Blackburn’s one-armed baseball player mystery
A discovery of long-forgotten articles in the Blackburn College archives has solved a lingering, and surprisingly controversial, mystery of the school’s history.
The story involves a one-armed baseball player at Blackburn from a century ago. In recent years, debates have erupted over his identity. One popular belief was that the player was Pete Gray, who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and has since become a part of American sports lore.
However, the mystery was solved in early September when Lynn Armstrong, the reference librarian of Lumpkin Learning Commons, uncovered documents as part of her ongoing search of overlooked material in the college archives, located in Lumpkin. Armstrong found a scrapbook reference to Robert Allison, a Blackburn student in the late 1910s, who had lost his left arm in a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania.
Armstrong forwarded the information to Dr. John Comerford, the Blackburn president, who turned up an article in the December 1919 edition of American Magazine. That feature, entitled “My Empty Coat Sleeve,” was written by Allison, a 25-year-old baseball and football player at Blackburn who was studying to become a lawyer.
“All of this helps capture an important and interesting part of Blackburn history,” said Spencer Brayton, the director of Lumpkin Learning Commons. “We keep searching our archives and finding new and unique material constantly, like what Lynn found with Allison. This discovery helps bring an end to a long-running mystery for us.”
Allison’s left arm was severed at age 19 in his job as an electrician in Pennsylvania. Left with an uncertain future, he considered his options and decided to further his education. A friend told him of “a little prairie college out in…Illinois, where young men and women with plenty of grit and gumption, but not much ready cash, are given a chance to work for their education.”
That college was Blackburn, which had introduced its now-famous student work program in 1913. Allison wrote that “perhaps you’ve never heard of it, but it’s got the biggest heart…of any institution of learning in the country.” He added that Blackburn consisted only of “two old brick buildings, two retired Pullman sleeping cars used as dormitories, and a two-hundred-acre farm. Yet that little college is putting one hundred young men and women on their feet each year.”
Allison promptly joined the football and baseball teams, “getting my share of home runs.” A right fielder, Allison caught fly balls in his gloved right hand, tossing the ball in the air as he threw off the glove, then catching the ball before it dropped to the ground. He was then able to throw the ball back to the infield.
One fan remarked that “it’s worth a dollar to see Allison catch a fly. I have never seen anything like it. I have been watching him this season, and he hasn’t an error charged against him. His playing would be a credit to any two-handed amateur.”
Allison longed for a return to his old job, and landed a position with a local mine in Carlinville. He would rise at 1 a.m., work at the mine for several hours, then return to Blackburn to attend classes by mid-morning, spending his afternoons studying. He proudly noted that he earned $225 a month – three times his salary before his accident.
Allison later attended Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan, where he earned a law degree. He subsequently spent years as a member of the Illinois House from Pekin before retiring in 1954, the year he was defeated in a Republican primary for Congress. Allison died in a duck blind while on vacation in Louisiana on Dec. 31, 1959.
The inspiring story of Allison brought an end to a topic that sparked friendly, though heated, debates at Blackburn for years. Some employees and alumni believed that Pete Gray, who batted .218 in 77 games for the Browns in his lone season in the majors, had attended Blackburn, though there was no evidence.
Tom Emery of Carlinville is a historical researcher and Blackburn graduate who embarked on research to disprove Pete Gray’s connection to the school, combing through Blackburn catalogs, academic and athletic records, newspapers, published material on Gray’s life and existing professional baseball records. He could hardly contain his excitement about the Allison find.