Walter John “Wally” Gilbert was an only child, born six days before Christmas in 1900 in Oscoda, Michigan. His family moved to Duluth when he was just four or five years old. He “grew up as a special sort of athlete,” said his son, Minnesota sportswriter John Gilbert. “It wasn’t destiny because his upbringing was spare and without sports connections. He simply excelled at every athletic endeavor he attempted.”
At Duluth Denfeld High School, Gilbert was dominant on the football field, basketball court, and baseball diamond. His reputation as an athlete grew when he and a couple of buddies went to Valparaiso University in Indiana. He was a halfback on the football team, earning All-American honors his senior year. He was a guard and forward on the basketball team and a third baseman on the baseball team. His senior year he captained the football and baseball teams and possibly the basketball team.
“He was six foot one [and 180] pounds and had large, muscular hands and a quick, instinctive ability to read situations and hone his reactions,” John Gilbert said of his father. “When he’d get a baseball glove, first thing he did was cut a hole out of the pocket. He wanted to feel the ball hit his hand so he could get rid of it quicker.”
Gilbert played minor-league baseball before coming home and joining the Kelley-Duluth team. He was a champion curler, too, competing—and often winning—at the old Duluth Curling Club.
In addition to playing pro football with the Kelley-Duluth team and the Eskimos in the fall, during the winter Gilbert played professional basketball on touring teams that included the Buffalo Germans, Duluth Tank Corps, Denver Tigers, and the Two Harbors All-Stars who, like the Eskimos, traveled the country to play games. In the spring and summer, Gilbert played baseball. A third baseman, he worked his way through the minors playing in the North Dakota League for Bismarck, in the Western League for St. Joseph in Missouri, in the American Association for Minneapolis, and in the Southern Association for Atlanta. In 1928, he was sold by the New York Yankees to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Over five major-league seasons, including a 1932 campaign spent with the Cincinnati Reds, Gilbert batted .269, including .304 in 1929 and .294 in 1930. One season his fellow Dodgers named him “most popular.”
More impressive was his nearly flawless .947 fielding percentage. He played even with the bag, “or even inside it,” said his son, John Gilbert, a Minnesota sportswriter. “The game then was line drives and bunts. He would crouch over, on his toes, and his arms would hang full length, swaying back and forth as the pitch was delivered. Apparently, he had cat-quick reflexes, and nothing that he could reach with two quick steps and a dive ever got past him.”
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, The Sporting News named Gilbert the starting third baseman on its all-time Dodgers team. “He had to be proud,” John Gilbert said, “but he barely acknowledged it, even to me.”
In 1937, five years after hanging up his baseball cleats, Gilbert married Mary McKay, a former classmate two years behind him at Duluth’s Denfeld High School. A librarian by trade (she was also a singer, dancer, and pianist) McKay used to drive to Chicago with a friend or sister whenever Gilbert’s Dodgers played the Cubs. The couple had a baby girl, Patt, in 1940. John was born two years later. Wally Gilbert was managing the Wausau Lumberjacks, a Northern League affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. “I’ve already sold him to Cleveland,” he joked in the newspaper after his son’s birth.
Gilbert returned to Duluth after the 1942 season to work in the U.S. Steel plant, which had increased production for World War II. The following summer, he was “coaxed” into serving as player-manager of the minor-league Duluth Dukes baseball team, his son said. “One of my high school teachers told me that he remembered how my dad would coach third but usually not play until the last inning, coming in to pinch hit during close games,” John Gilbert said. “He’d stand at the plate, totally relaxed, and as the pitcher delivered, he’d run up two steps and hit the ball out of the park.”
In 1943, Gilbert was diagnosed with an abscessed lung from breathing steel particles at the Duluth Works plant. At the Mayo Clinic surgeons removed the lung, but advised Gilbert’s family prior to the surgery that he may not survive. Then they said he wouldn’t make it through the night. And then that he wouldn’t leave the hospital alive. “They said if he hadn’t been such a magnificent physical specimen with a truly amazing heart he never could have survived,” John Gilbert said. “He did, and because I was just a baby, I was unaware of the enormous change our family faced. After being so active all his life, my dad couldn’t take ten steps in a row or climb five steps without pausing to catch his breath in his one lung. He could never work or be active again.” To support her family, Mary Gilbert went to work part-time at her brother Jack’s animal hospital and later supervised housekeeping at St. Luke’s Hospital.
If Wally Gilbert ever felt bitter about the way things turned out for him, “he never showed it,” John said. “I only saw a quiet, soft-spoken side to him, with only extremely rare flashes of temper, and part of that was probably my mom’s ability to never complain or make him feel down. Occasionally, Ole Haugsrud, or some former ballplayer buddy who had become a scout, would stop by and there would be lengthy bull sessions at our house. I was too young and too stupid to appreciate the situation or pay attention to the stories.”
Wally Gilbert died in St. Luke’s Hospital on September 7, 1958, at age fifty-seven, living fifteen years longer than the doctors at Mayo Clinic said he would. Upon his death, the Duluth News Tribune wrote that “Gilbert’s greatness at virtually any sport he attempted never went to his head. He had an infectious, likable quality to the end. …It would be hard to say that Gilbert was better at any one sport than another as it would be to say whether you liked your right or left arm better.”
Eleven years after his death, Gilbert was enshrined posthumously in the Duluth Arena Sports Hall of Fame. Former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant was the speaker. “I’ll never forget how Grant said, growing up in Superior, that Wally Gilbert was his idol because he proved you could play with excellence in more than one sport,” John Gilbert said. Following the enshrinement, the Duluth News Tribune tacked on one more accolade, proclaiming Gilbert “the greatest athlete ever developed in Duluth.”
“I’d like to think their spirits are reunited in good times, and I think about them both, every day,” John Gilbert said of his parents (Mary Gilbert died in 2002). “Sports stars come and go, and the media hype and hyperbole grow in monumental quantities. 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. But I know better.”
Gilbert’s obituary from the September 8, 1957 Duluth News Tribune:
Famous Duluth athlete Wally Gilbert dies
Duluth’s greatest all-around athlete is dead.
Walter J. (Wally) Gilbert, 57, passed away at 3:55 p.m. yesterday at St. Luke’s Hospital after a long illness.
Gilbert was what’s known in the sports trade as a “natural.” He played football, basketball and baseball so well that he became a professional at each. He also was nearly unsurpassable as a curler.
It would be as hard to say that Gilbert was “better” at any one sport than another as it would be to say whether you liked your right or left arm better. But Gilbert’s accomplishments on the football field somehow would stand out glaring in a spotlight.
Gilbert and Superior’s Vern Lewyllen were considered two of the greatest punters in the National Football League when Gilbert played with the Duluth Eskimos. One of Gilbert’s greatest feats is not recorded in the record books. He drop-kicked a football 61 yards for an unofficial record.
Once, when the Eskimos were playing at Rock Island, Ill., Gilbert punted from the back of the Duluth goal out of bounds on the Rock Island 2-yard line.
The stadium was one with an open end and the great Jim Thorpe, then playing with Rock Island, in the safety man position, said, “I thought I’d have to go into the Mississippi River to retrieve it.”
Gilbert was not just a great punter, but passed well and was an excellent broken field runner. He also played semi-pro football with the Kelly-Duluth team. In all, he played about 10 years of pro football.
But Gilbert was a “fair-to-middlin’” baseball player, too. Just a few years ago, he was chosen to the all-time Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team as a third baseman. Gilbert played most of his major league career with the Dodgers, but also played with Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
But Gilbert’s greatness at virtually any sport he attempted never went to his head. He had an infectious likeable quality about him to the end. In 1925, teammates voted him the most popular player on the team.
He started his baseball career in the North Dakota League with Bismarck, went to the Western League to play with St. Joseph and also played in the American Association in Minneapolis. Gilbert also played with Atlanta in the Southern League.
He was sold by the New York Yankees to the Brooklyn Dodgers, seemingly one of the very few poor moves the Yankees have made.
Gilbert played with both Wausau and Winnipeg in the Northern League and managed the Wausau club. It seems a bit of his championship tint rubbed off on his team as he piloted Wausau to the pennant in 1941.
Gilbert was eight years in the major leagues and spent about 20 in baseball.
Gilbert also was a crack basketball player. He toured with the Two Harbors All-Stars from coast to coast—Maine to California. He also played with the Duluth Tank Corp., the Denver (Colo.) Tigers and the Buffalo (N.Y.) All-Americans.
Gilbert was a star curler with the Dick Wade rink, known in the 1920s as the “kid rink.” This rink, with Dewey Scanlon and Arne Anderson, topped the bonspiel and won a number of championships.
Gilbert played football and basketball at Duluth Denfeld, from which he graduated in 1920. He went on to Valparaiso University in Indiana where he starred with the gridders when they had such clubs as Yale and Harvard on their schedule. Gilbert helped his club to a victory over Harvard one year.
Gilbert was born Dec. 19, 1900 at Oscoda, Mich., and had called Duluth his home for more than 50 years. He lived on Lakewood Road.
Gilbert is survived by his wife, Mary M., daughter Mary (Patt) Gilbert and son John W., all of Duluth.