Obituary: Gil Coan (1922-2020)

RIP to Gil Coan, an outfielder who spent parts of 11 seasons in the major leagues in the 1940s and ’50s. He died on February 4 in Hendersonville, N.C., at the age of 94. At the time of his death, he was one of the oldest living baseball players and the oldest surviving New York Giant. Coan played for the Washington Senators (1946-53), Baltimore Orioles (1954-55), Chicago White Sox (1955) and New York Giants (1955-56).

Gilbert Coan was born in Monroe, N.C., on May 18, 1922. A childhood accident almost cost him any chance of a baseball career.

“When I was a boy of 12 I was playing catch with a neighbor pal of mine down at Mineral Springs, N.C. The ball hit me on the fingertips and it really hurt. I did not pay much attention to it, however, but a week later it became infected,” he said in an interview.

His father took him to a hospital, and the doctor said the infection might lead to the amputation of his left hand. Instead, the doctors removed the middle joint from his thumb. Just the tip of his thumb was left on his hand after the surgery, but the accident certainly didn’t slow down his playing ability. He threw right and batted left without any difficulty.

Coan also played basketball and football and was recruited by Duke University to play football. Instead, he went to nearby Brevard Junior College in 1940 to play baseball. After a year and a half, he met and married his wife, Dovie, and he left school to work at Ecusta Paper Corp. paper mill. He joined the company baseball team as a pitcher and second baseman. His play there attracted the attention of the Chattanooga Lookouts, who signed him and assigned him to the Kingsport Cherokees in 1944. Though he was signed as an infielder, he spent the whole of his career patrolling the outfield.

Gil Coan hands a baseball to President Harry Truman on Opening Day, 1949. Connie Mack, in the center, looks on. Source: Hendersonville Times-News.

After 72 games in ’44, he was promoted to the Lookouts. When Coan departed the Cherokees, he was leading the Appalachian League in home runs (13), batting (.367), total bases (161) and runs. He didn’t hit any home runs in Chattanooga, but his hitting hardly dropped off, with a .335 batting average. He then hit .372 for the Lookouts in 1945 with 40 doubles, 28 triples and 16 homers, to prove his debut wasn’t a fluke. He was named the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year for his efforts.

“Some guys can’t hit a particular type of pitcher, and I believe it’s just a psychological effect,” Coan said in an interview. “I don’t care if a pitcher throws right or left-handed. I know I haven’t any special batting technique. I just step up to the plate and do my best. No pitcher is going to bother me.”

Coan was purchased by the Washington Senators and invited to training camp in 1946. Manager Ossie Bluege liked what he saw in the 24-year-old, even if he didn’t have a particularly good spring and was bothered by sore feet, colds and charley horses. It turned out he was allergic to sand, or at least a fungus found in sand. That’s a bad condition to have when you’re on a team that has its spring training in Florida. His poor spring performance cost Coan a shot as a regular outfielder, but he made the team as a reserve. In 59 games Coan hit .209 with 3 homers and 37 strikeouts in 134 at-bats. He did have some heroics that year. One of his home runs was an inside-the-park shot off the Tigers’ Dizzy Trout to give Washington and Dutch Leonard a 1-0 win.

Coan was sent back to Chattanooga for 1947 after missing a part of spring training for an appendectomy. He once again tore up the Southern Association with a .340 average and 22 homers. When the Senators brought him back in September, he hit .500 in 11 games, including a 5-for-5 performance against Boston. Despite the small sample size, it was enough for the Senators to give Coan one more look.

New skipper Joe Kuhel tried to take the pressure off Coan in 1948 by handing him the starting left field job at the start of training camp. Even though he was healthy (and wearing the right socks to prevent sand irritation), Coan struggled for two seasons with the Senators, hitting in the low .200s in 1948 and ’49. He stole 23 bases in 1948, hit a few clutch homers, and his fielding was about league average, and the Senators were in last place with no better options. So, he stayed in the lineup.

Just when it seemed like the can’t-miss prospect missed badly, Coan hit .303 in back-to-back seasons in 1950 and 1951. His performance in 1950, combined with Irv Noren in center field and Sam Mele in right field, gave the Senators a pretty good outfield. Coan missed a month with a fractured skull, suffered when he slid head-first into the leg of Browns second baseman Owen Friend. He still ended the season with 50 RBIs, 7 home runs (2 grand slams) and 10 stolen bases. Incredibly, he raised his batting average 50 points after returning from the injury.

Coan picked up some down-ballot MVP votes in 1951, when he slashed .303/.357/.426. His 9 homers and 62 RBIs were MLB highs for him. Through mid-May, he was hitting over .400 and leading the AL in hitting before he tailed off at the end of the season.

The injury bug that had plagued him in his career came back with a vengeance over the next two years. He lost time to a fractured wrist in 1952 and a fractured ankle in ’53, and his batting average plummeted to the .200 level each season. The Senators traded Coan to the newly relocated Baltimore Orioles in February 1954 for Roy Sievers. The change of scenery paid off, as he hit .279 as an Oriole, albeit in limited play. But he managed to avoid significant injuries.

Coan outraced this horse in an 80-yard dash while playing for the Minneapolis Millers in 1956. Source: Star-Tribune, August 8, 1956.

Coan played for three different big-league teams in 1955. He started the season with the Orioles and hit .231 in 61 games. He was placed on waivers and claimed by the White Sox, who kept him for 17 games and 17 at-bats, mostly as a pinch hitter. His first appearance with the White Sox resulted in a pinch-hit single that drove in the tying run against the Orioles, of all teams. He managed 2 more hits before Chicago flipped him to the New York Giants for outfielder Ron Northey in late August. Coan had 2 hits in 13 at-bats for the Giants before the end of the season.

The Giants kept Coan on the roster at the start of the season, and he got into 4 games as a pinch runner. He scored 2 runs and struck out in his only at-bat. When the rosters were contracted, he was sent to the Minneapolis Millers, where he finished his professional career with a .286 average and 12 homers. He also outran a horse in an 80-yard race, with a 20-yard handicap. It was part of a fan appreciation night, and Coan got $25 for his effort. In the offseason, Coan was claimed by the Detroit Tigers in the Rule V Draft, but he and the team could not agree on terms, and he asked to be placed on the voluntarily retired list. He was seeking a $15,000 salary.

“If they had offered me enough money I’d have still played,” he said.

In 11 seasons, Coan slashed .254/.316/.359, with 731 hits in 918 games. He hit 98 doubles, 44 triples and 39 home runs, driving in 278 runs while stealing 83 bases. He generated 1.9 Wins Above Replacement in his career.

Coan started a cattle ranch in North Carolina during his playing days, and he returned to it in his retirement. He raised and sold Angus cattle until the mid-’80s, when he sold the farm to one of his sons. Coan also sold insurance and real estate, served on the Brevard Chamber of Commerce and coached the Brevard College baseball team. As a member of the original Baltimore Orioles team, he and five of his teammates from the 1954 O’s made a special appearance at the final game in Memorial Stadium.

Coan (in baseball cap) commemorates the renaming of Brevard College’s baseball field to Gil Coan Field. Source: Hendersonville Times-News.

Throughout his playing career, Coan had a few run-ins with celebrities. He narrowly lost a 1946 foot race with Cleveland’s George Case, considered the fastest player in baseball, and was congratulated by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower after the race. During a spring training game in 1948, he hit a grand slam in a game that was attended by Babe Ruth and Joe Tinker. He presented the Opening Day ball to President Harry Truman in 1949 and had dinner with Connie Mack that evening.

The Brevard College baseball field was renamed Gil Coan Field in 1994, and he was inducted into the Brevard College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2004. His wife, Dovie Coan, died in November 2019 at the age of 97. The two had been married for 78 years.

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