“A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.” – “Riders of the Purple Sage”
To most of the world, Zane Grey is known as the prolific author of pulp Western fiction who wrote such classics as “Riders of the Purple Sage” and “Lone Star Ranger.” But at Penn, Grey, a 1896 graduate in dentistry, was better known for his talent on the baseball diamond.
Grey was a solid hitter and a good pitcher with a wicked curve ball. His strength on the field earned him a baseball scholarship and cemented his status as a sports hero on campus. During the summers he played for local minor league teams and participated in his other life-long pastime, fishing.
Pressured to follow in his father’s professional footsteps, Grey majored in dentistry—although most accounts of his life call him a lackluster student—and dutifully pursued a successful career as a dentist while writing fiction on the side. After graduation, Grey set up a practice in New York City so he could be close to publishers, but his early attempts at literature were not successful. His first four novels were rejected. He then moved to Lackawaxen, Pa., with his wife Dolly. During this time, Grey embarked on several adventure trips to the West, collecting detailed notes on the landscape as well as the rough-and-tumble characters he happened upon.
In 1910 he wrote his first Western, “Heritage of the Desert” and it became a bestseller. In 1912 he published what became his best-known book, “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Two million copies of the book were sold and over the years three Hollywood films were made based on the story.
hroughout his life, Grey wrote more than 60 novels and his name became synonymous with the genre of Western fiction. Grey eventually moved to California, where he could enjoy deep-sea fishing. He died in 1939 in Altadena, Ca., and was buried in Lackawaxen, Pa.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on December 3, 2009