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.

 

Coble, Dave

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Monroe

First, Middle Names: David Lamar
Date of Birth:  Dec. 24, 1912  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 16, 1971, Orlando, FL
Burial: Lakeland Memorial Park, Monroe, FL

High School: Undetermined
College: Wingate University, Wingate, NC; University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 183
Debut Year: 1939       Final Year: 1939          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1939

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
15        25        7          2          0          0          .280     .280     .320     -0.2

First, it was the Washington Monument. Then, a skyscraper in Cleveland. Pretty soon baseballs were being tossed off tall structures and even out of airplanes and blimps all over the major leagues, and down on the ground players tried to catch them. Some lost teeth or broke noses. One was knocked clean out.

John Lardner, Ring’s son, was a pretty fair sportswriter himself. He once tried to explain what he called “the morbid lure” of this odd pastime that flourished during the early part of the 20th century. He thinks Walter Johnson inadvertently had something to do with it. The great Washington Senators pitcher and Hall of Famer was the hardest thrower anyone had ever seen in that era before radar guns. He was called The Big Train because, after all, locomotives were the fastest things anyone had ever seen. Gabby Street, Johnson’s catcher on the Senators, liked to encourage the legend of Walter’s blinding speed. A ham of the first order, Street often showed newspaper photographers how he shoved a raw steak in his mitt to protect his hand.

“And when fertile minds began to speculate on the possibility of this great catcher holding real, superhuman speed – the speed of gravity – there was the Washington Monument ready at hand,” Lardner wrote.[I]

It didn’t take much to persuade Street in 1908 to try and catch a baseball thrown from atop the 555-foot obelisk. He needed several chances to do it, but he did it. And the stage was set.

Ruth Law Oliver stands next to an airplane while dressed in the government aviation uniform. She flew over the Western Front during World War I and was the only woman permitted to wear the uniform for non-military purposes in France. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Wilbert Robinson, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, agreed during spring training in Florida 1915 to try and catch a ball thrown from a low-flying plane. The pilot, the famous female aviator Ruth Law Oliver, forgot the baseballs on the ground. She tossed out a grapefruit that she had planned to eat for lunch.  It fell 525 feet. Uncle Robbie caught it, but it exploded in his mitt, covering him to juice and ooze. Robertson thought it was blood.

“Help. I’m dying. I’m bleeding to death,” the stricken manager yelped.

Legend insists that’s how the Grapefruit League got its name.[II]

Several less impressive stunts were performed over the next few years – balls tossed from bridges and low-flying balloons and such. Then, in 1938, two Cleveland Indian players bested Street. They caught balls that fell more than 700 feet after being thrown from the city’s railroad terminal.

 

Into this history stepped Dave Coble. He had grown up in a large family down in Monroe in Union County. His father, John, was a railroad engineer. Coble’s childhood history is sketchy, but we know he played baseball at what was then Wingate Junior College, a Baptist school in the North Carolina  town of the same name, and then at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  

Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson

Coble played three years of minor-league ball, before being bought by the Philadelphia Phillies in April 1939. It’s impossible to imagine a modern manager saying something like this now, but here’s what Doc Prothro told reporters about his new catcher: “I know Coble is a poor hitter and doesn’t stand much chance against big-league pitching. But he is a good receiver. I don’t mind telling you I am buying him mainly for his hustle.”[III]

Why the 26-year-old rookie was chosen the following month to take part in a publicity stunt is lost to history. The union that represented local white-collar newspaper employees wanted to throw baseballs from the observation deck of the William Penn statue atop City Hall and then auction them off for charity. The woeful Phillies, a team headed for a 106-loss season and desperate for anything to boost fan interest, gladly supplied the players. Coble was to join his manager in the tossing, but his fear of heights assigned him to the ground for the catching.

A crowd estimated to be at least 10,000 people – more than would attend the Phillies game later that day – showed up on May 10 to watch Coble and three other players try to catch baseballs that Prothro dropped 521 feet above the street. He would throw a ball until one was caught. It’s not clear if all the players went for each ball or if they agreed on some order, but there is a goofy newspaper photo of them in uniform wearing leather football helmets and gazing intently into the air, their gloves ready to make the catch.

The players couldn’t actually see the balls when they began their descent. They were notified by shortwave radio when each ball was dropped. Coble caught the first one on a bounce. The wind caught one and pushed it into the crowd, scattering spectators. Another bounced off a concrete traffic island a hundred feet away. Finally, on the ninth try, Coble caught the ball on the fly.[IV]

Physicists from Penn Institute were on hand to calculate the ball’s speed. Some newspapers reported it traveled at 83 miles an hour. The Big Train would yawn. Other reports had the speed at 125 mph. That’s more like it.

Coble told reporters that catching it, no matter how fast it was traveling, felt like “a man jumping into my arms.” All the newspaper stories were in agreement on this point: “So great was the impact that Coble nearly went to his knees.”[V]

Another photo shows Coble triumphantly holding up the captured, speeding spheroid as the crowd cheers.

The beginning of the end of this odd fad came two months later when Joe Sprintz, a player with the San Francisco Seals in the minor leagues, attempted to break the Cleveland record by catching a ball thrown from the Goodyear Blimp floating 800 feet off the ground. He missed and broke his jaw and five teeth. He was also knocked out cold.

As for Coble, that catch at City Hall was the highlight of his major-league career. The Phillies demoted him in August after he appeared in just 15 games.  He would serve in world War II and then play or manage in the minors until 1953. He was also a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics.

He was selling real estate in Orlando, Fla., when he died in 1971. His obituary lists no surviving spouse or children and makes no mention of the day he famously caught a bullet falling from the sky.

References
[I] Lardner, John. “Old Monumental Stunt Becoming Ordinary.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) May 13, 1939.

[II] Clair, Michael. “Grapefruit League Earned Its Name From a Prank.” MLB.com, March 13, 2020. https://www.mlb.com/news/wilbert-robinson-caught-grapefruit-from-a-plane.
[III] Associated Press. “Doc Prothro Buys Catcher for ‘Hustle.’” Knoxville (TN) Journal. 6 April 1939.
[IV] Fitzpatrick, Frank. “Cloudy with a Chance of Baseballs.” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, May 10, 2014.
[V] “Rookie Catches Ball Traveling 125 m.p.h.” San Bernardino (CA) Sun, May 12, 1939.