Charles Gelbert signed cabinet photo (circa 1893)
Charles Saladin Gelbert was born on December 24, 1871 in Hawley, PA to Charles and Marie Magdalene Gelbert. Charles Jr. acquired his early education in the public schools of Scranton and Hawley, to include training at the Scranton Turnverein, Young Men’s Christian Association and the School of Lackawanna. After school he was employed as a brass-finisher from 1886-91. In 1889 he enlisted as a Private in Company D, Thirteenth Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard. A natural athlete, he won several local YMCA competitions for various unique events such as ‘three-legged racing’, relay hurdles and ‘baseball throwing’. It was on the baseball diamond that Gelbert initially excelled, where he was a star outfielder on the 1888 Scranton team. This attracted the attention of the University of Pennsylvania Athletic Department, where he subsequently enrolled in 1893 (at 21 years old) to pursue a scientific degree and eventual doctorate in Veterinary Medicine.
During the 1890s the University of Pennsylvania was desperately trying to achieve the same elite academic and athletic status as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Since Penn was lacking in alumni donations, they were forced to rely solely on tuition payments from their rapidly growing student body. Therefore the requirements to enter their vocational schools (like Veterinary Medicine) were conveniently lax, which became a perfect place to stash their star student athletes for multiple additional seasons. In fact, in 1894 only six of the eleven starters were students in the College (undergraduates). Yale once commented that Penn players were “mature married men, age twenty-two to thirty, one with a child eight years old”. Yale eventually refused to play Penn for over thirty years after a tightly-fought contest in 1893.
Gelbert played predominantly guard/end for the Quakers from 1893-96, where he was a three-time Walter Camp All-American from 1894-96. He was considered the “leprechaun lineman in a land of giants”, for he was only 160 pounds and 5ft 9in. He was the integral component for the “guards back” play developed by Woodruff, where the guards would drop into the backfield and lead block for the ball carrier. That play, Amos Alonzo Stagg later wrote, “raised havoc with all teams Penn played” and was the catalyst of their renaissance. His teammates called him the “Miracle Man” for doing so much with so little. During his career, Penn won 40 games while losing only 1. Gelbert also played on the varsity baseball team from 1894-97. In 1898 Gelbert was deemed ineligible to continue college sports and began a short professional career. He played for the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club (1898-99), Homestead Library and Athletic Club (1900), Philadelphia Phillies (1902) and “New York” team during the 1902 World Series of Football. The 1898 and 1899 DC & AC squads are considered by many to be the first great professional football team, going undefeated in both seasons.
1895 University of Pennsylvania Football Team
Gelbert spent the rest of his life near Ambler, PA as a veterinary surgeon. He was married in 1902 to Mida Florence Kelley and had three children. His son, Charles Magnus Gelbert, became a star shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. During the Great Depression most local Ambler residents needed Gelbert’s services but had no means to pay him. Consistent with his college reputation for doing so much with so little, the “Miracle Man” would barter his services for livestock/food, if not pro bono. The only time his practice was ever closed was coincidentally when his son was playing a day game in Philadelphia. Charles S Gelbert passed away on January 16, 1936 after an excruciating eighteen month battle with metastatic stomach cancer. He was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.
Reference: Mark F. Bernstein. The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
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