It wasn’t any inflated sense of his worth as a ballplayer that made Danny Gardella want to sue the national pastime.
As an erratic, 5-foot-7 outfielder who batted .272 for the New York Giants in 1945 against war-thinned competition, he knew his limitations.
Nor was the Bronx-born Gardella a closet Stalinist bent on torpedoing American institutions, although no less a baseball god than Branch Rickey would publicly accuse him of “leaning to Communism.”
No, what really drove Gardella into court was the infuriating idea that the “big-headed guys” who ran baseball would think nothing of drumming him out of their game and then humiliating him in front of a hometown crowd in a meaningless exhibition.
Gardella’s 1947 lawsuit was the first significant challenge to baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust law, a challenge that badly rattled the club owners and foreshadowed the historic but unsuccessful suit by Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood that reached the Supreme Court 25 years later.
“I feel I let the whole world know that the reserve clause was unfair,” Gardella, now 74, said in a recent interview. The reserve clause, then a part of the standard major league contract, bound a player to his club for his career--or until his owner decided to trade or fire him.
“It had the odor of peonage, even slavery,” Gardella said.
Gardella’s lawsuit helped pave the way for free agency, which has sparked bidding wars for stars and journeymen alike, driving big league salaries to today’s stratospheric levels. It also created some of the conditions that led to the current, season-killing strike.
When Gardella reported for spring training with the Giants in 1946, he hoped to leverage his power-hitting credentials--18 home runs and 71 runs batted during the 1945 season--into a tryout at first base, where his fear of fly balls would be a lesser liability.
Unfortunately for Gardella, the front-runner was slugger Johnny (the Big Cat) Mize, back from the war and ready to reclaim his old position.
Mize was headed for Cooperstown, Gardella for Mexico.
Mexican League baseball was a sizable cut below the U.S. big leagues in terms of crowd size, talent and playing conditions. But for at least a few seasons after World War II, the pay looked terrific.
League President Jorge Pasquel, a businessman who owned the Vera Cruz team, had opened his wallet to lure major leaguers across the border. Offering double and triple the salaries paid by tight-fisted U.S. owners, Pasquel landed such stars as Giant pitcher Sal (the Barber) Maglie, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen and Cardinal pitcher Max Lanier.
Gardella got twice his $5,000 salary with the Giants to jump to the Mexican League. He recalls sharing a cigar in the outfield one day with Babe Ruth, who, though 10 years retired and sick with the throat cancer that would soon kill him, had made a lucrative detour from a Mexican fishing trip.
“He got $10,000 just to hit a few balls,” Gardella said.
As Gardella figures it, the cash Pasquel was throwing around was not investment capital aimed at fattening gate receipts and owner profits.
Pasquel was an ally of Interior Minister Miguel Aleman Valdes, who in January of 1946 was designated as the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which--then as now--was as good as being elected. Aleman went on to become one of Mexico’s most influential presidents, sometimes called the architect of modern Mexico.
Gardella, who knew enough Italian to quickly pick up Spanish, thinks the imported baseball stars were simply meant to boost Aleman’s popularity.
In any event, the tactic didn’t go over well with Pasquel’s fellow owners or with the poorly paid Mexican ballplayers, who resented the sums being lavished on interlopers from El Norte .
Regardless of how serious a threat Mexican ball might have posed to the big leagues, the owners’ concern level rose quickly. True competition from Mexico might force player salaries higher and cut into profits.
Baseball Commissioner Albert B. (Happy) Chandler acted in June of 1946, announcing that U.S. players who had jumped to Mexico would be banned from the big leagues for five years.
Chuck Stevens, a former St. Louis Brown who now runs a benefit group for retired ballplayers, remembers sitting at a railroad siding in San Antonio in 1946 and watching teammate Vern Stephens sprint to catch the train after a club official--alerted to the impending ban--had rushed to ransom the power-hitting shortstop back from Mexico. Stephens had bolted so abruptly that he left all his clothes in Mexico, Stevens said.
For Gardella, at least at first, the blacklist was a non-event. Mexico meant money, baseball and exotic trips, all of which beat riding a bench behind Johnny Mize. After a season in Mexico, Gardella became the home run king of the Cuban League. When he was back in the States, he could always find a game on the semipro circuit. Life was a Havana cigar.
The sweetness faded one day in 1947 during an exhibition on Staten Island between Gardella’s semipro Gulf Oilers and the Cleveland Buckeyes, a barnstorming squad of Negro National League stars that included future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige.
During the game, a telegram arrived at the park from the baseball commissioner’s office and was read over the loudspeaker: Anybody caught on the same diamond with Gardella or any other Mexican League outcasts could forget about ever playing in the big leagues.
For the black players, it was a horrifying threat. Things had only just started thawing for them that season, when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. Equal opportunity was a distant star. Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox would dither for another 12 years before finally putting their first black player, the modestly talented Pumpsie Green, on the field at Fenway Park. Now here was the chance of a lifetime jeopardized by a penny-ante ballgame on Staten Island.
Gardella saw the fix he had put the other players in, so he withdrew from the game. But he was still fuming a few days later when his dentist referred him to one of his other clients, a lawyer named Frederic A. Johnson.
Johnson turned out to be a bulldog. He and Gardella filed a $300,000 federal lawsuit charging Chandler, the Giants and the American and National leagues with engaging in a conspiracy in restraint of trade that deprived Gardella of the right to make a living.
A district court rejected the suit, citing Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1922 Supreme Court ruling that baseball was a purely regional enterprise and thus not subject to federal antitrust laws governing interstate commerce.
Gardella and Johnson pushed ahead, however, and won a huge victory in federal appeals court in February of 1949, when renowned Judge Learned Hand ruled that baseball had changed since Holmes’ day and that the introduction of national radio and TV broadcasts might indeed involve the game in interstate commerce. He ordered a jury trial.
That was enough for the owners. They stepped up the pressure.
In April, Dodger boss Branch Rickey told a congressional committee that Gardella and other opponents of a bill to grant baseball an outright antitrust exemption “lean to Communism.”
Gardella, for his part, remembers Rickey not as the pioneer who helped Jackie Robinson break the color barrier but as “a Bible-quoting cheapskate.”
That same spring, the major league clubs announced a poll showing that most players supported the reserve clause. Owen was sent to Gardella’s house to talk him into dropping his lawsuit, Gardella said.
In June, baseball granted a general amnesty to the Mexican League defectors. Owen, Maglie, Lanier and others quickly returned, but Gardella held out.
Finally, in October of 1949, as the Yankees--as usual--were crushing the Dodgers in the World Series, Gardella caved in.
He dropped his suit in return for the owners’ promise that he could play for the Cardinals the next spring, plus a cash settlement of $60,000, half of which he gave his lawyer.
Gardella joined the Cardinals that spring and came to bat exactly one more time in a major league uniform. He flied out.
Gardella, the father of nine and grandfather of 16, is living with his wife in the New York suburb of Yonkers, retired from a long career as a construction laborer. He says he is at peace with his life, but something rankles him. He still wonders whether he should have settled that case.
Gardella knows he had good reasons: Johnson told him the owners could have delayed the trial for years; the settlement offer was a dozen times what he had ever made on a ballfield; he was sick of baseball anyway.
“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.
Of Rickey’s condemnation, Gardella said: “I was no Communist for exercising my American rights.”