Billy Gardner played 10 seasons in the big leagues from 1954 to 1963. A feisty leadoff hitter and scrappy infielder, Gardner threw and batted right-handed, standing an even 6 feet tall and weighing 170 pounds. Gardner had stints on the New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox in his playing career. His teams finished in first place five times during his career as a minor-league manager.
After his release as a player, Gardner spent almost two decades as a coach, manager, and scout. He resurfaced in the majors in 1981 as the manager of the Minnesota Twins, a team he led until midway through the 1985 season. He went on to manage the Kansas City Royals for most of the 1987 season, the last year he spent in baseball.
Though his Giants and Yankees teams won the World Series (1954 and 1961 respectively), Gardner’s best playing years came as a member of the Orioles.
Gardner was born and grew up in Waterford, Connecticut, on July 19, 1927.1 He was the third of six children – he had an older brother and sister, and three younger sisters. His parents were Leslie and Eva Etta (Maynard) Gardner. Eva and their seventh child both died during childbirth on January 1, 1939.2In 1941 Leslie married Lena F. Doyle, who died in 1970. Lena had three children of her own, so the household expanded to nine children.
The 1930 census shows the young William Frederick Gardner as age 3, and indicates that his father, Leslie, was working at the time – not long after the stock market crash – as a laborer doing odd jobs. The head of household was Leslie's mother, Pauline Taylor.By the time of the 1940 census, Leslie Gardner had found more permanent work, as a plate fitter at a shipyard. There was still no spouse listed in the Waterford household, but Leslie was listed with six children: Evelyn, Leslie Jr., Billy, Alice, Betty, and Nancy. Leslie Gardner found work as a brakeman on the Central Vermont Railroad and worked there for 30 years. From 1965 to 1975, he worked as a chef at the Morton House Hotel in Niantic, Connecticut.
"I grew up on a farm," Billy Gardner said in 1982. "We milked cows, put the milk in bottles and delivered it before school. In the summer, we would cut hay with a hand scythe, load it up and then have the horse pull it to the barn, and unload it. In the winter, we would cut wood, split it, and pull it out of the woods on a sled. … So, when I look at baseball, I've never thought of it as a tough way to make a living."3
After studying at Chapman Technical High School in New London, a private high school, for two years (and captaining the football and baseball teams in his sophomore year), Gardner was recommended to the New York Giants by a local scout, New London patrolman Joe Rafferty, a former semipro player. Gardner was 16 at the time, playing "bang-up ball" at Chapman and – on June 6, 1944, which happened to be D-Day, the invasion of Europe — Rafferty took Gardner to the Polo Grounds for a tryout.4
Gardner credited his coach at Chapman, Jack Conway, and said he decided to turn pro before getting his diploma. After another tryout, at the Giants spring training site in Lakewood, New Jersey, the following March, Gardner was signed by the Giants.(Gardner said Giants scout George Mack effected the actual signing.5)
The Giants sent Gardner to the Bristol (Virginia) Twins in the Class D Appalachian League. He played in 74 games as a third baseman and hit .329, with five homers. His work earned him a promotion to the Double-A Jersey City Giants, for whom he played in 49 games and hit .273 with one home run, a two-run drive in a 3-0 home win over Newark on August 23.6 That year Gardner married Theresa (Rosen) Miller; it was her second marriage. They had a son, Tom, born in November. The marriage ended in divorce.
On December 10, 1945, Gardner enlisted in the US Army. World War II was over, but the military draft was still in effect. He missed the 1946 season but returned in 1947 and 1948 with back-to-back years with the Jacksonville Tars (Class-A South Atlantic League). He hit .262 and .255, respectively, but got in a lot of playing time. In 1949 he was in Triple-A, with the Jersey City Giants and Minneapolis Millers, but because of injury played in only 17 games with each team. He was assigned to Class A in 1950, the Sioux City Soos of the Western League. There he batted .303 in 154 games with 22 home runs.
In 1951 Gardner was back in the International League, playing the full year for the Ottawa Giants. Batting against higher-classification pitching still presented a challenge; his average was .231, with three homers.
In 1952 he returned to Minneapolis and hit .259. That year he married Barbara Carnaroli, who enjoyed the dual distinction of winning the Miss New London beauty contest and being named the top female athlete in New London for three years in a row. She told the Bridgeport Sunday Herald that her ambition was to become a professional baseball player, or a basketball pro. At the time the newspaper interviewed her, she was 8-2 on the mound and had a batting average of .486 the prior year. She averaged 15 points a game on the basketball court, the top scorer for the St. Joseph's team.7 (Barbara and Billy were on opposing teams in a 1950 City League basketball game in New London. She played left guard for the Mohawks and he played right guard for the Pfizer team.8) Their first-born was Gwen Lee Gardner, born in January 1955.
In 1953 Gardner played for the Double-A Nashville Volunteers and hit .308 with 10 home runs. He was named the Southern Association's all-star rookie infielder for 1953, and he headed off to play winter ball in Venezuela on a team managed by Giants coach Herman Franks.9
Despite his extensive résumé, Gardner was still young – 26 – when he made the 1954 New York Giants out of spring training. He stuck for the full season, appearing in 62 games, though he hit only .213 and drove in only 7 runs. Perhaps more importantly, he was solid defensively – playing third base, shortstop, and second, and committing only two errors in 126 chances. On April 22 at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Gardner made his major-league debut, taking over defensively at second base after pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes had batted for the starter, Ron Samford. Gardner got an at-bat in the game, and singled.
Four of Gardner’s seven RBIs for the season came all at once, during a 17-6 win over the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds on May 28. Batting eighth, he enjoyed a 3-for-4 day that included a three-run homer in the eighth inning. He was in good company: fellow Giants Whitey Lockman, Willie Mays, Davey Williams, Al Dark, and Monte Irvin all homered, too.
The Giants won the National League pennant, and the World Series in a sweep of the Cleveland Indians. Gardner did not get to play in the Series; he had to be content with his full player's share of the World Series receipts ($11,147.90).10
New London declared November 13 as Billy Gardner Day. He was presented the key to the city and was honored with a testimonial dinner that drew 350 people. A guest speaker was Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh of Meriden, Connecticut.11
Gardner spent almost all of June and July 1955 with the Minneapolis Millers, where he hit .310 in 73 games, with 17 home runs. He got into 59 games for the Giants, playing through May and then for most of August (after Al Dark broke a rib) and September. He didn't have as high an average as in '54 (only .203) but he drove in and scored more than twice as many runs. When he was sent down after May, he initially refused to report and seriously considered quitting.12 But after several days, Gardner reported, Dark's injury opened an opportunity for him, and he determined to take advantage.13
The Giants sold Gardner’s contract to the Baltimore Orioles for $20,000 on April 21, 1956.He was the O’s regular second baseman for four years, all under manager Paul Richards.Gardner’s careeryear came in 1957, when he led the American League in doubles (36), at-bats (644), and plate appearances (718). He hit for a .262 average and drove in 55 runs.14On August 18, when hometown fans gave Gardner a "day" during a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, he was 5-for-8 in the two games. Gardner was voted the Most Valuable Oriole by the team’s broadcasters and sportswriters.15
Known throughout his career as a slick defensive player, Gardner led both leagues in fielding percentage for a second baseman (.987) in 1957. Referred to as “Shotgun” for his potent throwing arm, Gardner teamed with shortstop Willy Miranda to form a dynamic middle infield. Gardner played in 55 consecutive games without making an error from May 1 to June 30.16 As a team, the Orioles set a major-league record by playing 82 of their 154 games error-free.Gardner also attracted the sobriquet Slick, which most people attributed to his style of combing back his dark hair. "It's not the hair," he once protested. "They call me Slick because of the way I made the double play. I could turn a double play in a phone booth."17 He later said, "I think it had something to do with shooting pool."18
Gardner always had an offseason job; in the winter of 1958-59 it was doing maintenance work for Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals company, which had a facility in Groton, Connecticut.19
The Orioles traded Gardner to the Washington Senators on April 3, 1960, for catcher Clint Courtney and infielder Ron Samford. Gardner was named team captain by manager Cookie Lavagetto. The skipper deemed Gardner an “all-around ballplayer.” In 145 games, Gardner batted .257 and drove in a career-high 56 runs.
The Senators franchise moved to Minneapolis in 1961, and Gardner moved with them, but it was just for a couple of months. He was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Danny McDevitt in mid-June of 1961. Backing up second baseman Bobby Richardson, Gardner won a second World Series ring that year. In 41 games with the Yankees he hit .212 and drove in two runs. This time he got into a World Series game, if only briefly. In Game Two, the only game Cincinnati won in the Series, he pinch-hit for pitcher Luis Arroyo with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on first base, and the Yankees trailing, 6-2. Gardner lined out to shortstop Eddie Kasko and the game was over.
Gardner was used almost not at all by the 1962 Yankees; he had played in only four games with one plate appearance (a strikeout) before he was traded on June 12 to the Boston Red Sox for Tommy Umphlett and cash.He spent the final two years of his playing career with the Red Sox. Again in a reserve role, Gardner collected 70 hits in 283 at-bats for the Red Sox. He drove in 12 runs in 1962 but only one in 1963.
For his major-league career, Gardner batted .237 with 41 home runs and 271 RBIs in 1,034 games played. In 3,544 career at-bats, Gardner recorded 841 hits, with 159 doubles and 18 triples. In 1964 he played for the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, hitting .224 in 101 games.
The Red Sox brought Gardner back as manager Billy Herman's third-base coach in 1965 and 1966. In 1967 he managed the Pittsfield Red Sox of the Double-A Eastern League. He also worked in Boston's instructional league during the late fall. He skippered Pittsfield from 1967 through 1969, winning the pennant in 1968 (though losing the playoffs). He was promoted to Triple-A in 1970 and managed the Louisville Colonels to a sixth-place finish in the International League. The job in Louisville presented an unusual situation: "Gardner Hires Gardner" read one headline.20 The owner of the Colonels was Bill Gardner – who also just happened to be Tom Yawkey's nephew.21 The Pittsfield club moved to Pawtucket and in 1971Gardner was assigned as its manager.
During the offseasons Gardner worked doing p.r. work for an oil company. He had also long worked the banquet circuit. A 1963 article in the Hartford Courant reported that he had spoken at about 50 banquets that winter alone.22
The Kansas City Royals beckoned and Gardner worked for them from 1972 through 1976, the first three years managing the Double-A Jacksonville Suns and the latter two managing Triple-A Omaha. Jacksonville finished last in 1972, then first in 1973 and 1974. Gardner was named Southern League manager of the year in 1973, the first of three times he won the distinction in a minor league. The Omaha Royals finished third in 1975 and first in 1976. A manager is only as good as the players he is given, but Gardner was demonstrating that in his second year with a subpar team, he was able to help get them to first place in their division.
(In 1984 Gardner talked about one aspect of his approach to managing: He didn't adhere to the more modern style. "The two words I hate most in the world are communication and motivation,” he said. “…If being in the big leagues isn't all the motivation you need, pal, you're in trouble."23)
It was back to the big leagues for Gardner in 1977 and 1978; he was the first-base coach for the Montreal Expos under manager Dick Williams. In 1979 he managed in the Southern League again, with his Memphis Chicks (an Expos affiliate) just missing by one game winning the West Division title. The Expos moved him up to Triple-A in 1980, and he managed the Denver Bears to a first-place finish in the American Association West, earning himself another Manager of the Year honor.
Gardner started the 1981 season as a coach for the Minnesota Twins. Johnny Goryl was the manager but after an 11-25 start, Goryl was fired and Gardner succeeded him. Under Gardner the Twins were 30-43 and the team finished last in the AL West during the strike-shortened season. He managed the Twins for the next three seasons. The team had a losing record except for an 81-81 season in 1984. With 62 games played in 1985, the Twins (27-35 at the time) replaced Gardner with Baltimore pitching coach Ray Miller.
Just before his final season, Gardner had said, "To tell you the truth, I'd just as soon manage in the minor leagues as coach in the big leagues. You're your own boss as a manager in Triple-A as opposed to working under someone else. I enjoyed managing in the minors much more."24
Gardner didn't let working in the big leagues go to his head. He and his wife had the same house in Connecticut for decades. The whole time he was in Minneapolis, he took two rooms at the Super-8 motel near the park. "I'm a firm believer that the working people pay your salary. So why should I shy away from the working people?" he said.25 He had "hot runnin' water and a cable TV. What more do you need?" Even though he was making decent money as a major-league manager (around $80,000 at the time), he also kept his offseason job selling meat and doing p.r. work for a company in Norwich, Connecticut.26
After being fired by the Twins, Gardner said, "I packed up and went home. I don't look over my shoulder. It was their decision."27 But he did accept the Twins’ offer of a job scouting in the New England states, as well as scouting major-league teams on the East Coast.28
Gardner went back to managing for one more season 1987. He was hired as skipper of the Kansas City Royals when Dick Howser had to resign to undergo treatment for a brain tumor in February. But Gardner was fired on August 26 and replaced by John Wathan with the Royals 62-64, but only 3½ games out first place in the AL West. Under Wathan they wound up 2 games out at 83-79.
In 1988 Gardner took up full-time work with the company in Norwich, Grand Champion Foods.29
In June of 1987 Gardner's son Billy Jr., a student at Mitchell College in New London, was selected by the Royals in the 50th round of the major-league free-agent draft. A first baseman and third baseman, he was released by the Royals after two seasons and went into coaching, then began a long career as a minor-league manager. In 2014 he managed the Syracuse Chiefs, a Washington Nationals affiliate, to first place in the International League’s North Division.
As of 2014, Billy Sr. lived in Waterford, Connecticut. His two daughters and two sons had presented him with 10 grandchildren.
Last revised: November 20, 2014
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the authors also accessed Gardner's player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to Michael Dreimiller for supplying several of the Connecticut newspapers used in research and for additional family information provided by Nancy Gardner through Mike Dreimiller. Mike interviewed Nancy Gardner on July 22 and 28, 2014, and by telephone on July 29, 2014.
1 On a player questionnaire Gardner completed for the National Baseball Hall of Fame many years ago, he gave his birth year as 1928. His Army enlistment papers provide the 1927 date.
2The Day, New London, Connecticut, January 2, 1939.
3Unattributed May 1982 clipping in Billy Gardner's Hall of Fame player file.
4Hartford Courant, October 9, 1953. A June 8, 1954 article in The Day says that the tryout was held on June 7, 1944 – the day after the D-Day invasion.
5The Chronicle, Willimantic, Connecticut, March 27, 1984.
6Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, August 24, 1945.
7Bridgeport Sunday Herald, September 17, 1950; The Day, August 7, 1950.
8The Day, February 13, 1950.
9The honor for 1953 was noted in the New York Times of February 12, 1954. Gardner’s plan to play for Franks was mentioned in the Hartford Courant, October 9, 1953.
10Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1954.
11The Day, November 15, 1954.
12Washington Post, June 7, 1955.
13The Sporting News, August 31, 1955. His recall was reported in, among other places, the August 16 New York Times.
14Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With ... former Oriole Billy Gardner,” Baltimore Sun, April 14, 2011.
15Hartford Courant, January 5, 1958.
16Urban Shocker’s Weblog –A Dominican Beisbol& Baltimore Orioles Baseball News. “Billy Gardner – Most Valuable Oriole 1957,” September 24, 2007.
17Patrick Reusse column of uncertain date and publication in Billy Gardner's Hall of Fame player file.
18The Sporting News, September 10, 1984.
19Bridgeport Sunday Herald. February 8, 1959.
20Unattributed December 6, 1969, clipping in Billy Gardner's Hall of Fame player file.
21See the Boston Evening Globe, June 22, 1977, for more detail on Gardner the nephew.
22Hartford Courant, February 24, 1963.
23The Sporting News, September 10, 1984.
24The Chronicle, Willimantic, Connecticut, March 27, 1984.
25New York Post, September 20, 1984.
26USA Today, September 12, 1984.
27Kansas City Star, March 11, 1987.
28The Sporting News, December 23, 1985.
29Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1988.