Coan, Gil

Position: Outfield
Birthplace: Monroe

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

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

Career Summary
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, 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 was considering entice him to Durham, North Carolina, with a football scholarship, but Coan headed for the 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 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.

 
Gil Coan, left, with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in 1946. Photo: Major League Baseball

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]

References
[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
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.

 

Campbell, Paul

Position: First Base
Birthplace: Paw Creek

First, Middle Names: Paul McLaughlin  

Date of Birth:  Sept. 1, 1917   Date and Place of Death: June 22, 2006, Charlotte, NC
Burial: Forest Lawn West Cemetery, Charlotte

High School: Paw Creek High School 
College: Brevard College, Brevard, NC

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-10, 185
Debut Year: 1941       Final Year: 1950          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: Boston Red Sox, 1941-42, 1946; Detroit Tigers, 1948-50

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
204   380    97       61        41        4         .255     .308     .358     -0.9

A long career in the major leagues requires skill, of course, but a bit of luck sometimes doesn’t hurt. Paul Campbell was a bit short on the hitting skills expected of first basemen, and he had the awful luck of playing on the same teams with some big-hitting ones.

Though he was a part-time player for six years, Campbell lasted more than 50 years in professional baseball as a minor-league manager and coach, a front-office executive and a scout.

Born in the small community of Paw Creek in western Mecklenburg County, Campbell and his two younger sisters grew up in nearby Charlotte where their father, Charles, worked first in a cotton mill and then managed a grocery store that he later owned. He would be murdered in the store in 1959.

Campbell played competitive baseball as a 12-year-old on the Chadwick-Hoskins Mill team, which played in one of the industrial leagues that flourished in North Carolina through the middle of the last century. He was a fan favorite in American Legion ball, hitting .407 for the Charlotte, North Carolina, club in 1934.

Two years later, after attending junior college in Brevard, North Carolina, Campbell signed his first professional contract with the Danville Leafs in Virginia. He got his first call to the big leagues in 1941 after two solid years for the Boston Red Sox’s Class AA franchise in Louisville, Kentucky. Campbell appeared in one game at first base for the Sox before being demoted. He made it into 26 games when the Red Sox beckoned again the following year, but he hit a paltry .067.

Tradition was working against him. First base in the major leagues has always been a power position. The guys who play there are usually big and bulky and hit a lot of home runs. Think Lou Gehrig or Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg or Albert Pujols. Campbell, at 5-10 and 185 pounds, was small in comparison and never hit more than 15 homers in a season and that was back in Class D ball.

He was also trying to take the job from two of the most prolific power hitters of their era. Though at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, Jimmie Foxx was still a dangerous hitter when Campbell first joined the Red Sox. Rudy York, who hit almost 300 homers during his career, held the job when Campbell returned from World War II in 1946.

Campbell had joined the Army Air Force three years earlier and had toured American air bases in England playing baseball.

Sent back down to Louisville again after appearing in only 28 games for the Red Sox in 1946, Campbell was frustrated. “I have to convince myself that I can play ball,” he said at the time. “For the last five seasons, I’ve been at-bat only 41 times. I’ve played only three full seasons since the start of 1942. Sitting on the bench with the Red Sox in 1942 and again last season after three years in the service has made me feel uncertain of my ability. I don’t know whether I can play because I haven’t had a chance to play.”[I]

But at 29, Campbell turned in his finest season in 1947. In 152 games with Louisville, he batted .304 with 71 RBIs, received MVP honors and prompted manager Harry Leibold to say: “There’s no finer fielding first baseman anywhere. I think he would be a handy guy for any big-league club to have around.”[II]

Campbell was excited to get a fresh start with the Detroit Tigers in 1948, but the results were same – hitting .270 or thereabouts with no power led to sparse playing time. After five more years in the minors, Campbell retired as an active player in 1954.

He was a minor-league coach, manager and executive before becoming a scout for the Cincinnati Reds in 1958. Campbell was promoted to traveling secretary six years later, a position he would hold until 1978. He would continue scouting for the Reds in some fashion until his retirement in 1993, 57 years after his first professional job in Danville.

Campbell and his second wife, Lillian, — his first, Mary Ellen, had died in 1961 – retired to the Charlotte area, where Campbell died at age 89 in a nursing home.

References
[I] Bedingfield, Gary. “Paul Campbell.” Baseball in Wartime, 2008. http://www.garybed.co.uk/player_biographies/campbell_paul.htm.
[II] Ibid.