On Gautreaux’s resume: Rams, Dodgers, war and an insane asylum

Sid Gautreaux

Three summers before debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a decade prior to joining the U.S. Army, and 13 years before becoming an Anniston Ram, Sid Gautreaux found a paying baseball gig two hours from his home in Jackson, Louisiana.

At an insane asylum.

The East Louisiana State Hospital, a government-run facility that opened in the 1800s for mentally challenged patients, needed players for its hospital team. Patients it could find; talented players, not so much. Gautreaux, barely 20 years old, signed up — and moved in as a paid guest of one of the wards “in order to be eligible to reinforce the institution’s nine with his catching.” Anything for baseball.

Nothing on Gautreaux’s baseball resume can top that story, a perfectly sane catcher earning his first paycheck playing for an insane asylum’s squad. It’s archival gold. Nonetheless, it sets the stage for the fascinating career of a journeyman whose career highlights occurred at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn and Johnston Field in Anniston, separated by war and 10 turns of the calendar.

By the time the Rams bought Gautreaux from the Lancaster Red Roses, a Class B team in Pennsylvania, he had played all of one season and part of a second for the National League’s Dodgers. The Rams in 1946 were amid their only championship season, and that summer team president Loy Gunter leaped at the chance to import a veteran, switch-hitting catcher who was leading the Interstate League in hitting.

Gautreaux, then 34, sent Gunter a telegram after learning that Lancaster had sold his contract to Anniston. “I am in Winchester (Virginia) and will get there as soon as I can. Please get me an apartment for me and my wife.” Gunter, a jewelry story owner by trade, spent the day apartment-shopping for his new acquisition.

“Gautreaux comes to the Rams well recommended and should prove a tower of strength both defensively and offensively,” The Anniston Star reported that afternoon.

Gunter’s roster move worked. His bat withered a bit in Anniston — he hit .303 with his former squad and .233 with the Rams — but he shepherded the pitching staff and was a constant in the lineup, his influence undeniable. The Rams were 35-32 and in third place behind Pensacola and Vicksburg in the Southeastern League when Gautreaux joined them. With him they went 46-26, finished second in the SEL, beat Montgomery in the first round of the playoffs and topped Vicksburg in the seven-game championship series.

By late August, Gautreaux had caught the eye of Rams’ fans and the local press. Gautreaux, The Star’s Jack Scott wrote, had “done much to convert a second-division club into the runner-up nine.”

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

“The steady Anniston catcher is a great receiver, a fine field general, fast on his feet, and a switch hitter with great clutch potential,” Scott wrote. “Opposing pitchers are luckiest when they can get Sid to pop up. He rarely fans, and can usually be counted on for a good knock when it is most needed.”

In the fall, Gautreaux’s pedestrian bat during the regular season with the Rams turned potent again in the playoffs. In Game 1 against Vicksburg, Gautreaux hit solo home runs in the fifth and sixth innings of a 20-4 Anniston victory at Johnson Field. He went 2 for 3 in the Rams’ 13-6 win in Game 2. He drove in two runs in Anniston’s crucial 5-4 win in Game 5. And in the decisive Game 7 — which the Rams won, 3-2, in 10 innings — Gautreaux walked and was on base when the winning run scored.

Sid Gautreaux during 1936 spring training with Brooklyn. (Clipping from the Brooklyn Eagle.)

Anniston never again won a league title. In January, Gautreaux asked Gunter to release him from his contract so he could become a player/manager for the Thibodaux Giants of the Class D Evangeline League. Gunter agreed. Gautreaux was going back to his home state. He’d never play or manage outside of Louisiana again.

Back in Brooklyn, fans of the original Dodgers remembered him as the portly catcher nicknamed “Pudge” who hit his way into the Major Leagues after only three years in the minors. Instantly, it seemed, Gautreaux earned notice in the Dodgers’ 1936 spring camp.

Early in camp, a foul ball off the bat of Brooklyn’s Wally Millies slipped through the batting-cage netting and popped Gautreaux’s nose. “The kid didn’t flinch a bit,” the Times Union in Brooklyn reported the next day, “though the nose bled and it was apparent his nose was splintered. Trainer Eddie Himbury gave him first aid and then rushed him to the Clearwater (Florida) Hospital, where it was set.”

Back in camp, Gautreaux described to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter what he considered “an odd accident.”

“I was kidding Walter Millies, who was up at the plate just before the pitch. I said, ‘Now, suppose this were the deciding game of a World Series, that there were thousands of fans shrieking in the stands and the game hinged on this next pitch. Show me what you’d do to it.'”

A 1936 clipping from the Brooklyn Times Union.

Millies showed him.

“That’s all I remember. I didn’t see the foul tip and was knocked so groggy I didn’t even feel it, though they tell me I didn’t go down,” Gautreaux said.

Bloodied, broken, but undeterred, Gautreaux made the Dodgers’ opening-day roster as a second-string catcher and pinch hitter whom Manager Casey Stengel would use liberally that season. His first taste of MLB fame happened April 23 when his first career hit — a 10th-inning single with the bases loaded — drove in the winning run in a 4-3 victory over the New York Giants at Ebbetts Field.

Gautreaux would go on to lead the Dodgers in pinch hits that season with a team-record 16, a franchise mark that stood until 1992. (His 16 in ’36 are still third all-time for the franchise and first all-time for the Brooklyn team.) But beating the hated Giants in dramatic fashion cemented his place in Dodger lore.

“Displaying the coolness of a true veteran, the recruit maskman stepped up to the platter in the hectic tenth frame, with the bases loaded and 17,000 rooters — mostly Brooklyn — begging for a hit that would stop those Giants,” the Brooklyn Citizen wrote.

“The excited Dodger fans swarmed down on the field and raced to greet their new hero. Even the Brooklyn players rushed to the youngster. They grabbed him and hugged him and patted him on the back. Manager Casey Stengel gave him a tight squeeze as they fought their way through the crowd and disappeared into the Brooklyn dugout.”

A 1936 clipping from the Brooklyn Citizen.

Gautreaux played 75 games that season, hitting .268, but received only 11 plate appearances in 1937 before returning to the minors. He never came back. America’s entry into World War II gobbled up Gautreaux, who played for Army teams at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks, and at the end of his playing career he bought the Class C Houma (Louisiana) Indians, who, like the Rams, went belly-up for want of revenue.

Out of professional baseball at age 40, Gautreaux coached amateur teams in Louisiana and was named to the Diamond Club of Greater New Orleans‘ Hall of Fame in 1970. He worked in the refinery and trucking industries before retiring in 1976. Four years later, in 1980, he died at the age of 67. He’s buried in Houma.

Sid Gautreaux’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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