Carl Vandagrift, baseball player/manager

Carl Vandagrift, the only Cantrall native to play major-league baseball, played for or managed at least 10 minor-league teams before he died at age 37.

Vandagrift’s big-league career amounted to only 43 games in the short-lived Federal League, which challenged the National and American leagues during the 1914 and 1915 seasons. It folded for financial reasons, although Wikipedia gives the league credit for, for the first time, demonstrating the bargaining potential of free agency. Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs, was built for the Federal League’s Chicago Whales.

Carl Vandagrift, about 1908 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Vandagrift (1893-1920), known as “Van” or “Vandy,” batted .250 for the Indianapolis Hoosiers during the Federal League’s 1914 season. Both before and after his Indianapolis stint, Vandagrift bounced around minor leagues across most of the country. He apparently hit with little power, but he seems to have been a slick infielder.

Vandagrift also was valued for his baseball savvy. In a dozen years in the minor leagues, he served several times as a player-manager.

It’s not clear where Vandagrift played high school baseball. At the University of Illinois, it took two unsuccessful tryouts for him to make the baseball team. When he did, though, Vandagrift was named team captain.

E.W. Dickerson of the Rocky Mountain News gave a capsule of Vandagrift’s career in an obituary column in 1920.

In 1905 and 1906, Vandagrift captained and played second base for the University of Illinois team, one of the greatest college baseball teams ever developed in the middle West. He broke into league baseball at Pueblo and played with both the Denver and Pueblo teams of the Western league. At various times he played with the Springfield and Peoria teams of the Three-I league, the Lowell (Mass.) team of the New England and Adrian of the Southern Michigan association. He managed an independent team at Centralia, Ill., one season and operated a business there that was disposed of when he decided to remove to Fort Wayne (Ind.) where he died.

Vandagrift also was a coach at the U of I for a time and was player-manager in Helena, Ark. for a season. As player-manager in Adrian, Mich., he was given credit for turning that team around. A newspaper reportedly said:

Now it was “Van” who made the Adrian team. … About the middle of the season of 1910 Vandagrift came to Adrian and found several good players and some poor ones. He took charge of the team and had it running well when the season closed. …

He filled in the holes in the team with players whom he himself brought to Adrian and the result was that Adrian had the best ball team that the city had ever seen.

Working with local investors, Vandagrift helped re-establish professional baseball in Fort Wayne in 1917. As the team’s president and field manager, he also played a prominent role in trying to reorganize two perennially struggling Midwestern leagues, the Central (with teams from Ohio and Indiana) and the Three-I, whose teams were primarily based in Illinois.

The Fort Wayne team folded again before the 1919 season, and Vandagrift retired from baseball to operate a bowling alley and billiards parlor in Fort Wayne. Vandagrift died after surgery for appendicitis in October 1920. He is buried in Fort Wayne.

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