Visit to Valparaiso now a historical must

John Gilbert

Wally Gilbert, at Barnes for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1930.
Wally Gilbert, at Barnes for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1930.

During those almost 30 years of driving from the Twin Cities to Indianapolis to write about the Indianapolis 500 motor race, we would drive through Chicago and on into Gary, Ind., before turning south on the freeway to head for Indy. Each time we drove down or back, we would come to an exit sign for “Valparaiso.”  

One of these days, I’ve got to drive in there and check that place out, I would think. Because my dad, the late Wally Gilbert, had grown up in West Duluth, graduated from Denfeld High School and headed on down to Valparaiso, which was a major force in the best college football competition of the day. When my dad died in 1958, from complications of losing a lung to the Steel Plant in West Duluth during World War II, I learned as a teenager that you never get over the loss of a parent. And I never did.  

It also became obvious that my dad was an outstanding athlete, at Denfeld, and in a professional sports career that included playing third base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Cincinnati Reds, while playing football for Ole Haugsrud’s Duluth Eskimos, and before them, the Kelley-Duluths, at the same time. In his spare time, he also played on touring AAU basketball teams, which were the forerunner of the NBA back before there was an NBA.  

It was also obvious, from the numerous old friends who would stop by our home during my childhood, that he had been a great athlete in college, too, at Valparaiso. He was named to the All-American team as a halfback when he was a senior, in and that year, the 1921-22 season, Wally Gilbert was captain of the Valparaiso football, basketball and baseball teams.  

It has always been one of my great regrets — still to be compensated for — that in my long career as a sportswriter, I have never properly researched my dad’s athletic achievements. I remember him being inducted into the Duluth-Superior Sports Hall of Fame, at the DECC, when Bud Grant was the guest speaker. Bud, who grew up in Superior, said that Wally Gilbert was his idol, because he proved you could play at a high level in more than just one sport. And Grant proceeded to do just that, at Minnesota, starring in football and basketball.  

At any rate, a couple of things have happened in recent years. First, Dick Swanson, the wonderful fellow who coaches the Denfeld girls softball team, has become a close friend through his work with Denfeld’s Hall of Fame, and he took it upon himself to contact Valparaiso and inquire about why Wally Gilbert had never been inducted into the Valparaiso University Hall of Fame. Also in that recent time span, my younger of two sons, Jeff, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., realized by shortcoming in researching my dad, so he made a few calls and pestered Valparaiso until they sent him some material.  

Wally Gilbert in Valparaiso’s Hall of Fame.
Wally Gilbert in Valparaiso’s Hall of Fame.

Possibly because of the combination of those people, but unbeknown to me, Valparaiso did indeed induct Wally Gilbert into its Hall of Fame in 2019. Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera conducted the ceremony and presided at the banquet. And after several delays, he finally reached me by telephone in Duluth. Later, he mailed me a booklet from the ceremony with a nice card.  

“Hope you enjoy the enclosed Valpo Hallo of Fame program. All the best. Go Valpo!”  

In the booklet, along with an action shot poised for a play in football, it spells out his football and basketball exploits, and points to his five-year career in Major League Baseball as his greatest professional success after graduating from Valpo in 1922. He played five years, “manning third base for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1928-1931, and for the Cincinnati Red in 1932. A career .269 hitter, he hit .304 with 88 run scored and 58 RBIs in 1929 and followed by hitting .294 with 92 runs scored and 56 RBIs in 1930. Wally was selected by The Sporting News as the third baseman for the all-time Brooklyn Dodgers team when the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958.”  

It was an appropriate time to recall all of this information, which I received a week ago, because last Sunday, Minneapolis Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman turned 100 years old, and is still putting out his column three times a week. They paid great tribute to Sid with a 16-page, full-size section in last Sunday’s paper. Very well done. I sent birthday wishes, because, after all, I had worked with Sid for 31 years.  

Sid was never what you would call a close, personal friend to me. Not that I didn’t try. But I was busy focusing on writing about hockey, although I also wrote about other sports, and cars. But Sid, a ferocious competitor for every tidbit of information from the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Gopher football and Gopher basketball, he pretty well ignored hockey. But every time he saw me, preferably with co-workers or sources around, he would try to heckle and belittle me at every opportunity. I heckled him back, being too competitive to just take his ration of flak.  

I once suggested that he was so anxious for sources that he sent out Christmas cards addressed to “Occupant.” And I took great glee from the story of Sid, arriving fashionably late for a Vikings press luncheon, then trying to take over. Fran Tarkenton, one of his favorites, noted that Sid had missed lunch, but he could still grab a bowl of that soup on the table, if he didn’t mind it being a little cold. Sid dished up a bowlful and wolfed it down — never realizing that instead of cold cream of chicken soup it was thousand-island dressing. I don’t think Fran ever told him, either.