One of My All-Time Favorites

Larry Gardner in 1917

You know how there are just certain players who reach out and impress you? It’s not there stats exactly. Sometimes it’s just a picture that lingers with you. Sometimes it’s your first baseball card. Sometimes it’s just watching the intensity or the sheer joy with which the guy plays. Sometimes it’s a story about him that gets your attention and you can’t shake it. Sometimes it’s just the memories of others who saw him before your time and remind you that you’ll never see his like. We all have players that touch us like that. SportsPhd talks about Roy Smalley that way. Bill Miller has his own special Met. For me Larry Gardner is one of those.

Gardner was born in Vermont in 1886. He played ball in school and eventually, after some time in the local leagues, ended up at the University of Vermont. He stayed through 1908, majoring in chemistry. After classes ended in 1908 he joined the Red Sox as a  third baseman. He got into two games, hit .500, and drove in a run. In 1909 he split time between third and shortstop, managed to play in 19 games, and hit .297. By 1910 he was the starting second baseman. In 1911 he moved back to third base, where he remained through 1917. In 1912 he hit .315, led the team in triples (18), stole 25 bases, slugged .449, and had 163 hits. Boston won the World Series that season despite Gardner hitting only .167 in the Series. In 1915 and 1916 the Red Sox returned to the World Series, winning both. Gardner was injured in 1915 and managed  to hit only .258 in 127 games. This time he hit .235 in the Series with a triple. In 1916 he was back fulltime and hit .308 with 152 hits and a .387 slugging percentage. He had a strange World Series. He led the team in home runs with two, in RBIs with six, but managed to hit only .176 (3 for 17). Obviously he made his hits count.

In 1918 he was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics. He didn’t have a bad year for the last place A’s, but was traded to Cleveland for the 1919 season. Teaming again with former Red Sox center fielder Tris Speaker, Gardner hit .300 for the second place Indians. In 1920, he made it back to the World Series one last time. He hit .208, after going over .300 during the regular season, and Cleveland won the Series in six games.

Gardner was a player who took advantage of the new “lively ball ” era. He hit over .300 in 1920 and 1921 establishing career highs in hits, runs, RBIs, and total bases. He slipped back in 1922 and even further back in 1923. He was done in 1924. Splitting time between second and third base he hit only .200 in 38 games (only 14 of them in the field). For his career he hit .289, slugged .384, had an OPS of .739 (OPS+ of 109), had 2571 total bases, scored 867 runs, and had 934 RBIs. He’s one of those guys whose numbers really change with the death of the Deadball Era. His fielding percentage was good for his era, but not at the top of the league, but he had a decent range factor. Not a bad career.

With his playing days behind him, Gardner managed for a few years in the minor leagues, ran a garage in his home town, and in 1929 joined the University of Vermont physical education department. In 1932 he became head baseball coach. In 1942 he added Athletic Director to his title. He held both positions until his retirement in 1952. In 1969 he made it into the University Hall of Fame, and SABR acknowledged him as the greatest ballplayer from Vermont in a 1973 poll. After his retirement the university named its baseball MVP award the “Larry Gardner Award.” He died in 1976 at age 89. A University of Vermont man to the end, he donated his body to the university Department of Anatomy.

I’m not sure why Gardner has always been a favorite of mine. There are other third basemen who were better, other members of both the Red Sox and Indians who were greater players, but Gardner was still a very good player. His numbers don’t leap off the page at you, but since I became aware of him back 40 or so years ago, I’ve always liked what I saw and read. I think maybe it’s because he so represents the transition from the Deadball to Livelyball Eras. It’s really obvious that something changed in the early 1920s because Gardner is better at 30 than at 20, a lot better. Not sure that’s it, really, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

So tell me which players are your Larry Gardners?

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2 Responses to “One of My All-Time Favorites”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Aside from my all-time favorite (Happy Birthday, Tom Seaver!), I was a big Freddy Lynn fan back in his ’75 rookie year. It wasn’t so much his excellent hitting as it was for his flair for the dramatic on defense. As a 12-year old boy, I always made sure I got to play centerfield when the kids in our neighborhood got together. I (attempted to) model my defensive style on Lynn’s. At the time, there was nothing I wanted more in life than to be a major league centerfielder.
    Nice topic, Bill

  2. vterranova Says:

    For some reason I always liked Dale Long, even though he wasn’t a member of my favorite team until late in his career. Maybe it was the home run he hit as a member of the Cubs that I saw on the old Sat Game of the Week with Dizzy and Buddy Blattner that made an impression as it sailed out onto Waverly St. And that cool Topps 57 number 3 card in a great set of cards.
    Another favorite was Tony Taylor. For some reason, he seemed like a nice guy, a real overachiever who somehow managed to make good and hang on for almost 20 big league seasons, with less talent than most.
    Your mention of Roy Smalley reminds me that he was the last player, I think, to have fifty or more errors in a season. When the ball was hit to second with a runner on first, the fans would all cry, “Miksis to Smalley, to Addison Street!”

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