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A pioneering challenger of baseball’s power

At this late date, twenty years and counting since his death in December 2002, it’s probably impossible to say if Dave McNally ever met Danny Gardella. Likely not. The bigger, more important, question is whether McNally ever heard of Gardella. Again, this writer cannot say for sure, but he is inclined to say “yes.”

Who was Danny Gardella? He was a so-so professional baseball player, an outfielder, born in 1920 in the Bronx. He died at age 85 in 2005 in Yonkers, New York.

It wasn’t for his feats on the diamond that Gardella has carved a placed in baseball and professional sports history. Gardella played only three seasons in the major leagues, two for the New York Giants (1944 and 1945), and one for the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1950, He played in 169 games, ending with a .272 batting average on 117 hits in 430 at-bats. Not the stuff of Hall of Fame candidacy. Or even the numbers that any but the most serious baseball fans can rattle off.

No, as the Los Angeles Times said to start an October 22, 1994, article, “It wasn't any inflated sense of his worth as a ballplayer that made Danny Gardella want to sue the national pastime.”

Gardella got the bulk of his big league playing time in 1944 and 1945, when he competed against other National League teams whose rosters were thinned by the loss of star players serving in the military during World War II.

Also, someone surveying Gardella’s impact on the game would be errant to characterize the five-foot-seven New Yorker as a “closet Stalinist bent on torpedoing American institutions,” as the Times put it. Just don't bring Branch Rickey back from the grave, however. The idolized baseball figure, the man rightly credited with breaking the major league color barrier by bringing up Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, publicly accused Gardella of “leaning to Communism.”

In 1947, Gardella filed a lawsuit against major league baseball, challenging MLB’s exemption from federal antitrust law. That case rattled baseball moguls, and it foreshadowed the suit that Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood filed on the same grounds in the early 1970s. Flood's lawsuit reached the U. S, Supreme Court in 1972. He lost, but his willingness to challenge the baseball establishment paved the way for McNally and fellow pitcher Andy Messersmith to seek arbitration of their disputes with their clubs, the Montreal Expos by then for McNally and the Los Angeles Dodgers for Messersmith, in 1975.

McNally and Messersmith succeeded. In what’s become known as the Seitz decision, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the two players. The decision overturned the reserve clause and opened the door to free agency, bringing with that the bidding for players’ services that has resulted in multimillion-dollar contracts even for run-of-the-mill players nowadays.

In 1994, Gardella, then 74, said he felt that by going to court, “I let the whole world know that the reserve clause was unfair.” The reserve clause, which had been in effect since the start of MLB in the early 1900s, tied a player to the club that held his contract for his career. Or until the club owner decided to trade him or, in effect, fire him by releasing him from the club and pushing him out of professional baseball.

“It had the odor of peonage, even slavery,” Gardella said thirty years ago.

His saga started in spring training in 1946. He reported to the Giants camp, hoping that his power-hitting ability—he clubbed eighteen home runs and batted in 71 runs in 1945–would gain him a tryout at first base. He sensed the odds of making the Giants roster were better there than playing in the outfield, where his known “fear of fly balls” was a liability.

Unfortunately, Johnny “Big Cat” Mize stood in Gardella's way. The future Hall of Famer had been discharged from military service and was prepared to take back his familiar first-base post.

That reality prompted Gardella to welcome a chance to play across the border, in Jorge Pascual's Mexican League. Pascual, a wealthy, well-connected Mexican businessman, was willing to pay top dollars to get big leaguers from the U.S. to play in the Mexican circuit, which he headed as its president. Pascual offered salaries that were double or triple what cheapskate U.S. team owners were paying.

The tactic worked. Pascual got stars such as Giants pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie, Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen and Cardinals’ pitcher Max Lanier to sign with Mexican teams.

Gardella doubled his $5,000 salary with the Giants when he signed to play with Pascual’s Veracruz team. That led to memorable times, including the day when he shared a cigar in the outfield with Babe Ruth. The New York Yankees slugger had been retired for ten years and was already sick with the throat cancer that would kill him in 1948. The press, however, wrote and broadcast almost nothing to indicate the seriousness of his illness.

Ruth, in Mexico on a fishing trip, detoured to the outfield where Gardella was playing that day.

“He got $10,000 just to hit a few balls,” Gardella recalled.

Gardella thought Pascual had reasons to spend money liberally that went beyond baseball. His cousin, Interior Minister Miguel Alemán Valdes, was running for president of Mexico as* the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Alemán won and became one of the country’s most influential leaders.

It seemed to Gardella that he and other Americans players on Mexican team rosters were meant to boost Alemán’s popularity.

Whether that was true, MLB took quick action. Owners realized that true competition from Mexico probably would push players’ salaries higher and reduce their profits. Baseball Commissioner Albert B. “Happy” Chandler announced in June 1946 that U.S. players who jumped to Mexico would be banned from the big leagues for five years.

Some U.S. players, tipped off to the ban before it took effect, got back to the U.S. in time to avoid sanctions. Gardella, however, had found a lifestyle he liked and intended to keep, according to the Times.

To Gardella, “Mexico meant money, baseball and exotic trips, all of which beat riding a bench behind Johnny Mize.” Gardella stayed with Veracruz in 1946, and he became the home run king of the Cuban League the next year.

He figured that when he returned to the States, he could always play on the semipro circuit. Thus, “life was a Havana cigar,” in the words of the Times.

He learned otherwise one day in 1947 during an exhibition game on Staten Island between his semipro Gulf Oilers and the Cleveland Buckeyes, a barnstorming squad of Negro National League stars that included Satchel Paige.

A telegram from Chandler’s office came in during the game, and it was read over the loudspeakers. Players for the Oilers, the Buckeyes, and spectators heard that anyone caught on the same diamond with Gardella or any other former Mexican League players would never play in the big leagues.

That was terrifying to black players, who only had Robinson with the Dodgers as a role model of MLB recognizing their talents and giving them an equal opportunity to play.

A “penny-ante ballgame on Staten Island” would ruin the chance of a lifetime, the black players realized, as did Gardella. So, he withdrew from the game, angry about baseball’s ability to control his life.

A few days later, his dentist referred him to a lawyer named Frederic A. Johnson. Johnson and Gardella filed a $300,000 federal lawsuit that charged Chandler, the Giants and the American and National leagues with engaging in a conspiracy in restraint of trade. That collusion, the lawsuit alleged, deprived Gardella of his right to make a living.

Gardella lost at the district court level, where a judge cited Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1922 Supreme Court ruling. It stated that baseball was a pure regional enterprise and thus was not subject to federal antitrust laws governing interstate commerce.

Gardella and Johnson, however, didn’t give up. They appealed and won a major victory in February 1949 when famed Judge Learned Hand ruled that baseball had changed since Holmes’ day. Baseball games were being broadcast on the radio, and TV broadcasts had started, too, in the late 1940s. Thus, MLB seemed to be involved in interstate commerce, Hand wrote, and he ordered a jury trial.

Baseball team owners ratcheted up the pressure. In April 1949, Rickey told a congressional committee that Gardella and other opponents of a bill to give MLB a blanket antitrust exemption “lean to Communism.”

Contrary to the lionization Rickey has received for bringing Robinson into major-league baseball, Gardella characterized Rickey as a “bible-quoting cheapskate.”

That spring, major league clubs released a poll that showed most players supported the reserve clause. Gardella said Owen was sent to his house to talk him into dropping his lawsuit.

In June 1949, baseball granted a general amnesty to the former Mexican League players. Most returned, but Gardella held out. Finally, in October that year, he ended his crusade. He dropped his lawsuit in exchange for the owners’ promise that he could play for the Cardinals the next spring, plus a cash settlement of $60,000, half going to his lawyer.

Gardella joined the Cardinals in 1950 and came to bat once more; he flied out.

A father of nine and grandfather to sixteen, Gardella lived for years in Yonkers, where he worked as a construction laborer. He was at peace with his life but was left wondering if he should have settled the case.

Johnson, his lawyer, gave him good reasons for ending the lawsuit: the owners could have delayed the trial for years, the settlement offer amounted to a dozen times what he had ever made on a baseball field, and he was sick of baseball.

“I think Johnson was wise enough to realize that if we didn’t settle, baseball would have been considered such a darling that we never could have won,” he said.

As for Rickey’s denunciation, “I was no Communist for exercising my American rights.”

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Jamie Larson