Grave Story: Larry Gilbert (1891-1965)

Larry Gilbert is one of the leading figures in the history of New Orleans baseball. While his major-league career was brief, he later became one of the most successful minor-league managers ever. Gilbert played for the Boston Braves in 1914 and 1915, but his managing career lasted until 1948.

Lawrence William Gilbert was born in New Orleans on December 3, 1891. His father, Abraham, was a first-generation Louisianan; Larry’s grandfather Herman Gilbert came from Baden, Germany, and grandmother Ester was a New Yorker, according to the 1870 U.S. Census. Abraham Gilbert was a house painter and supported wife Roselia and sons Clarence and Lawrence. When he was 5 years old, Larry’s foot got caught in the wheel of an ox cart and was injured so badly that doctors considered amputating the leg. Mrs. Gilbert refused to allow it, so the doctors put 32 stitches in the foot and sent him home. It took a year for him to walk again, and the injury left him with one leg slightly longer than the other. While he would walk with a limp, it did not affect his ability to run; when he started playing baseball professionally, he was known for his great speed and the ability to turn any kind of a long base hit into a triple or even an inside-the-park home run.

Larry Gilbert, his wife Gertrude and son Larry Jr. are interred in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.

Larry Gilbert attended Jesuit High School in New Orleans, and he first began to enjoy success on the baseball diamond as a pitcher. He pitched for the New Orleans Parker-Blakes and then joined the St. Francisville Felicianas in 1909 for $75 a month and expenses. The team routinely dominated teams from the larger city of Baton Rouge. One game, an 8-1 win on August 19, was held in Baton Rouge and featured an umpire so incompetent (or most likely so crooked) that he was removed from the game. “Baton Rouge played dirty ball, and some of her players, assisted by spectators and some members of the police force, resorted to rowdyism – and then couldn’t win,” reported the St. Francisville Democrat. “The feature of the game was Lawrence Gilbert’s usual home run.”

Gilbert signed with a ballclub in San Antonio, which transferred him to the Victoria Rosebuds of the Southwest Texas League in 1910. Just 18 years old, the left-handed nevertheless became the winningest pitcher on the team, with 18 wins against only 7 losses. He also played the field from time to time, but he wasn’t a great hitter, with a batting average below .200. The Rosebuds sold his contract to the Battle Creek Crickets of the Southern Michigan League in 1911 to continue his pitching career. Gilbert won 17 games, but he also lost 15, and he seemed to struggle at times. He hit well, ending the year with a .253 batting average in 54 games, with 5 triples. His season ended early when he was sent back to Louisiana on September 13 to recover various injuries. By the time that he came back to the Crickets in 1912, the decision had been made to take advantage of his offensive abilities and convert him into an outfielder.

The conversion worked out very well, as Gilbert hit .302 as a full-time right fielder in 1912. He belted 7 home runs and added 14 triples. During the 1913 preseason, Gilbert worked out with the New Orleans Pelicans, and the team’s ownership was impressed enough to try and make a deal for the outfielder. Before that could take place, reported the Lansing State Journal, “President Armour of the Fond du Lac and Milwaukee teams [possibly Bill Armour, former major-league manager and newly appointed business manager of the Milwaukee Brewers], bought the outfielder, intending to play him at Fond du Lac.” Learning of the Pelicans’ interest, Armour bumped Gilbert to the Milwaukee roster, and New Orleans eventually dropped its pursuit of him. Milwaukee won the American Association pennant, and Gilbert did his part, with a .282 batting average and 10 home runs. He also was one of the best baserunners in the league, with 43 stolen bases.

Source: Lewiston Evening Journal, December 3, 1914.

Larry Gilbert married Gertrude Wilhelmina Mader on October 29, 1913. They had three sons: Lawrence Jr., Charles and Harold aka “Tookie.” Charlie Gilbert had a 6-year major-league career of his own in the 1940s, and Tookie Gilbert played for the New York Giants in 1950 and ’53.

In January of 1914, it was announced that Larry Gilbert had signed with the Boston Braves and was expected to serve as the team’s starting center fielder. Newspaper reports called him the most promising rookie on the Braves roster in years. “All who have seen the new man in action predict that he will have little trouble in securing a regular place,” stated the article announcing his signing. Sure enough, Gilbert did well… when he was healthy enough to play. Just a few games into the season, the center fielder collided with left fielder Joe Connolly and badly injured his ankle. He was lost to the team for about a month and missed playing time on and off for the rest of the season. He was limited to 72 games, but he slashed .268/.347/.371 when he played. His 5 home runs were second on the team to the 9 hit by Connolly, and he drove in 25 runs while scoring 32 times. The only month where he didn’t miss significant playing time was June. He played in 28 games and batted .317, with 4 home runs. He re-aggravated his injury on July 4, and after that, he primarily pinch-hit.

The 1914 Boston Braves are better known as the “Miracle Braves,” because the team was buried in last place as late as July 18, 11 games out of first place. A month later, they were in second place, and by the end of the regular season, the Braves had run away with the NL pennant, finishing with 94 wins, 10-1/2 games ahead in the standings. The team then swept Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, which featured future Hall of Famers Herb Pennock, Home Run Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Eddie Plank and Eddie Collins. Gilbert made just one plate appearance, but it was a significant one. Game Three of the Series, played on October 12, 1914, went into extra innings, with the A’s and Braves tied at 4. In the bottom of the 12th inning, Hank Gowdy led off the inning with a ground-rule double. He was taken out of the game for speedy pinch-runner Les Mann, and Gilbert was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Bill James. Mack ordered pitcher “Bullet” Joe Bush to walk him intentionally, bringing up Herbie Moran. Moran laid down a sacrifice bunt, and Bush tried to make a force play at third base. However, his throw soared past third baseman Baker for a throwing error, and Mann scored to end the game at 5-4. Boston won Game Four the next day, 3-1, to win the Series.

Gilbert returned to New Orleans, where he was hailed as a city hero. He had intended to play winter ball for one of the local teams, but Braves manager George Stallings asked him to rest his injured leg over the winter. Gilbert’s baseball activity was limited to a game held in his honor, and in which he drove home the winning runs with a single. Prior to the game, a parade was held in Gilbert’s honor in the streets of New Orleans, and the ballplayer was presented with a silver cup, a gold watch and other mementos.

Source: The Birmingham News, April 25, 1923.

Despite a restful offseason, Gilbert’s ankle didn’t recover. He started off with the 1915 Braves as a pinch-hitter, eventually working his way into right field for a little while. In 45 games, he hit .151 with 4 RBIs. Two of them came in one at-bat on May 12. He was sent into a game against the St. Louis Cardinals with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. Facing Cardinals pitcher Hub Perdue, who had briefly been a part of the Miracle Braves team, Gilbert rapped a 2-run single, contributing to a 6-2 Braves win. It was Gilbert’s best moment in a bad season. He was sent to Toronto of the International League in July, and he never returned to the major leagues.

Gilbert’s brief time in the majors, over parts of 2 seasons, amounted to 117 games. He slashed .230/.31/.312, with 76 hits that included 10 doubles, 1 triple and 5 home runs. He drove in 29 runs and scored 43 times, and Gilbert also stole 7 bases.

Gilbert finished the 1915 season as one of Toronto’s best hitters, batting .325 in 68 games. After playing winter ball back in New Orleans, he signed with Kansas City of the American Association and batted .275 with 8 home runs. He refused to rejoin with Kansas City in 1917 and stayed back home in New Orleans. Kansas City, deciding that they should at least get something in return for Gilbert if he wouldn’t play for the team, sold him to the Pelicans of the Southern Association. Gilbert and the Pelicans went far back, before he even started playing ball. When he was a teenager, Gilbert operated the manual scoreboard at Pelicans Park for three years.

In his first season as a Pelican in 1917, Gilbert hit 5 home runs and had a .269 batting average. Once he and the team came to terms on a contract in 1918, Gilbert hit .282 and stole 22 bases. It was a sign that his injured ankle was healed, and it also demonstrated that his two different-sized legs wouldn’t slow him down. From that point to nearly the end of his playing career, Gilbert consistently batted over .300 and stayed with his hometown team long enough to become not only a fan favorite but part of the team’s management.

Gilbert ran away with the Southern Association batting title in 1919, batting .349. He also led the league with a .484 slugging percentage and was among the leaders with 31 doubles, 10 triples and 5 home runs. Following the season, his contract was purchased by the Cleveland Indians. However, when Cleveland sent him his 1920 contract, he returned it unsigned. “I don’t want to leave New Orleans, my home,” Gilbert said. “The only thing that will induce me to leave is an offer that I cannot afford to turn down. I have a good business here [he owned a filling station], and not only would I have to leave that, but I would be under much greater expense living in another city, with my wife and two little boys. One glance at the Cleveland contract convinced me that there was no chance. It called for just a little more than half of what I would demand to go North.”

Source: The Birmingham News, July 6, 1927.

At first, Cleveland was unyielding. “Larry Gilbert will wither play with the Indians or quit baseball. I am no simp to turn him over to the Pelicans,” said Cleveland owner Jim Dunn. In the end, Gilbert got his way. He was returned to New Orleans, where he continued to be one of the team’s top batters. Not only had Gilbert become the team’s hitting star, he was also the Pelicans’ captain. John Dobbs was the team’s long-time manager, but Gilbert was so well-liked that he was all but guaranteed a managerial job whenever he chose to leave his playing career behind. The opportunity came quicker than expected. In December of 1922, Dobbs left New Orleans to take the managerial position with the Memphis Chicks. Gilbert, who had previously rejected any notion about becoming manager out of deference to Dobbs, jumped at the opportunity and was given the job. Dobbs was thrilled for his former player. “Larry used to lay awake nights worrying over things when the club was off stride. He worried far more for me than I ever did for myself,” he said. “Larry knows baseball and is a fighter; he deserves a winner and I hope he gets one. He certainly gave me all that he had.”

The 30-year-old Gilbert remained a valuable player, batting .312 in 1823 and .327 in ’24. His managerial stills, though, were outstanding. Starting with his first season of 1923, he took a Pelicans club that was an also-ran in 1922 and led them to first place in the Southern Association, with 89 wins. He did it in spite of a team that didn’t hit particularly well, and a series of injuries that limited his best hitter – Gilbert – to just 99 games. The team was sound defensively and had three good pitchers in Joe Martina, Roy Walker and Bill Whitaker. Gilbert acquired another pitcher, George Winn, from Cleveland to help take the load off his three starters, and the Pels’ pitching helped the team pull away in the standings. The team lost to Fort Worth of the Texas League in the Dixie Series, but Gilbert’s first season as manager was successful.

Under Gilbert as manager, New Orleans finished first in 1923, 1926, 1927 and 1934. When the league moved to a playoff for the championship, the Pels won each year from 1932 to 1934, and it won the Dixie Series in 1933 and ’34 as well. Gilbert played until 1925 before focusing solely on managing. He tailed off a bit in his final season, batting .279 in 101 games. In 15 season as a minor-league player, Gilbert batted .298 with 1,794 base hits.

Gilbert survived a scandal in 1925, when it was reported that he was trying to convince two Nashville Vols ballplayers to “lay down,’ or play badly, so that their major-league teams would want to get rid of the, and New Orleans could pick them up. Southern Association president John D. Martin interviewed Gilbert and the Pelican players in an official inquiry. “I certain welcome an investigation although I have done nothing that needs investigating,” Gilbert said. His ballplayers backed him up, and Gilbert was ultimately cleared by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, May 2, 1939.

New Orleans won the Southern Association title in 1926 and ’27 with 101 and 96 wins, respectively, though the team lost the Dixie Series in both years. Gilbert put together teams with a mix of young talent and veteran presence, and he got good performances from both sides. In 1927, the team’s best hitters were Pinky Whitney and Ed Morgan, who were starting careers that would include substantial time in the majors. The pitching staff was led by Dave Danforth and Joe Martina, both of whom were 37 years old and nearing the end of their long professional careers.

The New Orleans Pelicans were owned by local businessman A.J. Heinemann. In January of 1930, he took his own life, possibly out of a combination of poor health and a financial loss in the stock market. Gilbert took on other management duties, and in 1933, he stepped away from managing entirely to take over as business manager. Jake Atz stepped in to manage the team, but the Pels fell to sixth place under him. Gilbert returned as manager for 1933 while keeping his business manager duties, and the team promptly won another Southern Association pennant and beat San Antonio to win the Dixie Series as well. The team’s pitching was led by 21-year-old Denny Galehouse, whom Gilbert had picked from a Class-B team in Fort Wayne, Ind. He won 17 games for New Orleans in 1933. Galehouse, along with fellow young pitchers Clay Bryant and Al Milnar, took New Orleans to another league championship with 94 wins and another win in the Dixie Series over Galveston. Both Galehouse and Milnar would have lengthy careers with New Orleans’ parent club, the Cleveland Indians. Bryant was purchased from Cleveland by the Chicago Cubs and won 19 games for Chicago’s 1938 NL pennant-winning team.

The 1938 Pelicans once again featured a Larry Gilbert in the lineup – Larry Jr., that is. The younger Gilbert, who was considered one of the best high school athletes in the city, was a great addition to a team that finished in third place. Gilbert Jr. batted .280 with 3 home runs during the year and was named to the league’s All-Star Team. Unfortunately, it ended up being the final season of his career. A heart ailment cause Gilbert to abandon his baseball dreams; he died at the age of 27 in 1941 after coming down with pneumonia.

Gilbert and New Orleans were a great match, but it was not a permanent one. After winning the 1934 championship, the Pelicans started to backslide in the standings, finishing in fourth place in 1936 and 1937. The shakeup began with the Nashville Vols, where manager Charlie Dressen left to accept the manager’s position with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gilbert then took the Nashville job, as well as the position of vice president. “In order to obtain Gilbert, it was necessary for him to own a very substantial interest in the club,” said Vols President Fay Murray. Murray died not long after hiring Gilbert, leaving his son Ted and Gilbert as the team’s principal shareholders.

Gilbert in his final year as a manager. Source: Nashville Banner, September 8, 1948.

Gilbert was already popular in Nashville and carried over his success to his new ballclub. In his second year on the job, in 1940, Nashville win 101 games and coasted to a Southern Association title. It also beat Houston to win the Dixie Series. It was the first time Nashville had finished on top of the standings since 1916. The team’s stars included Charlie “Greek” George, a combative catcher who batted .335, and Boots Poffenberger, a combative pitcher who won 24 games as the team’s ace pitcher. Gilbert had a particular way of getting the most from problem players. He also had a knack for finding and developing baseball talent. Of the 61 Vols players who played for the team from 1939 through 1943, 47 of them advanced to a higher level of the minors, or even the major leagues.

Gilbert celebrated his 25th anniversary in the Southern Association in 1941 by receiving a lifetime gold pass from the league. The Vols finished in second place that year behind the Atlanta Crackers but won the playoffs and the Dixie Series over Dallas. Nashville won its fifth consecutive title in 1943, finishing with an 83-55 record. The Vols then went through a prolonged slump for a few years, finishing as low as seventh place in 1945 – Gilbert’s worst year as a manager.

Nashville found its winning ways in 1948, and its 94-58 record led the Southern Association. More significantly, it was Gilbert’s final season as a manager. He didn’t leave the team, as he retained his general manager duties. But he bid farewell as manager to the Nashville fans before a September 7 game, which was attended by representatives from all Southern Association teams, as well as Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler.

Gilbert’s managerial record is incomplete on Baseball Reference – only 7 of his 25 seasons as manager have win-loss records, in fact. The website has a more thorough timeline, so using its numbers, we can list Gilbert’s career as a manager here.

Year & Team – Record & Winning Percentage (Place in Standings)
1923 New Orleans – 89-57 .610 (1)
1924 New Orleans – 93-60 .608 (3)
1925 New Orleans – 85-68 .556 (2)
1926 New Orleans – 101-53 .656 (1)
1927 New Orleans – 96-57 .627 (1)
1928 New Orleans – 73-74 .497 (3)
1929 New Orleans – 89-64 .582 (3)
1930 New Orleans – 91-91 .500 (2)
1931 New Orleans – 78-75 .510 (5)
1933 New Orleans – 88-65 .575 (2)
1934 New Orleans – 94-60 .610 (1)
1935 New Orleans – 86-67 .562 (2)
1936 New Orleans – 81-71 .533 (4)
1937 New Orleans – 84-66 .560 (4)
1938 New Orleans – 79-70 .530 (3)
1939 Nashville – 85-68 .556 (3)
1940 Nashville – 101-47 .682 (1)
1941 Nashville – 83-70 .542 (2)
1942 Nashville – 85-66 .563 (2)
1943 Nashville – 83-55 .601 (1)
1944 Nashville – 79-61 .564 (3)
1945 Nashville – 55-84 .396 (7)
1946 Nashville – 73-73 .500 (6)
1947 Nashville – 80-73 .523 (3)
1948 Nashville – 94-58 .621 (1)

Gilbert had a career record of 2,125-1,653, good for a .562 winning percentage. There currently are only eight major-league managers who have as many or more wins – Dusty Baker will top that number this year, and Bruce Bochy should if he manages again in 2024. His 25 years as manager equals the likes of Casey Stengel and Bill McKechnie, and his winning percentage is slightly ahead of Walter Alston and Bobby Cox. Additionally, his teams won eight straight playoff series from 1940 through 1944.

Gilbert remained involved with the Vols through 1955. The Southern Association fell upon hard times and folded after the 1961 season. Gilbert got out of the game in 1955 as rumors abounded of new owners with the Vols. He sold his half-share of the team to Murray for $125,000 and retired to his home near Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

Gilbert suffered a heart attack not long after stepping away from baseball, but he recovered by the early 60s. He maintained a real estate business and traveled to catch up with old friends. He was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1964. In January of 1965, Gilbert was hospitalized in New Orleans for an undisclosed illness. He died there on February 17 at the age of 73. Gilbert was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.

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