Baseball and “Chicken” made for a recipe for success.
Not the Southern family favorite fried chicken but rather Phil “Chicken” Gilbert, who coached youth baseball at the Macon Teenage Baseball League in both the Pony League (13-14-year-olds) and Colt League (15-16) for 10 years (1967-1976). Gilbert led the Macon Teenage All-Stars to a national Colt League tournament championship in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1976. He had taken teams to that tournament several time prior to 1976 and had a runner-up finish in 1973.
En route to the title, his Macon team defeated Cincinnati, 2-0, defending champion Buechel, Kentucky, 7-6, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 8-7, and local rival South Macon 24-3 for the crown. Mount de Sales pitcher Steve Horne was mainstay for Macon Teenage in the tournament, picking up three wins and hitting two home runs in the championship game. In the finale, he scattered nine hits while striking out 10 and walking just one.
While his success as a youth coach is well documented, Gilbert was an outstanding athlete in his own right. Growing up in the small Middle Georgia town of Dexter in Laurens County, Gilbert’s sport of choice was basketball since Dexter didn’t field a high school baseball team. Despite the fact his team didn’t have its own gym and had to practice on an outdoor court, he was a two-time all-state selection while leading the Green Hornets to back-to-back appearances in the Class C basketball tournament held in Macon.
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Dexter won the District 6 championships both his junior and senior seasons. In his junior season, the Green Hornets finished the regular season at 10-10 and upset Clyattville 45-24 in the state quarterfinals as Gilbert scored 22 points. They lost 17-15 in the state semifinals to Portal. His senior season, Dexter finished with a 21-4 regular-season record before losing 69-43 to Dasher Bible School of Valdosta in the quarterfinals. Gilbert had 16 points before fouling out in the third quarter. An interesting note from that game, the Dasher team played in long white pants and T-shirts as that school would not allow players to wear basketball shorts and gym shirts.
Gilbert’s basketball prowess at Dexter was good enough to earn him a scholarship to Brewton-Parker in Mount Vernon, where he starred for the Barons and earned junior college all-state honors. He was also a pitcher for the Brewton-Parker baseball team, but the team played only 10 games each season. Still, Gilbert he saw plenty of action on the diamond during the summer playing American Legion baseball in Eastman.
Gilbert was inducted into the Brewton-Parker Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. Georgia recruited and offered him a scholarship to play both sports. In fact, he was so sought after that the Bulldogs offered his wife a scholarship, as well.
He turned down the scholarship offer to play for the Bulldogs and instead signed a baseball contract with Hazelhurst-Baxley in the Georgia State League in 1951. After one season in Hazelhurst, where he experienced sore arm problems while posting just a 2-6 record, he signed on with Eastman in the GSL and finished that campaign with a 17-5 record, including a no-hitter against Fitzgerald.
Big league teams took notice of his work in Eastman, and the Philadelphia Phillies drafted and signed him and sent him to their Grandy Phillies team in the Canadian Provincial League, where he compiled a 14-12 mark.
The 6-foot-1, 155-pound string bean right-hander was offered a contract by the Phillies for the 1954 season, but on the advice of a brother-in-law, he held out for a raise and was released. Still, his his baseball career was not over.
He returned to the Georgia State League, signing on with Vidalia, where he played two seasons. He went 22-6 in 1954 for the Indians and 11-9 in his final year in 1955.
After his baseball playing days were over, he was a convenience store manager/owner of Phil’s Food Store on Napier Avenue for 34 years from 1956 until his retirement in 1990. Wonder why he didn’t call his store Chicken’s?
By the way he got his nickname “Chicken” because he liked the word and was always saying it. Add to that he had a liking for that Southern staple, and it was a natural.
Contact Bobby Pope at firstname.lastname@example.org