July 21, 2007
Why we all should know Wally Gilbert
By Chuck Frederick
No surprise that the HBO documentary “Brooklyn
Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush” focused almost entirely on
the “Boys of Summer” of the 1940s and 1950s. Those were
the teams, after all, of Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and, of course,
the legendary Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s
No surprise — but still a real shame.
That’s because by skimming over the Dodgers’
many forgettable seasons between 1890 and the 1930s, the filmmakers
missed an opportunity this month to tell the story of Wally Gilbert,
a kid from the sandlots of West Duluth. And a kid named by Sporting
News magazine as the greatest Brooklyn Dodgers third baseman of
“Duluth’s greatest all-around athlete”
is what the News Tribune once called Gilbert. Another time the paper
said he was “the greatest athlete ever developed in Duluth.”
But chances are, few have ever heard of —
or remember — him. And that, too, seems a shame.
An only child, Wally Gilbert was born six days
before Christmas in 1900 in Oscoda, Mich. When he was just 4 or
5 his family moved to Duluth, where his natural athletic abilities
began to shine. He dominated in football, basketball and baseball
at Denfeld High School and was recruited to play for Valparaiso
University in Indiana. He was an All-American halfback on Valpo’s
football team, a guard and forward on its basketball team and a
third baseman on the baseball team.
Gilbert played minor-league baseball before returning
to Duluth in 1923 to play football for an upstart NFL franchise
sponsored by the Kelley-Duluth Hardware store. The team became the
Duluth Eskimos, and Gilbert quickly became one of its first stars.
He booted a 60-yard field goal. Another time, he punted a ball so
far, the great Jim Thorpe said, “I thought I’d have
to chase it to the Mississippi.” He helped kick, run and pass
Duluth to victories over such legendary opponents as the Green Bay
Packers and the Kansas City Cowboys.
In 1926, Gilbert was on the roster when the Eskimos
played their first game at home and then spent the rest of the season
barnstorming across America. Wearing signature Mackinaw jackets
and igloos on the chests of their uniforms, the Eskimos traveled
as far east as Portland, Maine, and as far west as San Francisco.
They played 29 exhibitions and league games, and once played five
games in eight days.
New York Times sportswriter Grantland Rice nicknamed
the Eskimos the “Iron Men of the North.” They returned
home with 17,000 miles worth of stories and memories.
“No football team, amateur or pro, in world
sports history has ever accomplished a similar feat,” Eskimos’
owner Ole Haugsrud of Superior once said. “And to add to the
glory of this unique accomplishment, we did it with a squad of 13
players 75 percent of the time. Think that one over. Twenty-nine
football battles in one season with 13 performers.”
Of course, those performers included Pro Football
Hall of Fame members Ernie Nevers of Superior, Johnny “Blood”
McNally and Walt Kiesling.
And also Gilbert, who played professional basketball
in addition to professional football — and who also made a
mark in professional baseball.
He was sold by the New York Yankees to the Brooklyn
Dodgers in 1928. Over five major-league seasons, he batted .269,
including .304 in 1929 and .294 in 1930. More impressive was his
nearly flawless .947 fielding percentage.
“He had cat-quick reflexes,” said
his son, John Gilbert, a Minnesota writer and journalist whose career
started at the News Tribune in the mid-1960s. “Nothing that
he could reach with two quick steps and a dive ever got past him.”
In 1925, Gilbert’s Brooklyn teammates voted
him “most popular.” He was honored by the Sporting News
in 1957, the year the Dodgers broke Brooklyn’s spirit by moving
to Los Angeles.
Later in life, Gilbert worked at the U.S. Steel
plant, and in 1943, after going to see doctors about a bad cough,
it was discovered that he had an abscess in a lung from breathing
steel particles. Surgeons at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic removed
the lung, but Gilbert never was the same.
“After being so active all his life, my
dad couldn’t take 10 steps in a row or climb five steps without
pausing to catch his breath in his one lung,” John Gilbert
told me for a book being written about the Eskimos. “He could
never work or be active again. … Because I was just a baby,
I was unaware of the enormous change our family faced.”
If his father ever “was bitter about the
tragic turn of events, he never showed it,” his son said.
Wally Gilbert died in St. Luke’s Hospital
in the fall of 1968.
“Sports stars come and go, and the media
hype and hyperbole grow in monumental quantities,” John Gilbert
said this summer. “As each year passes, the chances are fewer
and fewer that anyone will recognize the level of excellence of
those athletes from the first three decades of the 1900s, or that
somebody from back then might just be the greatest athlete in Minnesota
history. Funny thing is, Wally Gilbert probably would prefer it
There’s no shame in that.