Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Giants "won" Tookie Gilbert in hat draw

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

Harold "Tookie" Gilbert had a great baseball pedigree. His father, Larry, had been an outfielder on the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves and his older brother, Charlie, had a six-year major league career with the Dodgers, Cubs and Phillies. 

Tookie graduated from Jesuit High School in New Orleans after batting what the back of his 1950 Bowman card says was .695 in high school. (The school's other notable ballplaying alumni included Rusty Staub, Will Clark and Connie Ryan).

Larry Gilbert knew baseball inside and out. He was a successful manager in the Southern Association for 25 years.

By the time Tookie's high school days were over he was being courted by more than a few major league teams. Larry decided the best way to insure his son's baseball future was to cap the bonus bidding and let the teams still interested settle the matter by the luck of the draw.

With the signing bonus set at $50,000, those in the running were the Giants, Yankees, Cubs, Braves and Red Sox. On Oct. 13, 1946, with a representative from each team on hand, Gilbert's mother drew the Giants out of a hat and manager Mel Ott signed the 17-year-old left-handed slugger on the spot.

The Giants assigned Gilbert to their top farm club at Minneapolis for 1947, but he was overmatched there, hitting just .097 before being sent down to Class C Erie where he ended the season batting .333 with 11 home runs.

Gilbert slugged his way back up the Giants minor league ladder. In 1948 in Class A (Sioux City) he hit .299 with 26 home runs. In 1949 at Class AA Nashville he batted .334 with 33 homers.

After a month back in Minneapolis to start 1950, he was called up to the Giants, where he was asked to fill big shoes taking over for four-time N.L. home run king Johnny Mize at first base. Tookie hit a home run in his first big league game, but was unable to hit big league pitching consistently (.220 for the season) or with power (four HR).

He was returned to Minneapolis for 1951 and had a modestly successful year, batting .273 with 29 home runs and 100 RBIs.

For 1952, Gilbert was reunited with Mel Ott at Oakland in the Pacific Coast League. Though he hit only .259, he led the league with 118 RBIs and was second with 31 home runs.

His year with the Oaks earned him another chance with the big club. While he spent the entire year with the Giants in 1953 he was used most often as a pinch-hitter, playing at first base during brief periods when Whitey Lockman was playing left field. For '53, Gilbert batted just .169 with three HR in 70 games. 

Realizing he had no future in the major leagues, Gilbert retired prior to the 1954 season. In a newspaper interview he explained, "I'm 24 now, but I felt I was wasting my career away sitting on the bench. I asked to be traded but the Giants had such a big investment in me they refused. So I decided to quit and get myself established in a business. Baseball never had the appeal for me that it held for my father and brother."

Gilbert went into the business world with a New Orleans paint manufacturer.

In 1959, at the age of 30, he made a one-year comeback with New Orleans in the Southern Association. He didn't embarrass himself as the Pelicans regular first baseman, batting .261 with 22 home runs (tied for fifth in the league) and leading the league with 118 walks. 

Gilbert was elected Civil Sheriff of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, in 1962 and again in 1966. He died of an apparent heart attack behind the wheel of his car in 1967 at age 38.

Tookie Gilbert's baseball card legacy is thin. He appeared in the 1950 Bowman issue and has one of the relative handful of horizontally formatted cards in the 1952 Topps set. He is also found in the 1952 Mother's Cookies  set of Pacific Coast League players.

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