Denfeld News

July 21, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

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 color barrier.

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 all time.

“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 that way.”

There’s no shame in that.

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