Danny Gardella: Drummondville Cub and Baseball Original

Texte de Bill Young, publié en 2005 sur le site de SABR-Québec

Text by Bill Young, originally published in 2005 on the SABR-Quebec website

Danny Gardella: Drummondville Cub and Baseball Original

In Drummondville they called him “Dangerous Dan”.

The first among a parcel of major leaguers to jump to the Mexican League following World War II, Danny Gardella played right field for the powerful Drummondville Cubs of the Provincial League in 1949. His clutch play, both at bat and in the field, were critical in helping the club gain first place in the standings and win the overall league championship.

A baseball original, Gardella was a popular figure in Drummondville where his out-going nature and unexpected antics made him a fan favourite. He loved Canada, he once said, and remembered Drummondville as a “very interesting town. Nice, flat”, where “the fans were good. Excellent.”

Gardella was a prankster, and at a game it was not unusual to see him, in full uniform, walk across the playing surface, on his hands. A colleague tells of a recent visit to Gardella’s home in Yonkers, NY, when he responded to her knock by striding to the front door, upside down.

Danny Gardella passed away on Sunday. March 6, 2005, just days after his eighty-fifth birthday. His death has been widely commented upon at the time, principally because he is recognized as the first major leaguer ever to challenge baseball’s infamous reserve clause, the paragraph in the standard players’ contract that bound a player to his team for life.

Danny Gardella broke into the National league in 1944 with the New York Giants and played with them through the 1945 season, when he batted .272 and connected for 18 home runs, eighth best in the National League. Teammates included Roy Zimmerman and Sal Maglie, both of whom would later join him in Drummondville.

In 1946, as former players began returning from military service, Gardella recognized that his chances of remaining with the Giants were slight. And so when the president of the Mexican League promised him $8000 plus a bonus of $5000 to play south of the border, he made the jump. Because he was an unsigned player at the time, he believed that, technically, he was not breaking a contract. He was, however, in violation of the reserve clause.

Gardella’s exodus set off a rash of other signings with Mexican League officials, enough to prompt baseball’s High Commissioner, Happy Chandler, to decree that “all players who jumped their contracts or violated their reserve status would be banished for five years, unless they returned to their teams before opening day.” This threat was soon applied as promised, at all levels of organized baseball, and with absolute authority.

For the jumpers, the Mexican experiment turned out to be less than expected and by late 1947, Gardella, and most of the others had returned home, to be met by locked doors and limited prospects. Gardella, convinced that he had a case against the Giants and organized baseball, initiated legal action seeking $300,000 in damages. And the jumpers, running out of places to play, now turned to the Provincial League.

At this time, the Provincial League was an independent operation, beyond the control of organized baseball, and in the eyes of many, an outlaw league.

The league offered a high calibre of ball, readily accommodating anyone who could play the game, be they Latin Americans, Negro League veterans, displaced major leaguers, talented Quebecois, or Mexican League jumpers.

Among a slew of very good clubs, the best of the lot was the Drummondville Cubs in 1949. Its line-up included such major leaguers as Max Lanier, Sal Maglie, Vic Power, Tex Shirley, Roy Zimmerman, and of course, Gardella, along with perennial Negro League All-Star, Quincy Trouppe - a wealth of talent that many believed could best the Triple-A Montreal Royals of the International League, if given the chance.

Sal Maglie remembers Gardella as a funny person, an acrobat.

“He would run around the bases and go into home plate making a somersault and landing on the plate.”

One evening during the Drummondville summer, Maglie invited Gardella over for a steak dinner, but Danny didn’t show. Gardella later explained that on his way to the Maglies, he had met up with the team’s official scorer, an undertaker by profession, who was on his way to an accident scene. Gardella decided to accompany him, and according to Maglie, “helped the undertaker embalm the guy, believe it or not.”

None of this seemed to hamper Gardella’s baseball accomplishments. Playing right field in 1949, he had a good year, batting .283, with 17 home runs and 80 runs batted in, and, as his regular appearance in game reports reveals, playing aggressive, and entertaining baseball.

Gardella’s best performance occurred in early July, when, according to La Parole, "’Dangerous Dan’ accomplished a unique feat . . .against St-Hyacinthe. He hit three home runs - the first time this has been done in the league this year - and knocked in 8 runs, as the Cubs defeated the Saints 10-4.” The third home run was a grand slam!

Gardella was named to the league All-Star game, and, reported La Parole, “made the prettiest catch of the night in the 13th inning and saved the North team from defeat.”

To be sure Gardella was a crowd pleaser. Typical was an incident that occurred in the fourth inning of a June home game against Sherbrooke, when former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, Fred Martin, pitched him inside. As the La Parole correspondent noted, Gardella was “sent flying, flipping over twice and landing with elegance on his posterior, all to the great amusement of the crowd. Danny got back up, furious at this assault on his dignity and drove Martin's next pitch over the right field fence, one of the most formidable blows ever seen on these grounds.”

Gardella carried his solid play into the post-season. In the best-of-nine semi-finals against St-Hyacinthe, he opened strongly with a single and home run in the first game. Then, with both teams tied at four games apiece heading into the finale, he and Sal Maglie took charge. Maglie held the Saints to four hits and only one run, striking out 10, and Dangerous Dan drove home five of the seven runs the Cubs scored that night.

Gardella’s playoff heroics continued into the first game of the finals against Farnham when Maglie’s shutout pitching and his grand slam homerun cemented a 7-0 victory. It took the Cubs nine games to win this series and the league championship. In the final match, as Maglie once again prevailed, Gardella scored the Cubs’ first run of the game.

Meanwhile, Gardella’s lawsuit was working its way through the justice system. In February 1949, a federal appeals court had decreed that it warranted a full trial, and this decision had put the baseball authorities very much on their guard, especially as Gardella’s was not the only legal action facing them. Other players, including both Sal Maglie and Max Lanier, had also launched similar legal proceedings,

In mid-June, Commissioner Chandler, fearing the prospect of looming court battles, lifted the banishments and offered a form of amnesty to the Mexican jumpers. Shortly afterward, Lanier and Maglie came to an agreement with major league baseball, and before the year was out, so did Gardella, albeit not without a fight.

He had devoted much of the 1949 season to preparing for the trial and for his day in court, and it was only with great reluctance that he finally accepted his lawyer’s advice to settle.

His lawyer (who was working on a fifty-percent contingency fee) insisted that it would be impossible to claim compensation for lost earnings because, in fact, Gardella had made more money in Mexico and Drummondville that he would have earned with the Giants. The settlement was for $60,000, the equivalent of 6 years salary, and a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.

“It was baseball which was so wrong,” Gardella told author William Marshall. “So undemocratic - for an institution that was supposed to represent American freedom and democracy.”

Gardella began the 1950 season with the Cardinals, but after only one game was summarily dispatched to Houston, where he batted .211 before being given his unconditional release. Typical of his unconventional nature, when it came time to bid Houston adieu, Gardella, with a coat and travelling bag in hand, waved a grand farewell to all - from the top of the outfield fence!

“I’ve been climbing outfield fences all my life,” he said at the time. “ I might as well leave Houston climbing one.”

Danny Gardella made one last attempt to prolong his baseball career – by returning to Quebec and the Provincial league. In 1951, he signed on with Trois-Rivières but could do no better that hit a lowly .178, with three homers and twelve runs-batted-in.

And with that, his adventure in baseball had come to an end - but not his place in baseball history. Danny Gardella will be forever remembered for that time in 1949, when as a member of the Drummondville Cubs, he stood up to the captains of baseball industry and rattled them to their very core.