Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning are often referred to as the “first family of football,” with the father and his two sons each having significant careers in the National Football League. Another New Orleans-based family, the Gilberts, can make a case for being the “first family of New Orleans baseball.” However, unless you were a baseball fan of the first half of the 20th century, you may not know about them. Larry Gilbert and his two sons, Tookie and Charlie, were each major leaguers, with the father also having a significant minor league playing and managerial career.
At the age of five, Larry’s right foot was caught in the wheel of an ox cart and was so badly torn that doctors wanted to amputate. His mother convinced doctors to spare him of this surgery and after a year of nursing, Larry was able to walk again. He first got involved in baseball as scoreboard boy at Athletic Park in New Orleans and later pitched batting practice to the New Orleans Pelicans. He was originally signed as a pitcher in 1910 by Victoria of the Southwest Texas League, but switched to the outfield the next year.
After playing two years with Battle Creek in the Southern Michigan League and one with Milwaukee of the American Association, Larry made his major league debut on April 14, 1914. Larry’s major league career spanned only two seasons, but his 1914 Boston Braves team had one of the most remarkable seasons in major league history. In last place at the mid-term of the season, the Braves proved to be a “miracle” team by winning the NL pennant. They then beat Connie Mack’s favored A’s in a four-game sweep in the World Series. Larry played part-time as an outfielder. He hit .268 with five home runs and 25 RBI.
After 45 games and a .151 batting average in 1915, Larry was demoted to the minors. After a couple of years in the high minors, he was purchased for $2500 in 1917 by the owner of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. It was the highest price ever for a minor league player up to that time. In 1919 with the Pelicans, he led the Southern Association in batting (.349), hits (171), total bases (237), and stolen bases (42). When the Pelicans sold him to Cleveland following the season, Larry refused to report, saying he wanted to stay in New Orleans. This relationship with the Pelicans lasted twenty-two consecutive years, first as a player, then as manager starting in 1923 through 1938, and also included the job of operating executive in 1930. His last year as a player was 1925, at age 33.
Larry was lured away from New Orleans by Fay Murray, Tennessee livestock millionaire, for $100,000 to manage the Nashville Vols in the Southern League. His annual salary exceeded that of New Yor Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, by $10,000. Larry managed the Vols from 1939 through 1948, and then as general manager and part owner until 1955. He had turned down several managerial offers from major league clubs. In 1940, he was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year. His Nashville team recorded one of the best minor league seasons in history when they went 101-47 that year.
Larry is credited with discovering Mel Ott as a stubby little catcher in Gretna, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Not signed by Larry at the time, Ott was sold to the New York Giants by a lumber magnate from Louisiana who had a semi-pro team.
Larry spent 25 years as manager of the Pelicans and Vols, and his clubs claimed 2,128 victories. He won nine pennants and five Dixie Series titles. He was responsible for sending 48 of his players to the major leagues, including the likes of Buddy Meyer, Zeke Bonura, Johnny Burnett, Tommy Henrich, and Eddie Morgan.
Known as a player’s manager, many doubted Larry would make a good manager because of his easy nature. He was generally known to have no enemies, even players whom he had released. His fairness and honesty were hallmarks of his character.
In his two-year major league career, Larry batted .230 in 117 games. In 1,690 minor league games he had a .298 batting average, including 1,794 hits, 254 doubles, 101 triples, 59 home runs, and 383 RBI.
Larry had three sons who played professional baseball. Charlie and Harold (Tookie) played in the major leagues. Larry, Jr. played under his father in 1938 for New Orleans, but was forced to retire from active play due to a heart ailment.
Charlie was playing for his father, Larry Sr., in Nashville in 1939 when he was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1940 season. As a prospect, he was said to be reminiscent of his father as a player—natural player, fast, good knowledge of the game. He was touted as the greatest 20-year-old outfielder the Southern Association had ever produced.
Charlie played 57 games with the Dodgers in his debut year, but also played 57 games at Montreal so that he could play regularly. However, he never reached the potential that had been earmarked for him. In 1941, Charlie was traded to the Cubs, where he played for parts of four seasons. In his final season, 1947, he led the National League in 40 pinch-hit appearances. He retired because of an injured back. Charlie later served as assistant general manager of the Nashville Vols team with his father.
Harold “Tookie” Gilbert
Harold got his nickname when his older brothers labeled him “rookie” while playing ball as youngsters, but Harold mispronounced it as “Tookie.” Tookie, like his brother Charlie, was a highly touted schoolboy sensation in New Orleans. Tookie was recruited heavily by six major league clubs and he literally picked the club he would sign with by pulling one name from a hat containing all six teams. The New York Giants won the Gilbert “lottery” and he signed for $50,000. Tookie excelled in his minor league debut in 1947. In 1949, like his brother before him, Tookie played for his father at Nashville. He blossomed with 33 home runs and a .334 average.
After starting the 1950 season at Minneapolis, Tookie was called up by the New York Giants to fill a talent shortage at first base. He played in 113 games, but hit only .220 and four home runs. However, he spent the next two years at Minneapolis and Oakland, hitting 29 and 31 homers respectively. He returned to the Giants in 1953, but again he did not display the power he had shown in the minors. He retired before the 1954 season, when it announced he would start the season in Minneapolis again.
In 1959, still only 30 years old, Tookie made a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in his hometown, in an attempt to help save the struggling Southern Association franchise. He was twice elected civil sheriff in New Orleans before dying of a heart attack that resulted in car accident in 1967.