The first big stage that Grant Gillis appeared on was in Pasadena on the first day of January in 1926. He was the starting right halfback for the University of Alabama — the Crimson Tide – facing the University of Washington Huskies in the Rose Bowl. It was the first appearance of a Southern team in the traditional East vs. West battle. Some of the West Coast sportswriters apparently derided the Alabamans as “swamp rats,” but Alabama overcame a halftime 12-0 deficit. Down 19-13, Gillis threw a 50-yard pass in the third quarter to Johnny Mack Brown, who carried 15 more yards to the shadow of the end zone, then fell across the goal line; it was the second longest play in East-West football competition to that point. Gillis put the game on ice when he intercepted a pass on Alabama’s 25-yard line late in the fourth quarter, then punted to Washington’s 10-yard line. Gillis didn’t fit the image of a football man, standing 5-feet-10 and weighing 165 pounds – the smallest man on the Alabama team. He was older than most of the students, turning 25 on January 24. (Handsome Johnny Mack Brown, incidentally, spurned an athletic career after graduation and became a famous cowboy actor in the movies.)
Gillis was a shortstop on Alabama’s baseball team, and he had been followed by Johnny Dobbs of the Birmingham Barons. He signed with the Class A Southern Association team, reported for spring training at Tampa, Florida, and stuck with the team. But there was no way he was going to make the affiliated Washington Senators as a shortstop, with Buddy Myer set at the position. He appeared in 146 games, with 510 at-bats, and hit .284 (with five homers). National sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “Before long, you will be hearing about Grant Gillis, who is playing a great game of shortstop at Birmingham.” The following year he reprised with the Barons, hitting .310 in 571 at-bats over 154 games.
By Gillis’s second season with Birmingham, Washington had strings of some sort on him. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith had seen him play, and became impressed. “I saw Gillis play several games at Birmingham a few weeks ago, and he fielded brilliantly, but apparently did not try to do much hitting except when men were on the bases. I was so confident that he could hit and so dropped a few words where they would get back to him to the effect that I never thought that he would make good in the majors. And in his next four games all he did was get nine hits in 18 trips to the plate. He impresses me as being close to big league caliber right now.” Griffith had better hope he was; he’d already paid a lot for him – $10,000 before spring training, but then he was sent back to Birmingham, and Washington had to pay another $4,000 to get him back again.
Gillis got into a game within a couple of days of being called up, and started at shortstop – batting eighth – on September 19, 1927, at Griffith Stadium. He was 0-for-2 at the plate, but earned his first RBI in a 4-1 win over Cleveland. Frank H. Young of the Washington Post had given Gillis advance billing as the Birmingham Bearcat. Gillis would not get credit for his RBI today – a run scoring from third as he hit into a bases-loaded double play. His first hit was a triple two days later against the visiting St. Louis Browns. He got into 10 games, with 38 plate appearances, batting .222 with two RBIs.
After 1928 spring training got under way, Senators manager Bucky Harris announced on March 20 that Gillis would be his starting shortstop, at least to start the season, beating out Bob Reeves and Jack Hayes for the position. (Buddy Myer had been traded to the Boston Red Sox the year before.) “Gillis, with more experience than his rivals, has been giving a finished performance, especially on both ends of double plays, and for this reason, won out,” observed the Post. “His edge is not a large one, however.”
One of Gillis’s teammates was a Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother from Alabama, Emile Barnes. They’d known each other since grade school and even though both were in their mid-20s in 1928, they’d been on the same team – one place or another – for each of the past 11 years since being on both the football and baseball teams at Clark County High School. Gillis was raised on a farm by his father, John, and mother, Millie; he was the fourth of six children: Elma, Eldred, Daisye, Grant, Julien, and Roger. He was born in Grove Hill, Alabama, on January 24, 1901, and attended public schools there through Clark County High School, and continuing at the University of Alabama.
A broken nose (he was hit in the face by a ball thrown by the catcher as he dived back into first base) on May 4 sidelined Gillis for a few days early in the 1928 season. He got back into a number of games, and even bumped his average up a bit to .253 by the end of the month, but Harris decided to let Bob Reeves take the job and the team gave Gillis his outright release to Minneapolis on May 31, getting back catcher Packy Kenna in exchange. Clayton Van Alstyne was sent to Minneapolis, too, but Washington kept an option on him. Gillis hit .303 for the Minneapolis Millers in 120 games.
Despite it being reported that Gillis had been released outright to the Millers, Clark Griffith apparently had some kind of hold on him. When he tried to reacquire Buddy Myer from the Red Sox, Gillis was part of the December 15, 1928, deal. To get Myer back, Griffith sent the Red Sox five players: pitchers Milt Gaston and Hod Lisenbee, infielders Gillis and Bob Reeves (who had replaced Gillis at shortstop), and outfielder Elliot Bigelow. It was said the negotiations took eight days because the Washington owner would have preferred to part with money than with so many players, but for Boston’s Bob Quinn the opposite was the case. “I need ballplayers more than I need cash,” Quinn told newsmen. “I told Griffith that he would have to give me the five players named or the deal was off.”
Inevitably, Gillis was going to go up against Reeves in contending for the starting shortstop slot in Boston. Reeves grabbed the third-base job, though, and it was Hal Rhyne who got the lion’s share of the work at short. Gillis appeared in 28 games for manager Bill Carrigan between May 1 and June 25, hitting .247. He finished out the year with the Columbus Senators in the American Association (89 games, with a .266 average).
Gillis played nine more years in minor-league ball, working with Jersey City in 1930, Jersey City and Memphis in 1931, and Memphis in 1932. In March 1932 he married Evelyn Mathilde Williams. He then spent three seasons with Charlotte in the Piedmont League, and his final three years, 1936-38, with the Moultrie Packers in Class D, in the Georgia-Florida League (he was a player/manager in 1936 and ’37). Both in the majors and the minors, his fielding percentage was a couple of points under .950. His collective minor-league batting average in 1,402 games was .281. It had been .245 in the big leagues.
After the 1938 season Gillis left the game, at some point taking up work as a teacher and coach at the Georgia Military Academy. Living in Gosport, Alabama, he died at the hospital in Thomasville, Alabama, on February 4, 1981. He was survived by his second wife, Marjorie L. Gillis; a son, Michael, and a daughter, listed in his obituary as Mrs. Dick Cheney of Tuscaloosa.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Gillis’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com, and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.