Fictional hero Frank Merriwell first appeared in 1896. He was a multisport athlete who had fabulous adventures. St. Mary’s College in Oakland, California (it is now in Moraga), had its own Merriwell from 1912 to 1916. Lou Guisto (pronounced GWIS’ TOE) won 11 letters in football, baseball, and rugby. In 1915 he returned an interception for 103 yards to beat California, 7-6. Later he was inducted into the St. Mary’s Hall of Fame four times, once as a coach and three times as a player. One of Merriwell’s heroic characteristics was that he was able to withstand physical abuse and torture from his enemies. Sadly for Lou Guisto, he fell victim to a gas attack in World War I and never realized his true athletic prowess.
Louis Joseph Guisto was born in Napa, in the California wine country, on January 16, 1895. His parents, Lawrence and Louise (Arata) Guisto, had emigrated from Italy and settled, like so many other Genoans, in the Napa Valley. Lawrence was a farmer and the couple raised Louis, Emment, and Lillian. Louis grew up playing baseball, and starred for the Napa High Indians. After high school he played for Oroville in the semipro Trolley League. As a baseball player at St. Mary’s, where he studied banking, he followed in the footsteps of major leaguers Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper. In 1916 a number of St. Mary’s alumni recommended him to the Portland, Oregon, team in the Pacific Coast League. He was signed and quickly won the first-base job. In his first at-bat in Portland’s season opener, he homered on the first pitch to him in front of a cheering throng of Napa Valley fans.
In Guisto’s rookie season he batted .286 and slugged 14 home runs at a time when only a handful of players reached double digits. (The 14 homers were his career high; in his five seasons of part-time play in the major leagues, he never hit a home run.) Guisto was also regarded as a superb fielder. Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs showed interest in the youngster, and starting in late July the area papers were full of stories about the offers and negotiations for his services. The Portland Oregonian reported on August 4 that Cleveland was the winner with its offer to Portland of pitcher Grover Lowdermilk, third baseman Joe Evans and cash, but the deal fell through when Lowdermilk refused to report. Over the next month Cleveland tried repeatedly to work out a satisfactory deal. From newspaper accounts it is difficult to know the final deal. Reports varied on players involved, and the money ranged from $9,000 to $15,000. The Portland team’s owner, Walter McCredie, dodged the details when asked by the Oregonian in late August. Then, once a deal was reached, Guisto threw a wrench into the process by rejecting the initial Cleveland offer of a $2,150 salary. According to the August 30 Oregonian, he wanted $3,000 plus a $1,000 bonus. It is not clear what the final terms were.
Guisto made his major-league debut on September 10, 1916, when the Indians hosted Detroit at League Park. He walked in his first at-bat, but got no hits. In a headline the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that he got no hits but fielded “brilliantly.” It was a sign of what was to come. Guisto played in five more games that season and was 3-for-19, a .158 batting average.
In spring training in 1917 Guisto competed with Chick Gandil for the first-base job. Gandil was not a power hitter and Guisto’s home-run numbers in Portland intrigued the Indians’s management. They also liked his footwork and glovework around first, so much that they sold Gandil to the Chicago White Sox for $3,500, and gave Guisto the starting job. His fielding was excellent but his batting was woeful, and the Indians finally benched him and gave Joe Harris the starting job. For the season, he in played 73 games and hit just .185 with 37 hits in 200 at-bats. After the season he joined five other Cleveland players who either got their draft notice or volunteered for service in the World War.
After basic training, Guisto was assigned to the 363rd Regiment of the 91st Division. In the spring of 1918, he was in Seattle training with machine-gun crews and playing for the regimental baseball squad. His unit was shipped to France late in the summer. Guisto eventually rose to the rank of sergeant. During the climactic Battle of the Argonne Forest, Guisto was severely gassed. He was hospitalized for many months and did not return home until the spring of 1919.i Cleveland optioned him to Oakland to give him time to recuperate and work back into shape. Not only did the gas bother him, but Guisto joked that carrying a rifle did not help staying in playing shape. Playing in 72 games in the long Pacific Coast League season, Guisto batted .252 but showed no power. Cleveland kept him at Oakland in 1920. He played 101 games and showed renewed pop in his bat (.287), but a broken leg cut his season short.
In the spring of 1921 Guisto went to spring training in New Orleans with the Indians and went north with the team. and spent about a month in the majors, getting into two games. Theorizing that rising heat and humidity in the cities of the American League would be a burden for Guisto’s lungs, manager Tris Speaker sent him to Oakland in May. Guisto was much more comfortable playing on the West Coast. He smacked two hits in his Oakland debut on May 18, and ended the season batting .320 with 35 doubles and eight home runs. None of those numbers came close to leading the Oaks’ high-octane offense. After the season Guisto married Willa L. Summerford and prepared for his next shot at the majors.
Guisto came to spring training in good shape in 1922. The March 1 Plain Dealer said of him, “Guisto is a different looking person. His skin is clear, his eyes the same and they twinkle.” Unfortunately for Guisto, the good health did not last. An early heat wave forced him to return to the West Coast to recuperate. In May, after returning to Cleveland, he got a shot at first base when Stuffy McInnis was injured. He was looking strong and gaining confidence when he dislocated a toe running the bases in Detroit. He was on the Indians roster all season but ended up playing in only 35 games. He fared no better in 1923 (.181 in 40 games) and Cleveland finally gave him his release. He returned to the West Coast and finished up the season in Oakland, for whom he batted .293 in 32 games.
In 1924 Guisto played again with the Oaks. He smacked 11 home runs and batted .294 in 146 games before a broken wrist sidelined him in September. The wrist was broken in three or four spots and recovery was difficult. He played in 95 games in 1925 the next year and raised his batting average to .337. Guisto played in 114 games in 1926, batting .273. He returned in 1927, but called it quits after only 15 games. He served as team captain and had coach-like duties for the Oaks, who won the pennant with 120 wins in 195 games. Ill health had cost Guisto a chance to win pennants as a player in Cleveland in 1920 and now as a player with Oakland.
With his playing days in the past, Guisto turned to managing. In 1929 he guided the Bakersfield Bees in the California League to a 32-28 record before the league disbanded in mid-June. The Phoenix Senators of the Arizona State League hired him for 1930 and the team won the first-half title, but faded in the second half and was swept by Globe in three games in the first round of the playoffs. Guisto returned to Phoenix in 1931 and guided them to a 65-63 record but no playoff spot. That winter he was hired to become the baseball coach at his alma mater, St. Mary’s.
Guisto was already a sports legend on the St. Mary’s campus. His coaching and influence on the players made him an esteemed campus fixture for almost four decades. He coached until the mid-1970s, missing only the seasons of 1950 through 1952, when no team was fielded. He also worked as manager of the campus bookstore/hangout. St. Mary’s named its baseball field in his honor, and then continued the honor by naming its new field for him in 2012. The athletic department also instituted a yearly award bearing Guisto’s name to the most gifted athlete.
Guisto’s wife, Willa, died in 1952. On August 19, 1954, he married Mary Sampson. They honeymooned in the Northwest and then returned to live in Oakland. Guisto was a fixture at Bay Area Old-Timers events and was involved with numerous activities at St. Mary’s, including the four Hall of Fame inductions from 1974 to 1978. He died on October 15, 1989, from throat cancer.
Interview with Guisto by Eugene Murdock, available from the Cleveland Public Library.
Newspaper sources include Cleveland Plain Dealer, Napa Valley Register, Oakland Tribune, Portland Oregonian, The Sporting News.
Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Third Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993).
John McCarthy, Ev Parker, the St. Mary’s College Alumni Association, former St. Mary’s player Frank Brady, and Guisto’s niece, Jeanette Bennett, who shared insights and information about him by email.
i Around Christmas time teammate Elmer Smith came to the hospital in Le Mans where Guisto was recovering. Smith helped cheer him up and made his recovery easier to endure. Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 3, 1921.