DENVER—There was a special reason to try and make a trip to PNC Park in Pittsburgh. There was always that chance you would run into Elmer Gray.
Oh, he was in his 90s, and would be in a wheel chair, but he would be nattily attired, a big smile on his face, and the stories amassed in a 60-year scouting career were shared with the fortunate listeners.
Emphasis on the past tense.
Gray, who turned 91 on May 3, passed away Aug. 18 following a long illness dealing with heart problems and hydration fluctuation.
“I had talked with his daughter Lisa a few days ago,” said Larry Doughty, who worked with Gray for more than 20 years with the Reds and Pirates, “and she told me the doctor told her father, ‘You’ve got a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on second base. Walter Johnson is pitching and you keep fouling them off.’”
The battle finally ended.
Gray’s memory, however, remains vivid thanks to the countless scouts and players he touched during his career.
“I had known him since I was a 16-year-old in high school in Pittsburgh,” said Mickey White, who also worked with Gray in the Reds and Pirates scouting department. “He scouted me, and professionally he was my mentor. He let me date two of his daughters.”
White laughed when he thought about his relationship with Gray, who recommended White, the baseball coach at Rutgers at the time, to Cincinnati scouting director Rex Bowen.
“When I got hired I flew to Florida to pick up my company car, and before I drove home to New England, I stopped in Pittsburgh for four days so Elmer could give me a crash course,” he said. “The fourth day, I’m getting ready to leave and Elmer said, ‘I have one thing to tell you that’s really important.’”
White said a moment of silence followed while Gray, known as Dutch, and his wife Elizabeth, known as Butch, looked at him.
“Applesauce,” Gray said.
“Applesauce, what’s that all about?” asked White.
“You are going to be traveling a lot,” said Gray. “You need to eat a lot of applesauce or you are going to get constipated.”
“I have eaten a lot of applesauce,” said White. “You never questioned Elmer. He knew what he was talking about.”
After five years as a minor league player, Gray began his scouting career with the St. Louis Browns in 1950, and stayed with the team when it moved to Baltimore. In 1967, Bowen, who was a teammate of Gray’s on an Army baseball team during World War II when they were both stationed in Hawaii with the United States Army’s 430th Ordinance Motor Vehicle Assembly Co., hired Gray with the Reds.
And after 17 years with the Reds, Gray returned home, becoming the scouting director of the Pirates, “my dream job,” he said. Even in his later years Gray remained a part of the Pirates organization, including taking part in the annual draft meetings and the selection process.
Gray oversaw the Pirates’ scouting department that built the foundation for Pittsburgh’s NL East titles in 1990-92, drafting, among others, Barry Bonds, Orlando Merced, Jeff King, John Wehner, Stan Belinda, Randy Tomlin and Tim Wakefield.
And with Cincinnati he was part of the scouting staff that put together the Big Red Machine.
For all that he accomplished in 60 years of scouting, Gray’s proudest moment was recommending the Reds selection of Ken Griffey, Sr., in the 29th round of the 1969 amateur draft.
“That got the attention of a lot of people,” Doughty said. “Not many scouts were on him. Elmer didn’t care. He liked him. He knew what he wanted to see in a ballplayer. He knew his players, mentally and physically. He was old school. He trusted his scouting ability.”
Griffey went on to earn three All-Star selections in a 19-year big-league career.
White remembered one time Griffey, a native of Donora, Pa., came to Pittsburgh with the Reds, and there was a story in the local paper about how Gray signed Griffey for a $15 bonus.
“Elmer went down to the Reds dugout before the game and called Ken over and told him that he had that story all wrong,” White said.
“Elmer said he actually signed him for nothing, but two days later he went by Griffey’s house and gave Kenny’s brother $25 to give Kenny so he could buy spikes and a jock strap.
“Kenny said, ‘You gave him $25? He took $10 of my signing bonus. I’ll talk to him about that.’”
That was fine with Gray.
He just wanted to make sure Griffey knew the truth.