Besides having had a key pinch-hitting appearance in the 1914 World Series, Larry Gilbert is arguably the greatest minor-league manager of all time. Managing for 25 years solely in the Southern Association, Gilbert’s record was 2128-1627, good for an astounding .567 winning percentage. His teams won the pennant nine times, won the Shaughnessy playoffs three other times, and won five of its nine appearances in the Dixie Series, an annual contest between the champions of the Texas League and the Southern Association. So valued was he as a manager that it was reported in 1941 that he was the highest paid manager in the minor or major leagues.1
While Gilbert’s numbers as a manager are certainly eye-popping, there was much more to the man than that. As a player, he played on a World Series champion and four minor-league pennant winners during his 15-year playing career. His three sons all played in Organized Baseball, and two of them made the major leagues. Beyond his baseball life, Gilbert was a pillar of society in his native New Orleans and later in Nashville.
Lawrence William Gilbert was born on December 3, 1891, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the second of two sons of Rosalie (Norden) and Abraham Edward Gilbert, both native Louisianans. Abraham’s parents were born in Germany. He was a house painter, and the couple made their home in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans near Athletic Park where the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans played. It would become a second home to Larry.2
On a trip out to the country when Larry was a child, his leg became caught in a log wagon, and his right foot was severely injured. Doctors wanted to amputate the foot but Gilbert’s mother refused. Instead the doctors sewed the foot back into place with 32 stitches, creating a scar that ringed his ankle for the rest of his life. When the foot healed, his right leg was one inch shorter than his left. It didn’t affect his running – in fact, later in life, he was often among the top basestealers in the league. “Curiously enough, this (his shorter leg) doesn’t seem to interfere with his work in the field,” wrote a reporter while watching Gilbert run in spring training in 1914.3
By the age of 14, Gilbert was a regular at Athletic Park as a scoreboard boy and, remarkably, a batting-practice pitcher. He eventually became the soda-water boy and then finally, a mascot for the Pelicans. All the while he was honing his game, playing semipro ball in New Orleans and making a name for himself. Describing his pitching for the semipro team Reliance in 1908, the New Orleans Daily Picayune called him “regular shylock on the slab.”4
In the winter of 1909-10, Gilbert pitched for a semipro baseball team called the Braquets. One of his victories was a 1-0 win over a team that contained some major leaguers, including Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Jimmy Dygert. A teammate of Gilbert’s, veteran minor leaguer Bob Tarleton, who had brought him over to the Braquets, was instrumental in getting him to sign with San Antonio of the Texas League.5
For his first minor-league season in 1910, San Antonio sent the 18-year-old to Class D Victoria of the Southwest Texas League. He tore up the league, going 18-7 and leading his team to the pennant.6
Before the next season, Gilbert was offered and accepted the job of managing Victoria. But then Jack Burke, Gilbert’s former manager at Victoria and the newly-hired manager of the Class C Battle Creek Crickets of the Southern Michigan League, bought Gilbert’s contract from Victoria for $200.7
At Battle Creek he had another winning season, going 17-15. But during a game on Labor Day, he tore some muscles in his left side. His pitching arm was never the same again. Overuse, since he was Battle Creek’s only reliable pitcher, and his use of the curveball were blamed for his injury.8
Gilbert started to see some playing time in the outfield, batting .253. In 1912 he made the switch full-time to outfielder. With his pitching career over, Gilbert had to start his baseball career over. Fortunately for him, he was a very popular player in Battle Creek and management was more than happy to bring him back. He rewarded management by batting .302 in 127 games. He remained an outfielder for the rest of his playing career.
Gilbert hoped to play with his hometown New Orleans Pelicans in 1913. Burke, Battle Creek’s manager, gave Gilbert his consent to sign with the Pelicans. However, Battle Creek’s management then sold Gilbert to Milwaukee of the American Association. After a protracted period that lasted into the beginning of the season (though Gilbert worked out with the Pelicans throughout spring training), Gilbert finally went to Milwaukee.9
After Gilbert settled in with the Brewers, he had a fine season, batting .282 and leading the American Association in stolen bases. He helped Milwaukee to the American Association championship and, after the season, was drafted by the Boston Braves. Sporting Life wrote that Gilbert “is figured as having a good chance to become the regular centre fielder” for the Braves.10
Capping off what was a pretty good year for Gilbert, he wed his hometown sweetheart, Gertrude Wilhelmina Mader, at Sacred Heart Church in New Orleans on October 29, 1913.11
As with many baseball players in 1914, rumors swirled that Gilbert would sign with the upstart Federal League. But on January 24, 1914, it was announced that the Boston Braves had received his contract. And on March 10 Gilbert was in Macon, Georgia, with the Braves for spring training. The rookie made a good impression on Braves manager George Stallings, and on Opening Day, April 14, he was in the starting lineup as the center fielder. In the game, Gilbert rapped out his first major-league hit, a single off Brooklyn Dodger Jeff Pfeffer, in an 8-2 loss.12
Eight days later Gilbert collided with teammate Joe Connolly as they chased a drive by Philadelphia’s Dode Paskert. The result was torn ligaments in Gilbert’s ankle, and an infection that severely hampered Gilbert’s season. He was out of the lineup until late May. From then on, he was in and out of the lineup. He hit the first of his five major-league home runs during this time, a blast off Cincinnati’s Phil Douglas on June 6.13 In all, he played in 72 games and hit .268.
In August Gilbert was sent home to recuperate in New Orleans because he was “suffering considerably with his leg,” according to the New Orleans Item. But the pennant-winning Braves felt him healthy enough to keep him on the bench for pinch-hitting duty during the World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics. His only at-bat in the Series came in a pivotal inning. In the bottom of the 12th inning of Game Three, Braves catcher Hank Gowdy led off with a double. Gilbert was sent up to bat for pitcher Bill James and was intentionally walked by pitcher Bullet Joe Bush. Then, on Herbie Moran’s bunt, Bush threw wildly to third, allowing pinch-runner Les Mann to score the winning run. It was the Braves’ third win and a day later they closed out the Series, putting an exclamation point on a remarkable season.14
Gilbert was the toast of New Orleans. He was the first native of the city to play in a World Series. With his winners’ share, he purchased real estate in New Orleans, allowing him and his wife to move out of his parents’ home. A Larry Gilbert Day on October 25 included a parade and a doubleheader between semipro teams. Gilbert was slated to play for his old winter-league team, the New Orleans Railway & Light Company club. (In the offseason, Gilbert worked for the company and played on the team.) But after his injury-plagued season, Stallings asked Gilbert not to play winter ball so that his ankle might heal completely for spring training. It was reported that Stallings told Gilbert, “You’ve had a vacation most of the summer. Now go home and get in good shape for some real play next season.”15
But rather than sit out and disappoint the 2,500 who came to Larry Gilbert Day, Gilbert played center field and even drove in the winning run of the game. But he did heed Stallings after the game, and sat out some of the winter league season.16
The ankle injury bothered Gilbert for the rest of his playing career. He aggravated it again sliding into a base in 1915. By July 12 Gilbert had played in 45 games and was batting only .151. With the Braves in seventh place and seven games out of first place, Stallings sent Gilbert and Ted Cather to Toronto of the International League. Gilbert had played his final major-league game. The Boston World wrote, “With the Braves, he has at no time showed anything even approaching the batting prowess he displayed as a Brewer.”17
Immediately, Gilbert showed that batting prowess in Toronto. By the end of the season, he had batted .325 in 68 games. But the Braves decided they had seen enough of Gilbert, sending him to Kansas City of the American Association.18
Gilbert played in 168 games for Kansas City in 1916, batting .275 as the starting center fielder. But the long season wore on Gilbert. He missed his wife and infant son, Lawrence William Jr. So after the season was over, rumors began that Gilbert would retire from baseball and go into private business in New Orleans. “He has business ties here and prefers to stay here,” wrote the New Orleans Item.19
That began a waiting game that lasted into May 1917. Gilbert refused to report to Kansas City; the Blues suspended him, preventing him from playing for any other team in Organized Baseball. When Kansas City finally saw that Gilbert was serious in his insistence that he’d quit baseball before he played any place except New Orleans, the Blues sold Gilbert to the Pelicans for the shockingly steep price of $2,500. But Gilbert was wildly popular in New Orleans and Pelicans president Alexander “A.J.” Heinemann was more than willing to pay it.20
Gilbert’s first game with the Pelicans was May 6, 1917. It marked the start of a long association with the Southern Association that wouldn’t end for 46 seasons. He was so popular that when in the first game he tripled to drive in three runs, the hat was passed among the spectators and the $17 collected was given to Gilbert. He was embarrassed by the situation so he donated the money to the Red Cross and wrote an open letter to the New Orleans fans in the New Orleans Daily Picayune asking them very politely not to do that again.21
Gilbert again hurt his ankle during the season, this time in June, which had him in and out of the lineup for a month. Although he finished second in the league in steals and first among outfielders in fielding percentage, his season was considered “somewhat of a disappointment” when he batted only .269 in 118 games.22
As the United States continued its involvement in the World War, Gilbert was called by the draft board for a physical examination on August 16, 1917. But he was soon ruled exempt from service since he was married and had a child and because of his shortened leg. Rumors promptly began to circulate that the still popular Gilbert would be the next manager of the Pelicans. This would happen several times over the next six years. But Gilbert refused to even consider the job unless longtime manager John Dobbs stepped down.23
Like most baseball leagues, the Southern Association found 1918 to be a tumultuous year. With the war effort growing for the United States, baseball leagues were feeling the strain to keep able-bodied players. For the Southern Association, it was an abbreviated campaign, ending on June 28. Gilbert’s season didn’t start off well when he and a few of his teammates had ptomaine poisoning during spring training. By the end of the season, he had rebounded to hit .282; was second in the league in steals with 21 and led the league’s outfielders in fielding percentage. With the major leagues having their own man-power shortage, Gilbert was in demand after the Southern Association season but he turned down all the offers.24
Instead, Gilbert took a position with the Dantzler Shipbuilding & Dry Docks Company in Moss Point, Mississippi. Dantzler built wooden cargo ships for the United States. Gilbert was also the manager and starting center fielder for the Dantzler baseball team, which played in the competitive Gulf Coast Shipyard League. He put to rest any debate that the professional baseball players who had taken jobs with the shipbuilding companies in 1918 were getting off easy. “They are not showing any partiality to ballplayers,” said Gilbert. “If they don’t do a certain amount of work, the pay envelope is lighter, and in most instances the fellow who shirks work is discharged.”25
When the war ended, baseball returned to normal in 1919. Gilbert, for the first time in many seasons, managed to stay healthy and uninjured for much of the season. As a result, it was his best year in baseball. Batting .349, he led the league in batting, basestealing, and fielding. His final batting average might have been even higher but he again hurt his ankle toward the end of the season and slumped through the last month.26 On top of his excellent season, his second son, Charles Mader Gilbert, was born on July 8.
Having such a season brought the attention of major-league teams again. Gilbert refused offers to join teams in September. He was content to stay in New Orleans and play baseball. In October, to underscore his determination to stay in New Orleans, he paid $12,000 for a gas station across the street from the ballpark. His plan was to build a repair shop on the property and work it in the offseason. His father-in-law would manage the gas station in the summer.27
But rumors persisted that Gilbert would be sold to a major-league team. Then in February 1920, The Sporting News announced that Gilbert had been sold to Cleveland. He had decided that if he was paid enough, he could leave his family for the season. But even though Gilbert was with the Indians in spring training (which just happened to be in New Orleans), he never signed a contract with the big-league club.28
Finally, toward the end of March, Gilbert sat down with Indians owner Jim Dunn. Dunn made his final and best offer. Gilbert turned him down. Dunn then threatened to have Gilbert barred from Organized Baseball. But Indians manager Tris Speaker talked Dunn out of it. Instead, New Orleans refunded the Indians the purchase price of Gilbert.29
Gilbert responded with another great season, batting .301. (He hit over .300 for the Pelicans every season from 1919 through 1924, his second-to-last season as a player.)
In October 1920 Gilbert got out of the gas-station business when he leased his property to a New Orleans police detective. His hand was forced when Gilbert’s father-in-law became ill and couldn’t manage the business. He took a job as a car salesman for Cucullo Motor Company selling Haynes Automobiles.30
Finally, after the 1922 season, Gilbert got the chance to manage the Pelicans. John Dobbs had resigned to manage the Memphis Chicks. The New Orleans management worried that he wouldn’t hit as well while he was managing. Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Tris Speaker were all mentioned in the press as great ballplayers who became poor hitters when they were managers. But Gilbert produced on the field as well as on the bench and managed the Pelicans until 1939.31 And in his first year managing, Gilbert led the Pelicans to the pennant. They lost the Dixie Series to Fort Worth of the Texas League in six games.
After the 1925 season Gilbert quit as a player. In 1926 and 1927 the Pelicans won the Southern Association championship but lost both times in the Dixie Series.
On April 4, 1929, Gilbert’s third and last son, Harold Joseph “Tookie” Gilbert, was born. Nine months later on January 8, 1930, Gilbert was shocked by the news that his good friend and the president of the New Orleans Pelicans, Alexander Julius “A.J.” Heinemann, had committed suicide. Heinemann was distraught over the stock-market crash, which had caused his millions to dwindle to $200,000, and was also upset over financial losses Gilbert suffered after following his advice.32
Heinemann’s death affected Gilbert not only personally but professionally. Heinemann was involved in most of the player personnel decisions. His co-owner, Charles W. Somers, preferred to let others run the club. So after Heinemann’s death, most of his duties were delegated to Gilbert.33
In 1932 Gilbert decided that he couldn’t handle both the manager and business-manager duties so Jake Atz was hired as manager. The Pelicans finished in sixth place and the following season Gilbert was back as both manager and business manager. He responded by winning the pennant and Dixie Series in 1933.34
During the 1934 season, owner Charles Somers died. Fred Baehr, the treasurer for Somers’ company, the Somers Coal Company of Cleveland, took over the reins as president. He allowed Gilbert to continue to run the club as he saw fit. For the second year in a row, Gilbert’s team won the pennant and Dixie Series.35
In 1936 Gilbert’s oldest son, Larry Jr., tried out for the Pelicans. He was the first boy in the nation to be signed from the nascent Junior American Legion program. The Pelicans sent him to Des Moines of the Western League but a knee injury caused him to miss the entire season. Larry Jr., a second baseman, eventually played two seasons in Organized Baseball, including the 1938 season for his father. After the 1938 season, doctors discovered that Larry Jr. had a heart ailment and he was forced to retire from baseball.36
In April 1937 the Pelicans were sold to new owners. The new ownership, led by Seymour Weiss, kept the front office intact, including Gilbert. But Gilbert would not be working for the new ownership for long.37
After the 1938 season, Gilbert shocked New Orleans by announcing that he was leaving the Pelicans. To make matters worse, he was going to Southern Association rival Nashville Volunteers to be their business manager and manager. Gilbert was lured away when Memphis owner Fay Murray offered him half-ownership in the club plus a salary of $10,000.38
“You may be sure I thought it over a long time,” said Gilbert. “This is my home – the home of my entire family and of 90 percent of my friends. My associations with the new owners of the Pelicans have been perfect – ideal. I could not have hoped for more congenial associates. But the offer from Nashville was one I could not turn down. I owed it to my family to take it. Mr. Weiss and his associates would be foolish to even try to come close to the offer. You may be sure it was an attractive one, since it has prompted me to leave my lifelong connection, transplant myself and keep up two homes.” In addition to ownership, Gilbert was guaranteed by Murray to make twice what he was making with New Orleans with a chance to make three times. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.39
As if coaching in a new city weren’t exciting enough, Gilbert also was coaching his second son, Charlie. Playing center field for the Volunteers, Charlie batted .317 with 14 home runs. The Brooklyn Dodgers purchased his contract after the season for $30,000, $10,000 of which was given to Charlie for a nest egg for his impending wedding. He made the major leagues in 1940, and in all played parts of six seasons in the majors for the Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia Phillies.
Nashville won the Southern Association pennant and the Dixie Series in 1940. They were only the third team in league history to never relinquish first place during the regular season. The Sporting News named Gilbert Minor League Manager of the Year.40
But 1941 turned into one of the darkest years of Gilbert’s life. On March 4, the 60-year-old Fay Murray died, leaving Gilbert as acting president of the ballclub. Five months later he was dealt a harsher blow when his oldest son, Larry Jr., died of pneumonia brought on by his heart ailment.41
Ted Murray, Fay’s son, took over as president of the Nashville club, leaving Gilbert to his usual business manager and manager duties. Gilbert responded with pennants and Dixie Series championships in 1941 and 1942. In 1943, with his son Charlie again on the team, he won a fourth straight pennant but, because of World War II, there was no Dixie Series.42
Gilbert’s youngest son, Tookie, was becoming a fine player in his own right. So in 1946, with several teams bidding for his service, Gilbert capped the bidding at $50,000. The name of any team willing to pay that amount was written on a piece of paper and placed in a hat. Gilbert’s wife, Gertrude, pulled the New York Giants slip from the hat. Mel Ott, the Giants’ representative, signed Tookie immediately. Tookie eventually played in the major leagues with the Giants in 1950 and 1953.43
Charlie Gilbert’s playing career was winding down during this time and, in 1948 he asked the Phillies to sell him to Nashville, ostensibly to play one more season with his father and to also start to learn the business of baseball. He had a tremendous year for Nashville in 1948, batting .362 and hitting 42 home runs. But 1948 was his last year as a player. He worked as Larry’s assistant from 1949 until 1955. In the 1960s Charlie became a scout for the New York Mets.44 He died in 1983.
The year 1948 marked the end of Gilbert’s managing career. He was 56 years old and ready to relinquish his on-the-field duties. He went out with a bang as the Volunteers won 11 straight games at the end of the season to clinch the pennant.45
Gilbert remained as business manager through 1954. That season had been a financial failure with losses estimated in the $40,000-to-50,000 range. Only 89,470 fans came to games in Nashville. So on May 21, 1955, Gilbert sold his share of the team to Ted Murray, ending his association with Organized Baseball at the age of 63.46
He retired to New Orleans at his home on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Almost immediately, a group of dissatisfied New Orleans baseball club stockholders wanted Gilbert as their business manager. He turned them down; however, he did take a position on their board of directors.47
In 1964 Gilbert was named to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Greater New Orleans Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also later posthumously named to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.48
On January 11, 1965, Gilbert entered New Orleans’ Mercy Hospital. He never left. On February 17 Gilbert died of congestive heart failure at the age of 73. He was survived by his wife, Gertrude; his two sons, Charlie and Tookie; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. More than 1,000 people visited the funeral parlor to pay their last respects. Gilbert was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.49
Three months after his death, the New Orleans baseball field commonly known as “Muny Park” was renamed Larry Gilbert Baseball Stadium. As of 2011 it still stood.50
This biography is included in “The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston’s Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions” (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.
1 S. Derby Gisclair, “Pelican Briefs,” http://www.neworleansbaseball.com/articles/pelicanbriefs/LarryGilbert-ManagerRecord.pdf; Fred Russell, “They’re Simply Wild About Larry,” Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1942, 11, 38, 40
2 Russell, op. cit., loc. cit.; The Sporting News, November 29, 1945.
3 Russell, op. cit., loc. cit.; The Sporting News, November 29, 1945; Frank G. Weaver, “You Have To Hustle to Win,” in Association Men, June 1922, 447, 459-460; Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, March 18, 1914
4 Russell, op. cit.; Gisclair, Baseball in New Orleans (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia, 2004), 42; The Sporting News, November 20, 1924; Sporting Life, October 3, 1914; New Orleans Daily Picayune, August 5, 1908
5 The Sporting News, November 29, 1945; New Orleans Item, October 20, 1914, September 7, 1919; New Orleans Daily Picayune, December 31, 1909
6 The Sporting News, August 20, 1925
7 New Orleans Daily Picayune, January 16, 1911; Galveston (Texas) Daily News, April 6, 1911; San Antonio Light, April 4, 1911
8 Saginaw Daily News, September 13, 1911; Weaver, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 6, 1913, November 22, 1913; Adrian (Michigan) Daily Telegram, March 14, 1913; Atlanta Constitution, April 6, 1913
10 Sporting Life, December 20, 1913
11 New Orleans Daily Picayune, October 22, 1913
12 Sporting Life, January 31, 1914; New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 22, 1914; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1914
13 Sporting Life, May 2, 1914; New Orleans Item, April 28, 1914; Sporting Life, May 30, 1914; Bob McConnell, SABR Presents The Home Run Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 558
14 New Orleans Item, August 25, 1914, October 4, 1914
15 New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 14, 16, and 20, 1914; New Orleans Item, May 28, 1914; Lima (Ohio) Daily News, October 14, 1914; Lowell(Massachusetts) Sun, October 19, 1914; New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 20 and 25, 1914; Sporting Life, December 12, 1914
16 New Orleans Item, October 26, 1914; New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 14, 1915
17 Weaver, op. cit., loc. cit.; Brooklyn Eagle, July 14, 1915; Sporting Life, July 24, 1915
18 Sporting Life, September 25, 1915
19 New Orleans Item, December 22, 1916, April 5, 1917; Weaver, op. cit., loc. cit.;
20 New Orleans States, April 4 and 22, 1917; New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 6, 1917
21 New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 8, 1917
22 New Orleans Item, June 10, 1917, March 14, 1918
23 New Orleans States, August 13, September 1 and Setember 17, 1917
24 New Orleans States, June 29 and July 2, 1918
25 New Orleans States, July 14 and August 31, 1918
26 New Orleans States, October 19, 1919
27 New Orleans States, August 12 and October 19, 1919; New Orleans Item, October 16, 1919
28 New Orleans Item, November 14, 1919 and March 5, 1920; The Sporting News, February 12, 1920; New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 15, 1920
29 New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 20 and March 24, 1920
30 New Orleans States, October 14 and November 7, 1920
31 New Orleans Item, October 2, 1922; New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 2, 1923
32 Russell, op. cit., loc. cit.; Gary Higginbotham,, “A.J. Heinemann,” http://www.sabrneworleans.com/publications/garyhigginbotham/Heinemann%20(Higginbotham).pdf
33 David L. Porter, Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Q-Z (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000), 1446
34 New Orleans Times-Picayune, December 31, 1931
35 The Sporting News, January 31, 1935
36 The Sporting News, March 26 and May 7, 1936, February 16, 1939, November 29, 1945.
37 The Sporting News, April 22 and October 14, 1937
38 The Sporting News, November 9, 1938; Russell, op. cit., loc. cit.
40 The Sporting News, September 12, 1940, and January 2, 1941
41 The Sporting News, January 18 and August 8, 1940, March 13, 1941; New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 24, 1941
42 The Sporting News, April 3 and November 27, 1941
43 The Sporting News, October 23, 1946, and May 27, 1953
44 The Sporting News, April 14, 1948
45 The Sporting News, September 15, September 29, and December 15, 1948
46 The Sporting News, December 14, 1949, September 22, 1954, and June 1, 1955
47 The Sporting News, December 29, 1954, June 1, 1955, June 29, 1955, March 7, 1956, February 18, 1965
48 The Sporting News, February 22 and November 7, 1964, March 1, 1969
49 New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 29, February 19, and February 20, 1965
50 New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 9, 1965