Baseball: Another Hall of Fame calls ‘Jet’ Gillispie

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 29, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — William Gillispie’s nickname is “Jet,” but he understands that some things happen slowly.

Gillispie, 75, got a call last week from an old friend letting him know he’ll be part of the 2024 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame class.

He was just sitting around the house when he got the word, but it’s the sort of phone call that makes your day, overdue or not.

Inductions will be held next spring.

“Well, it wasn’t like I was going to turn it down,” Gillispie said with a chuckle. “Yes, I would like to have gone in many years ago. My buddy, Moe Hill, was inducted into the Gaston County Hall of Fame back in 2010, but it’s an honor and I do feel blessed to receive it.”

Gillispie has lived in Salisbury for decades — he retired from the Veterans Administration Hospital after 41 years of service — but it’s mostly in Gaston County that his baseball legend lives on.

That’s where he learned baseball and football from men such as his uncle, Eddie Bratton, who died nine years ago.

“I was playing ball with men when I was 14 and it was a different style of baseball than what you usually see now,” Gillispie said. “Aggressive baseball. If you were on first and someone got a base hit, you’d better be standing on third. They wouldn’t get mad at you if they made a perfect throw and got you out trying to get to third, but they would get steaming mad if you stopped at second. You had to keep the pressure on the defense all the time. That’s how the game was played.”

Gillispie went to three high schools in Gaston County. As a freshman, he was bused to Lincoln High, but Lincoln didn’t have a football team and he wanted to play football. As a sophomore and junior, he was a standout in baseball and football for the Highland Rams. As a senior, he was living with his grandmother and he walked to Dallas High, rather than ride the bus eight miles to Highland. In the fall of 1965, he became one of the first Blacks to integrate Dallas High.

Born in the summer of 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gillispie came of age at a pivotal point in history for sports in the South.

If he’d been a few years younger, the opportunity would not have been there. If he’d been born a few years later, he wouldn’t be part of history now.

“I guess I was at the right place at the right time, although at times it felt like I was in the wrong place,” Gillispie said.

As a high school sophomore, the 15-year-old Gillispie made a name for himself in the quarterfinals of the 1964 baseball state playoffs for Black schools. He went 5-for-5 for Highland against Winston-Salem’s Atkins High, while his teammate Elmore “Moe” Hill smacked two homers. Then in the semifinals, Gillispie had three hits and Hill hit another home run in a loss to Dudley.

Hugh “Buzz” Peeler, coach of the Post 23 Gastonia American Legion baseball team, watched those games with keen interest. A few weeks later, Peeler had Hill in left field for Post 23 at Sims Park. And then, after an injury, Gillispie got a chance to join his pal as the center fielder.

Someone was going to be first. The time was right. It happened to be Gillispie and Hill. They were the first Black Legion baseball players in North Carolina.

“I was lucky enough to make some history, but as the years go by, I realize it wasn’t just Moe and me,” Gillispie said. “I was fortunate to be raised in a neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other and took care of each other. I was able to handle all the things that Moe and I faced in the summer of ’64 because of the community that I was from.  The conditions we were under and the pressure for Moe and myself to produce was just unbelievable. I really didn’t comprehend exactly what it was all about until many years later.”

Gillispie and Hill faced fastballs and curveballs like their white teammates, but they also heard insults from fans and opposing dugouts and had showers of pebbles thrown at them when they were patrolling the outfield.

There were towns where Gillispie and Hill weren’t welcomed. A fan threw a black cat on the field at Newton-Conover. The boys from Highland didn’t respond with fists. They responded with homers by Hill and flurries of steals by “Jet” Gillispie, who earned a reputation with his wheels and his aggressiveness on the base paths. Gillispie and Hill weren’t just ground-breakers, they were dynamic players.

Gillispie, who played Legion ball from 1964-66, hit for strong averages in an era when hitters swung wood and pitching dominated. Gillispie played against talented players, especially from Charlotte Post 9, the national runner-up in 1964 and the national champion in 1965. but he earned the respect of every opponent. A lefty hitter, Gillispie recalls ripping doubles against future big league hurlers Billy Champion (Shelby) and Dave Lemonds (Charlotte Post 9). Even without Hill next to him, Gillispie batted .419 and led Gastonia to the Area IV championship in 1966.

Hill, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, was two years older than Gillispie and was playing pro ball by 1965. The Baltimore Orioles signed him for $1,000.

Hill socked 263 homers in the minor leagues and won the Triple Crown in the Midwest League in 1974 playing for the Wisconsin Rapids Twins. He was the home run champion in the Midwest League four straight seasons. In 1999, Baseball America named Hill as the greatest player in the history of the Midwest League, but he never got a shot at the major leagues. Hill retired as a player in 1980 and launched a long coaching career that lasted until 2011.

Most of Gillispie’s playing career after his Post 23 days wasn’t in the newspapers.

He went to Shaw to play football and baseball, but he hurt his arm on the gridiron, and his days of playing the outfield were over. He made a transition to first base.

He played on the first Gaston College team for Peeler in 1968.

His best baseball years were in 1969-72 when he was stationed in Illinois at Chanute Air Force Base. He played in the Eastern Illinois League, an independent pro league, and wore the uniforms of the Champaign Eagles and Rantoul Merchants. He batted over .500 in 1969 and 1971 and had a batting average of .444 for four seasons. He led the EIL in homers twice and won three batting championships. He won one title by going 5-for-5 on the last day of the season. A book was written about the 75-year history of the Eastern Illinois League in 2010. The author, who had done endless research, ranked Gillispie as the sixth-best player in the history of the league.

Gillispie was still playing semi-pro ball after he reached 50. He raised his sons to be fundamentally sound ballplayers. They played in the Gaston schools.

Travis Gillispie played baseball at Wingate in the 1990s with several Rowan County standouts. Travis was a roommate of Wingate All-American Allen Thomas. Allen’s son, Alek, is the center fielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks and is now playing in the World Series.

Travis carries on his father’s baseball legacy as the head of the Gastonia-based Carolina Tigers baseball program.

“A lot of kids can’t afford travel teams,” William Gillispie said. “We target the inner-city kids, mentor them, teach them fundamentals. It’s open to all. We love to teach the game, and that’s what we’re about.”

The Tigers, with mostly Black players, made noise during the summer months, beating some of the top teams in the country as well as international teams to win the Perfect Game 14U World Series in Florida.

Gillispie’s other son, Lovell Gillispie, coaches baseball and football at Hunter Huss High in Gastonia.

Moe Neal, Gillispie’s grandson, went to Gastonia’s Forestview High and rushed for 2,500 yards for Syracuse University, although Gillispie is prouder of the degree his grandson earned than all those yards and the 16 touchdowns he scored. In 2018, Gillispie got to see his grandson run the ball against Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium and got to stand next to Jackie Robinson’s plaque in Monument Park. It was one of the great moments of his life.

In the summer of 2015, Gillispie and Hill were inducted together into the North Carolina American Legion Hall of Fame. Those long-awaited ceremonies meant a great deal to Gillispie as they took place in his adopted home of Salisbury. There weren’t many dry eyes as old adversaries from Post 9 embraced him and congratulated him.

And now another Hall of Fame has called Gillispie to take a bow for his courageous efforts nearly 60 years ago.

Gillispie is grateful to still be alive and kicking. There’s been a long list of medical issues. There was open-heart surgery in 2007 and total hip replacement in 2012.

He battles acid reflux and circulatory issues, but he keeps grinding it out one day at a time.

“My wife, Edna, is a nurse and she’s gotten me through a lot of the physical problems,” Gillispie said.

He still adds his coaching expertise to aid his sons whenever he can, and the youngsters who play for the Carolina Tigers still look up to him and swarm him whenever he appears.

Through the wonders of Facebook, Gillispie keeps up with dozens of boys he once coached. Now they’re men, raising their own families. He’s proud that they are better men for having played ball for him.

“A lot of things happen in your life,” Gillispie said. “I’m proud of what I accomplished as a ballplayer and proud of the role that I had with integration. But I want people to understand that it was never just me. There were always a lot of people helping. I always had a whole community behind me.”