Danny Gardella and the Reserve Clause

This article was written by David Mandell

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)

Danny Gardella’s 24 home runs and three sea­sons of major league baseball may be forgotten, but his impact remains. Today’s players enjoy independence and wealth unimaginable to previous generations. While Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally are often credited with winning free agency for baseball players, the battle of an out­fielder from the Bronx, New York, opened the door.

Born in New York City on February 26, 1920, Gardella worked in shipyards and played in Bronx sandlot leagues. In the minor leagues Gardella made a name for himself as a strong hitter and risky fielder for the Jersey City Giants. On May 13, 1944, he hom­ered for Jersey City and was called up to the New York Giants the next day. He played his first games in a doubleheader in Pittsburgh and three days later hit two singles and a triple against the Cubs. In June he hit a dramatic homer to defeat the Cubs, putting Hall of Famer Joe Medwick on the Giants bench. In his first two seasons Gardella batted .250 and .272 with 18 home runs in 1945. His older brother Al joined him for 16 games with the Giants.

As the 1946 season approached, the major leagues looked forward to the first season after World War II, with many stars returning from military service. Owners presumed that the players would qui­etly accept salaries dictated to them. Baseball’s reserve clause bound a player to his team, and unless released, a player was forbidden to negotiate with any other team. The player either accepted what was offered or sat out the season in hopes that the owner would meet his demands. Under a 1922 United States Supreme Court ruling, major league baseball enjoyed immunity from anti-trust laws.

In 1946 things changed. Major league baseball faced its first serious challenge since the collapse of the Federal League decades earlier. Jorge Pasquel, the oldest of five brothers and three sisters, and President of the Mexican baseball league, decided to compete for the services of major league players. With a family for­tune estimated at $60 million dollars, the Pasquels had the means to challenge the majors. Starting as cigar manufacturers, they now owned banking, ranching, and exporting businesses. Jorge Pasquel was so con­fident that he offered to bet skeptics two million dol­lars that his league would finish the season. Pasquel envisioned teams in Mexico City, Monterrey, San Luis Potosi, Toreon, Tampico, Veracruz, and Puebla stocked with American players. His brother Bernardo served as vice president.

When the New York Giants assembled for spring training in Miami, Danny Gardella stunned the base­ball world. His contract of $4,500 had expired and the Giants offered $5,000 for the new season, assum­ing that the reserve clause would give him no choice but to accept it. But the 25-year-old Gardella had other plans. On February 18 he signed a five-year deal to play in Mexico, along with teammates Nap Reyes, Adrian Zabala, and Luis Olmo of the Dodgers. He defiantly told reporters, “You may say for me that I do not intend to let the Giants enrich themselves at my expense, by selling me to a minor league club after the shabby treatment they have accorded me. So I have now decided to take my gifted talents to Mexico:’

On February 22 he became the first American player to arrive in Mexico. He told Mexican fans “I’m mighty glad I’m no longer connected with the New York Giants. They are paying me more so why shouldn’t I play in Mexico?”

Major league baseball responded quickly. On March 10 Commissioner Happy Chandler warned players that they faced a five-year suspension if they played in Mexico. The Mexican season opened on March 23, and Gardella hit a two-run homer as his Veracruz Blues defeated the Mexico City Reds before 33,000 spectators. Mexico’s president Manuel Avila Camacho threw out the first ball. Eight days later, second baseman George Hausmann and pitcher Sal Maglie announced that they would be leaving the Giants for Mexico. Dodger catcher Mickey Owen was next to sign with Pasquel, for a $12,500 bonus. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who later moved the Giants from New York to San Francisco, denounced the play­ers’ disloyalty, saying, “So long as they wanted to go to Mexico, the quicker they went, the better. We no longer have any use for them.”

Gardella was undaunted by his former owner’s comments. On April 21 he hit two home runs against Monterrey. Pasquel kept up his raids on major league talent. April 26 saw him sign two more Giants, pitch­ers Harry Feldman and Ace Adams. By now eight Giants had “jumped” to Mexico. Mexican baseball achieved another milestone on May 16, when Babe Ruth attended a game and praised Pasquel for bring­ing top baseball to Mexico. At the July 9 all-star game Gardella hit two home runs and Admiral William F. Halsey tossed out the first ball. The all-star game rep­resented the high-water mark of Pasquel’s Mexican league. Tensions soon rose between the highly paid imported major leaguers and the Mexican and Cuban players who had dominated Mexican baseball. In one game a fight erupted over a hard tag at the plate by catcher Mickey Owen on left fielder Claro Duany. Gardella and Ramon Heredia joined in. It was soon apparent that Mexico’s small stadiums made main­taining the salaries of the Americans a challenge.

As the season wore down, Pasquel promised no further forays into the major leagues and by the next season his other American stars, Max Lanier, Ace Adams, Harry Feldman, George Hausmann, and Roy Zimmerman were gone. The Mexican league enacted limited payrolls and a mandatory number of Mexican citizens per team. Commissioner Chandler was unmoved. His ban still stood. Former Mexican League players, desperate to return to the majors, were reduced to barnstorming or playing abroad. Gardella played in Drummondville, Quebec, and worked as a hospital orderly in Mount Vernon, New York, earning 36 dollars per week. As the 1947 season passed with the ban on jumpers reaffirmed, Gardella was determined to rejoin the majors.

Gardella filed a federal suit against major league baseball seeking $300,000 in damages. His attor­ney, Frederic A. Johnson, accused the major leagues of violating the Clayton and Sherman anti-trust laws through its reserve clause, which permanently bound a player to his employer. An experienced constitu­tional lawyer, Johnson once served as law secretary for Judge Joseph Crater, the vanishing judge. Crater’s last courthouse statement was “Don’t forget to turn the lights out, Johnson,” before leaving to dine out and take his fateful taxi cab ride. A law school class­mate of Commissioner Chandler, Johnson was eager to challenge the reserve clause. Major league baseball used the same defense that had proven successful at the United States Supreme Court in 1922. Claiming that organized baseball was not interstate commerce but merely an amusement, it moved to dismiss the case. On July 14, 1948, U.S. District Judge Henry Goddard agreed.

Baseball rejoiced in the dismissal, but Gardella and Johnson weren’t finished. They appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and drew a panel of appellate judges that included two of the most respected judges of the era, Learned Hand and Jerome Frank. Appointed by President William Howard Taft as a trial judge in 1909, Hand was named as an appellate judge by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Jerome Frank was appointed chair­man of the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Roosevelt in 1939 and nominated by Roosevelt as a federal appeals judge in 1941. Both judges were frequently mentioned as potential Supreme Court justices.

In a two to one decision, the Second Circuit reversed the dismissal on February 9, 1949, and ordered Gardella’s case to trial. Hand and Frank voted with Gardella while Judge Harrie B. Chase sided with baseball management. Owners and gener­ al managers feared the end of the reserve clause and predicted the demise of professional baseball. Giants’ attorney Edgar Feeley said the farm system would be destroyed and only a handful of top-salaried players would benefit. Branch Rickey, the Dodger general manager who signed Jackie Robinson, was not gener­ous toward Gardella. Rickey warned that the reserve clause was opposed by players of communist tenden­cies. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was more circumspect, saying only, “I don’t have the legal back­ground necessary to say anything:’

Gardella drew scant support from his fellow play­ers. Fellow Mexican Leaguer Mickey Owen stated, “Danny is enjoying the notoriety of his damage suit. I hope he loses it.” Stan Musial said, “I don’t know much about the case but I think baseball has done all right for over a hundred years the way it is:’ Pitcher Bob Lemon added, “I can’t see where it will do ball­ players any good:’

Gardella and Johnson looked forward to the next round in court. Johnson promised to go right to trial. Gardella refuted the charges that he was damaging the national pastime. “They say I am undermining the structure of the baseball contract,” he said “Let’s say I’m helping to end a baseball evil. That’s what it amounts to as far as I am concerned.” Gardella received an unexpected boost when the United States Justice Department announced that it would begin an investigation of major league baseball and the antitrust laws.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned for life from the majors, remained neutral. “I’m sixty-one years old,” he said “and it would not mean anything to me one way or the other.”

Jumpers Max Lanier, Fred Martin, and Sal Maglie filed their own suits to gain reinstatement, but their cases were not as strong as Gardella’s, who was not under any contract with major league baseball. Despite Gardella’s win in the appeals court, he was still banned. United States District Court Judge Edward Conger refused to issue an injunction impos­ ing reinstatement, and on June 3, 1949, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Gardella must wait for his trial before it would intervene. Faced with the prospect of lengthy litigation and the end of the reserve clause, major league baseball decided to end the suspensions if players terminated their litigation. On June 5, 1949, Chandler allowed the jumpers to return, and on August 27 Lanier and Martin dropped their suits. Gardella refused to withdraw his.

With a November trial looming, attorney Johnson announced that under no circumstances would Gardella apply for reinstatement. Johnson deposed Commissioner Chandler, and both sides prepared for the trial. On October 7 at World Series headquarters in Brooklyn‘s St. George Hotel, Gardella surprised everyone by announcing that he was withdrawing the lawsuit and joining the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1950 season. Cards president Fred M. Saigh denied that Gardella received any cash for ending his case.

Gardella’s stay with the Cardinals was short and unhappy. He played only one game for the Cards, going hitless in one at-bat. On April 25 the Cards sold him to Houston, a minor league team in the Texas League. On June 15 he returned to the Bronx, his baseball career over. Asked if he had received money to give up his claim, he said only, “You may say that Gardella was paid something to drop his suit. That is all:’ The Cardinals denied any blacklisting of Gardella, claiming that all major league teams had passed on his services.

Gardella was publicly silent until 1961, when he revealed that he received a $60,000 settlement from baseball to withdraw his lawsuit. “I felt like I was get­ting paid off, but being a poor man I felt more or less justified. It wasn’t like I had a lot of money and was being paid off,” he explained. Legal fees ate up about half of his award.

Following his baseball career Gardella worked in various jobs, including factory work, movers, truck driving, and sweeping. He died in Yonkers, New York, on March 6, 2005, at age 85, leaving 10 children and 27 grandchildren.

Gardella’s attorney Frederic A. Johnson died at age 90 in 1985. After the Gardella case he continued practicing law for many years and served as an editor for the New York Law Journal. An ardent baseball fan throughout his life, he attended many games, and in 1982 he told reporters at Shea Stadium that he had seen about 1,000 games.

Jorge Pasquel died in a private plane crash on March 7, 1955. His Mexican league dissolved in 1953 and its remnants merged into organized baseball.

Baseball owners ousted Commissioner Chandler in 1951. Chandler returned to Kentucky politics and was elected governor again. In 1982 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died on June 15, 1991. Chandler is remembered as the commissioner who oversaw the introduction of pensions and mini­mum salaries for players and the end of segregation in the majors. In comparison to his predecessor, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, he was seen as a players’ commissioner.

Judge Learned Hand took senior status as a judge on June 1, 1951, and died on August 18, 1961. Judge Jerome Frank died on January 13, 1957, still an active judge at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite the respect they earned as appellate judges, neither was ever nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gardella’s efforts to free baseball players of the reserve clause are barely recognized, perhaps because his lawsuit was settled and the issue was left for another day. Would he have been successful before the United States Supreme Court? No one will ever know, but owners were not taking any chances. Although he was termed a jumper, Gardella had not broken his contract. That placed him in a much stronger posi­tion than the other players who went to Mexico. In contrast to players who lost challenges, Gardella may have had the support of the United States government. Its announcement of an investigation of major league baseball surely spurred the resolution of his claim. Major league baseball would have been asking the Supreme Court to overrule two of the most esteemed judges in the lower courts, Hand and Frank. It is no surprise that major league baseball did not want the Gardella case before the Supreme Court.

In this era of free agency it would be unthinkable for any professional sport to bind a player to one team for his entire career. That this is so is due largely to the efforts of an unheralded outfielder from the Bronx.

DAVID MANDELL practices law in New London County, Connecticut, and is a lifelong Giants fan.