Catching Up With ... former Oriole Billy Gardner
Once, the Orioles were a .500 ballclub. Look it up. In 1957, they finished with a record of 76-76, the only break-even season in Orioles history. More important, it was the first time the team had won as many games as it lost since it moved from St. Louis in 1954.
The Orioles turned the corner that year, thanks in part to the club's Most Valuable Player, a scrappy infielder who could spear ground balls, turn double plays and spit tobacco juice with the best.
Billy Gardner set the stage for Orioles second basemen to come. Before Bobby Grich, Robbie Alomar and Davey Johnson, there was Gardner, a wiry little journeyman with a chaw in his jaw whose play lifted the lowly Orioles to the edge of ordinary.
In 1957 — his best year in the big leagues — Gardner hit .262 and led the American League in doubles (36) and plate appearances (718). He led AL second basemen in fielding percentage. And he started every game despite a nasty string of injuries that would have benched others.
In spring training that year, Gardner lost eight teeth when a ball hit him square in the mouth. He took six stitches but took the field the next day.
“You'd have to kill Billy to keep him from playing,” Orioles coach Luman Harris once said.
At 84, Gardner lives in his hometown of Waterford, Conn., where he “just hangs out and cuts the grass.”
He's just plain “Bill” now, having dropped the “y” from his name upon turning 70.
“It seemed the right time to do it,” he said.
Gardner played four years with the Orioles (1956-59), mostly as leadoff hitter for a team struggling for credibility. To that end, two games stand out, he said. One was an 11-10 win over the Boston Red Sox in 1956, the second-biggest comeback victory in Orioles history. Down 8-0, they rallied for a dramatic win at Fenway Park.
In 1958, the Orioles' Hoyt Wilhelm pitched a no-hitter against the New York Yankees at Memorial Stadium. Gardner caught the final out, a lazy pop-up behind first base.
“It was raining, so I gave the ball a good squeeze,” he said. Then he handed it to Wilhelm, the Orioles' knuckleballing right-hander.
“Hoyt was happy as hell,” Gardner said.
Fans loved the man whom teammates called “Slick” for his glovework. Sun columnist Bob Maisel called Gardner, who'd spent eight years in the minors, “a blue-collar player in a blue-collar town.” Routinely, after home games, you'd find him scarfing down seafood at Obrycki's on Pratt Street.
“I loved the soft-shelled crabs,” Gardner said.
In 1960, when his hitting tailed off, the Orioles peddled him to Washington for Clint Courtney, the Senators' myopic catcher. A year later, Gardner landed in New York and earned a World Series ring as a Yankees reserve. Not that he'd flash it, nowadays.
“My kids wear the ring more than I do,” he said.
He retired in 1963, became a coach, clawed his way to the top again and returned to the majors in 1981 as manager of the Minnesota Twins. There, for nearly four years, he lived in a Super-8 motel at a truck stop outside town.
Gardner thought nothing of it.
“The people are nice to me, I get along great with the drivers, and there's a Denny's nearby,” he said then.
He also managed Kansas City in 1987, replacing Dick Howser, who had brain cancer.
Married 60 years, Gardner has three children and two grandchildren. A son, Billy Jr., manages Montgomery (Ala.), the Double-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I'm pulling for him to reach the big leagues some day,” Gardner said.
Meanwhile, the lawn needs mowing, and several dog-eared Billy Gardner baseball cards have arrived in the mail, begging to be signed. Some of the cards show him with a wad of Red Man in his cheek.
But he quit that habit long ago, for good reason.
“My wife won't let me spit around the house,” he said.
Baltimore Sun file photo of Billy Gardner by Joe DiPaola Jr. / March 26, 1957