SABR

Wally Gilbert

This article was written by Ray Luurs.

Walter John Gilbert was born December 19, 1900, in Oscoda, Michigan, a small town on the Au Sable River where an Air Force base and the lumber industry are the major sources for the local economy. His father, a lumberjack by trade, moved his wife and only child to Duluth, Minnesota, when Wally was just a few years old. Gilbert called Duluth home for the rest of his life. 

Gilbert played a variety of sports, including hockey. It was when he was at Duluth’s Denfeld High School that he dominated in football, basketball, and baseball.   

His reputation in sports grew when he moved on to Valparaiso University in Indiana. He excelled in football, earning All-America honors, and he also played baseball. He captained both squads in his senior year. It was at Valparaiso that he learned to play third base. An outfielder in his earlier years because of a strong arm, he moved to third base because Valparaiso did not have a third baseman. 

Upon leaving Valparaiso, he began his career as a professional athlete. He played football in the National Football League (NFL) with the Duluth Eskimos in the fall, semipro basketball in the winter, and pro baseball in the spring and summer. His teammates on the Eskimos included future Pro Football Hall of Famers Ernie Nevers, Johnny “Blood” McNally, and Walt Keisling. The team’s traveling secretary, Ole Haugsrud, helped establish the fledgling NFL in its early years and was instrumental in bringing the NFL back to the state after his Eskimos folded in 1927 by being a co-founder of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s. 

In 1922, Gilbert started his career in Organized Baseball in the low minors with Valley City (North Dakota) of the Dakota League, where he batted .362. The following year he started out with the Minneapolis Millers, hitting .305 before he was sent to St. Joseph (Missouri) in the Western League. There he languished for three years before getting a shot at the majors. In 1925 the New York Yankees purchased Gilbert as insurance for third baseman Joe Dugan, who had a trick knee. Unfortunately for Gilbert, Dugan played as well as ever, even with the trick knee, and Wally was sent to the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. For the next three years he hit over .300 for the club.

In 1928, Gilbert got another chance when the Yankees sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Robins after their manager, Wilbert Robinson). He made his debut on August 18, 1928, against the Chicago Cubs and started proving he was the ballplayer the Robins were looking for. By the end of his second year, he had gained the title of “the Old Reliable” because he was strong and dependable. His son, John Gilbert, described his dad’s play at third base in the book Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers & the Duluth Eskimos by Chuck Frederick. John Gilbert said his dad positioned himself at third base even with the bag “or even inside it. . . . He would crouch over, on his toes, and his arms would hang full length, swaying back and forth as the pitch was delivered. Apparently, he had cat-quick reflexes, and nothing that he could reach with two quick steps and a dive ever got past him.”

While he was never the goat or the hero of the day, he did make history as one of the few players to collect six hits in a game. On May 30, 1931, in the second game of a doubleheader against the New York Giants, he had five singles and a double in seven at-bats as he and his Robins teammates trounced four Giants pitchers and won, 18-8.

After two seasons of hitting around .300, Wally hit .266 in 1931 and the following March was traded with Babe Herman and Ernie Lombardi to the Cincinnati Reds for Tony Cuccinello, Joe Stripp, and Clyde Sukeforth. With Cincinnati he hit .214 and in January of 1933 was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, but he never returned to the majors. From 1933 to 1935 he played in the minors for Columbus, Rochester, and Baltimore and then returned to the Duluth area to play in the Northern League. 

In 1937, Gilbert retired from baseball and married a former high-school classmate, Mary McKay. However, the retirement didn’t last long. He decided to come back for another season in 1938 and played for Superior and Winnipeg in the Northern League. Gilbert spent the next four seasons as a player-manager for Wausau in the Northern League.

In 1942 he went to work for U.S. Steel, which had increased production for the war effort. In 1943 he managed and played for the Duluth Marine Iron team in the Twin Port League, the only Class E league in Organized-Baseball history. 

In 1943 Gilbert was diagnosed with an abscessed lung from breathing steel particles. According to Chuck Frederick in Leatherheads of the North, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, had little hope that he would survive the night after they removed his lung. Not only did he make it through the night, he lived another 15 years. Losing his lung took its toll because he could never work again. For a person who exemplified an all-around athlete, his physical condition was considerably more fragile, and now he had to stop every few steps to catch his breath. 

Along with his professional sports career, he was an excellent curler, winning many bonspiels, and he was a fine golfer. Shortly before his death, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, The Sporting News named him third baseman on its all-time Dodgers team. All this earned him a place of honor posthumously in the Duluth Arena Hall of Fame in 1969. 

Another honor came from Vikings coach Bud Grant, a native of nearby Superior, Wisconsin. John Gilbert said he heard Grant say that Wally Gilbert had been his idol because he demonstrated that an athlete could exhibit excellence in more than one sport. 

But what best epitomized Gilbert’s life was whom he was inducted with into the Duluth Arena Hall of Fame—his old teammate, Ernie Nevers. Never the goat nor the hero, Gilbert did not receive as many accolades as his friend, but most definitely he did a fine job as a professional sportsman.   

On September 7, 1958, after a long fight with his illness, he died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, leaving behind his wife and two children, Patt and John. He is interred at Sunrise Memorial Park in Hermantown, Minnesota.

Note

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

Frederick, Chuck. Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers & the Duluth Eskimos, Duluth, Minnesota: X-comm, 2007, pp. 138-140.

Thornley, Stew. Baseball in Minnesota: The Definitive History, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004, pp. 114, 119.

Thornley, Stew. Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004, pp. 145-146.

Wally Gilbert, The Old Reliable, two-page article in Gilbert’s file with the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Robins Grab Double Win Over Giants, 5-2 and 18-8,” Minneapolis Tribune, May 31, 1931, p. 2.

“Wally Gilbert Dies,” Duluth News-Tribune, Monday, September 8, 1958, p. 8.

“Gilbert, Nevers Enter Hall,” Duluth News-Tribune, May 16, 1969, p. 13.

“Nevers, Gilbert Become Hall of Famers” by Scott Herron, Duluth News-Tribune, May 21, 1969, p. 9.

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