Charlie Gilbert’s baseball career came under the tutelage of his father Larry Gilbert Sr. at an early age. Larry Sr. certainly had a relevant background to help build his son’s future; he had been a major-league player for parts of two seasons, and later was a player and manager for the New Orleans Pelicans (Class A from 1923-1935 and Class A1 from 1936-1938) while Charlie was growing up. That guidance turned out to be beneficial: Charlie developed into an outstanding amateur player and advanced to the majors by age 20. Yet the outfielder’s major-league career – just 364 games – failed to meet the expectations set during his sensational ascent. Much the same was true of his younger brother, Tookie Gilbert.
Charles Mader Gilbert was born on July 8, 1919, the second son of Larry and Gertrude (née Mader) Gilbert in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father had been on the Boston Braves team that won the 1914 World Series. After another partial season with the Braves in 1915, Larry Sr. settled on a career in the minors. Beginning in 1917, he played in his hometown of New Orleans. By 1923, he had added the Pelicans’ managerial role to his duties. He would go on to manage the Pelicans until 1938, followed by a tenure with the Nashville Vols from 1939 to 1948. Charlie eventually played three one-year stints (1939, 1943, and 1948) with his father in Nashville.
Baseball bloodlines ran strong in the Gilbert family. Charlie’s older brother, Larry Jr., was also a high school prep star and played two seasons in the minors (including one with his father’s team in New Orleans) before being forced to retire with a heart ailment.1
The youngest Gilbert brother, Harold, would sustain the family baseball legacy in New Orleans. As a small boy, Harold was nicknamed “Tookie” for how he mispronounced “rookie,” as his older brothers called him. Larry Sr. also heavily influenced Harold’s career, which included conducting a unique lottery with several major-league teams for his son’s services.2 Tookie went on to play in the majors, with the Giants, in 113 games in 1950 and 70 in 1953. He played in Nashville in 1949 when his father was the Vols’ general manager.
Charlie seemed destined for a career in baseball from a very early age. Larry Sr. told the story of major-league scout Joe Engel’s visit to New Orleans when Charlie was three years old. After seeing young Charlie swing the bat at pitches tossed by his father, Engel reportedly produced a Washington Senators contract and said, “I’ll sign that kid up right now.” Larry Sr. shot back, “No, you won’t. That kid is going to sign up with the ball team I’m managing when he goes into big time baseball – or with the team I sign him with when he is ready.”3
Charlie followed in his brother Larry Jr.’s footsteps by attending Jesuit High School. The brothers were both four-year lettermen in baseball, with Charlie’s seasons coming in 1934 to 1937. Charlie ran track and was also the captain of the Jesuit basketball team in 1937.4
A powerhouse in New Orleans prep baseball, Jesuit had won Louisiana state championships in 1931 and 1933, before adding four more during Charlie’s stint.5 The 1936 team was especially noteworthy because its roster included three future major-leaguers (Charlie, Connie Ryan, and Fats Dantonio) and long-time major-league scout George Digby. Four other teammates would eventually play in the minors. The entire Jesuit starting lineup, including two pitchers, was selected to the Times-Picayune all-star team.6
Charlie didn’t immediately enter the pro ranks following his graduation in 1937. Larry Sr. arranged for him to gain experience that summer at a higher level by playing in a semiprofessional league in Alabama.7 He then enrolled at Loyola University of New Orleans, where he played football (at the time the university did not field a baseball team). He worked out with the Pelicans during spring training in 1938 and appeared as a substitute center fielder in an exhibition game at Pelican Stadium for his father’s team against the Cleveland Indians.8 Charlie stayed in baseball shape by playing in the semipro Tobacco State League in North Carolina that summer. He batted .367 and stole 30 bases.9
Larry Sr. left New Orleans and became the manager of the Nashville Vols in 1939. He also bought an interest in the Vols with Fay Murray, and one of the terms of the agreement was that Charlie would not become property of the Vols if he played for them.10
Larry Sr. brought 19-year-old Charlie to Nashville to play under his wing. Charlie initially felt pressure playing for his father, but that feeling subsided once he saw that Larry Sr. treated him as just another ballplayer. Charlie wasn’t bashful about his admiration for his father. He said, “Naturally if I have a hero in baseball, it would be Dad. He’s a swell man to play for. I’d rather play baseball for him than any man in baseball. He shows no partiality toward me so far as I can tell. He shows me no favors and I expect none.”11
Charlie had an impressive first pro season, collecting 193 hits, including 14 home runs and a .317 batting average, in 144 games. The lefty-hitting outfielder drew comparisons with his father by people who had seen the elder Gilbert play. Larry Sr. himself said, “Everyone says Charlie’s a good example of a chip off the old block.”12
The Vols were affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who surprisingly finished third in 1939. Encouraged by their recent success, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and general manager Larry MacPhail became impatient in wanting to win a pennant, since the team’s most recent first-place finish had come in 1920. They looked to their farm system for an additional boost to their roster for 1940. To patrol center field, the Dodgers purchased 20-year-old Charlie Gilbert from Nashville for $30,000 (which went to the Gilbert family). They also brought up 21-year-old Pee Wee Reese to begin the season at shortstop.13
Gilbert got his first big league hit in his second game and recorded his first two home runs, driving in four, in his third game. His first major league home run came off Nick Strincevich and the second off Dick Errickson. But after that promising start, he made an anemic showing at the plate, with only three more RBIs and no additional home runs in his next 48 games. He was batting .260 to that point in the season. His lack of production with the Dodgers led to a swap in late July with Montreal. Montreal sent 21-year-old outfielder Pete Reiser, who had just joined the team after tearing up the Eastern League with a .378 batting average at Elmira, to Brooklyn. In September the Dodgers, in second place but out of contention for the pennant, recalled Gilbert, who was hitting .289 with Montreal, to Brooklyn.
Although he was still tagged as a future star for the Dodgers, Gilbert began the 1941 season with Montreal. MacPhail put him on 24-hour recall status by the Dodgers. However, on May 7 MacPhail traded him to the Chicago Cubs with Johnny Hudson and $65,000 for veteran All-Star Billy Herman. Gilbert wasn’t scheduled to report to the Cubs until June and wound up breaking his ankle before leaving Montreal. He didn’t get into his first game with the Cubs until July 20. His first 12 games with his new club included an eight-game hitting streak that resulted in a .370 batting average. Then, playing against the Pirates on August 8, he developed a charley horse in his left leg that plagued him through the remainder of the season. By the middle of August, he was mostly appearing in pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive roles. He finished the season with a .279 batting average and 13 RBIs in 39 games.14
Gilbert spent the entire 1942 season with the Cubs but started only 40 of the 74 games he appeared in. He struggled at the plate, batting a meager .184 with no home runs and only seven RBIs in 206 plate appearances. Meanwhile Phil Cavarretta became entrenched as the Cubs’ regular center fielder, making Gilbert expendable. When the Cubs wanted to send him to the minors in Los Angeles or Milwaukee in 1943, he insisted on being sent back to lower-classification Nashville so that he could play full-time for his father.15
With Nashville, Charlie returned to the hitting form he experienced in his first pro season there. He helped them win the regular-season title with an impressive slash line of .328/.423/.471, while recording seven home runs and 68 RBIs in 122 games. His performance earned him a call-up in late September with the Cubs, with whom he got three hits in 23 plate appearances.
Gilbert missed the entire 1944 and 1945 seasons after enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He participated in the Navy’s Little World Series, played in October 1945. All-star teams comprised of major leaguers in the Navy stationed in Hawaii and representing their respective American and National major leagues, played in a scheduled seven-game series. Gilbert broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning of Game Six with a home run, as the Nationals went on to win the series, 4-2.16 He was discharged by the Navy in February 1946, at the same time many major-leaguers were returning from military service.17
Gilbert broke spring training camp in 1946 with the Cubs. With Cavaretta splitting time between first base and the outfield, the Cubs’ outfield corps also consisted of established players Andy Pafko, Peanuts Lowrey, Bill Nicholson, and Dom Dallesandro, plus newcomer Marv Rickert. The crowded situation relegated Gilbert to mostly pinch-hitting appearances. He continued to struggle with major-league pitching with only one hit in 12 at-bats by mid-June.
On June 15, 1946, Gilbert was purchased by the last-place Philadelphia Phillies after being put on waivers. Between June 23 and August 6, he started practically every game, spreading his time among all three outfield positions. He was pulling his weight defensively but didn’t give the Phillies much power at the plate. He hit a respectable .263 during that period but had only four extra-base hits and six RBIs. He alternated between short stretches of pinch-hitting and starting outfield roles for the balance of the season. He ended the season with a paltry slash line of .234/.306/.278 in 307 plate appearances between the Cubs and Phillies. He hit only one home run and had 18 RBIs.
As measured by OPS+, Gilbert’s batting performance in 1946 was among the worst of all outfielders in the National League. With any other team in the league, he likely would not have retained his major-league roster spot in 1947. Yet he managed to stay the entire season with the hapless Phillies, who wound up finishing in a tie for last place with Pittsburgh. Charlie was a pinch-hitter in over half of his 83 games. The story on him was the same; he hit .237 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.
Charlie participated in Phillies’ spring training in 1948. But shortly before the season started, the Nashville Vols, where Larry Sr. was still the manager, purchased him outright in a deal that took several months to complete. The addition of Charlie to a group that already included Chuck Workman and Elwood Grantham generated speculation that the Vols would field their best outfield since 1940.18
Charlie found a surprising power stroke with the Vols. In his first four games, he smacked seven homers, a Southern Association record. The Sporting News reported, “He was robbed of an eighth when the ball bounded on top of the outfield fence at Nashville, then dropped back into an overflow crowd for a double.” Charlie explained his success, “They told me in the majors I wasn’t a power hitter, so I became a place hitter. Now I’ve changed my stance and I’m swinging the way I want to. That’s the difference, ‘my new swing.’”19
As of June 2, Charlie already had 18 home runs and 45 RBIs while batting .360, contributing to Nashville’s comfortable lead over second-place Mobile. 20 He added to his historic season by hitting a dramatic game-winning home run in the 12th inning of a midseason contest between league-leader Nashville and an all-star team of Southern Association players.21
Nashville went on to win the regular-season league title despite a late-season push by Memphis, but lost to Birmingham in the postseason playoff finals. It was Larry Sr.’s fourth title in 10 seasons with the Vols. Charlie finished with 42 home runs and 110 RBIs, batted .362, and set Southern Association records with 178 runs and 156 walks. (His 42 round-trippers were more than the total he hit in seven prior professional seasons.) His teammate Workman also had a banner year with 52 home runs and 182 RBIs.22
Larry Sr. had announced that the 1948 season would be his last as manager of the Vols. With half ownership of the ballclub, he remained as its general manager. It was rumored that Charlie was being considered to take over as manager the next year. When the Boston Braves selected Charlie in the annual major-league draft in late 1948, The Sporting News reported that he may not have been thrilled about going to the Braves. Gilbert said he would have to “wait and see” about next season and stated he was “perfectly satisfied in Nashville.” According to Larry Sr., the Braves had tried to purchase Charlie before the end of the regular season. He said, “I wouldn’t let him go. I know Charlie doesn’t want to go, but the Braves could keep him from playing anywhere else if they wanted to. We’ll just have to wait developments.”23
In late January, Larry Sr. notified the Braves that Charlie had been examined by doctors in New Orleans, who said that a back injury suffered near the end of the 1948 season might keep him out of baseball permanently. Braves general manager John Quinn’s response was that he wanted Charlie, bad back or not, to report to spring training camp on March 1 in Bradenton, Florida. Quinn said, “If he was able to have such a sensational 1948 season with a bad back, we don’t want to fool with trying to change it.”24
Charlie wrote to the Braves in late January that he had been diagnosed with a separation in his fifth lumbar vertebra, and the team placed him on its disabled list.25 At age 29, Charlie’s playing career was over.
As noted, Tookie Gilbert’s professional career would parallel older brother Charlie’s to a great extent. Tookie’s career was also closely managed by Larry Sr. He excelled in the minors, reached the majors at a very young age, but had difficulty hitting major-league pitching. Tookie was out of baseball at age 24.
Charlie never did become field manager of the Vols but did serve as their business manager for several years.26 He returned to New Orleans, where he became involved in the real estate business. He later became associated with the local civil sheriff’s office for over 20 years as real estate auctioneer.27
Charlie Gilbert died at age 64 in New Orleans on August 13, 1983, after a brief, undisclosed illness. He was survived by his wife Helen (née Basilo); two daughters, Mrs. Barbara Higgins and Jan Gilbert; and a son, Lawrence W. Gilbert.28
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joe DeSantis and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the references in the Notes, the author consulted:
Farrington, Dick. “Charlie Gilbert, Tagged as Future Star of Dodgers, Romped from Cradle to Chase Fungoes Hit by Dad,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1940: 3.
Johnson, Lloyd and Wolff, Miles. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Third Edition) (Durham, NC: Baseball America, 2007).
Martinez, Harry. “Famous Families of the Game—THE GILBERTS,” The Sporting News, November 29, 1945: 11.
1 Fred Russell. “Daddy Gilbert’s Dream,” Nashville Banner, August 17, 1939: 17.
2 “Rookie Gilbert Lands With Giants in Drawing,” The Sporting News, October 23, 1946: 21.
3 William Keefe. “Viewing the News,” Times-Picayune,” May 25, 1937: 11.
4 “Leading Loop, Aren’t You?,” Times-Picayune, January 22, 1937: 13.
5 Jesuit High School State Championship History. https://d3ov9376lar3o3.cloudfront.net/site/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/State-Championships-1931-2018.pdf. Accessed April 16, 2021.
6 Charles Wicker. “Fourteen Preppers Selected on The Times-Picayune States Star Team,” Times-Picayune, May 17, 1936: 4:5.
7 Charles Wicker. “What’s What in Prep Sports,” Times-Picayune, May 23, 1937: 6.
8 Arthur Felt. “Cleveland, New Orleans Rookies Battle to 4-4 Tie in Exhibition Tilt,” Times-Picayune, March 11, 1938: 19.
9 William Keefe, “Viewing the News,” Times-Picayune, March 11, 1939: 14.
10 Charlie Kirksey. “Born and Bred of Baseball, Charlie Gilbert Surprises,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, April 26, 1940.
11 Fletcher Sweet. “’Like Father, Like Son Adage’ Holds Good in Case of Larry Gilbert and His Son, Charlie,” Knoxville Journal, June 22, 1939: 10.
13 “Early Call Place for Rising Dodgers,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1940: 7.
14 There is a discrepancy in Baseball-Reference.com on Gilbert’s number of RBIs for the 1941 season. Gilbert’s Batting Game Log page shows 13, while his Register Batting summary page shows 12.
15 Fred Russell. “Son of Vol Manager To Be In Opening Lineup Friday,” Nashville Banner, April 20, 1943: 12.
16 Gayle Hayes. “Catchers Cop Bat Laurels in Navy Series,” The Sporting News, October 18, 1945:14.
17 Ed Burns. “Only Two Cubs Still in Service; 49 Set to Start,” The Sporting News, February 14, 1946: 7.
18 Dick Mansfield. “Charlie Gilbert Bought by Vols To Bolster Outfield,” The Nashville Tennessean, April 6, 1948: 13.
19 George Leonard. “Charlie Gilbert Belts Seven Homers in Four Games for Southern Record,” The Sporting News, April 28, 1948: 26.
20 George Leonard. “Dixie Turnstiles in Record Whirl,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1948: 25.
21 “Gilbert’s Homer Decides All-Star Classic, 4-3,” Birmingham News, July 21, 1948: 27.
22 George Leonard. “Larry’s Larruping Vols Beat Chicks in Late Rush,” The Sporting News, September 29, 1948: 27.
23 George Leonard. “Brief Sketches of Men Chosen in Major Draft: A Reluctant Draftee,” The Sporting News, November 24, 1948: 16.
24 “Back Injury Suffered in Late 1948 May Halt Career of Charlie Gilbert,” Chattanooga Times, January 29, 1949: 9.
25 Fred Russell. “C. Gilbert Goes On Disabled List,” Nashville Banner, February 24, 1949: 34.
26 Fred Russell. “If You Trust Birds,” Nashville Banner, November 16, 1949: 20.
27 “Tribute to Gilbert,” Times-Picayune, August 27, 1983: 1,12.
28 “Charlie Gilbert dies at 64,” Times-Picayune, August 14, 1983: 6:18.