12 record in 18 games.
Gray stayed with the Athletics in 1955, making the move with the club from Philadelphia to Kansas City, returning him to familiar grounds from his minor league days.
“I didn’t mind it much because I had been with the [Kansas City] Blues before,” he said.
The Athletics sold Gray to the Cleveland Indians in 1956, where they sent him to their Triple-A team in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis club breezed through the entire American Association with a 92-62 record, assisted by Gray’s 10 wins as both a starter and reliever. Continuing their dominance, they swept the Rochester Red Wings in the 1956 Junior World Series, 4-0.
As much as winning the championship was an exhilarating experience for Gray, his most cherished memory of that 1956 minor league season was the relationship he developed with a rookie outfielder named Roger Maris.
“One of the best ballplayers I ever played with in my life,” he said. “I can tell you this in all honesty, if you owned a business and you have to go out of town … and you couldn’t get back for three or four months, the guy that you would want is Roger Maris.
“If you left that business with him and came back, it would be twice the size. That was his attitude. I roomed with him in Indianapolis. He came to the ballpark to play. If you had nine guys that took the same attitude, you would have a club that would have never lost.”
The well-traveled Gray played winter ball in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Not only did the wide exposure allow him to fine tune his pitching, it allowed him to develop an appreciation for the passion the fans had for the game.
“They take baseball much more serious in Latin America than they do here,” he said. “They love it. I can remember when I was in Cuba they would sing and have a band for one team. I loved it because they had the name for baseball fans in South America and it sure fit, 'fanáticos.'”
Gray made it back to the major leagues in 1957 with the Indians, and played a handful of games with the Phillies in 1958. He continued to play at the Triple-A level until hanging it up for good in 1960. He finished his major league career with a 4-18 record with a 6.18 ERA in 48 games.
In his post-baseball playing days, Gray became an avid golfer and managed an apartment complex in Florida.