This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Brother against brother? The brothers united as batterymates? Les freres Gaston faced both scenarios. They played against each other in 1926 when Alex Gaston was a catcher with the Red Sox and brother Milt was a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns, and they were batterymates after Milt was acquired by Boston and brother Alex caught Milt in 1929.
Someone liked the name Nathaniel. It was Alex’s middle name and Milt’s true first name. Both started with New York teams. Alex was the eldest, and he began his career first, with the New York Giants in 1920. In and out of the majors, he saw limited duty with the Giants for four straight seasons, but after 1923 he was back in the minors until 1926. The next year, 1924, younger brother Milt began his major-league career with the Yankees. Milt was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-handed pitcher, four inches taller than his older brother. He pitched for the Yankees the one year, then moved to the Browns for three, to Washington for one, and then to Boston for the 1928, 1929, and 1930 seasons (a 20-game loser, he led the league in losses in 1930). He wound up with three years pitching for the White Sox. Lifetime, Milt was 97-164 with a 4.55 ERA, in part reflected in a poor strikeout to walk ratio — he walked 836 but only struck out 615. Milt hardly ever had a winning season, but he lived to see his 100th birthday and could count 17 members of the Hall of Fame among those with whom he’d shared a dugout: Luke Appling, Earle Combs, Jocko Conlan, Joe Cronin, Red Faber, Lou Gehrig, Goose Goslin, Bucky Harris, Waite Hoyt, Miller Huggins, Ted Lyons, Herb Pennock, Sam Rice, Red Ruffing, Babe Ruth, Al Simmons, and George Sisler.
Nathaniel Milton Gaston was born on January 27, 1896, in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. His father, Alexander Nathaniel Gaston Sr., a milkman, was born in County Antrim, Ireland in 1855, son of a French father and a Scottish mother, and arrived in the United States in 1872. There he met Catherine Madden and the two had six sons (William, George, Edward, Alexander, James, and Nathaniel (Milt), before having a daughter, Anna. Having switched from boys to girls, the couple then produced Hannah and Edna. Despite his family background having no Irish ancestry, Milt described himself in his player questionnaire for the Baseball Hall of Fame as of Irish descent.
The family lived in Overpeek, Bergen County, New Jersey. Milt attended a number of schools in New York City and New Jersey, and completed one year of high school at Ridgefield Park, but then left school and went to work. During the First World War, he served in the United States Navy from June 1917 to October 1919. He was stationed on the battleship U.S.S. Texas and served in the North Sea, sailing out of England, and was later stationed in Cuba. He pitched some for his ship’s team.
After the war, he returned to his position as a clerk in a New York county clerk’s office.
On his days off, Gaston pitched in semipro baseball for the highly-regarded Paterson (New Jersey) Silk Sox. Sunday baseball was prohibited in Philadelphia at the time and major-league teams often traveled to nearby Paterson to play the Silk Sox on Sundays. He made an impression as early as 1921, but particularly in 1923 when he reportedly beat three major-league teams in exhibitions, including a one-hitter against the Yankees.1 Gaston’s last year with the Silk Sox was 1923, and he was 19-4.2
Several teams expressed interest; in August 1922 it was written that he had “turned down many offers but is content to pitch weekend ball for the Silk Sox.”3
On November 1, 1923, he signed with the New York Yankees, who had won the American League pennant three years running and their first world championship in 1923. Yankees scout Paul Krichell called Gaston a “real speedster” who had been invited to spring training with the Yankees.4 Having a major leaguer for an older brother, Milt reportedly followed Alex’s advice (Alex was with the New York Giants at the time) and asked for and received a $5,000 signing bonus on top of his $5,000 contract.
Near the end of his life he joked about the burgeoning salaries in baseball, employing a bit of minimalist hyperbole: “I was paid $10 – for the whole year.”5
Gaston’s best pitch was his fastball, he said, but brother Alex had taught him the forkball at one point. He used it occasionally but found it hard to control.6 He never spent a day in the minor leagues, before, during, or after his time in the majors.
The 1924 Yankees came in second, behind a dominant Washington Senators team. The Yanks had Herb Pennock (21-9) and Waite Hoyt, Bullet Joe Bush, and Bob Shawkey, all starters with 16 or more wins. Gaston was the team’s top reliever, appearing in 29 games (two of them were starts, both losses) with a record of 5-3 and an ERA of 4.50. At the very end of the year, he was included in a December 17 trade sending him, Joe Bush, and Joe Giard to the St. Louis Browns for Urban Shocker.
The Browns finished third in 1925, 15 games behind the Senators and 8 ½ behind the Athletics. Starting 29 games and relieving in 13, Gaston was 15-14, his last season with a winning record in the majors.
Even though Gaston improved his ERA in 1926 for the second year in a row, it was only to 4.33 and he led the league with 18 losses vs. 10 wins.
After a couple of years in the minors, brother Alex resurfaced in 1926 with the Red Sox, where he hit .223 in 301 at-bats. How did he do when he faced his younger brother?
In 1926 the last-place Red Sox split their 22 games against the seventh-place Browns. Alex didn’t bat against Milt until the second game of an August 16 doubleheader at Fenway Park. With the bases loaded and one out in the second inning of a scoreless game, Alex banged a triple to left-center, clearing the bases, and providing all the runs Boston needed to defeat brother Milt, 7-1.
Ford Sawyer, in the Globe, wrote, “On the sun-baked diamonds of our national pastime sentiment is unknown and brotherly love is a thing not recognized. Many must sometimes battle against his dearest chum for a regular’s post, cousin struggle with cousin for the same playing berth, brother contends against brother for the old ball game.” A fan reportedly cried out, “No brotherly love stuff now!”
They faced each other once more on September 12. Again it was a doubleheader, this time in Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis. Alex went 3-for-5 in the first game, which Boston took, 11-3. Milt started game two and held the Red Sox to just two hits in a 1-0 complete game win. Only one Bosox reached second base. Of the two hits, though, the first one was by brother Alex, a single in the third inning. Milt got the win, though, so perhaps we could call it even. After the 1926 season, Alex disappeared from the big-league record books for two more years.
In 1927, Gaston was 13-17 with an ERA of exactly 5.00. He gave up a league-leading 18 home runs (four of them were among the 60 hit that year by Babe Ruth), more than double the eight he’d surrendered in 1925. His most notable win came in New York on September 11. The Browns had lost every one of the 21 games they had played against the Yankees that year, before Gaston beat them in the finale, 6-2. He also set a record in the September 20 game, throwing three wild pitches in the first inning. Gaston, a workhorse who pitched 254 innings, had the worst ERA among qualifying pitchers on the seventh-place Browns. After the season, Gaston married Pearl Fay Harty on October 15. (Danny MacFayden, his future teammate on the Red Sox, married Pearl’s sister.) Four days later, he and Sad Sam Jones were traded to the Senators for Dick Coffman and Earl McNeely.
Milt Gaston pitched for Washington just one season, 1928. It was not a satisfactory season. His ERA climbed to 5.51 (the team ERA was 3.88) and even though he was pitching for a fourth-place club which finished close to .500 (75-79), his own record was 6-12. Gaston set one record: most hits – 14 (including two doubles and a triple) — surrendered by a pitcher in a shutout 9-0 over the Cleveland Indians on July 10 in the second game of a doubleheader.
The Senators had traded third baseman Buddy Myer to the Boston Red Sox in May 1927. Now they wanted him back and traded five players, including Gaston, to the Red Sox to get him.
The move united Milt with brother Alex, who’d spent 1927 and 1928 with St. Paul but was brought up to Boston for 1929. Alex appeared in 55 games and Milt in 39. Milt won 12 and lost 19. His .387 winning percentage, though, was better than the team’s last-place record of 58-96, a .377 percentage. Alex hit .224 with two of his three career home runs. It was his last year in the majors. Milt soldiered on for another five years.
How often were Alex and Milt batterymates for the 1929 Red Sox and how did the team fare when the brothers teamed up? The first time Milt and Alex were the battery, it was Milt who got battered. Milt’s first start for the Red Sox was not an auspicious one. It was May Day 1929 and a distress call went out early in the game against the Athletics. Milt took the 24-6 loss, which occasioned a Globe subhead, “All Fenway Park Hitting Marks Smashed.” Milt was gone after 1 1/3 innings, having given up eight runs and walking two. The Red Sox used 21 players in the game, but the only one to play the entire game was Alex Gaston, who went 3-for-5 and actually had himself a good game — except, possibly, in terms of calling the game from behind the plate.
Milt took the mound again on May 6. This time he gave up nine hits and a walk (and five runs) in six innings. Harry Heilmann was responsible for all five runs — a two-run homer in the first, an RBI single in the third and another two-run homer in the fifth. Final score: Detroit 8, Boston 4. Milt managed to secure a single for himself in the game, and brother Alex went 1-for-3.
Just three days later, on May 9, Milt was pleased when the Sox scored twice in the first and added another run later, but the Indians tied it up 3-3 in the sixth and won 4-3 in the ninth. Alex didn’t help much. He went 0-for-3.
Milt lost his next two starts, too. Alex didn’t play in either of those, nor did he play on May 28 when Milt finally earned himself a win.
It was June 13 before they appeared as batterymates again, this time because Sox catcher Charlie Berry had been ejected. Alex was 0-for-1, with a sacrifice. Milt got himself a 4-1 win. June 17: both started in game two of a doubleheader, Alex going 1-for-3. They lost, Milt yielding 13 hits and three walks in seven innings. On June 22, Milt pitched in the first game and lost, walking in the winning run in the 10th inning. Alex appeared in the second game, taking Heving’s place, but struck out in his only at-bat. Milt continued to pitch — got himself a homer on July 4 off Lefty Grove (in a 3-1 Philadelphia win); his error on July 20 cost the Sox that game. The next time the Gastons played together was July 26, Milt suffering a 4-1 defeat to Detroit. Alex spelled Berry mid-game and went 0-for-1 but scored the only Sox run. On July 31, Alex played in game one but only pinch-hit in the second game (unsuccessfully) as Milt absorbed another defeat.
On September 2, Milt pitched and won game two of that day’s twin bill, but the only game brother Alex played in was the first. On September 8, they played a doubleheader at Braves Field (it being Sunday). Milt started the second game and held St. Louis scoreless through 10 innings. Since the Red Sox had managed only three hits (two of them by Alex) and failed to score as well, the score was still 0-0 when the 6:00 o’clock curfew ended it.
On September 14, Milt gave up five hits and walked six batters and threw a wild pitch in a 2-1 loss to the Tigers. Both brothers batted three times; neither got a hit. The last game they both appeared in was on September 19, Alex went 0-for-2 but Milt helped his own cause. Alex was safe on an error in the fifth. The next batter made an out, then Milt doubled. A couple of batters later, Milt scored what proved to be the winning run. All in all, not that inspiring a collaboration. Alex never returned to big-league ball. Milt was 12-19 in 1929, 13-20 the next year, and then a dismal 2-13 for Boston in 1931. The year he lost 20 (1930) actually saw him with a 3.92 ERA – best on the Red Sox. Clearly, he lacked run support.
Milt was traded to the White Sox for left-handed pitcher Bob Weiland on December 2, 1931. Weiland wasn’t any better for Boston; he was 15-35 with a 4.33 ERA over the next three seasons. Gaston was 21-48 for the White Sox with a 4.95 ERA over the same period of time – 7-17 (in 1932), 8-12 (1933), and 6-19 (1934). Each year his ERA increased from the year before. He set one fielding record in 1932. During the May 17 game at Fenway Park, Gaston took part in four double plays – most by a pitcher in a single game. Thirteen days later, he was involved in a Memorial Day melee at Cleveland’s League Park. During an argument umpire George Moriarty ejected White Sox coach Johnny Butler. After Chicago lost both games, Moriarty found himself among White Sox players in the tunnel and the argument cropped up again, resulting in Moriarty challenging the Chicago men, saying he’d fight them one at a time. “Gaston was the first to accept the challenge,” reported Ed Bang for The Sporting News. “According to the story circulated here, the pitcher was knocked out in the melee, after which Moriarty was knocked to the ground by other members of the Chicago club.”7 The umpire suffered a broken hand. Gaston claimed he won the fight, that Moriarty had swung at him and hit the wall when he ducked, but Gaston lost out in the pocketbook when he was fined $500 and suspended for 10 days. Moriarty was “severely reprimanded.”
He pitched two games in September 1934 that were opposites. On the 14th, he pitched a 1-0 six-hit shutout against Wes Ferrell of the Red Sox, but his final game in the majors (a complete game) saw him give up 10 runs on September 26. In December 1934, he was given his outright release by the White Sox.
There were rumors Gaston might be signed by the Reds and he worked out for the Browns as late as May 1935, but he didn’t catch on anywhere.
Brother Alex managed the Dallas Steers from 1935 into 1937, but Milt pursued other opportunities. He moved to Florida and worked in Tarpon Springs as the manager of a filling station. He later became deputy sheriff in Hillsborough County, Florida. In 1970, when Gaston was 73, he found himself in a strange situation – serving court orders on American League President Joe Cronin and the 12 owners of the American League ball clubs. He was acting as a process server issuing restraining orders on behalf of the city of Seattle, which wished to prevent the Seattle Pilots from moving to Milwaukee. Cronin reportedly told his old teammate, “You got a lot of guts after the runs I knocked in for you.”8
In retirement, he moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
On his 100th birthday, a party was held for him attended by about 40 friends and relatives. He was reportedly only the eighth major league player to make it to age 100, out of over 14,000 at the time – and the only one to have worked in as many as 10 seasons. At the party, he got up and sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”9
His nephew Don Lyons said that shortly after that he’d suffered a spill, and was recovering but very tired. The two watched the Red Sox lose to the Indians, 11-7 on April 21. When Lyons told him he’d be able to come home once he got better. Gaston replied, “I don’t want to come home, I want to go home.”10 He died on April 26, 1996, in a rehabilitation center in Hyannis, Massachusetts, near his home in Marston Mills. He was buried next to his wife in Tampa.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Gaston’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com. Portions of this biography are drawn from the author’s book Red Sox Threads.
1 Jim Sargent, Sports Collectors Digest, March 24, 1995. Attempts to find these games have so far been fruitless.
2 Ed O’Toole, “Milt Gaston – baseball’s Forrest Gump,” Barnstable Patriot, July 27, 1995.
3 Greensboro Daily News, August 23, 1922.
4 New York Sun, January 11, 1924.
5 Boston Herald, April 27, 1996, C46.
6 Sports Collectors Digest, March 24, 1995.
7 The Sporting News, June 9, 1932.
8 New York Daily News, March 18, 1970, 27C.
9 Boston Herald, April 27, 1996, C46.
10 Boston Herald, April 27, 1996, C46.