Grey played left field for Penn. His one lapse came in a game against Harvard, when he accidentally stepped into a hole and a fly ball hit him on the head, allowing the winning run to score. Ordinarily his fielding was excellent. He once made a catch that helped Penn beat the Giants at the Polo Grounds. In his senior year he came to bat against the University of Virginia with Penn trailing. It was two out in the ninth and a man on second. A verbose professor shouted, "Grey, the honor of the University of Pennsylvania rests with you!" Grey thereupon homered to win the game.
Grey was graduated with a diploma in dentistry in 1896. He opened an office in Manhattan on the West Side, and there he languished. He did not like the city, and he got away whenever possible. He played baseball for the Orange Athletic Club in New Jersey, and he became the youngest member of the Camp Fire Club. There a fellow member suggested that Grey write a story about his bass fishing on the Delaware. He did, and the story—his first effort—was published in Recreation in May 1902. The appearance of the article gave him direction, and he began writing an historical novel about his ancestor, Betty Zane, who carried gunpowder to her brother, Colonel Zane, during the siege of Fort Henry in the Revolution. All winter Grey labored over the book in a dingy flat. Upon completing it he drew the cover and inside illustrations. No publisher would accept Betty Zane and, after a wealthy patient offered to back it, Grey had it printed privately. Sales were nil, but in a visit to Zanesville in 1904 Grey grandly announced that he had given up dentistry to devote himself "exclusively to literature."
In 1905 Grey married Lina Roth of New York, whom he had met a few years earlier while he was canoeing down the Delaware in one of his escapes from dentistry. She had faith in her husband and a bit of money to boot, and he gave up his practice to write in a house overlooking the Delaware in Lackawaxen, Pa. There he wrote, hunted, fished and savored "the happiness that dwells in wilderness alone." R.C., by now a professional ballplayer, chipped in with an occasional dollar, and Zane later repaid him by making him his official secretary and constant fishing companion.
Grey followed up Betty Zane by writing a couple of other books about the Ohio frontier, The Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail, which the A. L. Burt Co. eventually published. They were flops. But Grey hung on, and in 1907 he went west with one Buffalo Jones, visiting the wilder parts of Utah and Arizona. Jones had a ranch on the rim of the Grand Canyon, where he was hybridizing black Galloway cattle with buffalo and calling the offspring cattalo, and in his spare time he liked to lasso mountain lions. Grey loved it all and, upon returning to the East, he wrote a book about Jones, The Last of the Plainsmen, which he took to Harper, a firm that had rebuffed him previously. Eagerly he awaited word and, hearing none, he visited the publishing house, where an editor coldly informed him, "I don't see anything in this to convince me that you can write either narrative or fiction." It was the bleakest moment in Grey's life. He was 36 years old, he had abandoned dentistry, his wife was pregnant with their first child and he had failed again. "When I staggered down the old stairway and out into Pearl Street I could not see," he later recalled. "I had to hold on to an iron post at the corner, and there I hung fighting such misery as I had never known. Something came to me there. They had all missed it. They did not know...and I went back to Lackawaxen to the smile and encouragement that never failed me."
He promptly wrote his first Western novel, The Heritage of the Desert. Harper yielded and published it in 1910—the year of the birth of his first son, Romer—and Grey thought he was at last on his way. Quickly he wrote Riders of the Purple Sage, but Harper rejected it as too "bulgy." Grey asked a vice-president of the firm to read the manuscript. He liked the novel, and so did his wife, who stayed up until 3 in the morning to finish it. The book was published, and Grey was permanently established. In 15 years Riders of the Purple Sage sold two million copies. Grey also turned out half a dozen juveniles, many of them dealing with his baseball experiences. In The Young Pitcher he wrote of the potato episode at Penn and drew himself as Ken Ward, the hero. His brother R.C., also called Reddy, was Reddy Ray, sparkplug of the team. In The Shortstop, Grey named the hero after Chase Alloway, a professional player he had known in Ohio. (In the Western The Lone Star Ranger Grey named one of the villains Chess Alloway.)
Although comfortably off, Grey continued to write feverishly. He could not abide waste of time. As a writer and as an angler Grey was a finisher, and he followed both callings to the hilt. "It is so easy to start anything, a fishing jaunt or a career," he wrote, "but it is an entirely different matter to finish. The men who fail to finish "in every walk of life, men who have had every opportunity...can be numbered by the millions." At top speed, Grey found he could write 100,000 words a month. He would pen himself up in his study, where he would sit in a Morris chair, writing in longhand on a lapboard, furiously chewing the top of a soft No. 1 pencil when a sentence failed him. He compiled notebooks of vivid phrases and expressions, and he often thumbed a worn copy of a book, Materials and Methods of Fiction by Clayton Hamilton. Grey's son Romer, now president of Zane Grey, Inc., says, "That was father's bible. It had a greater influence on his writing than any other work." Grey wrote only one draft of a book; he left the finishing of the manuscript to his wife. When not writing he fished. He knew a long stretch of the Delaware by memory. "I own nearly a thousand acres of land on it," he wrote. "I have fished it for ten years. I know every rapid, every eddy, almost, I might say, every stone from Callicoon to Port Jervis. This fifty-mile stretch of fast water I consider the finest bass ground that I have fished." In July, when the river was low, he would scout the water for big bass by going upstream and drifting face down on a raft. "I see the bottom everywhere, except in rough water. I see the rocks, the shelves, the caverns. I see where the big bass live. And I remember." When the time came to fish, Grey became part of the landscape; he trod the slippery stones "as if I were a stalking Indian. I knew that a glimpse of me, or a faint jar vibrating under the water, or an unnatural ripple on its surface, would be fatal to my enterprise." Not every visiting angler exalted the fishing; some referred to Lackawaxen Creek as the Lackanothing or Lackarotten.
With money coming in, Grey and R.C. began fishing in Florida. They went after bonefish, snook and tarpon. Grey was among the first to go after sailfish, and he scored so well that other fishermen flocked to the Gulf Stream. He was intrigued by wahoo, then seldom caught, reasoning that they could be taken because "all fish have to eat." He caught wahoo, and he helped put the Keys on the map. Wherever he went, he fished. On a trip to Mexico to gather material for a novel, his train chanced to pass by a jungle river, the Santa Rosa. Immediately Grey wondered. 'Where did that river go? How many waterfalls and rapids hastened its journey to the Gulf? What teeming life inhabited its rich banks? How wild was the prospect! It haunted me!" In time he made the trip in a flat-bottom boat. On a trip to Yucatan, he happened to hear of "the wild and lonely Alacranes Reef where lighthouse-keepers went insane from solitude, and where wonderful fishes inhabited the lagoons. That was enough for me. Forthwith I meant to go to Alacranes." Forthwith he did. There he met a little Englishman, Lord L., and "it was from him I got my type for Castleton, the Englishman, in The Light of Western Stars. I have been told that never was there an Englishman on earth like the one I portrayed in my novel. But my critics never fished with Lord L."
Grey never lost any time. On a fishing trip he was up before everyone at 4 in the morning, transcribing the adventures of the previous day. If fishing was slack, he worked on a book until breakfast. He wrote much of The Drift Fence and Robbers' Roost at sea, and he was so far ahead in production that Boulder Dam, which he wrote while off on a trip in the 1930s, was not published by Harper until 1963.
In 1914 Grey started going west each summer to Catalina, where he tried swordfishing. In his first year he spent 21 days at sea, trolling a total of 1,500 miles. Grey saw 19 swordfish and did not get one strike. Instead of becoming discouraged, he was pleased. "By this time," he wrote, "I had realized something of the difficult nature of the game, and I had begun to have an inkling of what sport it might be." On the 25th day Grey sighted a swordfish, which he hooked. But the fish broke away, and Grey was sick at heart. Next summer he was back again in Catalina. "I was crazy on swordfish," he admitted. To get his arms, hands and back into fighting trim, he rowed a boat for weeks on end. His patience and training were rewarded—he set a record by catching four swordfish in one day.
Between gathering material for novels, advising on movies and fishing. Grey began to visit Southern California so frequently that he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1918. Two years later he bought the small estate in Altadena that now serves as the headquarters of Zane Grey, Inc. Once established on the West Coast, Grey took up steelhead fishing in Oregon, and on a trip down the Rogue River he ran into a prospector who offered to sell his shack and land. Grey bought the place at Winkle Bar as offhandedly as he would buy a dozen new rods. He also owned some land and a small hunting lodge in Arizona. He shuttled from one place to another, writing, fishing, hunting, gathering material. "[The year] 1923 was typical of what I do in the way of work and play." he replied to an admirer who asked what a typical year was like. "The pleasant paradox, however, is that my play turns out to be valuable work. January and February I spent at Long Key, Florida, where I wrote, read, fished and wandered along the beach. The spring I spent with my family in Altadena, California, where I wrote and studied, and played with my family. Tennis is my favorite game. During this season I motored with Mrs. Grey down to San Diego, and across the mountains to El Centro and Yuma, through the wonderful desert land of Southern California. June found me at Avalon, Catalina Island, a place I have found as inspiring as Long Key, and infinitely different. Here I finished a novel, and then began my sword-fishing on the Pacific. My brother, R.C., and I roamed the sea searching for giant swordfish. Sometimes we ran a hundred miles in a day. The sea presents a marvelous contrast to the desert. It inspires, teaches, subdues, uplifts, appalls and remakes me. There I learned more of nature than on land. Birds and fishes, strange sea creatures, are always in evidence. In September I took Mr. [Jesse] Lasky and his [ Paramount] staff to Arizona to pick out locations for the motion picture, The Vanishing American. Upon the return I parted with the Lasky outfit at the foot of Navajo Mountains.... I, with my guide Wetherill, with selected cowboys and horses, tried for the third time to reach Wild Horse Mesa. In October I went to my hunting lodge in the Tonto Basin, where the magnificent forests of green pine and silver spruce and golden aspen soothed my eyes after the long weeks on sea and desert. Here I hunted and rode the lonely leaf-covered trails, lay for hours on the Rim, listening to the bay of hounds, and spent many a pleasant evening round the camp-fire, listening to my men, the gaunt long-legged and lead-faced backwoodsmen of the Tonto Basin. November and December found me back again at Altadena, hard as nails, brown as an Indian, happy to be home with my family, keen for my study with its books and pictures, and for the long spell of writing calling me to its fulfillment."