This article was written by Chris Rainey
Southpaw pitcher Dolly Gray posted five 20-win seasons in the Pacific Coast League before coming to the Washington Senators (aka Nationals) in 1909. He literally walked into the record books on August 28 when he lost a one-hitter to the Chicago White Sox, 6-4. He walked seven consecutive batters (eight total) in the six-run second inning, then found his rhythm and finished the game. Billy Evans was the plate umpire for the game, and he opined in his sports column years later that Gray must have thrown at least 20 pitches in the inning that barely missed the plate.1 The only hit he gave up was a grounder to first base. Some fans and writers have suggested that it was really a no-hitter, because first baseman Bob Unglaub admitted he should have handled the grounder easily.2
Gray played three years with Washington before returning to the West Coast. He posted a dismal 15-51 record in the majors. Gray’s winning percentage of .227 is the worst for any American League pitcher with 50 or more decisions.3 His Pacific Coast League record was 155-94, according to information posted on the Pacific Coast League site.4
William Denton Gray was born to James and Mary (Wallace) Gray on December 4, 1878, on the upper peninsula of Michigan. He was the fourth son born to the couple. His exact place of birth is open to conjecture. Baseball-Reference lists it as Houghton, which is the county seat of Houghton County. The minor-league website, MiLB.com, lists his birthplace as Ishpeming, which lies about 80 miles southeast of Houghton.5 Gray listed his birthplace as the town of Atlantic Mine on his draft registration for World War II.6 Atlantic Mine is a short distance southwest of Houghton.
Little specifics of Gray’s upbringing are known. In 1880 his mother was living with her father (Thomas Wallace) and stepmother in Portage Township in Houghton County. William and his three brothers were living with her, but there was no mention of James Gray. Mary and the boys moved to the San Francisco area, where Gray’s love of baseball was nurtured by watching the San Francisco teams play.7 In the late 1890s a southpaw pitcher named Gray began appearing in newspaper stories both in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
In 1900 Gray was living in Globe, Arizona, and working as a miner. He was described as tall and husky, having grown to 6-feet-2 and weighing 160 pounds.8 The town of Globe had begun as a silver-mining settlement but had transitioned to copper by the time Gray arrived. The towns in the region fielded baseball teams and there was heated competition. As a left-handed pitcher, Gray found himself in demand for the team in Globe but also for Bisbee and the strong contingent from Morenci that was amply financed by the local mine owners.
Playing with these teams meant long train trips for Gray. It was 120 miles to Morenci from Globe and over 200 from Globe to Bisbee. It was not uncommon for the town/team to sponsor an excursion for the fans. For example, the Globe-Morenci game in 1901 cost a Globe rooter $11.90 for the round trip.9
Being a southpaw gave Gray an advantage. One writer mentioned that “Grey [sic], is a puzzler. He throws an indrop which the local men could not find.”10 Acknowledged as the best pitcher in Arizona, he was recommended to Los Angeles manager Jim Morley by two of Morley’s pitchers, Oscar Jones and Josh Hartwell.11
Known as Will Gray on the diamonds in Arizona, he did not earn the moniker of “Dolly” until he joined the Los Angeles Loo Loos of the California League in 1902. The song “Goodbye, Dolly Gray” had become popular at the turn of the century and the Los Angeles Times was quick to apply the name to the Loo Loos’ newest pitcher. During Gray’s career the nickname Dolly was applied to almost any player named Gray.12
Gray arrived in Los Angeles in late July and was featured in a photo spread in the Times before ever appearing in a game. His first start came on July 25 against San Francisco, and he “did remarkably well. He has more curves than anyone that ever pitched here. … He has an ‘outside’ delivery that ends in a strike just as it reaches the plate. He also possesses speed and a change of pace.”13 A lack of control (seven walks) contributed to his 4-1 defeat.
Gray’s arrival came about a month after Rube Waddell had left Los Angeles for Philadelphia. Morley also brought in pitcher Willie Mills from the East. Mills made a strong debut and became part of the rotation. He forced out Hartwell, who ended up playing ball in Arizona for the next few years.
Gray was used sparingly after his debut. Morley made Gray and another recruit, Sylvester Loucks, available to a couple of barnstorming teams in late November. Gray pitched for the All-Americans against the All-Nationals squad that included Jake Beckley and Willie Keeler. Gray earned the win in 11-innings, 6-4.14 He picked up a 10-4 win over the champion Oakland Clamdiggers on December 6.15
After the season Gray returned to Arizona to spend time with friends. He inked a contract for the 1903 season and reported back to Los Angeles in the spring. The Angels bolted from the gate in the newly minted Pacific Coast League and were 15-0 before staff ace Doc Newton dropped the April 15 game to San Francisco, 6-0.
Pop Dillon was now the manager and led the team with a .364 average. Twenty-two-year-old Gavvy Cravath provided power, leading the team with 51 doubles and 7 home runs. Dillon’s pitching staff was loaded, with Gray (23-20), Newton (35-12), Joe Corbett (23-16), and Rusty Hall (33-19).16 The quartet threw over 1,600 innings and posted a combined 114-67 record for the 133-win league champions.17
Besides the record-setting season, 1903 was memorable to Gray because he wed Avis McGee on March 11 in Los Angeles. The couple enjoyed only four years together before Avis died in November 1907.
Dillon signed with Brooklyn shortly after the season ended; Morley returned as the manager for 1904. Corbett also moved on. Gray won 24 and Newton topped the circuit with 39 wins, but they were no match for the champion Tacoma Tigers.
In 1905 the league decided to have first- and second-half champions. Newton was no longer with the team, but Morley still had a pitching staff of Gray, Charles “Busher” Baum, and Hall. Fearing a baseball war between the major leagues and the minors, Morley tried to skimp on his contract offerings, and on the verge of Opening Day Gray left the city for semipro ball in the “orange-pickers” league.18 Meanwhile Baum balked at the offer sent to him and refused to report. The money issue took about three weeks to resolve but eventually Morley had his pitching staff.
The Angels had a slow first half and played at a.500 level most of the way. Tacoma captured the first-half title. In the second half, Morley added pitcher Bill Tozer in late June. In October he added Walter “Judge” Nagle, who won 11 games in the late pennant drive. Injuries dogged the team and forced Gray and Baum to see quite a bit of outfield duty. Nevertheless, the team captured the second-half crown. Tacoma collapsed into the cellar late in the campaign. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles captured the playoffs over Tacoma (5-1-1) with Gray winning the final game, 3-1.19
Gray posted a 27-16 record with an ERA of 2.15 in 1905. The wins, percentage and ERA were the best he had posted to that stage of his career. Yet his performance was inconsistent. Control issues plagued him more than in the past seasons. At the plate he hit .198 with 15 doubles.
Gray was 27 years old and in his prime when the 1906 season opened. He did the honors on Opening Day and silenced the Oakland bats for a 2-1 victory.20 Not only was he pitching in fine form, but his bat was making a difference. He homered with two outs in the ninth on April 21 to defeat Seattle, 4-3.21 He was a one-man wrecking crew on May 17, when he smacked a triple and single, drove in four runs, and scored another in a 5-3 win over Fresno.22
While Gray was playing the best ball of his career, the ballclub was in turmoil. Morley was negotiating a sale of the club and talk of pay cuts could be heard. In late May, Gray and Kitty Brashear jumped at a financial offer from the independent Tri-State League. The pair inked contracts with the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies with Brashear taking over at first base.
Gray left Los Angeles with a 7-2 record and a sparkling 1.59 ERA. He was batting .226 in 10 games. His first win with Johnstown came on June 17, when he defeated Altoona, 5-2.23 The Johnnies were a weak aggregation that was mired in last place. Gray seemed to have one bad inning each game and seldom received much offensive support. From available newspaper box scores, he made 12 appearances, compiling a 3-8 record.
Johnstown released Gray in early August and his next stop was in York with the league’s first-place team. He made four starts for York and posted a 2-2 record. His best performance was a shutout of Williamsport. In early September Gray requested his release, which was granted. He joined the Cumberland (Maryland) team in the Class D POM League.24
For some unexplained reason, Gray appeared as Williams in line scores of Cumberland games. He faced three league opponents and won once. His true identity was revealed on September 18 after he defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 7-1, in an exhibition game.25 His performance against Cincinnati led to ridicule of the Reds by their hometown press. One writer exclaimed, “The Reds couldn’t even win the exhibition games they played. … Better quit the exhibition business if they can’t show up any better than that.”26
Gray spent the offseason with his wife, Avis, in Northern California near the town of Sisson in current-day Mount Shasta. Since he was an avid hunter and fisherman, the lure of the outdoors may have lessened his worry about his baseball future. The National Commission was threatening that any player who had gone to an outlaw league like the Tri-State could not return.27 Fortunately for Gray and many others, the Commission relaxed its stance and Gray was able to report back to the Loo Loos.
Gray reported to camp in less than optimum shape. One of his first game appearances came against the New York Giants with former Giant Dan Shay as the umpire. Shay’s decisions behind the plate were “so rotten they were actually funny,” according to a Los Angeles writer. Gray did not share that sentiment and slowly lost his composure while issuing seven walks in four innings.28
Gray’s spotty preseason display relegated him to the number-three spot in the rotation. Los Angeles dropped the first two games of the season before Gray toed the mound and beat Oakland 4-2 on April 9. The win was just the first of a league-leading 32 for Gray. He also led the circuit in win percentage (.696) and ERA (1.59). Los Angeles piled up 115 wins to easily take the league crown.
Gray batted .205 in 1907 but that figure does not include his best day at the plate. On November 10 the Angels faced the San Diego Pickwicks, a strong semipro team that had added Walter Johnson. Gray smashed a double and a home run off the Washington hurler as the Angels won, 9-2.29
About a week after that game, Gray’s wife died at their home. On November 30 a benefit game was staged at Los Angeles’ Chutes Park with a team of all-stars against the Angels. A crowd of 2,000 attended and nearly $600 was raised for Gray’s benefit. The all-stars won, 2-0.30
Gray nearly duplicated his performance the following year, as did the team. Gray went 26-11 with a 1.71 ERA and the Angels won 110 games. In October his contract was sold to Washington. After the season, he spent a few weeks hunting and fishing at Laguna Beach with Brashear, Dillon, and catcher Wallace “Happy” Hogan.31
As Washington’s spring training in Galveston approached, Gray sent word to the club that he wanted more money than they were offering. Speculation was that pitcher Bill Burns had spoken with Johnson and Gray about making salary demands. The thinking was that Burns was trying to strengthen his own case for a raise after his 6-11, 1.70 season in 1908.32 Manager Joe Cantillon and Gray were only a few hundred dollars apart and came to an acceptable figure within a week.33
Gray’s first appearance on the mound for Washington came on March 16 in Galveston. He tossed three strong innings in an exhibition. Once the regular season began, he made two pinch-hitting appearances against the New York Highlanders. He struck out on April 13 but hit a single in his next appearance.
Gray’s pitching debut came on April 17 against Boston. He lasted just four batters. Amby McConnell reached on a bad-hop grounder. Harry Lord reached on a bunt single “that was fumbled.” Tris Speaker cleared the bases with a double to deep right, and Gray issued a walk before heading to the showers. Boston won 6-1.34
After a day off on Sunday, Gray went back to the mound to face Boston on April 19. Boston won, 8-4, thanks to 11 hits, including a quartet of the scratch variety, and four Washington errors.35
Gray pitched in relief until May 23, when he lost a start in Detroit. Cantillon used him again versus the Tigers on May 26. Gray responded with a highly effective performance holding the Tigers’ potent lineup to a lone run. Only Donie Bush, with two singles and a walk, gave Gray any trouble in the 3-1 win.
Gray beat New York 8-1 in his next start but went winless in June and July in seven starts. In the late summer he earned more mound time, but he was not part of a rotation because Cantillon seemed to play hunches rather than follow a plan. Why else would Gray make four starts against Boston from September 7 through September 15?36 In fact, of Gray’s 36 appearances on the hill, 22 were against Detroit or Boston.
Gray posted a 5-19 record with a 3.59 ERA. Bob Groom, a fellow rookie from the PCL, was 7-26 and Johnson was collared with 25 of Washington’s 110 defeats. While Gray’s pitching was inconsistent, he could certainly have benefited from better offensive support. The Nationals were last in scoring and last in batting. Gray lost three starts in opponents’ shutouts and had only one run of support in six other starts. That list of offensive futility does not include a July 16 game against Detroit when Gray went the first eight innings before retiring with an injury. Groom hurled the next 10 frames in an 18-inning scoreless tie.
Gray returned to the West Coast, where he beat Portland in Los Angeles’ final game of the season.37 In November he joined the Morenci team from Arizona at the El Paso fair for the Great Southwestern Tournament. He was joined on the team by Dolly Stark, who had wrapped up his rookie season with Cleveland.38
The two Dollys were not the only major leaguers lured to El Paso. Pitchers Jim Scott, Christy Mathewson, and Waddell also came for the fair dates. Waddell and Mathewson opposed each other in the marquee matchup of the tourney.39 Gray faced Mathewson and the El Paso team on November 1, but was no match for the future Hall of Famer in a 10-1 loss.40 The Douglas, Arizona, team that featured Jim Scott won the tourney.
Gray stopped off in Yuma, Arizona, to pitch an exhibition, then headed home to see friends, do plenty of hunting, and pitch the occasional game. He was quick to sign Washington’s offer for the 1910 season when it arrived.
Jimmy McAleer took over as Washington’s manager in 1910. He relied heavily on Walter Johnson as his staff ace (42 starts) but used Gray more consistently than Cantillon had. The Washington offense also improved, scoring over 100 runs more than in 1909 (498 vs. 382). Even so, Gray received miserable offensive support. In his 29 starts, the Senators gave him two runs or less 15 times. He closed the season at 8-19 with a 2.63 ERA.
Gray entered his second marriage in October in Alameda, California, when he took Leonora Durfee as his bride.41The couple would welcome a daughter, also named Leonora, in 1912.
Gray went to 1911 spring training as the veteran lefty on the team. McAleer made it known to the press that Gray needed to establish himself during the spring camp if the team was to be successful.42 Gray arrived in Atlanta with his new bride and weighing about 10 to 15 pounds more than normal. He told reporters that he thought the extra weight would make him more effective.43
Gray revealed late in camp that he had a new pitch, an “ointment curve.” He supposedly could get it to break down and either left or right. Whether the pitch actually involved adding a substance to the ball was unclear. Meanwhile, McAleer and Walter Johnson were embroiled in contract negotiations while Johnson tended his farm in Coffeyville, Kansas. He did not report until just before Opening Day.
Johnson’s issues opened the gate for Gray to pitch on Opening Day, April 12, against the Red Sox and Smoky Joe Wood. Before the game, Gray was on the receiving end of President William Howard Taft’s “straight and true” first pitch from his box in the stands.44 The Red Sox took a 4-1 lead as Gray allowed four hits and two walks, and committed an error. Washington rallied in the sixth, with Gray removed for a pinch-hitter, to take a 7-4 lead. Dixie Walker finished the game for Washington and was given the 8-5 win.
Gray earned his first win a month later with a 6-5 victory over the White Sox. He struggled with consistency and was shuffled between starting and relieving. His second win came on June 28 versus the Athletics. He struck out a season-high six and did not allow a walk in the 4-3 win. It proved to be the last win of his major-league career; he closed out the season 2-13 with a 5.06 ERA that was the worst in the league for a pitcher with 100 innings or more.
Gray returned to California and played with the Vernon Tigers in the PCL. He was 11-7 for the second-place Tigers in 1912. He ended his professional career the following year, playing a game with Venice and then three with Oakland. He left the PCL and joined the semipro Marysville (California) Giants. Marysville is about 40 miles north of Sacramento.
The Gray family fell in love with the Marysville/Yuba City area and never left. Dolly opened a confectionery store called the Brownie and ran it for a decade or so. According to the website find-a-grave, he served as a private in the US Army artillery during World War I.45 In 1928 he established a soda fountain and ice cream business in the local department store. He branched out to become a grill cook and in 1941 established the Orchard Club. It became a highly popular spot with Dolly happy to talk baseball with his many customers. It eventually became a 24-hour diner.
Gray put in three stints as manager of the local Marysville team. The first came in 1916 but he resigned after only a few weeks, citing the pressure of his private business but more importantly the “crabbing” by fans who second-guessed his managerial moves.46 He returned as a replacement manager in June 1934. Local supporters lured him into managing again in 1936 with the team competing in the Sacramento Valley League. They won the championship, but Gray was cool toward a return. The league wanted to bring in outside talent. Gray liked developing young players and insisted that “imported players cost money and would mean red ink.”47
After the 1936 season, Dolly confined his baseball to reminiscences for his patrons. In 1938 the local newspapers covered his reunion with his mother. She had married and moved to Montana just after Dolly’s big-league career ended. They had not seen each other until she passed through Marysville in 1938. She was 83 years old, but still spry and energetic and was visiting her far-flung sons.48
Gray died at his home on April 3, 1956. He was survived by his wife, his daughter, and two grandchildren. Burial was in the Sutter (California) Cemetery. Dolly was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2011 he became one of the few baseball players inducted into the winter-sport-dominated Upper Peninsula Hall of Fame on the campus of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan.
Statistics are from Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Minor-league records from 1904 to 1912 are from the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Ancestry.com was used for census information, etc.
This biography was reviewed by William Lamb and Len Levin. It was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
I reached out to SABR members for some help with the research on Gray and would like to thank Jim Patrick, Bill Lamb, Bill Staples, Martin Monkman, Tom Zocco, and Wayne McElreavy for their input, suggestions, etc. It takes a village …
1 Billy Evans, “Billy Evans Says,” News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), January 5, 1928: 6.
2 Billy Evans, “Games Won and Lost in Peculiar Ways,” Washington Evening Star, November 28, 1909: 64.
5 A 1936 newspaper article from California could be the source of the Ishpeming identification. A William G. Gray was born in Ishpeming in June 1879, which could account for the discrepancy. In addition, his oldest brother, John, lived in Ishpeming for many years. search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=1002&h=10021708&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=fJX508&_phstart=successSource.
6 Gray’s draft registration at search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=1002&h=6536993&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true#?_phcmd=u(‘https://www.ancestry.com/search/categories/39/?name%3DWilliam%2BD_Gray%26birth%3D1878_houghton-houghton-michigan-usa_44061%26birth_x%3D5-0-0_1-2%26count%3D50%26gender%3Dm%26keyword%3Dbaseball%26location%3D2%26name_x%3Dps_s%26priority%3Dusa%26types%3Drst%26successSource%3Dsearch%26queryId%3D44bccf8f26cbaa17dcd2d43e85934d79’,’successSource’).
7 “‘Dolly’ Gray Is Taken by Death,” Independent Herald (Yuba City, California), April 5, 1956: 6. The article mentions him watching the Seals as a youth, but that was not the team name until after Gray had started his career.
8 He may have weighed 160 pounds early in his career but by the time he was with Washington he was quite likely 180 or more.
9 Arizona Silver Belt (Globe, Arizona), July 25, 1901: 9.
10 “About Base Ball,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), October 30, 1901: 4. Over the years other writers described a sweeping curve, which would suggest that Gray threw the pitch both over the top and possibly with a three-quarters arm slot.
11 “New Pitchers,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1902: 34.
12 Pitcher Chummy Gray was one of the few to avoid being labeled Dolly. Other Dollys included Notre Dame alumnus Wilbur, a catcher; Charles, a shortstop in the Pacific Northwest; high-school and college players, and even businessmen like F.E. Gray of Oxnard, California. In 1921 a Dolly Gray managed the Flint Vehicles in Michigan. That was Bill Gray, an infielder. Flint (Michigan) Journal, August 30, 1921: 10.
13 “Meredith Beat Us by Good Pitching,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1902: 11.
14 “Pitched for Visitors,” Los Angeles Express, November 24, 1902: 5.
15 “Lovely Time at the Bat,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1902: 8.
16 “Pitching Averages,” Oregon Daily Journal (Portland), December 5, 1903: 8. The published averages from 1903 match Baseball-Reference except for Hall. One of Newton’s losses came in a Portland uniform pitching against his Los Angeles teammates in a late season stunt.
17 “Last Game of the Year,” Oakland Tribune, November 30, 1903: 7. The standings listed Sacramento in second place with a record of 105-105. Los Angeles was 133-78.
18 “Another War in Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1905: 19.
19 “Loo Loos Won Pennant,” Stockton (California) Daily Evening Record, December 16, 1905: 4.
20 “Angels Capture Opening Game,” Los Angeles Herald, April 8, 1906: 10.
21 “Dolly Gray Wins with Home Run,” Los Angeles Herald, April 22, 1906: 6.
22 “Dolly Gray Wins for Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Express, May 18, 1906: 10.
23 “Johnstown Wins by Good Hitting,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Times, June 18, 1906: 5.
24 “Gray Released,” York (Pennsylvania) Dispatch, September 3, 1906: 5.
25 “The Game Yesterday,” Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, September 18, 1906: 8.
26 “Joy! Joy! Reds Drop to Sixth,” Cincinnati Post, October 5, 1906: 6.
27 “Bad Business for Outlaws,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1907: 6.
28 “Giants Win Another One,” Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1907: 15.
29 “LooLoos Get Even Break,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1907: 15.
30 “All-Stars Victorious,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1907: 15.
31 “Walking Fine on the Road,” Santa Ana (California) Register, November 11, 1908: 5.
32 “Dolly Gray Joins Hold-Outs,” Washington Post, January 31, 1909: 1.
33 “‘Dolly’ Gray Declares the Terms Are Satisfactory,” Washington Herald, February 7, 1909: 11.
34 William Peet, “Revenge for Boston,” Washington Herald, April 18, 1909: 37.
35 “Boston Again Wins from the Nationals,” Evening Star, April 20, 1909: 14.
36 He was 2-2 in that stretch, winning and losing a game at home and away.
37 “Dolly Gray Mows Down the Beavers,” Sacramento (California) Bee, November 1, 1909: 8.
38 “Two More Big League Stars Here, “El Paso (Texas) Times, November 3, 1909: 10.
39 “Lots of Sport at Fair Friday,” El Paso Herald, November 3, 1909: 4. Mathewson prevailed, 2-1.
40 “Mathewson, the Great, Wins Easily for El Paso Ball team,” El Paso Herald, November 2, 1909: 1-2.
41 The name appears in documents with and without the ‘a’ on the end.
42 Kirby Thomas, “Southpaw Gray Must Start Well,” Washington Times, January 3, 1911: 12.
43 J. Ed. Grillo, “The Outfield Problem Is Still Worrying McAleer,” Washington Evening Star, March 7, 1911: 13.
44 “Nationals Win, 8 to 5, as 16,000 Cheer Them,” Washington Post, April 13, 1911: 1.
46 “Dolly Gray Quits as Marysville Manager,” Sacramento Bee, May 17, 1916: 11.
47 Ed Burt, “In the Sport Light,” Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, California), November 21, 1936: 8.
48 “‘Dolly’ Gray Enjoys First Visit with Mother in 25 Years,” Appeal-Democrat, April 2, 1938: 6.