The last great St. Louis Brownby Gregory Wolf
October 11, 2012
One of the most respected players of his era, Ned Garver broke into the big leagues as a 22-year old rookie for the lowly St. Louis Browns in 1948 and quickly established himself as one of the best and most durable pitchers in the American League.
In his first four years he was arguably the best (and most valuable) pitcher in the AL and easily led all pitchers with a 20.4 WAR. In 1951, he became the first pitcher in modern baseball history to win 20 games for a team that lost 100 games. With renown stamina, he completed 42 of 49 starts in a stretch spanning 1950-52 and led the AL in complete games in 1950 (22) and 1951 (24). Runner-up to Yogi Berra as American League MVP in 1951, Garver played for some of baseball's worst teams in his 14-year career, finishing in the bottom three 11 times and never better than fifth place. Hampered by arm and knee injuries in the second half of his career, Garver retired with 129 victories (157 defeats) and logged almost 2,500 innings.
Down-home with an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, 86-year old Garver reminisced recently about playing baseball in the 1940s and 1950s. His stories about playing conditions, travel, teammates, coaches, owners, and the reserve clause showed the passion he had to play the game and the dramatic changes the sport has experienced.
Wolf: Could you tell me about growing up and playing baseball in Ney (population 300) in northwest Ohio in the 1930s and '40s?
Garver: I was born and raised on a farm. We farmed by horses. It was a lot of manual labor which was good to develop your physical strength. It was in the Depression and nobody had any money to do things or go places. Every little community had their own baseball team. We called these "town teams." You didn't have to go far to play games. That what we did for recreation—play baseball. I started playing town ball when I was a freshman in high school. That was an excellent experience. Many of the players were older and more experienced than I was and it was a challenge.
Wolf: When did you start playing baseball?
Garver: My dad had been a semi-pro pitcher so he was always interested in baseball. My mother always said that playing baseball would never get you no place. She wanted me to be a minister or an undertaker. When my brothers and I went back to our fields to shock wheat, we'd throw the ball. We'd play catch all the time. We had a backstop out in one of our pastures where we practiced. We played baseball winter, spring and fall Ney High School. In my senior year, we were runners-up in the state tournament. I got beat 3-2 in the final game of the tournament in 1943. (This was the only time Ney has participated in the Ohio state tournament).
Wolf: When did scouts start to come to your games?
Garver: There was never any attention from scouts at my high school games. No one said a word to me about scouts. After high school, I went to Fort Wayne, Ind., to play for a team in the Federation League (semi-pro) in 1943. We had a mighty good team. My high-school catcher, Calvin Esther, was a good player and also on the team. We'd play on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday, he'd drive one week and I'd drive the other week. Then we hitchhiked on Sundays.
I played third base and left field and pitched on occasion. We went to the national tournament in Youngstown, Ohio and I pitched a couple of games there. When we were finally eliminated, that was the first time anybody said anything about scouts. Our manager, P.L. McCormick, announced to the team that four different scouts had come to him and had offered me a contract to play ball, including the St. Louis Browns and the Pittsburgh organization.
But I had already enlisted in the service and went to active duty in the fall. I was discharged in the spring of '44 because of flat feet, which was a stroke of genius. I returned P.L. McCormick in Ft. Wayne and told him that I wanted him to find me a job. I wanted to play pro ball. McCormick was a bird-dog scout for the St. Louis Browns, but he wanted me to play another year for him, but I told him I gotta find out if I can play. I didn't know anyone who ever played pro ball so I had no real encouragement to do so.
McCormick got me a contract with the (Browns affiliate] Toldeo Mud Hens in 1944 for $100 a month. They sent me on a train to Cape Girardeau, Mo. That's where the Mud Hens and the St. Louis Browns were taking spring training because it was during the war and the teams couldn't travel far due to gas rationing. I took spring training there and opened the season with Toledo, but they wanted to farm me out. So I asked them to send me some place close in case I don't make it. They sent me to Newark, Ohio. I was there (with the Newark Moundsmen in the Class D Ohio State League) for Opening Day and played the entire season there.
Wolf: When you were in Newark, near Columbus, Ohio, in 1944 you had one of the best pitching records in all of organized baseball (21 wins, 1.21 ERA) and you were just 18 years old. You were managed by Clay Bryant. Do you credit him or anyone else for helping you develop as a pitcher?
Garver: Oh, yes. Clay Bryant. He was a major league pitcher for the Cubs. I was just starting out and there are things you need to know. He told me the first pitch to the batter is the most important because you need to get ahead. You don't use your change-up to poor batters because that's all they can hit. Then he taught me that the most effective time to throw your change-of-pace is when you are behind in the count because the batters are looking for a fastball. He also taught me that if you can throw a breaking ball or a change-up, you're going to be successful. This advice made me as successful as I was in the big leagues. There are not a lot of pitchers who become managers. Back when I played I didn't receive much help from managers or coaches who happened to play my position.
Wolf: In 1945 you played with the Toledo Mud Hens and the Class A Elmira Pioneers in the Eastern League.
Garver: In 1945 I went to spring training again with Toledo and I opened the season with them. I pitched about 30 games before they went on a western swing to play in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. My contract said I'd get $100 more per month if I stayed with the team the entire year. In order to beat me out of that money, they sent me to Elmira for about two weeks. They told me that Elmira has a chance to win the division, but they needed pitching. Well, when I got there, all they had was pitching and they weren't going to make the playoffs. So I played left field when I didn't pitch. I practiced throwing the Rip Sewell "Eephus" ball. I had some fun horsing around up there and I rejoined Toledo and pitched at the end of the season.
Wolf: In the American Association during the 1940s, you played in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Louisville and in some venerable old stadiums.
Garver: Indianapolis was a good place to pitch because it was so cussed big (center field was 470 feet). They had the batting cage in center field because the ball hardly went that far. It was called Victory Field. It was fun to pitch in a ballpark like Milwaukee with its short fences down the lines. I remember our second baseman, Bob Wren, hit a little pop fly down the right field line and it was a home run. (Borchert Field in Milwaukee was shaped almost like a football field; 267 feet down the line, 435 in the power alleys, and 392 in center.) In Minneapolis they had Babe Barna and some good hitters. You could hit the ball out of the ballpark and on to the roof across the street. (Nicollet Park, in the Lyndale neighborhood, was a hitter's paradise.) Louisville had a fine park near the fairgrounds [Parkway Field], but the fields back then are nothing compared to what we have today. Minor league teams have better diamonds and parks than many major teams had when I played.
Wolf: In 1946 the entire minor league system was reorganized and the Triple-A level was introduced. In 1946 and 1947 you played for the San Antonio Missions in Double-A Texas League and were managed by Jimmy Adair, who was your manager in Elmira.
Garver: In the winter time after the 1945 season I got a written notice that I was being assigned to San Antonio. Adair was a good ol' scout and had been a second baseman. He was a guy who did a little drinking, had a sense of humor, and didn't take the game so cussed seriously, so we could stay relaxed and have a good time.
We didn't have any pitching coaches there. You learned from some of the guys who had been pitchers in the big leagues. Major league baseball players didn't just quit or retire back then. They didn't have enough money like players today. They played in the major leagues and then went back in the minors to play some more. Guys like Sig Jakucki (36), John Whitehead (37), Johnny Markum (37), and Harry Kimberlin (36) played in the big leagues and were on clubs I was on. I got to watch them pitch and talk to them and I'd ask how to pitch.
Moose Markum taught me some things. We were playing in Dallas and they had a hot hitter named Bobby Moyer and Markum would always get him out. He'd throw two fastballs for balls and then a change-up. When a batter gets ahead, he's looking for the fastball. He'll see that ball coming in as big as a grapefruit and will swing. That's how I learned you can get batters out by wasting a couple of pitches and then make them hit a change-curve or change-up. Other than Clay Bryant I never had a good pitching coach until Johnny Sain in the big leagues (in 1959 with the Kansas City Athletics).
Wolf: In 1947, in your last year of minor league baseball, you had another great season, won 17 games, and debuted with the Browns in 1948. Was it clear that 1947 would be your last year in the minors?
Garver: Yes, it was. Jack Fournier was the head scout for the St. Louis Browns. He came down late in the year. We were riding in a car and he said that I'd be in the big leagues. Coming from Jack Fournier, that was gospel. I was having a pretty good year so I decided to talk to the team about a getting a raise. I was told that I'd be called up to the Browns at the end of our season. I'd earn $1,000 because the major league minimum was $5,000. That took care of my raise so I didn't need one.
When we ended the season in Shreveport, I hadn't been notified where I should report. I sent a wire to Browns GM Bill DeWitt. He sent one back and told me to meet him in San Bernardino for spring training the next year. I was completely deflated. They beat me out of a raise. I was lied to.
Wolf: When you arrived at your first spring training for the Browns in 1948, did you notice any differences compared to the minor leagues?
Garver: The difference was that you played against major league players. It was an eye-opener. You'd see players you'd heard and read about in the papers and admired for years. And now when they call on you, you'll be playing against them. Here was Tommie Bridges, one of my idols when he was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Now he was with Portland (Beavers of the Pacific Coast League) and he was just sitting on the bench. Before the game started I went over to talk with him. He said "Hitting is timing and pitching is breaking it up." That's how simple pitching is. Pitching is location, movement of the ball, and change of speed.
Wolf: What kind of pitches did you throw when you began your major league career?
Garver: I was a sinker-slider ball pitcher. I accidentally developed the slider playing catch down in St. Louis. I had good control and could throw from different spots—sidearm or overhand. I had a curveball and a sinker. All of a sudden I threw a slider. I could feel it when it left my hand. I threw the ball again with the same pressure from my finger and that son-of-a-biscuit moved. Ted Williams always said that he could not pick up the spin from my slider. That pitch made the difference in my major league career.
I had two sliders. One I threw like a football pass to left-hand hitters, but I tried to throw it only belt-high. It would break back in and hit you on the fist (handle) of the bat. I had another slider I'd throw three-quarters. I could make the ball drop out and down and I threw it a lot to right-hand hitters.
Wolf: You were managed by Zack Taylor in your first few years with the Browns. How was he as a manager?
Garver: That's right. He was good. He was like a father to me. I was coming into the major leagues and was a pretty young guy. He knew how to handle me. If I made a mistake, he'd talk about it so I wouldn't do it the next time.
Wolf: You made your debut on May 9, 1948 in a loss to the Washington Senators.
Garver: I was nervous. I remember when I was warming up in the bullpen I heard somebody else warming up. Zack Taylor had Sam Zoldak warming up, too. I guess he didn't think I'd make it. In the first inning I had the jitters and I couldn't get the ball over like I wanted. They scored three runs off me in the first inning and that's all they got. (Garver shut the Senators down in the next five innings, but got tagged for the loss in a 3-1 defeat.)
Wolf: Two weeks later, on May 22, you earned your first major league win, a complete game victory over the Senators. In fact, you built your reputation on being able to throw complete games, leading the American league in 1950 and 1951.
Garver: I completed 24 games in 1951. In my first eight years in the big leagues I threw 1,760 innings and averaged 220 per year, but I didn't pitch too much. Once in a while, Zack Taylor would want me to go to the bullpen and save a game. I didn't mind. The day after you pitch, you can pitch the next day for at least an inning and still have good stuff. I never thought managers abused me. These kids nowadays, 200-pounders, and they throw a maximum of 100 pitches. They don't get to enjoy pitching!
Wolf: So it didn't bother you to pitch in relief between starts?
Garver: In 1951 I won 20 games. And I got lucky because I won two of those games in relief. In Chicago (on April 25) I came in relief of Dick Starr and we were ahead (4-1) in the seventh inning. Then the White Sox tied the game off me. I pitched the next two innings, we scored some runs, and I won. I remember Dick Starr saying to me in the clubhouse "You got a lot better once they scored the tying run."
Wolf: You were one of the most durable pitchers of your era. As you mentioned you won 20 games in 1951 and are the only pitcher in modern baseball history to win 20 games for a team that lost 100 games. You had good stamina, completed 50 percent of your starts, and in 1950 you pitched at least 10 innings in five games.
Wolf: At the conclusion of the 1951 season, Happy Chandler's contract as baseball commissioner was not renewed and was replaced by Ford Frick. 1951 also marks a major congressional investigation into baseball and their business dealings. You wrote a letter in opposition to the reserve clause and offered an alternative for player salaries.
Garver: Satchel Paige and I were barnstorming and we were committed to the tour. I was supposed to testify in front of Congress after the season. So I wrote a letter instead. I said that there was not an adequate substitute for the reserve clause. If all of the best players go to one team, you'd soon have an imbalance. If a player did not get a chance to play in a certain number of games in a year or two, then the team has to trade or sell him. I could see how some players like Gus Triandos and Ralph Houk came up with the Yankees and they just sat there. Yogi Berra would catch most of the games. Players would rot on the vine. If you don't have a chance to play, you'll lose your ability. Because your career is short, teams should do something if they don't want to play you.
Wolf: You were second in the 1951 A.L. MVP race.
Garver: I was called by the Associated Press in Cleveland and was told that I won the night before the award was announced. The Associated Press congratulated me for being the MVP . The next morning they called me again and told me they were sorry, but I didn't win the award after all. Apparently New York writers left me off the ballot entirely. Yogi Berra won the MVP. I don't have any bitterness toward baseball except for this. (Berra, Garver, and Allie Reynolds each received six first-place votes; however, Garver received only two second-place votes, and finished with 157 points behind Berra's 184 points in one of the most highly contested MVP votes.)
Wolf: In 1952 you were traded from the Browns even though you were their biggest star. Did you speak to owner Bill Veeck about your trade? I know he needed cash to cover operating expenses and wanted to move the team.
Garver: When you played for Bill Veeck, you knew that you might be traded. That was part of his swagger. I loved playing for him and he treated you so well while you were there. I heard about my trade when we were in Cleveland. I was driving my car. I don't feel bad about the trade. It was a shock to be driving and hear on the radio that I was traded to Detroit.
Wolf: When you arrived in Detroit, you pitched only one game, on Aug. 17, a complete game victory, ironically over your former team the Browns. And then didn't pitch any more that season. Were you injured in the game?
Garver: Yes, I was. I started the 1952 season with a shutout over the Tigers and then I shut out Chicago in my second start. But then I was throwing batting practice to some of the pitchers. We were living at the Fairgrounds Hotel (where many Cardinals and Browns players lived at the time). There were four or five of us there and we were using old baseballs. We took turns hitting and fielding and then we'd throw the balls back to the pitcher's mound as close as we could. While doing that it sounded like someone hit me in the neck. It almost knocked me down. I pinched a nerve in my neck. I finally had surgery on it when I was out of baseball.
The pinched nerve affected my right arm. After my next game against Chicago, I couldn't straighten my arm out. I was sent to a doctor who took an x-ray and said there was nothing wrong. I had to keep pitching, but I could pitch well. I don't know how I was able to pitch a complete game in my first start for the Tigers. In the ninth inning of that game I'd throw the ball and my muscle would begin to spasm so bad that I had to hold my hand against my right leg to stop the spasming. Then I could throw again.
Charlie Gehringer (Tigers GM) said that I wasn't going to pitch any more. He sent me to a doctor he used to go to. The doctor put me on some type of stretching machine. He took my arm and cranked it through the machine and it sounded like someone dropped a dozen eggs on the ground. I thought he ruined my whole career. He broke all of the adhesions. I took some treatment in the winter and then went to spring training in 1953. I felt fine and pitched Opening Day in St. Louis. In 1953 I was able to pitch, but I injured my knee and it bothered me the entire year, I had it operated on at the end of the season.
Wolf: You had good years with Detroit from 1953 to 1955, in fact 1954 was one of your best seasons with a 2.81 ERA, 246 innings pitched and 14 wins, plus 16 complete games on a team that won just 68 games. Did you enjoy pitching in Detroit?
Garver: Oh yes. That was my favorite place. There was nothing negative about St. Louis. They gave me a chance. But Detroit, well, I used to go to games there as a child when it was called Navin Field. Then to be able to play there, it was heaven. My people from back home could see me play.
Wolf: You pitched for Bucky Harris and Fred Hutchinson in Detroit. How did they handle pitchers?
Garver: Bucky Harris was sympathetic. He didn't even like to take you out in the course of an inning. He waited until the inning was over. Hutchinson was great to play for. He was a fiery manager.
Wolf: Hutchinson was a former pitcher.
Garver: I pitched against Hutchinson and then I had a chance to play for him.
Wolf: How would you characterize yourself when you were on the mound? Were you a quiet pitcher or did you argue balls and strikes with the umpire?
Garver: Oh, I never did that. I always acted like I expected the call. I never wanted to show the batter that I was upset. I never wanted to give anyone an advantage. I was taught that the umpires would do a legitimate job. If they were bad umpires, then they'd do a bad job for both teams. I treated the umpires with respect.
If my teammate made an error, well, I'd just say "get it done next time." I didn't want them to feel bad. If I yelled at someone because he made an error, he might not have his head in the game and foul up again.
Wolf: How were you injured in 1956?
Garver: I pitched in cool weather in Cleveland to start the season against Early Wynn. The whole series was cold. Then we went to Kansas City and the weather was bad. I was throwing batting practice. In those days starting pitchers threw batting practice. Earl Torgeson came over and told me he wanted me to throw him curveballs. I didn't want to, but I did and BOOM, I felt it in my arm. I landed on the disabled list and didn't play much the rest of the year.
Wolf: You were traded to Kansas City in a big eight-player deal at the end of the 1956 season and played for the Athletics for four years, first for manager Lou Boudreau and then for Harry Craft. Did you feel any effects from the injury.
Garver: Oh yes. I didn't have the kind of stuff I had before the injury. I was a different pitcher. I turned my back to hitters; I threw sidearm and from different angles. I did the stuff Satchel Paige did. (Garver and Paige were teammates on the Browns in 1951 and 1952.) I couldn't throw my good fastball, slider and sinker any more. I could still pitch a couple hundred innings a year, but I was not the same pitcher.
Boudreau wanted his name in the paper all the time. Harry Craft was like a brother. He really didn't pay any attention to the pitchers. He had Spud Chandler as a pitching coach. Spud told me once that he didn't throw a breaking ball until the eighth inning. But what good could that do me? I threw a breaking ball every other pitch. I can't throw 100 sinkers in a row!
Wolf: How did Johnny Sain help you when he was named pitching coach in 1959?
Garver: Sain had a way of telling you something and making you think you thought of it yourself. He helped your attitude, confidence, and your approach to hitters. You could talk to him when you wanted. When I played, your manager wasn't always like that. Good God, I played for Rogers Hornsby in 1952 and he didn't even know your name. One time he thought I was Cliff Fannin and that was at the end of spring training. Sain is the only good pitching coach I ever had with the exception of Clay Bryant.
Wolf: You were drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the expansion draft after the 1960 season. After pitching a few games in 1961, your last in your career, you were released. Did you consider a comeback or plan to retire?
Garver: Well, I had been a starting pitcher my entire life, for 17 years. With the Angels I started my first game but then was used in relief. I was warming up several times a night and I couldn't survive that. And I couldn't perform, either. I was ready to quit. I was in California by myself. My wife and baby were back home.
Wolf: Did you go to a spring training in 1962?
Garver: I had a chance to go to Houston in 1962, to Paul Richards' team, but I decided against it. I had two farms and equipment and planned to farm back in Ohio.
When I was released from the Angels in 1961, I went to work out for Bill Veeck and the White Sox. It was past the cut-down date, but he said that I could come along and throw batting practice. If a spot opens up, I can have it. If not, then I can come to spring training the following year. The Cincinnati Reds called; Bill DeWitt was the owner. They wanted me to go to their Indianapolis farm team and pitch a few games and get back in shape . I thought about this and then told me wife that I didn't think the Reds had a chance for a pennant so I didn't go. And then they won the pennant.
Wolf: Is it one of the strange aspects of your career that you played on only one winning team: the Tigers in 1955. In 1956 you were injured.
Garver: I was never on a good team! Well, the 1956 team was a good one, with Frank Lary, Paul Foytack, Billy Hoeft, Jim Bunning and the young Al Kaline. So you ought to win!
Wolf: Did you settle in northwest Ohio after retiring?
Garver: Yes. I invested in farms. I farmed for a year and then I went to work for a meat packing company and worked for them for another 18 years and retired in 1980.
Wolf: What is your most memorable moment in baseball?
Garver: It's amazing that I still remember it. The last play of the 1951 season. I am on the mound and with the last out I know that I am a 20-game winner. It was an unbelievable feeling—relief and pleasure. It wasn't like today with people jumping on me, but my teammates came up and congratulated me.
SABR member Gregory Wolf has recently written about Claude Osteen, Steve Hargan, and Virgil Trucks for the SABR biography project.
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