Johnny Giavotella played his first full season in the major leagues with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015, after spending four partial seasons with the Kansas City Royals. He is one of 11 former Jesuit High School of New Orleans players to reach the major leagues and one of over fifty from that school to play professionally.
Giavotella turned in a credible season at the plate, hitting .272 with 4 home runs and 49 RBI, while filling a vacancy at second base for the Angels after veteran Howie Kendrick decided to pursue free agency at the end of 2014. He had been a stellar player at the University of New Orleans before turning pro. He was selected in the second round of the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft by the Royals.
Historically, Jesuit High School in New Orleans has been one of the more well-known high schools across the nation noted for turning out baseball players that go on to play professional baseball. Several of the former Blue Jays wound up playing significant roles in the long history of the sport. The baseball tradition of professional players from Jesuit dates back to the early 1900s.
Larry Gilbert Sr. reached the big leagues in 1914 with the Boston Braves. He was a right fielder for the legendary “Miracle Braves” team which remarkably won the National League pennant that year after still being in last place on July 18, eleven games out of first place. The Braves went on to sweep the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.
Following in their father’s footsteps, two of Gilbert’s sons, Charlie and Harold “Tookie”, continued the family legacy by going on to play major league baseball as well. Both of them attended Jesuit first.
The elder Gilbert actually made his biggest mark in professional baseball as a manager rather than as a player. He became skipper of his hometown New Orleans Pelicans in 1923 and led the team until 1938. Gilbert was lured away from the Pelicans by the owner of the Nashville Vols, with whom he managed from 1938 until 1948 and then became general manager and part-owner until 1955. His clubs claimed 2,128 victories and nine Southern Association league titles. Gilbert reportedly turned down multiple offers during his career to manage major league teams.
Charlie Gilbert, from the Jesuit Class of 1937, reached the big leagues at age 20 after playing for his father at Nashville. The highly touted outfielder signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, but played only one season with them. He spent parts of three seasons with the Chicago Cubs before going into military service during World War II. After one more season with the Cubs and two with the Philadelphia Phillies, he retired in 1948 due to a back injury. He never reached the potential for which he had been earmarked.
Like his brother Charlie, Tookie Gilbert, was a widely sought after schoolboy sensation in New Orleans. From the Jesuit Class of 1946, he was heavily recruited by six major league organizations, and he literally picked the club he would sign with by pulling one name from a hat containing all six teams. The New York Giants won the Gilbert “lottery” and he signed for $50,000. Gilbert, a first baseman, made his major league debut with the Giants in 1950, but wound up playing only two seasons before retiring in 1954. He made a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1959, attempting to help the struggling franchise survive.
Jesuit’s baseball team during Charlie Gilbert’s senior year also included two other players, John “Fats” Dantonio and Connie Ryan, who attained major league status.
Fats Dantonio, from the Jesuit Class of 1937, began his professional baseball career in 1939. He played at low levels in the minors for four seasons before getting an opportunity to sign with his hometown New Orleans Pelicans in 1942. He had received a medical exemption from military service during World War II, but was required to work in a defense-related job instead of enlisting. In one of his seasons with the Pelicans, Dantonio worked at a shipyard in New Orleans, playing only in the team’s home games.
However, Dantonio, a good-hitting catcher, played well enough to attract the attention of Branch Rickey, who was then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Because of the general shortage of professional players during the war years, Dantonio got called up by Rickey as a replacement player for three games with the Dodgers at the end of the 1944 season. He appeared in 47 games with them in 1945, but didn’t play well enough to stick with the big league club after most of the regular players returned from military service in 1946. Dantonio continued to play in the minors and retired from baseball after the 1948 season in which he played for the Pelicans again.
Connie Ryan, from the Jesuit Class of 1938, was the first person to receive a full baseball scholarship from Louisiana State University. However, he opted to sign a professional minor league contract in the middle of his sophomore year in 1940. By 1942, he had reached the majors with the New York Giants. Ryan would go on to play for five different teams in a 12-year major league career. The infielder was a National League All-Star with the Boston Braves in 1944. After his playing career ended in 1956, Ryan eventually became a major league coach for the Braves and Rangers. He also served as an interim manager for both Atlanta and Texas.
Another former Jesuit player who benefitted from the shortage of players during war-time years was Ralph “Putsy” Caballero. From the Jesuit Class of 1944, Caballero was signed out of high school at the age of 16 by the Philadelphia Phillies and made his major league debut on September 14, 1944. He is the youngest third baseman to ever play major league baseball. Primarily a backup player, Caballero proceeded to have an eight-year major league career with the Phillies that included a 1950 World Series appearance against the New York Yankees. He retired from professional baseball after the 1955 season.
The Jesuit High School player with the most celebrated major league career is Rusty Staub. Except for Gretna native and Baseball Hall of Famer Mel Ott, Staub is the most accomplished professional player to come from the New Orleans area. He was a member of the Jesuit Class of 1961, and he also signed out of high school with the then Houston Colt .45’s (now the Astros) for a reported $100,000 bonus.
At age 19, Staub made his major league debut with Houston on April 19, 1963. He ultimately garnered over 500 hits each for the Astros, Expos, Mets, and Tigers. Altogether he accumulated 2, 716 career hits, currently 62nd most in major league history, to go along with 292 home runs and 1,466 RBI. Rusty was selected for the Major League All-Star team six times. A fan favorite at each of his major league stops, the outfielder/first baseman finished his career in 1985, after 23 seasons in the big leagues.
Will Clark wasn’t far behind Staub in terms of his impact at the major league level. From the Jesuit Class of 1982, he first achieved national recognition as a college player at Mississippi State University and a member of the 1984 USA Olympic baseball team. A year after being the second overall pick in the 1985 Major League Draft, Clark became the regular first baseman for the San Francisco Giants. An intense player on the field, he helped lead a resurgence of the Giants to prominence in the National League, including a World Series appearance in 1989. Clark finished in the top five of the National League MVP voting four times throughout 1987 and 1991.
Clark later played for the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, with his last season in 2000. Injuries curtailed his playing time during the latter part of his career. However, in his 15-years he collected 2,176 hits, 284 home runs, and 1,205 RBI, while hitting for a .303 average. His smooth left-handed batting swing was the basis for his nickname, “The Natural.”
Two other former Jesuit players, Jim Gaudet (Jesuit Class of 1973) and Ryan Adams (Jesuit Class of 2006), had brief major league careers.
Currently, Mason Katz (Jesuit Class of 2009) is aiming to extend the Jesuit tradition. He is slated to play at the Double-A level for the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2016. The infielder, who played collegiately at LSU, was a 4th round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2013.
For more information about Metro New Orleans area baseball players who played at the college, minor league, and major league levels, visit http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.