Pearl Zane Gray: baseball player, dentist, writer

Author and Keys fishing pioneer Zane Grey.
Author and Keys fishing pioneer Zane Grey.

Pearl Zane Gray was born on Jan. 31, 1872. Growing up in Zanesville, Ohio, a town founded by family on his mother’s side, Pearl had three loves: baseball, fishing and writing. He was a pretty good baseball player and both pitched and played left field. Gray was good enough to play minor-league baseball in Wheeling, W.Va. 

His father, a dentist, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, which he did, to a point. When Pearl Gray was offered a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, his father would only allow him to go to the university to play baseball if he agreed to study dentistry. After graduating from college in 1896, Gray moved to New York and opened up a dental office on West 74th Street. 

He then decided to drop his first name and changed the spelling of his last and become forevermore known as Zane Grey. While one of his early loves was baseball, fishing was also a lifetime passion and it was while fishing on the Upper Delaware River near Lackawaxen, Pa. that he met his wife Lina “Dolly” Roth. It was Dolly who encouraged Zane to pursue his writing career.

Grey published his first story about fishing in 1902. Dolly gave him $600 so that he could self-publish his first complete novel, Betty Zane. The book was released to absolutely no acclaim. In 1907, Grey visited a friend in Arizona, helping him trap mountain lions, and fell in love with the majesty of the west. He would go on to become one of America’s first millionaire authors, publishing more than 90 books and 196 magazine short stories.

In 1919 Grey went into the movie business and opened Zane Grey Productions. He later sold the production company to Jesse Lanksy who went on to partner with Adolph Zukor and form Paramount Pictures. Forty-six movies based on Grey’s work helped to launch the careers of Hollywood legends John Wayne, Tom Mix, Randolph Scott and Shirley Temple; 31 short subjects based on Grey’s work were also filmed.

Zane Grey first visited the Florida Keys in 1911 after a tarpon fishing trip with his brother, originally planned for Mexico, fell through after an epidemic swept through their destination. The brothers returned to Miami with time on their hands and fishing on their minds. Having heard fishing stories about the Long Key Fish Camp for a couple of years, they decided to ride Flagler’s train south to Long Key and experience the famous fish camp for themselves.

It left an impression. Between 1911 and 1926, Grey only missed his annual fishing trip to Long Key twice. Each day on the island, Grey would rise early to write for several hours before fishing out on the Atlantic for 8 to 10 hours with his guide Bill Partea. Afterwards Grey returned to Hammerhead, the small cottage where he used to stay, and spent several more hours writing before going to bed. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, as well as a fellow fisherman, Grey once corresponded with Hemingway about his struggles landing a massive marlin, a story that is paralleled in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

When Grey and his brother first fished at the Long Key Fish Camp, the popular target species was kingfish. Sailfish were considered a nuisance species referred to back in the day as boo-hoos. Grey promoted a catch and release policy for fish not destined for the dinner table. He also introduced the sport of “light-tackle” fishing to the general public, promoting the pursuit of game fish like tarpon and bonefish. Grey referred to the trancelike state sometimes achieved aboard a skiff after hours spent beneath the hot sun attempting to sneak up on schools of bonefish as “bonefish oblivion.” 

Fishing reels were named after Zane Grey, as well as fishing lures including the Zane Grey bass plug, Zane Grey steel-head fly, and the Zane Grey teaser. While Grey is not single-handedly responsible for the early growth of sport fishing in the Upper Keys, the notoriety of his writing did bring national attention to the bountiful waters so easily accessible from the Long Key Fish Camp. 

At one time Zane Grey held 11 world records, records that included the successful landing of a 758-pound blue fin tuna off of Nova Scotia in 1924, a 1,040-pound Pacific blue marlin off of Tahiti in 1930, and a 1,036-pound tiger shark caught off of Australia in 1936. All of his records have since been broken. Zane Grey was living in Altadena, Calif. when he died October 23, 1939.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at