(Click and click again to enlarge photos — and these severely horizontal gems fairly demand to be enlarged!)
(Published in the Seattle Times online on March 18, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on March 21, 2021)
Baseball’s ‘Western Wonder’ knew how to fuel a negotiation
By Clay Eals
On a late-1950s Saturday morning when I was a tyke, my Kentucky-born dad beckoned me to the living room and pointed at the CBS Game of the Week on TV. “Take a look: The pitcher’s a southpaw.” I peered at the screen and blurted out, “He’s left-handed, too!”
This lefty appreciated the impromptu vocabulary lesson. And trust me, in this righty world, lefties give each other a certain recognition and respect. Of course, that extends to Vean Gregg.
What, you haven’t heard of Gregg? Obscurity can’t dim the fact that among early big-league pitchers, the Chehalis native, raised mostly in the Eastern Washington border town of Clarkston, was a phenom.
Nicknamed the “Western Wonder,” Sylveanus Augustus Gregg dazzled in 1911 as a Cleveland Naps rookie. The 26-year-old won 23 games and topped the American League with a 1.80 earned-run average. The fierce Ty Cobb called him the toughest lefty he ever faced. Gregg became the only 20th century hurler to win at least 20 games in his first three years in the majors.
Then came severe, mysterious arm pain and so-so seasons. A plasterer by trade, he even abandoned the pro game for three years. But he built a delightfully local comeback.
For the Seattle Indians based at Dugdale Park (future site of the storied Sicks’ Seattle Stadium and today’s Lowe’s Home Improvement on Rainier Avenue), he won 19 games in 1922, led the Pacific Coast League in earned-run average in 1923 and, with 25 wins, spurred the team to its first PCL pennant in 1924.
Gregg could taste a big-league rebound. In February 1925, with the Washington Senators calling, his brother, Dave, a journeyman righty who ended up pitching just one inning in the majors, opened a service station one-half mile north of Dugdale on Rainier Avenue. In this owner-dominated era, the siblings hatched a plan.
The trick was to name the station for Vean. “The idea,” says Eric Sallee, who with fellow Seattle diamond historian David Eskenazi has written extensively about Gregg, “was to prove to the Seattle and Washington team owners that he had another way to earn a living besides baseball.”
The ploy worked. The Senators snagged him for $10,000 and three players. But arm pain and humdrum performances soon resurfaced. He split that season with Washington (his last stint in the majors) and a Class A minor-league team. Other than one-third of an inning with Class AA Sacramento in 1927, his professional career was over. After pitching for semi-pro teams, he retired in 1931. For 37 years, he ran a Hoquiam sporting-goods store and cafe called The Home Plate. He died in 1964.
The triangular lot on Rainier still hosts a service station. It all reminds me of my usual advice to my daughter: Life is negotiable. And lefties get frequent practice.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to local baseball historians Dave Eskenazi and Eric Sallee , Rich Nestler of the Evergreen A’s Model A Club and automotive informant Bob Carney, as well as Joseph Bopp, Albert Balch curator and Special Collections librarian at Seattle Public Library, for their assistance with this column!