Obituary: Don Gile (1935-2021)

RIP to Don Gile, a first baseman and catcher for the Red Sox in the 1950s and early ’60s. He died of natural causes on March 5 at the age of 85. No place of death was immediately available, but he was living in Oklahoma at the time of his passing. Gile played for the Boston Red Sox from 1959-62.

Donald Loren Gile (pronounced GEE-lee) was born in Modesto, Calif., on April 19, 1935. He would be nicknamed “Bear” in his playing days, probably due to his size — he was 6’6″ tall. He was large even as a freshman tackle on the San Mateo High School football team, where he tipped the scales at 225 pounds. He was athletic for a big man though, and played baseball and football. When he was a senior in 1952, Gile, known for his power, batted .342 and was named to the All-Peninsula Athletic League team as its catcher. After graduation, he spent some time at San Mateo Junior College before attending the University of Arizona.

Gile and his Arizona teammates became Border Conference champions in 1954. He was a part-time catcher but hit .516 with 3 home runs when he wasn’t battling a back injury. Given a chance to catch full-time in 1955, Gile hit .323 in the regular season and .366 in the College World Series tournament. One of his regular-season homers was believed to be the longest homer hit in the history of Arizona’s stadium. It cleared the 425-foot fence and was still at top speed as it sailed past the wall. Gile hit two home runs against Oklahoma, though it wasn’t enough to keep Arizona from losing 5-4 to be eliminated from the tournament. Shortly after that loss, the Boston Red Sox signed Gile to a $4,000 contract — the maximum figure a player could receive without being labeled a “bonus baby.” Gile reported to San Jose of the California State League, but scout Tom Downey had given some assurances that he would be promoted to AAA within a year.

Gile, a good head taller than any of his University of Arizona teammates, is welcomed at home plate after his second home run of the game. Source: Arizona Daily Star, June 15, 1955.

Gile did make it to AAA, but it didn’t come in Downey’s timeframe. He played in 39 games for San Jose in 1955 and clubbed 9 homers with a .328 average, and he remained in the Class-C California League for all of 1956, too. He homered 19 times, though his batting average dropped to .265. He was bothered by several nagging injuries, from a sore back to a knee injury that he sustained by stepping on a bat. The decision to keep him with San Jose may not have been because of his development, though. The Times of San Meteo reported that Gile was a major drawing card in his brief stay with the team in ’55. When the team was sold to new ownership, the sale came with the stipulation that Gile stay with the team to keep the attendance high.

Drawing card or no, Gile moved on from San Jose and continued to take his immense power further up the Red Sox organization. He hit .303 for Greensboro with 11 long balls in 1957, but he was only able to appear in 51 games. It appears that the physical stress of being a 6-foot-6 catcher was starting to take a toll on his body, as he had lingering knee problems that eventually required multiple surgeries. Greensboro moved him to first base for a time, and he started to play more at first and the outfield as he moved up the organization.

The Sox had to keep Gile in A-ball longer than they wanted — the Sox coaches loved his potential power — because he could never stay healthy enough to move up. He slammed a club record 23 homers for Class-A Allentown in 1958 and had a brief stay with AA Memphis. He reported to AAA Minneapolis in 1959, but he was still recovering from a recent knee surgery and was limited to a single pinch-hitting appearance before he want back to Allentown for rehab. The Red Sox brought him to the majors anyway to see how the 24-year-old would do. He made his MLB debut against the Washington Senators on September 25, 1959. He missed a pop foul as a catcher and struck out against Hal Griggs in his first at-bat. He then lofted a ball to center field that would have been a sacrifice fly had Washington outfielder Bob Allison not muffed for an error, allowing 2 runs to score. Gile looked good as he ran around the bases to second, easing fears about his troublesome knee.

Gile picked up his first major-league hit in his first start on September 26. It was a double off Washington’s Camilo Pascual. In 3 games, Gile had 2 hits in 10 at-bats for a .200 average and an RBI. He started the season with the Red Sox in 1960, but manager Billy Jurges used him very infrequently. He was sent down to the minors at the end of May with a .182 average in 14 plate appearances. The decision was not one that general manager Bucky Harris agreed with. “I wouldn’t be ashamed of using Don Gile as our first-team catcher,” Harris said back in spring training. “I don’t know what Billy Jurges’ thinking is on the matter, but if I were he, I’d use Gile this year. That boy can really unload a few off that left field wall at Fenway Park.”

Shortly after Gile was demoted, Jurges was replaced. When the big catcher came back in September, the Red Sox skipper was Mike “Pinky” Higgins. He gave Gile a few starts at first base, and while the hitting didn’t improve, Gile hit the first MLB home run of his career on September 27, with Baltimore’s Gordon Jones giving up the blast. He appeared in a total of 29 games on the year, with a .176/.189/.294 slash line. He has the distinction of being in the starting lineup on September 28, 1960 — the final game of Ted Williams’ career.

Don Gile rehabs his surgically repaired knee. Source: Minneapolis Star, May 22, 1959.

The 1961 season was largely a repeat of the ’60 campaign. Gile was hardly used at the start of the season, going hitless in his only at-bat. The team kept working on him as a first baseman to take better advantage of his power, but they kept him on the bench in favor of the largely powerless first baseman Pete Runnels. He was then demoted to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in May, when the team signed veteran Joe Ginsberg — a catcher. Gile launched 15 homers and hit over .300 with Seattle. When he was brought back to the Red Sox in September, he hit well in a limited role and finished with a .278 average — 5 hits in 18 at-bats including a home run.

Gile stuck around with the Red Sox for the entire 1962 season. That was the good news. The bad news was that he hardly ever played. The Red Sox catching corps wasn’t anything special, but they had abandoned the idea of Gile behind the plate and thought of him as a first baseman. Unfortunately for him, Runnels was the full-time first baseman, and he won the 1962 batting title with a .326 average. Gile ended up spending so much time without a job that he started throwing batting practice. “I developed a hell of a curve,” he said. “And I even got a slider.” Gile didn’t registered a single hit all season long (34 at-bats) until the very last day of the season. He played first base in both ends of a doubleheader (probably to protect Runnels’ lead in the batting race) and whacked a single in the first game against the Senators. He then hit a walk-off 2-run home run in the second game to give the Red Sox a 3-1 win. It was his last at-bat in the majors.

Red Sox coach Rudy York, left, swaps out Gile’s catcher’s mitt for a first baseman’s glove. Source: The Arizona Republic, February 26, 1961.

The Red Sox sold Gile outright to their team in Seattle, removing him from their roster entirely. Gile hoped that he would catch on with another team and threatened to retire altogether if he couldn’t catch on with another team. “It was a waste of time,” he said of the ’62 season. “I may as well have been at home.” Gile’s offseason job was working as a sales representative for the Hyatt Hotel chain.

No major-league team picked him up. As he noted, he played so infrequently that any scout would have had a hard time seeing him in action. “I never played three consecutive games in the majors. And I’m not that kind of ballplayer. I can hit that .290 or .300 they want if I play every day, but I never got a real shot… not even in spring training,” he said.

Gile spent 1963 between Seattle and Tacoma, another PCL team that was in the Giants organization. He continued to hit big home runs — 11 in 79 games — before calling it quits after the season.

In four years with the Red Sox, Gile appeared in a total of 58 games and had a .150/.194/.258 slash line, with 18 hits in 120 at-bats. He homered 3 times, along with 2 doubles and a triple, and he drove in 9 runs. In 8 seasons in the minors, he batted .280 with 104 homers.

Gile played a little big of semi-pro ball in California upon his retirement, but he jumped into a successful sales career in the pharmaceutical industry. According to his obituary, Gile worked for companies line Upjohn and Squibb, as well as the dental health company Oral B. He retired from his long sales career in 1988 and settled in Stillwater, OKka.. He is survived by his wife of seven years, Eileen, four children and four stepchildren.

For more information: Strode Funeral Home

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