First, Middle Names: Gilbert Fitzgerald
Date of Birth: Jan. 18, 1922 Date and Place of Death: Feb. 5, 2020, Brevard, NC
Burial: Gillespie Evergreen Cemetery, Brevard, NC
High School: Mineral Springs High School, Mineral Springs, NC
College: Brevard College, Brevard
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-0, 180
Debut Year: 1945 Final Year: 1956 Years Played: 11
Teams and Years: Washington Senators, 1946-53; Baltimore Orioles, 1954-55; Chicago White Sox, 1955; N.Y. Giants. 1955-56
G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR
918 2877 731 384 278 39 .254 .316 .359 +1.9
Gilbert Fitzgerald Coan was a 23-year-old, fleet-footed kid outfielder when he debuted with the Washington Senators in 1946. He would play 10 more years in the major leagues, most of them for the woeful Senators. The team, a charter member of the American League in 1901, had once been competitive back in the days when Walter Johnson commanded the pitching mound and Goose Goslin and Sam Rice roamed the outfield.
But by the time Coan arrived, the Senators could count only three winning seasons since their last pennant in 1933 during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Frustrated fans had resurrected the ditty about Washington that Charles Dryden, a legendary baseball writer, coined during an earlier period of team futility: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.
Senator fans had reason to hope, though, when Coan took the field on that April afternoon. The team had finished in second place in a wartime-depleted league in 1945. This new kid was considered a can’t-miss prospect. Many thought he would play a big part in that brighter future.
“Gil Coan was the most promising rookie ever to arrive on the Washington baseball scene,” declared Joe Engel, the Senators’ chief scout who had discovered Goslin, Rice and Bucky Harris. Coan, he said, was the best of them all.[I]
The third son of George and Florence Coan’s four boys, Gil was born in Monroe but grew up in nearby Mineral Springs, North Carolina, in a house next to the Methodist Church. Coan would become a lifelong Methodist.
He played baseball and football for the local high school, and Duke University wanted him to Durham, North Carolina, to play football, but Coan headed for the state’s mountains instead. He enrolled in what was then Brevard Junior College in 1940 where he played baseball and, more importantly, met Dovie White.
The two married in September 1941, when Coan dropped out of college to take a job at the nearby Eucusta Paper plant that paid 40 cents an hour. He remained after Pearl Harbor because he was ineligible for the battle fields after a childhood infection had required amputating a portion of his left thumb.
While playing for the company’s baseball team, Coan caught the eye of Washington scouts who signed the Papermaker in 1944 and shipped him off to their minor leagues, first to Kingsport, Tennessee, then to Chattanooga. Coan tore the cover off the ball. He hit over .330 in the minors while playing all three outfield positions and was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the year in ’45 when he hit .372 and stole 37 bases.
Alas, the Cinderella story came to an end in Tennessee. The rookie didn’t take Washington by storm as well. Coan hit .209 in just 132 at bats – welcome to The Show, kid – and was sent back down to the minors for more seasoning.
Coan returned a year later. This time he made noise, hitting .500 in 42 at bats. This time he would stick around.
While he and the Senators never fulfilled the lofty expectations of the rookie’s first afternoon, Coan compiled a solid, workman-like career while mostly playing for a laughingly bad team. His best year was probably 1951 when he hit over .300. He even got some votes for Most Valuable Player. During a game against the New York Yankees that April, Coan tied a major-league record by hitting two triples in one inning. His second three-bagger gave the Senators the lead, which of course they relinquished. They eventually lost the game. And, so it went.
When he hung up it up in 1956, Coan had played in over 900 games and had over 2,800 at bats. He got a hit about a quarter of the time. Respectable. “I got to travel all over the country and meet great people just because I could hit a ball and run fast,” is the way Coan summed it up to an interviewer several years ago. “I was a pretty decent player, nothing special.”[II]
He was also a pretty fast runner. So fast, in fact, that someone thought it grand promotion to match him against a racehorse. It was fan appreciation night in 1956. Coan had spent the last two years bouncing around baseball. He had been traded to the New York Giants a year earlier and was playing for their minor-league Millers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Here’s Coan’s description: “I was fairly well-known for being a fast runner, you know?… and they asked me to race a horse from the right field wall to home plate. They gave me a little head start on this horse that they got from some local racetrack, but I won. They gave me $25 and I was thrilled.”[III]
Coan retired soon afterward and returned to Brevard. He was only 34. He bought an interest in Brevard Insurance Agency, which he owned outright by 1962. He would actively sell insurance until he retired at age 65. His grandson, Jay, later ran the agency.
While selling insurance and real estate, Coan managed the Brevard College baseball team for a couple of years and a was longtime member of the school’s board of trustees.
Coan and Dovie lived in a house overlooking Glen Cannon Country Club. He would stop by his cattle farm that he sold to his son, Kevin, to feed the cattle. He’d also stop by Gil Coan Field, the ballfield at Brevard College, to watch the kids play. After the field was renamed in his honor in 1994, Brevard residents would often see him mowing the grass or lining the infield.
Dovie died in November 2019. She was 97. She and Coan had been married for 78 years. Coan died three months later. Also 97, he was one the last remaining players of the original Baltimore Orioles and one of the oldest major-league players still alive.
“I think I was a part of baseball history that fans appreciated more than any other,” Coan said once. “Baseball gave me an entrée that would have never been available otherwise.”[IV]
[I] Willis, C. Norman. Washington Senators All-Time Greats. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2011. 272.
[II] Attanasio, Ed. “An Interview With Former Ballplayer Gil Coan.” Sports Collectors Digest.com, 2013. https://sportscollectorsdigest.com/news/an-interview-with-former-ballplayer-gil-coan