Grave Story: Cecil Garriott (1916-1990)

Here lies Cecil Garriott, whose 17 years in professional baseball included a cup of coffee with the Chicago Cubs in 1946. Though if it wasn’t for an enlistment into the Army at the worst possible moment, he might have been a key player on one of the most memorable Cubs teams ever.

Virgil Cecil Garriott was born in Harristown, Ill., on August 15, 1916. His parents Russell “Babe” Garriott and Mable Hanks Garriott had four children, three of which survived into adulthood. Cecil had a younger sister (Lucile, born in 1915) and an older sister (Maveline, born in 1918), as well as a sibling who was born and died in 1926.

Cecil Garriott was a record-setting track star in high school and college. Source: The Decatur Herald, April 29, 1934.

Garriott attended Argenta High School in 1934, where he played baseball, basketball and track. He set multiple track records in events like the broad jump and pole vault. He was also an excellent outfielder on whatever amateur teams he could find, from the Decatur, Ill., American Legion team to the Wabash Freighters of the city league. He and his father played on some of the same teams, in fact. Upon his graduation, Garriott attended Millikin University in Decatur.

Though not very big – he stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 165 pounds – Garriott was a great all-around athlete. He once noted on a ballplayer questionnaire that one of his biggest thrills was in a college football championship game against Bradley. With no score and 6 minutes left in the game, he made touchdown runs of 55 and 60 yards to lead Millikin to a 12-0 win. He wasn’t even supposed to be playing football to save himself for the baseball diamond, but he became too valuable to keep off the gridiron.

After about a year-and-a-half in college, Garriott was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, based on the recommendation of scout Burleigh Grimes. He entered professional baseball in 1936 and batted .283 for the Columbus (Ga.) Red Birds of the Sally League. He played that well in spite of two injuries and a bout of malaria that kept him off the field. Columbus won the league’s second-half title and lost to Jacksonville in the playoffs, becoming the first of several times Garriott would experience postseason play in the minors. He lived in Georgia for several years early on in his career, working as a Chevrolet salesman in his offseasons.

The speedy outfielder set a Sally League record in 1938 with some 57 stolen bases, earning the nickname of “Rabbit.” Garriott also hit .320 with 11 triples and 5 home runs, earning a brief promotion to Double-A Syracuse. Starting in 1939, he moved up and down the minors, looking for a ticket to the major leagues. He abandoned switch-hitting to focus on batting righthanded, because he believed that he had more power from that side. As proof that he might be right, he slammed 3 home runs in a doubleheader on August 12.

Source: The Decatur Herald, August 26, 1939.

Garriott had a single focus on baseball, as evidenced by a story from Charley Miller, business manager for Elmira, where Garriott played in 1939. Miller was driving Garriott back to Elmira from Binghamton and asked the ballplayer where he lived. “I dunno,” was the reply. “Well, suppose I take you to the hotel. How would you get home from there?” Miller asked. “Doggoned if I know,” Garriott replied. “The little woman always met me and took me home.” Sure enough, Miller dropped him off at the players’ hotel, and Garriott’s wife came and picked him up.

Garriott spent 1940 and ’41 with the Macon Peaches, back in the Sally League. Along the way, he became a part of the Cubs organization. He batted .306 and .280 for the Peaches, respectively, and continued to showcase excellent speed, even though his stolen bases numbers aren’t recorded by Baseball Reference. After an All-Star season with Portsmouth of the Class-B Piedmont League in 1942, Garriott joined the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1943. That team is where he would spend much of the rest of his career.

The newcomer to the Angels lineup quickly turned heads with his excellent outfield play and his power. Garriott homered 10 times in 98 games in 1943, topping double-digits for the first time in his career. A knee injury cut into his playing time, but he was a valuable part of the pennant-winning team. Garriott batted behind rookie sensation Andy Pafko, and Pafko hit .356 with 118 RBIs and 109 runs scored.

Garriott in 1944 played in 170 games for the Angels and slashed .286/.408/.420. He had 13 home runs and drove in 70 runs, stole 24 bases and walked 124 times. He was named a PCL All-Star and the Angels MVP, and more importantly to his career, he was officially added to the Chicago Cubs roster. Los Angeles reached the playoffs, but Garriott was unable to participate, as he was summoned to take his exams for the U.S. military. Right after he officially became Cubs property, it was announced that Garriott had been rejected by the U.S. Army. In a weird way, this would have made him even more valuable to Chicago. During World War II, players were getting drafted away from teams left and right, and major-league ballclubs were struggling to find enough players to fill out their roster. The Cubs had in Garriott a player who had proven himself at the PCL level, and he was in no danger of being called into the Army.

Source: Visalia Times Delta, July 24, 1951.

When the Cubs started training for the 1945 season, they had a total of seven outfielders on their roster. Garriott looked to manager Charlie Grimm as someone who could jump into center field right away.

“The boy’s a great outfielder. He can go to either side and back and has a pretty good arm,” Grimm commented. “Garriott used to be a switch hitter, but he tells me he stayed on the left side last season and hit .286. So he’s improving. He’ll be a swell lead-off man and the Cubs haven’t had a real good one since Stanislaus Hack was in his prime.”

Then the Army changed its mind. In February, Garriott was ordered to report to his draft board in Georgia for a pre-induction physical exam. Now deemed fit for active duty, Garriott was drafted into the Army in early May. The decision left the Cubs with just 5 outfielders, but three of them were Peanuts Lowry, Pafko and Bill Nicholson. They, along with a sensational season from first baseman and NL MVP Phil Cavarretta, helped lead the Cubs to 98 wins and the National League pennant. They suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series in seven games, but the team was a rare highlight in a century of futility for the Cubs and their fans.

Garriott missed it all. He ended up being the last Cubs player in military service and was finally discharged in August of 1946. He immediately joined the Cubs team; I believe the rules of the day did not count war veterans against the team’s roster limits, so Garriott was essentially a free player. The problem was that the Cubs had a surplus of outfielders by then. Garriott never played so much as an inning in the field for the Cubs. His tenure with the team was limited to 6 pinch-hit at-bats in 6 games in September. He was 0-for-5 with 2 strikeouts. On September 18, Garriott was part of a game-winning rally over the New York Giants. He led off the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter for reliever Ray Prim. He was hit by a pitch from Marv Grissom, moved to second base on a sacrifice by Lowrey and scored on a double from Bobby Sturgeon, breaking a 1-1 tie. The Cubs ended up winning the game 4-3.

By then, the 29-year-old Garriott wasn’t in the Cubs’ plans. The team made it obvious when they left him and several other players home instead of traveling to St. Louis for an important road trip in late September, because they couldn’t find enough hotel rooms. Come 1947, Garriott was back in Los Angeles, where he was able to continue his excellent play. In fact, he had a career-best 22 home runs for the Angels, stealing 25 bases and drawing a career-best 131 walks. His offense tailed off as he moved into his 30s, but he remained a productive player for the Angels through 1950. The Angels won PCL pennants in 1943, 1944 and 1947 with his assistance. He was particularly effective against the rival San Francisco Seals, with a knack for belting a clutch home run or stealing a base at a critical moment and breaking Seals manager Lefty O’Doul’s heart.

Garriott also appeared in the James Stewart movie The Monty Stratton Story. He is uncredited as a Southern All Stars player – except in the Decatur, Ill., newspapers, where he got third billing under Stewart and June Allyson.

Cecil Garriott had an uncredited role as a baseball player in 1949’s The Monty Stratton Story. The Decatur Herald gave him third billing anyway.

By 1951, Garriott’s role had been reduced to that of a pinch-hitter. At the age of 35, he was the team’s oldest player. He was released by Los Angeles on June 8 in order to take over as manager of the Visalia Cubs in the California League. He acted as a player-manager in the minor leagues through 1953. As skipper of the Victoria (B.C.) Tyees of the Class-A Western International League, he led the team to a first-place 94-55 record. The team struggled in 1953, and rather than sign a contract extension that came with a pay cut, Garriott quit after the season. He left professional baseball entirely, in fact.

When it comes to the major leagues, Garriott had an 0-for-5 record in 6 games, with a run scored and 1 hit by pitch. During his long 17-year career in the minor leagues, he had 2,156 hits that included 354 doubles, 107 triples and 162 home runs for a .279 batting average. He also walked 723 times while striking out just 403 times. While his official stolen base record is incomplete in Baseball Reference, he is said to have stolen more than 500 bases in his career.

Garriott was widely respected for his baseball knowledge and was rumored for several minor-league jobs, but he seemingly stayed out of professional baseball in his retirement. His son Rick became a hot rod racer in Gardena, Calif., and his father served as the chief mechanic. Garriott played on a champion slow-pitch softball team called the Tapa Keggers, along with former major-leaguers Chuck Stevens and Gus Zernial. As time wore on, he was frequently remembered by columnists who witnessed his college football exploits or his West Coast baseball feats. But Garriott seemed to settle into relative anonymity in California.

Cecil Garriott died on February 20, 1990, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Baseball Reference lists his cause of death as a heart attack; he was 73 years old. He is buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif.

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