By Glen Sparks
Hod Lisenbee beaned Carden Gillenwater with a pitch in the minor leagues. That knock in the noggin may have provided Gillenwater with his big chance.
The U.S. Selective Service folks declared Gillenwater 4-F, or unfit for service, during World War II. Supposedly, the beaning had led to permanent hearing loss for the outfielder. Another story is that Gillenwater had suffered a serious head injury while making a catch during an exhibition game. Whatever the real reason, he could keep playing baseball. The Army didn’t want him.
Gillenwater, born May 13, 1917, in the farming town of Riceville, Tenn., spent parts of five seasons in the majors (1940, 1943, 1945, 1946 and 1948). He accumulated 1,004 at-bats; 517 of them in 1945. Gillenwater batted .260 lifetime with a .359 on-base percentage. He hit 11 home runs and drove in 114.
The St. Louis Cardinals had signed Gillenwater out of Knoxville High School in Tennessee. Branch Rickey Jr., whose genius father ran the Cardinals, saw Gillenwater playing summer ball and invited him to a tryout camp. Out of the approximately 1,500 young men who hurled fastballs and took their cuts, only Gillenwater and one other player came home with a contract to play pro ball.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Gillenwater reported to the Class D Kinston, North Carolina, Eagles in the spring of 1937. There, he batted .301 and knocked 14 home runs. Impressed, the Cardinals promoted him to the Double-A Rochester, New York, Red Wings of the International League. Gillenwater spent a few more seasons in the minors, including one stop with the New Orleans Pelicans. A writer in the Big Easy saw Gillenwater this way: “(He) covers center field like a circus tent. He’s as fast an antelope and can go far back to snag long flies.”
In late 1940, St. Louis called up Gillenwater to the big club. He came to bat 25 times and hit safely only four times. Injuries and a lack of power kept Gillenwater in the minor leagues for the next few years. The disappointed Cardinals sold their one-time hot prospect to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. Gillenwater went 3-for-17 in his eight games with Brooklyn. So far, he was 7-for-42 (.167) in the majors.
More and more ballplayers were volunteering for the military or getting the call from Uncle Sam. Stars such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Warren Spahn, did their duty. Feller signed up as soon as heard the news about the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Greenberg enlisted Dec. 9. As the battles raged on, teams had to think of creative ways to fill their rosters. It wasn’t easy. More than 4,000 minor leagues also went to war.
Brooklyn sold Gillenwater to the Boston Braves following the 1944 season. Gilly promptly won the starting job in center field. Over 144 games in 1945, he hit .288 (.379 on-base percentage) with seven homers and 72 RBI. But, Gillenwater did an even better job on defense. He led the National League in putouts (451), assists (24) and range factor (3.43).
World War II ended for the United States on V-E Day, May 7, 1945. Fighting in the Pacific concluded a few months later, on V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945. Returning service men, including lots of ballplayers, looked forward to life—and their jobs–back in the States.
Gillenwater played in just 99 games in 1946 and hit only .228 in 224 at-bats. He was a minor leaguer once again in 1947 and got into 77 games with the Washington Senators in ’48, hitting .244. After a few more seasons of riding buses from one small town to another, Gillenwater retired. He and his wife, Marian, eventually moved to Clearwater, Florida, and opened some retail fabric stories.
Carden Edison Gillwater died May 10, 2000, from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) just three days away from his 83rd birthday. Marian Gillwater said this of her husband: “It didn’t matter if it was marbles, golf, tennis, or baseball, sports was all he knew. He was a great person, my best friend. Just a really good guy who loved sports.”