R.I.P. Elmer Gray
* Elmer Gray, 91, passed away Monday night and a moment’s silence was observed for the Pittsburgh Pirates scout, with Elmer’s picture on the Jumbotron before Tuesday’s game at PNC Park. The picture above was taken at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 18 heading to the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation banquet in Beverley Hills, Calif. This story is from May the last time we spoke. Main photo: Pittsburgh International Airport Timeline Photos. All others by Lisa Gray Tenney. ….
By Bob Elliott
The first person I ever met in professional baseball was Elmer Gray of the Cincinnati Reds.
He called the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper and I happened to answer one night in the summer of 1971.
He wanted to know if I could write a few lines in the paper about a tryout camp he planned on running … but he had a problem. He needed a park since he was calling from Pittsburgh.
No problem I told him.
Consider it booked.
What about getting something in the paper? On the radio stations? On the TV.
He asked if I could ask some of the better players to come. I told him about the Kingston Ponies best player … a senior player about 31 years old.
Gray, or Mr. Gray as I called him back then, explained that the “Cincinnati Reds National League ball club” was looking for teenagers.
So we phoned a few guys. Even begged a few guys. Some said “no way” I’m not going to a dopey tryout camp.
On that day of he arrived early with his two assistants Jim Verrani and Bob Howsam’s son, Ed Howsam. He called me over to the car to sign a bird dog contract with the Cincinnati Reds.
Being the sharp businessman then as I am now, I said I’d do it for free.
The yellow contract said I’d get an amount if the Reds signed someone and another amount if the player reached class-A, double-A, triple-A and then the majors. I could not tell you what the amounts were if I had months to think about it.
I helped register the 40 or 50 guys who showed.
Then, the experts had the players warm up, run the 60-yard dash.
They hit infield to evaluate the arm strength.
Then players took batting practice.
And finally the best pitchers faced the best hitters in a live situation.
A third baseman did really well — in my eyes.
I asked Mr. Gray if he liked him.
“Well, son, the Cincinnati Reds National League ball club has Tony Perez playing third base currently. Do you think this young man will grow up to take Mr. Perez’s position?” Gray asked.
“Heck no,” I said.
“Well, that’s the way we have to look at things,” Gray said.
Gray came to Kingston three summers and Ottawa two years. He never signed anyone, but Doug Frobel was at an Ottawa camp although he was too young to sign. Two years later at a Pirates tryout camp in Utica, N.Y. scouts Joe Buccalo and Branch Rickey III signed Frobel and the former Ottawa-Nepean Canadians slugger made the majors.
* * *
Flash forward to Saturday night.
The Blue Jays are whipping the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The phone rang at the Mississauga homestead.
It was Lisa Gray Tenney’s the third of Elmer’s four daughters as she describes herself.
Elmer came on the phone and we spoke for 50 minutes. He’d been honoured in January and twice I’d phoned to congratulate him but had not been able to speak to him.
He’d just come from his 91st birthday party at the Castle Shannon American Legion Post #490 in Pittsburgh.
Man we covered some ground as he was watching the Pirates on Pittsburgh TV and I was watching on Sportsnet with Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler muted.
“Oh, they’re taking out R.A. Dickey after the lead-off double.”
We talked about his first trip to Kingston where a catcher said “throw me a decker.” Howsam was confused at strange term for a catcher’s mitt, how prankster Verrani told me to make up some unique Canadian terms for Howsam, who was a college student at the time. So, I asked Howsam if he knew how players could get a rash of strawberries or raspberries from sliding, and when he said yes, I told him Canadians called them either cranberries or blueberries depending upon the leg.
“Single to centre by Neil Walker.”
Gray scouted Walker at Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Penn. in 2004.
“He drew a lot of scouts to his games,”
Andrew McCutchen walks to load the bases.
“Elmer did you know that McCutchen told me at Wrigley last year that he only washes his hair once every two weeks. Jason Bay told when he was with the Mets Jose Reyes would wash his hair once a month. I asked Reyes about it and he said ‘yeah Bay asked him that — he switched lockers the next day in Port St. Lucie.’”
We talked about how he signed Ken Griffey, father of Ken Griffey Jr. who is headed to the Hall of Fame. Papa Griffey of Donora, Penn., was Gray’s prominent signing He was a three-time all-star with the Reds and part of the Reds World Series teams in 1975-76. He also signed Lynn Jones, Danny Godby, Paul Householder, Tom Carroll and Tom Lawless, who played for the Blue Jays. (Thanks to Hot Rod Nelson for the update.)
“Is that ball out?”
Nope pinch hitter Jody Mercer’s double off the top of the centre field fence ties the game.
He asked about Pittsburgh native Tony LaCava, an assistant GM with the Blue Jays.
“Where is that good lefty the Toronto club had? Former No. 1 pick out of Maryland, that Tom Burns signed?” Elmer asked.
“Brett Cecil. He pitched Friday night. Two innings.”
Finally, the Jays escape.
Game tied 6-6.
With one out in the eighth, Bryan Morris hits Chris Getz with a pitch.
Elmer was stationed on Sand Island in Hawaii with the US Army’s 436th Ordnance Motor Vehicle Assembly Company during World War II. When not performing duties as the company clerk, he played second base on a military team. Rex Bowen was on a team that he played for and Bowen later hired Gray to work for the Reds. Then Gray hired Jackie Bowen to work for the Pirates.
Getz is picked off.
“That replay he looks safe … and in that view he looks out.”
The umps call Getz out.
Todd Redmond take over in the bottom of the eighth.
Elmer may have worked all those years for the Big Red Machine but he is Pittsburgh born and bred.
“We need a hit here,” said Elmer after Clint Barmes strikes out to open the eighth. I teased asking if he was going back to work with the Reds, as I’d seen his picture with Reds GM Walt Jocketty.
He ignored that one.
“It’s really raining, now they can’t call it with runners at the corners, can they? Elmer wonders.
With two aboard Walker doubled to centre and the Pirates were up 8-6.
Jose Bautista reached on a throwing error by third baseman Pedro Alvarez with one out in the ninth.
“Bautista was an original Pirate, think Mickey White signed him, did you know Mickey Elmer?”
“Know Mickey well, he’s a great scout.”
Brett Lawrie singled to bring the tying run to the plate.
“We’re in trouble now,” said Gray. “This is the guy who hit the ball out to left last night isn’t it.”
Yep. Colby Rasmus looked at three pitches.
“Good curve ball,” said Elmer.
Then on the 1-2 pitch Rasmus bounced to first ending the game.
“This game’s over,” said Elmer.
Elmer asked me what team I was scouting for nowadays … “Aaron Thompson’s Mississauga Southwest Twins … minor peewees … grade sixers I think. Haven’t seen a Tony Perez yet … but it’s early.”
* * *
Dutch Gray enjoyed a 62-year scouting career with the St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, the Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates, He grew up in the Allentown area, on the south side of Pittsburgh, graduated from South Hills High, where he earned varsity letters and all-star honors in baseball, football and basketball. After high school he played infield for the Dormont semi-pro team in Pittsburgh.
The Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, founded and created by Dennis Gilbert, Dave Yoakum and Roland Hemond (pictured with Gray) honoured Jack McKeon with the George Genovese lifetime achievement award in scouting and Gray with their Legend in Scouting award in January.
Following the war and a tryout camp, Gray landed a minor league contract with the Browns organization earning all-star honours as a second baseman in 1946-47 seasons for the Fulton Bulldogs and Fulton Chicks in the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League (KITTY League). He set a league record with a 27 game hitting streak. He then played for the 1947 Aberdeen Pheasants in the Northern League, and for the 1948 Springfield Browns in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (3 III League). In 1950, he and fellow 2013 Legends in Scouting Awardee, catcher McKeon, were teammates on the Gloversville-Johnstown Glovers in the Canadian-American League.
Gray began his scouting career in 1950 as a part-time scout for the Browns and stayed with them when they became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. After 13 years with the Orioles, in 1967 Gray became a scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds.
As one of general manager Bob Howsam’s and scouting director Rex Bowen’s scouts, he participated in the assembly of the talent that would become The Big Red Machine. How stable were the Reds back then? Well, Vern Rapp managed triple-A Indianapolis from 1969-75, Jim Snyder managed double-A Asheville in 1970 and Trois-Rivieres from 1971-75, while George Scherger managed class-A Tampa and the rookie-class Florida Instructional league teams from 1967-69, Malcolm Warren managed class-A Tampa in 1969, Richard Kennedy managed class-A Tampa in 1970 (Tampa managers for 1971-75 are unknown) Jim Hoff managed class-A Seattle in 1973 and class-A Billings in 1974 and 1976,
Gray returned home to Pittsburgh in 1984 when Pirates GM Pete Peterson offered him his dream job of becoming the Pirates scouting director. During his tenure, the Pirates drafted and signed the likes of Barry Bonds, Orlando Merced, Jeff King, John Wehner, Stan Belinda, Randy Tomlin and Tim Wakefield.
Gray was named administrator of baseball operations and as he had a hand in the Reds’ teams of the 1970s, he also helped to build the successful Pirates’ teams of the early 1990s.
Due to his wife’s illness, Gray retired from full time scouting in 1994. He continued to assist the Pirate scouting program on a part-time basis in several capacities through the 2012 season. At the spry age of 90, he still attended as many 2013 Pirates games as he could, and was elated by their winning season and post-season play.
Elizabeth (Butch) Gray and Elmer were in their 50th year of marriage when she passed in 1997. Butch and Dutch gave us a wedding present of sheets in 1972.
The proud Gray family consists of four daughters — Mary Beth, Elaine, Lisa and Stasi, sons-in-laws, sister, nieces and nephews, 12 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren are very proud to call him “Papa.”
During the off seasons of his scouting days, for over 25 years he was a football and basketball official for the Western Pennsylvania Inter Athletic League (WPIAL). He retired from the Carnegie Mellon University Athletic Department in 2008, where he was the football and basketball clock operator for 47 years.
Elected to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. In 1989, Gray received the Long and Meritorious Service Award from the scouting and farm directors. He was the recipient of the Scout of the Year Award at the 1991 winter meetings, and in 1993, he was inducted into the Mid Atlantic MLB Scouts Hall of Fame.
In 2008, the Pirates honored Gray with the Pride of the Pirates award, which recognizes members of the Pirates’ family who have demonstrated the qualities of sportsmanship, dedication, and outstanding character during a lifetime of service to the organization.
* * *
At the banquet in Beverly Hills, Calif. Gray posed for pictures will his counterparts in the scouting world and former Big Red Machine axis, Hall of Fame catcher and motivational speech writer Johnny Bench (shown with Elmer’s daughter Lisa Gray Tenney, Jackie Bowen and Gray.)Jackie Bowen of the Pirates escorted Gray out onto the stage to accept his award which was fitting since Jackie’s grandfather, Rex Bowen, hired Gray to work for the Reds, and then Gray hired Jackie for the Pirates.
“Elmer was cool!” said Bench. “He was all buffed out and getting the attention he deserved. It was a night he will remember for a long, long time.”
Gray has a ticker (aortic valve) which is giving him trouble. He is on home hospice care since late October so that he can be as comfortable as possible.
Even though he is physically weak and had to use oxygen to travel, he flew PITT-LA for the ceremony and stopped by the Veteran’s Lounge. Veterans hold a special place in his large baseball-shaped heart, no matter what problems that valve gives him.
He touched base with Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, Jack McKeon, George Genovese, Fred Uhlman, Tommy Lasorda, Mel Didier of the Blue Jays and others. (Didier and Lasorda are pictured with Gray).
He also ran into the likes of legendary scouts Gary Hughes, Julian Mock, Bob Oldis, Ray Poitevint, John Young and Roland Hemond.
I forget what year it was, but my friend Tracy Ringolsby came up to me at the winter meetings in Nashville. It was after 8 PM.
“C’om, we have some where to go.”
He would not tell me where.
Didn’t matter how often I asked, how many different ways I asked, as we made our way through the maze of the Opryland Hotel.
Finally, I said “look I’m behind, I have to file this story.”
We turned a corner and there was the end of Joe Klein’s scout of the year banquet was finishing.
Then, the speeches began … and the first man to be honored was Elmer Gray. I stood ramrod straight listening to Elmer’s speech, bolted back to the press room and after filing made it back again after the other two honorees to congratulate Elmer, who I had not seen in about eight years.
Next to my father, I learned more about the game Elmer Gray than anyone else. That’s why when it came time to speak in 2012 at Cooperstown, Elmer Gray was one of the first named I mentioned.
Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass gave Elmer shout-out during Saturday’s Jays-Pirates game. As Blass said:
“Happy birthday Elmer.”
* * *
We had four e-mails from scouts Monday night as word spread of Elmer Gray’s passing. This was not a rush to deadline story. Finally word arrived from the Pirates, the team Elmer Gray worked for, loved.
Sympathies are extended to Elmer’s four daughters.
A man with a baseball shaped heart and a good one gone.