Obituary: George Elder (1921-2022)

RIP to George Elder, who played in 41 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1949. He was the oldest living baseball player until his death on July 7 in Fruita, Colo. He was 101 years old. He had been the oldest living player since the death of Eddie Robinson on October 4, 2021.

With Elder’s passing, the title of oldest former AL/NL ballplayer goes to Art Shallock, who was born on April 25, 1924. He pitched for the Yankees and Orioles from 1951-55. There are now six surviving ballplayers who played in the 1940s (Larry Miggins, Bobby Shantz, Chris Haughey, Carl Erskine, Tommy Brown and Curt Simmons). There are three surviving members of the St. Louis Browns (Billy Hunter, Ed Mickelson and Frank Saucier).

George Rezin Elder was born in Lebanon, Ky., on March 10, 1921. His mother, Mary, died when he was just a year old, and George Sr. raised the five children — Anna, Martha, Jack, Louise and George. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, the father worked as a millinery — the sale of women’s hats. By then, eldest daughter Martha was also working as a comptometer operator — an early mechanical calculator.

George Elder as a standout high school football player for Fenwick High School in Chicago. Source: Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1939.

George Jr. moved around a lot in his youth. By 1930, the family was living in Louisville. They moved to Chicago around 1934, where he attended Fenwick High School and showed some of the family’s athletic skills. Older brother Jack Elder was a star halfback at Notre Dame who in 1929 intercepted a pass at his goal line and raced it back 100 yards to beat Army 6-0 — in a game played on an icy December day at Yankee Stadium. George Elder had plenty of his own football ability. In 1938, he was a halfback and the only junior starter on the Fenwick varsity team. He was also a guard on the basketball team. By his senior year, Elder was thought to be a lock to chase all his brother’s records at Notre Dame. In addition to being a good running back, he could throw and kick as well. He was even tutored by big brother Jack, who was the athletic director for the Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago.

See George Elder at Baseball Almanac

“It’s in the Elder family. George is big, tough and ugly,” Jack told the Chicago Tribune in 1939.

“And I hope after I get through that they’ll remember you as just being ugly,” George shot back.

Rather that continue the family tradition at Notre Dame, Elder elected to attend Fordham University in 1941, where he wouldn’t have to be known as “Jack Elder’s brother.” He didn’t have much of a chance to play until 1942, and after an injury, Elder turned his attention to baseball in 1943. He agreed to play baseball as a Dartmouth Navy V-12 trainee, but Elder’s SABR biography notes that it isn’t clear if Elder ever played ball for Dartmouth. He was soon called to serve in the Marine Corps and saw plenty of action during his enlistment, including fighting at Iwo Jima. From what I could tell, Elder never did talk much about his military career or his wartime experiences.

Near the end of the War, Elder was able to get some time to play for a Marines All-Star Team. There, according to a story related by Ed Wheatley, president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society & Fan Club, he ran into none other than Ted Williams, who told him that he ought to forget about football and stick to baseball. “And if the last man to hit over .400 tells you to play ball, you play ball. End of discussion,” Elder said.

When Elder was discharged from the military in 1946, he went to UCLA and played baseball for the Bruins. At 25 years old, he was an elder college player. Considering the War had delayed many experiences for its veterans, he was likely not the only mid-20s college ballplayer. Elder had a strong year for the Bruins as a center fielder. On March 27, 1948, he participated in a 17-10 beating of Stanford with a first-inning grand slam home run.

Source: The Evening Sun, March 26, 1949.

Elder joined professional baseball in 1947 when he signed with the St. Louis Browns and was assigned to the Toledo Mud Hens. He was 26 years old and debuting in pro ball, and injuries limited him to just 90 games. He batted .312 and drove in 25 runs when he was able to play. One of his most memorable moments was a 14th-inning single against Columbus for a 7-6 win in a game that started on June 11 and ended early the next day. He split the 1948 season between Toledo and San Antonio of the Texas League and continued to hit well.

The Browns assigned Elder to the Baltimore Orioles of the Triple-A International League at the start of the 1949 season. When he struggled with the bat for the first time as a professional, he was assigned to Beaumont of the Texas League. His struggles continued, but the Browns decided to bring him to the majors anyway. Elder debuted as a pinch-runner on July 22 and came to bat for the first time as a pinch-hitter in the first game of a doubleheader against Boston on July 24. It was an 8-8 tie in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Elder drilled a single off Ellis Kinder to score the go-ahead run for the Browns, who won 9-8.

Elder played semi-regularly in left field for a couple of weeks and had a .250 batting average to show for it. After the first week of August, he was used as either a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. A single against the White Sox on September 25 brought his batting average up to .250. It was his final at-bat in the major leagues.

Elder stayed in pro ball for only one more season. He played with the Wichita Indians of the Class-A Western League in 1950, and he hit .284 in 144 games. He homered just twice but had 28 doubles and 10 triples. He retired from baseball when he was 29 years old.

In his 41 games in the majors, Elder had a .250/.313/.318 slash line, with 11 hits that included 3 doubles. He drove in 2 runs and scored 9 times, and he had 4 walks. He also laid down 4 sacrifice hits. In the field, Elder played 59 innings in left field and had 19 putouts with no assists or errors. In his four-year minor-league career, Elder batted .280 with 3 home runs.

A 2021 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated that Elder worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Los Angeles County after leaving baseball. When he retired from that profession, he became a horse trainer and retired out in Fruita, Colorado. In recent years, Elder’s health declined to the point that he was confined to a wheelchair, and his wife, Mary Ann, cared for him. However, Elder’s mind stayed sharp to the very end. Wheatley of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society said he had spoken with Elder several times within the past year. When he turned 100, Elder released a letter to the public via the Historical Society’s Facebook page. It was a sweet and timely message that said in part:

As I count down to my 100th birthday I would like to say a huge thank you to all of the baseball fans all over the world. It does not matter what team you cheer for but with whom you cheer with. Please take time to play catch with your family and friends. Lock up the smart phones on the weekends and make your priority your family. Be a hero to your neighbors. Lift people up, don’t tear them down. Encourage everyone to be their best, their brightest star, their strongest and their kindest… Love everyone, of all races, of all religious beliefs and political ideologies as you would be loved.

George R. Elder

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