A 'Gunboat' in Texas

June 25, 2017

 

In an era when the minimum salary for Major League Baseball players is $535,000 and the highest paid player, Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw makes $33 million, it’s refreshing to look back at salaries in the 1920s and 30s when players like Harry 'Gunboat' Gumbert  were happy to get a salary rather than scrambling for loose change thrown on the mound.

 

In a Major League baseball career that spanned 15 years, long by any standards and especially for a pitcher, Harry Gumbert made a lot of memories. Like the words of the manager of the first semi-pro team he played for in Charlerois, Pennsyvania just after the stock market crash: "Bring your own uniform."

 

There weren't many jobs to be had in those dark early days of the depression, but Harry remembers always having a little money in his pocket from odd jobs even before the start of his baseball career.

 

Like most baseball players of an earlier day, Gumbert grew up playing on sandlots. In Harry's case, these primitive facilities were located in the industrial area between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the West Virginia line. "Young men didn't play softball in those days," he remembered. "That was a game for real old men.''

 

His father worked for Bethlehem Steel and worked hard to support 11 children. Even so, he was reluctant to let young Harry try out at shortstop for the Charlerois team in 1928. In 1929, he did try out but didn't make the squad. 1930 brought the beginning of an outstanding career as a professional ballplayer.

 

 Gumbert threw a fast sinker. "Lots of games I threw, there wouldn't be any balls hit to the outfield," he recalled. When he was with the New York Giants, in his first full season as a major leaguer in 1936, the groundskeeper would soak the ground in front of homeplate on days when he would be scheduled to pitch. "Those balls would just hit that ground and sit there. That old boy was pretty good at it, they couldn't figure it out."

 

In the days before the color bar was broken in professional baseball, the great Negro League teams like the Homestead Greys and Kansas City Blues would tour the country generally whipping up on semi-pro teams like those of the International League where Harry began his career. Harry saw the Paige brothers, Satchel and Joe, in those years and even managed to beat them a couple of times.

"We would always play on payday,” he recalled. “Mine and mill workers would come, and hundreds of blacks would follow the Greys and Blues to bet on them. A lot of money changed hands. I remember one night that the fans threw over $750 in change and bills onto the pitching mound and I split it with the 10-man team. MacGraw, the manager of the Giants, wanted the great black catcher Gibson so bad that he sent him to Cuba and tried to have his skin whitewashed."

 

From 1931 until 1935, Harry pitched for the old Baltimore Orioles, then in the International League. With the exception of 1934, that is. That year Harry's contract got lost and the management considered him a holdout. The manager told Harry he was sending him so far off that a three-cent stamp wouldn't reach him. "He almost did too. He sent me down to the Galveston Buccaneers, Shearn Moody 's Texas League team." Harry had the last laugh. Galveston won the Texas League pennant the year Harry pitched for them and lost the Dixie Series to·New Orleans. Shearn Moody sold seven players off that year's club to the majors.

 

Galveston was also where Harry met his wife to be, Rachel. The next year he was back with the Orioles for one more stint before being sold to the Giants, but he remembers great Texas League players like Bo Bell, Wally Moses and Bob Linton who went on to major league careers.  Paul and Dizzy Dean became family friends and visited in the Gumbert home more than once in the years to follow. “When Dizzy said somebody had just ‘slud into third,’ you knew what he meant,” Harry laughed, recalling Dean’s colorful broadcasting style after the end of his playing days.

 

From 1935 until 1945, Gumbert was a starting pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. In the ‘30s, it wasn’t unusual for him to win 18, 19, or 20 games a season. He played in four World Series, all against the New York Yankees. In 1942, while he was with St. Louis, the Cardinals beat the Yankees for the World Championship.

 

 Although the Giants paid the Orioles $55,000 for Gumbert's services in 1936, Harry's highest salary was $19,000. Still, that was a lot of money during the depression. The top players

in the game in those days, men like Mel Ott and Carl Hubbel, made $25,000 to $30,000 a year. There was no players' union of course. The minimum salary was $3,000.

 

Platooning of players, a way of sharing playing time, which came into the game after the second world war, prolonged Harry's career. His last year as a ballplayer was 1950. He was 43 years old. After his retirement Gumbert didn’t watch much baseball on TV. Though he admired the abilities of modern players, he didn’t “care much for prima donnas."  A team only needs one manager, he observed. But a glint came into his eye when he talked about the old days, the salad days. Harry Gumbert was a pitcher – and he was a good one.

 

(Harry Gumbert died on Jan. 4, 1995 in Wimberley, Texas.)

 

 

H.H. Howze © 2017

 

Not a boomer. H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.

 

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