Frank Gabler talked a better game than he pitched. The right-hander’s playing career spanned 23 years from 1930 through 1952, including four seasons in the majors, and his gift of gab helped him to keep working as a scout for the rest of his life.
A jokester, storyteller, and tireless party animal, he was nicknamed “The Great Gabbo” after a 1929 movie about a ventriloquist who is possessed by his dummy. “I got gabby this way riding the buses in the bush leagues,” he explained. “The roads were so rough we couldn’t sleep, so we just had to talk.”1
One writer said Gabler could have been as famous as Dizzy Dean if only he had been a decent pitcher.2 He had opinions on everything. In a single garrulous evening sitting in a hotel lobby, columnist Jimmy Powers recounted, “Frank Gabler discoursed learnedly on poetry, track and field, the theater, Bach, high diving technique, mathematical chances at poker, love, life of the bee, and the care and breeding of blooded cattle.”3
Gabler one-upped Dean by delivering some of his quips in rhyme. Pitching in relief for the New York Giants, he said, “An inning a day keeps waivers away.”4 But while Dean bragged, most of Gabe’s best put-downs were aimed at himself. He said he always told his wife to get to the park early when he was pitching, because if she arrived in the second inning, she might miss him.5
Frank Harold Gabler was born on November 6, 1911, in East Highland, California, on the edge of the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of Los Angeles. He lived in Southern California all his life. Frank was the second son of Earl and Bessie Gabler.
Earl, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound oilfield roustabout, had pitched in semipro ball and raised his two boys to be pitchers. They were high school teammates with older brother Glen on the mound and Frank in the outfield. After Glen graduated, Frank took over the pitching. Glen, also a right-hander, pitched in the minors for 15 years.
Frank signed his first professional contract as an 18-year-old in 1930, with Bisbee in the Class D Arizona State League. (Some accounts during his baseball career shaved a year off his age.) He moved up quickly, going 19-9 at Bartlesville in the Class C Western Association in 1931, and reached Double A, then the highest rung of the minors, with Kansas City in 1932. After the 1931 season, he had married Barbara Muriel Benefield, whom he had met while playing with Bisbee in 1930.
His career and his life nearly ended during his 1932 season with Kansas City. Gabler relieved in the May 4 game against Indianapolis. In the eighth inning, Indy catcher Tom Angley’s line drive hit him flush in the head. “The players were beset with fear for the youngster,” the Kansas City Star’s Ernest Mehl wrote. “Never had they seen a player hit so hard on the head. Batters had been hit in the head by pitched balls, but no pitched ball ever traveled as fast as this line drive.” Gabler was struck above and behind the right ear; apparently his face was turned away from the
Gabler later said the fracture was three inches across. He spent two weeks in the hospital, then returned for several more surgeries. Doctors feared permanent brain damage, but he recovered after 3½ months and was able to pitch regularly in the final weeks of the season. His performance was not encouraging — a 7.14 ERA and 3-6 record.
Demoted to Class-A Williamsport in 1933, Gabler managed only a 10-12 mark and 4.55 ERA. The next spring he refused a further demotion to Class D and stayed home in California until the Nashville Vols gave him a tryout. “He has plenty of smoke and a hide-the-ball delivery that has had the Vols popping up in batting practice,” the Nashville Banner’s Freddie Russell reported.7 After signing in May, Gabler pitched creditably in the fast Class A-1 Southern Association — 10-5, 4.01 — despite a bout of trench mouth, a painful gum infection (he was a world-class tobacco chewer).
An advertisement on the outfield wall at Nashville’s Sulphur Dell promised $50 to any player who hit a ball against the sign. When Gabler smacked a double off the wall, he pulled into second base and began questioning the opposing fielders about whether his drive had hit the jackpot. He was so intent on the reward that he stepped off the bag and was tagged out. Manager Lance Richbourg took his $50 as a fine.8
During the winter the New York Giants paid a reported $10,000 for Gabler’s contract. After spending the offseason cutting timber, the 23-year-old reported to spring training in 1935 at 195 pounds, having put on 20 pounds of muscle. He was a long shot to make the team, but he impressed manager Bill Terry under painful circumstances. In an exhibition game, the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick smoked a line drive that hit Gabler in the groin. The pitcher insisted on staying in to finish the inning. Terry admired his toughness and kept him on the roster.
He also made a lasting impression on the Giants’ third-string catcher, Paul Richards. They spent several weeks sitting in the bullpen that spring before Richards was traded. Richards was a lanky Texan, a man of few words. Gabe had enough words for both of them, with plenty left over. They forged a friendship that would keep Gabler employed in baseball when Richards became a manager and general manager.
Gabler was the bottom man on the Giants’ pitching staff, used primarily as a mop-up reliever in games when the team fell behind. After he gave up six runs in one inning against the Cubs, he said, “I wonder why the Giants don’t buy my brother. He’s even better than I am.”9 He didn’t get his first decision until September 13, when he was called into a tie game against the Cardinals and recorded the last out in the ninth. Dizzy Dean relieved for St. Louis in the tenth, but his defense sabotaged his bid for his 27th victory. Dean gave up a single to Hank Leiber. Then Gus Mancuso hit a grounder that second baseman Frankie Frisch was unable to handle. The ball went into right field, and Lieber advanced to third. It was ruled a single. With one out, shortstop Leo Durocher misplayed a ground ball to let in the go-ahead run.10 Gabler followed with a double to
bring home two more and pitched a perfect bottom of the tenth to earn his first big-league victory.
Manager Terry gave him his first start 10 days later against the last-place Boston Braves, but he was knocked out in the sixth and charged with the defeat. He finished his rookie year with a 2-1 record and 5.70 ERA in 26 appearances. Still, Terry was optimistic about his future, saying he had “the best fastball of any youngster in the league.”11
When the 1936 season opened, Gabler and the veteran Dick Coffman emerged as Terry’s go-to late-inning relievers. Gabler recorded three saves in May (a statistic that wasn’t calculated until decades later). After one the of the club’s starters, Hal Schumacher, came down with a sore arm, Terry gave Gabler his first start of the year on July 22 against the Cardinals. He allowed only one earned run in a victory that boosted the Giants into third place.
Promoted to the starting rotation, he shut out the first-place Cubs for eight innings a week later in a 7-2 win. The Giants began a second-half surge that lifted them to the top of the standings before the end of August.
The best outing of Gabler’s career came on August 12, when he and Brooklyn fireballer Van Lingle Mungo dueled through 11 scoreless innings. Gabler’s triple in the 12th drove in two runs, but the Dodgers came back to score one in the bottom of the inning. The Giants’ left-handed “meal ticket,” Carl Hubbell, relieved to save the 2-1 victory. The winning pitcher exulted, “Few are abler than Hub and Gabler.”12
Hubbell, a quiet man, took no part in the raucous heckling that was common in major-league dugouts. Instead he sat next to Gabler and egged him on, instructing him on which opponents to target. When Hubbell was on the mound, he knew how to handle the bench jockeys: “[H]e never let on that he heard and finally they just left him alone,” Gabler recalled.13
On August 25, he pitched three scoreless innings to save a 6-5 win over the Cubs that put the Giants in first place for keeps. Hubbell did the heavy lifting, winning his last 16 straight decisions and the Most Valuable Player Award. (Hubbell extended his winning streak the next year to a big-league record 24 in a row.) Gabler appeared in 43 games, including 14 starts, recording a 3.12 ERA and 9-8 record. Writer Dan Daniel called him “one of the most surprising of the many pleasant surprises in the Polo Grounds menage.”14
Before the season the brash Gabler had predicted that he would win 10 games. Giants traveling secretary Eddie Brannick promised him a $100 suit if he did. As he picked up victories, he began reminding Brannick of the wager. “Waal, I got the vest,” he’d say. “I got the pants. I’m shootin’ at the coat now.” Although he fell one short of his goal, Brannick paid off anyway. Gabler chose two suits at $50 apiece. “What the hell would I do with a $100 suit?” he asked. “I’d be afraid to sit down in the damned thing.”15
After Hubbell beat the Yankees in Game One of the World Series, the Yanks jumped out to a 9-4 lead in the second game, powered by Tony Lazzeri’s grand slam. Gabler relieved in the fifth and
gave up three runs in four innings. Harry Gumbert replaced him and surrendered six more in an 18-4 Yankee rout. In Game Four, Gabler relieved Hubbell in the eighth with the Giants trailing, 4-2. He gave up another run in his single inning of work. The Yankees won the championship in six games, but 1936 turned out to be the pinnacle of Gabler’s career.
His brother Glen joined the Giants’ Jersey City farm club the next spring after four years in the Pacific Coast League. The brothers faced each other in a spring exhibition game in Gulfport, Mississippi, both working in relief. Frank pitched four shutout innings while Glen gave up one run in his two innings. It was the first time they had been on the same field since they were teenage semipro players. Glen went on to lose 24 games in the International League that year.
Frank’s big-league career started to go downhill. A line drive hit him in the left knee during spring training, and he developed a sore arm as well. He pitched only six times before the Giants shipped him to the Boston Bees (the artists formerly known as Braves) on June 15, 1937, for outfielder Wally Berger. The Giants also included a reported $25,000 to $35,000 in the deal, but it still wasn’t much of a return for a slugger who had led the National League in homers and RBIs just two years before. News reports said the swap was part of Boston’s youth movement; Gabler was 25, Berger was 31 and had a bad shoulder that made him a liability in the outfield.
Gabler quieted some of the critics two weeks later in his first start at home, when he shut out the Dodgers on four hits in a 1-0 victory. But his aching arm continued to hold him back. He appeared in only 19 games for the Bees with a record of 4-7 and a 5.09 ERA.
In 1938 Casey Stengel replaced Bill McKechnie as Boston manager. Gabler pitched only once in April, giving up three runs in one-third of an inning, and was sold on waivers to the Chicago White Sox on May 1. Years later when he was asked why Stengel let him go, Gabler replied, “One clown on a club is enough, I guess.”16
Although he won his first start for the Sox, the rest of the season was a disaster. Still bothered by arm trouble, he posted a 9.09 ERA and a 1-7 record. In the fall Chicago traded him to Double-A St. Paul, at the highest minor-league level. He didn’t stay long; in June 1939 the Saints sent him down to the Class A-1 Atlanta Crackers. A newly humble Gabler told the press, “I’ve quit poppin’ off.”17 That resolution wouldn’t last long.
The trade to Atlanta reunited him with his former Giants teammate Paul Richards, the Crackers’ manager and catcher. Gabler didn’t do much for the club — 8-9, 4.47 — and Richards traded him after the season, but the two would meet again… and again.
Gabler settled into a routine as an itinerant minor-league pitcher. He bounced around to six teams in four years from 1939 through 1942, then spent three years in the Coast Guard during World War II. He was 34 when he returned to civilian life in 1946 along with thousands of other ballplayers and would-be ballplayers. Most minor leagues had shut down during the war for lack of manpower. Now the minors spread like weeds, growing to 59 leagues and more than 400 teams after the war. Jobs were plentiful even for an over-age journeyman pitcher.
Gabler found work at the lower levels of the minors, class B and C. In 1949 he began managing in Class C ball for three years, and in 1953 and ’54 he umpired in the California League, also Class C.
In 1950 he was managing Yuma in the Sunset League, which had teams in Arizona, Southern California, and northern Mexico. He put himself in to pitch and began throwing spitballs. The umpire demanded that he stop because the pitch was illegal. “That’s just in the United States,” Gabler protested. “Don’t you know where we are? We’re in Mexico. Anything goes here.
“Well, that stopped him cold,” as Gabe told it. The arbiter finally muttered, “I guess you’re right.”18
Gabler’s career as a scout began in 1954, when Paul Richards became manager and general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. He became one of Richards’ cronies who followed him from Baltimore to Houston. Gabler had obvious qualifications as a scout after more than 20 years in the game, but his most important credential was his ability to make Richards laugh. The longtime manager and GM was tight-lipped, arrogant, and humorless except in his small inner circle.
Gabler, as a contemporary, could get away with needling him in a way that others couldn’t. “Richards has the personality of a doll,” he said. “A croc-o-doll.” Even Richards laughed at that one.19
The Orioles coaches chipped in to pay Gabler’s way to spring training for several years so he would keep the boss loose. Eventually Richards made him a springtime coach, since he was hanging out anyway. Gabler’s usual running mates were two other Richards cronies, Clint Courtney and Lou Fitzgerald. The other coaches called them “the three stooges.”
Gabler regaled his drinking buddies with tales of his adventures and misadventures with women. He told of one evening when he was admiring an attractive woman in a bar. “Those are the tightest pants I ever saw,” he remarked. “How do you get into those pants?”
“A couple of martinis would be a good start,” she replied.
When the Houston Astros fired Richards as GM in the fall of 1965, the others in his circle were also shown the door. Gabler hooked on with the Cardinals, scouting in Southern California.
On Halloween night in 1967, he complained of chest pain. The next afternoon his second wife, Nell (DeWitt), found him dead on the floor in their Long Beach home. He was five days short of his 56th birthday.
Gabler always said he would write his own epitaph: “If I had to live my life over, I’d like to live it over a saloon.”
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources shown in the notes, Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and Frank Gabler’s Sporting News Player Contract Card were useful.
1 “He Slays ‘Em with Wit,” The Sporting News (hereafter TSN), January 9, 1936: 1.
2 Unidentified clipping in Gabler’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.
3 Jimmy Powers, “The Powerhouse,” New York Daily News, August 25, 1936: 44.
4 Will Wedge, “Frank Gabler, New York Giants’ Twirling Troubadour,” TSN, August 27, 1936: 3.
5 “Heard in the Press Box,” Chicago Times, May 9, 1938: 32.
6 E.M. (Ernest Mehl), “Between Innings,” Kansas City Star, May 5, 1932: 14.
7 Freddie Russell, “Weintraub Again Tops All Hitters with .425 Mark,” Nashville Banner, May 24, 1934: 18.
8 Wedge, “Gabby Gabler Shows Giants He Can Take It,” New York Sun, March 10, 1935, in HOF file.
10 Martin J. Haley, “Giants Blast Cards, 13-10, in 10 Inning Debacle,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 14, 1935: 6, 9.
11 “Terry Says Club Best Since ’32,” New York Daily News, April 10, 1936: 60.
12 Wedge, “Frank Gabler, New York Giants’ Twirling Troubadour,” TSN, August 27, 1936: 3.
13 Dave Lewis, “The Ancient Art of Bench Jockeying,” Long Beach (California) Independent Press-Telegram, November 26, 1967: D-4.
14 Daniel M. Daniel, “Giants Remind Fans of ‘21 Champions,” TSN, August 20, 1936: 2.
15 Jack Miley, “‘Fine Feathers,’ etc.,” New York Daily News, August 26, 1936: 56.
16 Neal R. Gazel, “The Score Card,” Chicago Daily News, June 2, 1951: 26.
17 “New Cracker Hurler, Gabler, Reaches Town,” Atlanta Constitution, June 9, 1939: 24.
18 Lewis, “Gabler Always Saw Funny Side,” Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, November 5, 1967: S-5.
19 Information about Gabler’s relationship with Paul Richards and his one-liners come from the author’s interview with Eddie Robinson in Fort Worth, Texas, August 18, 2006, and from Robinson’s memoir, with C. Paul Rogers, Lucky Me (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2011).