Sid Gautreaux: Guest Author Gary Bedingfield

 

As I wrote in my post about my “go-to” baseball history websites, one of my favorites is www.baseballinwartime.com. Writer and researcher Gary Bedingfield has created the best clearinghouse of information and stories related to baseball and World War II; from the hundreds of service teams to all-star tours of the war zones, to a painstakingly researched list of ballplayers killed in the line of duty. It is a fascinating glimpse of how the sport of baseball helped the United States get through some tough times and it also pays tribute to the hundreds of sports heroes who selflessly put their careers aside in order to help defeat the evil that was threatening our world.

Besides his website and newsletter, Gary has authored several books, including Baseball in World War II Europe, Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service and When Baseball Went to War, the later which he was a contributing author. As he’s based in England, his newest book, Baseball in Hawaii in World War II, takes him way out of his European theater of operations, but he handles the change in locale expertly. Baseball in Hawaii in World War II is a massive work that fills in a gap in 1940s baseball that most mainstream historians pass over. Instead of merely writing about the sorry state of big league ball at home, the St. Louis Browns winning the pennant and the loss of all the good players, Gary actually takes us to where most of those missing ballplayers went: Hawaii. Baseball in Hawaii in World War II covers all the local leagues and pickup teams that were operating on the islands to give the troops wholesome recreation and a taste of home. Gary also covers the inter-service rivalry that culminated in the Army-Navy World Series, which arguably had more stars and talent than that years’ Major League All-Star teams and World Series teams combined.

I’m very pleased to have Gary Bedingfield as a Guest Author as he introduces one of the ballplayers who made baseball in World War II Hawaii possible

Sid “Pudge” Gautreaux loved baseball. What’s more he could play and spent much of his life doing just that, including a couple of seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Sidney Allen Gautreaux was born in the small town of Schriever, Louisiana on May 4, 1912. He was the third of four boys born to Edward and Marie (nee Sire) Gautreaux, and the family lived in Houma, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, where Edward ran a grocery store. Sid was just three years old when his father, aged 35, died in 1915, and Marie was forced to take a job in a boarding house to feed her family. In 1925, Marie and her four boys moved to New Orleans, where she worked as a janitor at a public school. Sid attended Warren Easton Boys High School, where he played football and gained prominence as a hard-hitting catcher. Following graduation in June 1932, Sid had a trial with the New Orleans Pelicans and was optioned to the El Dorado Lions of the Class D Cotton States League where he appeared in at least one game before the season ended. He was back with the Pelicans for spring training in 1933, which included him being behind the plate in a game against the Cleveland Indians, but by the time the regular season rolled around he was with the Baton Rouge Solons of the Class D Dixie League. Sid failed to hit with Baton Rouge and was 5-for-24 (.208) in nine games when he was released in June. For the rest of the summer, he worked at the East Louisiana State Hospital, a mental hospital in Jackson, where his main job was to play for the baseball team.

Sid found his footing in the minors in 1934. Playing for the Class D Evangeline League’s Lake Charles Explorers (who became the Jeanerette Blues after the Lake Charles grandstand was destroyed by fire in late May), the 22-year-old switch-hitter batted a team best .315 in 97 games. Back with the Blues in 1935, he batted .320 in 128 games and led the team with 16 home runs.

With little more than a couple of seasons of Class D baseball under his belt, Gautreaux made the enormous jump to the big leagues in 1936, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers at their Clearwater, Florida, spring training camp. Things didn’t start too well for the 23-year-old when he was hit between the eyes by a foul ball off the bat of Wally Millies during batting practice. Sid had been standing behind the backstop in supposed safety when the ball broke through the backstop netting. When the opportunity arose, Sid proved he could hit and there was little doubt manager Casey Stengel was impressed with the Louisianian’s raw talent. “He is a smart kid,” Stengel said. “You never have to tell him a thing twice. He really does very well when you consider he played in nothing better than the Evangeline League last year. But he never learned to throw.” Despite Stengel’s defensive doubts, Sid remained with the team as the third-string catcher when they travelled north to New York.

The New York sports writers had fun with Sid when he arrived in the Big Apple. Columns were often devoted to both his size and diet. Sid was often referred to as chubby, chunky or pudgy and quickly earned the nickname, “Pudge.” It was also reported that he liked to drink beer with every meal (including breakfast) and ate oysters at almost every sitting.

Sid made his major league debut in the second game of the season on April 15, 1936, in a 5-3 loss to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. Entering the game as a pinch hitter for Johnny Cooney, he struck out against Harry Gumbert. On April 20, he made his first defensive appearance as a late-inning replacement for Ray Berres in an 8-4 loss to the Boston Bees at Ebbets Field. He was in the line-up again the following day as a pinch hitter against the Bees, but it was on April 23 that he made his presence known to the Brooklyn fans. In front of a crowd of 18,000, the Dodgers and Giants battled their way through eight innings with the Dodgers holding on to a 2-0 lead. But the Giants tied the game in the top of the ninth and Mel Ott homered to put them ahead in the top of the tenth. When Sid came to the plate as a pinch hitter, Freddie Lindstrom had scored the tying run on a base hit by Jim Bucher and the bases were loaded with two out. Facing Al Smith, Sid – who was 0-for-3 on the season – singled to centerfield for the walk-off win although he didn’t actually get to walk off himself. The jubilant Brooklyn fans carried the 190-pound catcher to the dugout.

Sid continued to pinch hit and make late-inning defensive appearances for the Dodgers throughout April, May, June and July. On Sunday, July 26, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Pirates at Ebbets Field, Sid finally made his first start behind the plate. With Ed Brandt on the mound, Gautreaux had a solid defensive game and even picked off Woody Jensen at first base. And he continued to impress with the bat, hitting a two-out two run double in the fourth inning as the Dodgers went on to win, 4-3. He started his second game of the season the following day, before a meager crowd of just 485 at Ebbets Field, going 1-for-2 at the plate and raising his batting average to .300 as the Pirates succumbed to the Dodgers, 6-3. “The kid has the knack of hitting that ball just where it’s pitched to him,” said Stengel. “He doesn’t have a single weakness and, because he can get a good piece of any pitch, he can hit hard to any field. You don’t see many professionals able to do that. He’d be playing more often for me if he could only throw. Now he hasn’t got a bad arm, but he gets the ball away too slowly. Four men have gone down on him on the few chances he’s been given to catch and every runner made the bag. But, at that, he’s 100 per cent better than he was when he first reported. Then he was strictly a busher. Now he’s a real asset.”

Sid was only given one more opportunity to start during the remainder of the season but continued to pinch hit. “I can’t keep him on the bench,” said Stengel. “Every time I look around for a pinch-hitter there is Sid underfoot. He’s so eager and expectant it’s a shame to disillusion him. And he’s impossible to live with in the dressing room when we lose.”

In total, Sid made just 15 defensive appearances (three starts) and was used as a pinch hitter 60 times. He batted .268 on the year (19-for71), drove in 16 runs and struck out just seven times.

Sid was back with the Dodgers in 1937, but he made just 11 pinch hit appearances and was batting .100 (1-for-10) when he was optioned to the Elmira Colonels of the Class A New York-Penn League. He batted .261 in 87 games, but it was again his defensive work that was the topic of conversation. “He’s not dumb and he can move around,” said Colonels’ manager Bruno Betzel, “but his throwing arm is not quite up to par. His arm is powerful enough all right, but he delays in bringing it back for the snap to the bases.”

In 1938, Gautreaux was due to join the Dodgers at Clearwater, primarily to help out with their catching needs but a contract dispute ended that opportunity and he remained with Elmira, who were now playing in the Class A Eastern League. Sid was batting only .228 in 58 games when he got the surprise call to join the Dodgers in St. Louis on July 22, 1938. However, the order was rescinded and Sid was on a train to St. Louis when he was told to return. But Sid didn’t return to Elmira. He was sent, instead, to the Memphis Chicks of the Class A1 Southern Association, where he saw out the season batting .288 in 47 games. Sid’s weight continued to be a problem while in Memphis. The Chicks offered him two contracts at the start of the 1939 season. One was for him reporting below a certain weight. The other, for less money, if he reported over that weight. It’s unclear which contract he eventually received, but he had a strong year at the plate, batting .345 in 99 games. Sid also got married that year, to Helen Barnette, whom he had known since his teenage years in New Orleans. In 1940, he batted .282 in 114 games with the Chicks, and .280 in 85 games in 1941. In 1942, his last season before military service, Sid batted .288 in 94 games with the Chicks.

Sid’s brothers, Raymond and Arnold, had both entered service with the US Navy in the 1930s. At the time of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, Raymond had been aboard the cruiser USS Helena at Pearl Harbor, while Arnold was on the seaplane tender USS Barnegat at Boston Navy Yard. Sid chose not to follow in the footsteps of his brothers and entered service with the Army on January 27, 1943. He spent the spring and early summer playing baseball for the Camp Wolters team, four miles northeast of Mineral Wells, Texas, where his teammates included future big league pitchers Ken Gables and Zeb Eaton, and 18-year-old third baseman Fred Hatfield, who would play in the majors throughout the 1950s.

In early June, Sid left Texas for Hawaii. The threat of invasion by the Japanese had passed by this time and the Hawaiian Islands had shifted from the defensive to the offensive, becoming the funnel through which over one million troops would eventually pass.

Baseball was everywhere in Hawaii in 1943. The Hawaii League was Oahu’s senior circuit, attracting big crowds at Honolulu Stadium, while the Honolulu League served as a farm league, nurturing young talent. There were military leagues for Army, Navy and Marine Corps ballplayers, including the Hawaiian Defense League, Windward Oahu League, Ewa Plain League, Service Command League, Hickam Field League and the 31-team Schofield Barracks League.

Sid was assigned to Schofield Barracks, about 25 miles north of Honolulu on the island of Oahu. He was 31 years old by this time and one of just a handful of former major leaguers stationed in Hawaii in 1943 (there would be over 60 in Hawaii in 1944 and that number would grow to 150 in 1945). Sid was responsible for promoting athletic and other entertainment for the soldiers and was also the catcher of the Schofield Redlanders – the all-star team of the base. He caught all five games of the 1943 Army-Navy Series, which were played during the months of July and September. In 1944, he again played for the Redlanders as they competed in the Central Pacific Area League and was selected to play for the Central Pacific Area Army All-Stars in an exhibition game against the 14th Naval District Major League All-Stars at Schofield Barracks on April 30. In September/October 1944, he was selected to play for the Army team in the Army-Navy Service World Series. Playing against future hall of famers Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, the series lasted 11 games and Gautreaux caught four of them, batting .167 (2-for-12). In 1945, with Sid as catcher/manager, the Redlanders competed in the Oahu Army Baseball League.

When Sid was discharged from military service in December 1945, he was 33 years old and had been the longest serving former major leaguer to serve with the Army in Hawaii during World War II. His dreams of returning to the major leagues were gone, but his desire to continue to play in the minors remained as strong as ever. He joined the Oklahoma City Indians of the Class AA Texas League at the start of the season, playing 12 games and batting .280 before being sent to the Lancaster Red Roses of the Class B Interstate League, where he batted .303 in 23 games, before being on the move again, this time a little closer to home, joining the Anniston Rams of the Class B Southeastern League where he batted .223 in 62 games. He became player/manager of the Thibodaux Giants of the Class D Evangeline League in 1947 (the league he had played in before joining the Dodgers), and batted .285 in 124 games, guiding the team to a second-place finish. In 1948, he led Thibodaux to a third-place finish and batted .297 in 132 games. He joined the New Iberia Cardinals of the same league in 1949, and although the team finished in seventh place, Sid led the league with a .339 batting average. In 1950, the 38-year-old’s batting average dropped to .249 in 107 games with New Iberia and he joined his hometown Houma Indians of the same league for 1951, raising his average to .321 in 101 games.

Sid was the catcher/manager of the Lake Charles Lakers of the Class B Gulf Coast League at the start of the 1952 season. He was batting .228 in 32 games when he quit the team in June and purchased the Houma Indians franchise in the Evangeline League, which he operated for the remainder of the season.

At the age of 40, and after 20 years of playing, Sid’s baseball days were behind him. In 86 major league games he had batted .247, while in over 1,500 minor league games his batting average stood at .291. “He was a powerful hitter, but he couldn’t make it in the majors because he was too short, or his legs were,” his wife, Helen, observed some years later. “He wore 29-inch pants, all his height was above his waist. [In looks] he and Babe Ruth could have passed for brothers, except Babe Ruth’s legs must have been about ten inches longer!”

He went to work for the Southdown Sugar Refinery in Houma, then worked for the Magcobar Mud Company in Morgan City, Louisiana from 1957, which provided oil drillers with mud. Sid and Helen moved to Morgan City in 1959, and he joined the workforce of Patterson Tubular Services (PTS) in the city in 1962, initially as a loading dock supervisor and then pipe yard supervisor. During the 1960s, PTS held the largest stock of oilfield pipe in the world at the Morgan City yard.

In 1965, Sid was quite surprised to find himself reading his own obituary in the New Orleans Times Picayune. Another Sidney Gautreaux had passed away and a sportswriter wrote a glowing tribute to the ballplayer, which brought long distance calls to the Gautreaux household offering sympathy from as far away as Illinois. A quick phone call to the newspaper from his wife, Helen, soon cleared up the matter.

Sid was inducted in the Diamond Club of Greater New Orleans Hall of Fame in 1970. He died on April 19, 1980 at Lakewood Hospital in Berwick, Louisiana, aged 67, and is buried at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in the nearby town of Gray. Sid and Helen had no children, so Helen donated all Sid’s baseball memorabilia, including uniforms, gloves, scrapbooks and photos, to the Evangeline Baseball League Collection of the Ellender Memorial Library at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. All except two photos that is, which she kindly sent me back in 1980, when I was a baseball-crazy teenager trying to track down anyone who had played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sid had died just a month before my letter arrived. Forty years later, it’s an honor to finally write this biography…for Sid and Helen.

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Gary Bedingfield has been passionately researching wartime baseball for over 25 years. British-born and a former catcher, he has combined two major interests in life – baseball and military history – to bring the forgotten heroes of yesteryear to the generations of today. He operates two websites dedicated to wartime baseball, Baseball in Wartime and Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, and has written three books on the subject. His latest work – Baseball in Hawaii During World War II – is the first in-depth look at the wartime exploits of over 150 major leaguers and countless minor league players who found themselves stationed in the Hawaiian Islands between 1941 and 1945. With the inclusion of 150 biographies and over 80 photographs – many of which have never been seen before – the book details every victory and every tragedy of wartime baseball in the paradise of the Pacific. Baseball in Hawaii During World War II is available from amazon in all countries.

 

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