It was sheer human glory in the deed of a fearless man. It was hot, primitive instinct to live—to fight … Venters lifted his rifle and pulled the trigger twice.

The first flush, the raging of Venters’s wrath, passed, to leave him in sullen, almost cold possession of his will. It was a deadly mood, utterly foreign to his nature, engendered, fostered, and released by the wild passions of wild men in a wild country …

Yes, the border was a bloody place. But life had always been bloody. Men were blood-spillers … On sea, on land, everywhere—shooting, stabbing, cursing, clashing, fighting men!

—Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage.

It might be stretching things to say that the sophomore Class of 1895 helped transform Pearl Gray, a penniless, girly-named dental student from Ohio, into Zane Grey, the driven creator of manly Western tales adored by millions. Then again, it might not. True, the Sophs were just a product of the world around them, acting out their bullying rituals like every other sophomore class of that era. (A decade later, some Sophs from the Class of 1904 would toss a recalcitrant freshman named Ezra Pound C’05 G’06 into the Lily Pond, as the BioPond was then called.) And Gray might well have become a successful, high-testosterone writer had he never encountered a member of that hated breed. But if you were looking for a defining moment in the young man’s psychic growth, the temptation to zoom in on that first trial by fire is irresistible.

It began when he attended an anatomy lecture in an amphitheater—presumably in the building now called Logan Hall—and made the mistake of sitting in a row traditionally reserved for upperclassmen. A big, blond, “husky-voiced sophomore” got to his feet and roared: “Watch me throw Freshie out!”

Freshie may have been scared, but he wasn’t budging. When the sophomore tried to pull him away, Pearl gave him a violent shove that sent him backward over a row of seats into the midst of his classmates.

Here’s how biographer Frank Gruber, drawing on Grey’s unfinished, unpublished autobiography, put it: “Pandemonium broke out. The sophomores rose en masse to get to Pearl, and the freshmen spilled down from their heights to rescue their champion. The amphitheater became a scene of riot, and when it was over Pearl was stark naked, except for one sock. His clothing had been torn from him, including his shoes.”

Compare that with the more detailed, fictional version in The Young Pitcher:

“Hang, Freshie!” bellowed a freshman from the topmost row. It was acceptance of the challenge, the battle-cry flung down to the Sophs. A roar rose from the pit. The freshmen, outnumbering the sophomores, drowned the roar in a hoarser one …

Ken thrilled in all his being. The freshmen were with him! … [H]e clenched his fingers into the bench, vowing he would hang there until hauled away … Suddenly Ken let go his hold, pushed one fellow violently, then swung his fists …

Like climbing, tumbling apes the two classes spilled themselves up and down the benches, and those nearest Ken laid hold of him, pulling him in opposite directions …

His clothes were torn to tatters in a twinkling; they were soon torn completely off, leaving only his shoes and socks … There was one more prolonged, straining struggle, then Ken was pulled away from the sophomores … [I]t was first blood for the freshman class.

One of his fellow classmen lent him an overcoat to hide his nakedness. Ken Ward was a hero now. So, in real life, was Pearl Gray.

For a while, anyway. Despite his athletic prowess, Gray was never a Big Man On Campus, and his years at Penn were not all sunshine. He was something of a loner, a trait magnified by the fact that he didn’t drink. (He did, however, learn to play poker.) His only real non-athletic sanctuary was the new Frank Furness-designed library, where he would read adventure writers and more high-toned poetry and prose, from Matthew Arnold and Edgar Allen Poe to Robert Louis Stevenson. “Whenever he was despondent he went to the library,” writes Gruber, “and by the time he left his spirits had been lifted.”

That fondness for reading, however, did not make him a good student, any more than it made him a careful prose stylist. Mechanical and operative dentistry were a “trial”; he didn’t care for anatomy and physiology; he found chemistry difficult and the chemistry professor, Dr. Wormly, “crabby and austere.” (In The Young Pitcher, Wormly’s counterpart is nicknamed Crab.) The only thing he really liked was histology (microscopic anatomy) and its professor, Robert “Bobby” Formad.

To make matters worse, the University decreed that a student had to pass his first year’s examinations before he could play on a team—which meant that Gray had to take his exams two months before everybody else.

That he survived may have had something to do with a tolerant attitude toward athletes. “He went before Old Pop Wormly in chemistry, who asked Pearl a few simple questions,” writes Gruber. “Pearl had to guess at the answers.” Wormly then asked him about baseball, knowing nothing about the game himself. “When Pearl finished, Wormly drawled, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, you know a good deal more about baseball than you do about chemistry.’” He gave Gray a passing grade.

Gray did even worse in some other courses, but his hide was saved by Professor Formad, who dispensed with the exam and gave him a 99. “You are one of the best students in histology I have ever had,” he told Gray. That grade raised his average enough for him to stay on at Penn.

Equally important, it allowed Gray to play for the varsity, and according to his unpublished memoir, he made the team that wintry day when he decimated his sophomore tormentors with potatoes. After that battle, it seems, he went back to his rented room in West Philadelphia, wondering if he would be expelled or arrested, when a “short, derby-hatted man with a huge cigar in his mouth” showed up at his door and gave Gray the once-over. Here is Gruber’s account, based on that unfinished memoir:

“Where’d you get the whip?” he demanded.

Pearl could only stare at him.

The little man chuckled. “Pearl Gray, I know all about you. I’ve had a report about your pitching in Ohio from one of our alumni scouts. I’m Arthur Irwin of the Philadelphia National League team, but I’m also the varsity baseball coach at the university. Now, keep it under your hat, but that potato stunt of yours has made you a member of the Pennsylvania varsity!”

Actually, Arthur Irwin—whom Gray affectionately fictionalized as “Worry Arthurs” in The Young Pitcher, and to whom he dedicated one of his other baseball books—didn’t start managing the Phillies until 1894, Gray’s sophomore year. (Two years later, Irwin became manager of the New York Giants—whom Penn beat in an exhibition game.) And one has to wonder if Zane Grey didn’t embroider the facts a little about the reason for his ascension to the varsity.

Pearl Gray soon had another thing to worry about. Before his first season, the National League changed the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate from 50 feet to 60, and the college teams had to follow the new rule. Gray, who had spent years practicing his curveball for the old dimensions, suddenly couldn’t get one over the plate.

Since he could still hit, he was put in the outfield. There may be some clues about his fielding prowess in The Young Pitcher. During a particularly ugly loss, outfielder Ken Ward “ran around like a chicken with its head off,” in the words of an opposing player, and was finally benched. But the young team’s plucky performance inspired a rousing speech to the undergraduates on “college spirit” from the university’s fictional President Halstead. After a token warning about the fate that might befall a student who “slights his studies for athletic glory,” the president scolded the upperclassmen for not supporting the team, and concluded by singling out a certain outfielder:

“That young fellow Ward—what torture that inning of successive hard hits to his territory! … Every attempt he made was a failure—that is, failure from the point of view of properly fielding the ball. But, gentlemen, that day was not a failure for young Ward. It was a grand success … the most splendid effort ever made on Grant Field. For it was made against defeat, fear, ridicule. It was elimination of self.”

Chances are, President Halstead’s real-life Penn counterpart, Charles C. Harrison C1862, never singled out Pearl Gray for such treacly praise. But Gray didn’t want for glory. In the last game of his senior season, he came to bat against the University of Virginia with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a man on second, and Penn down a run. A professor shouted: “Gray, the honor of the University of Pennsylvania rests with you!”

Gray responded with a home run.

“The crowd covered him with roses,” writes Gruber, “and the papers called him the real-life Frank Merriwell, the popular fiction character who always came up to bat in the last half of the ninth and won the game.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Dentist of the Purple Sage
By Samuel Hughes
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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