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BILLY GARDNER – Most Valuable Oriole 1957

For the first time, in 1957, Most Valuable Oriole honors went to a player that was not in his first season with the club.  Billy Gardner came to Baltimore for about $25,000 in a waiver wire purchase less than a week into the 1956 season, a transaction that benefited both the player and his new team.

Gardner had been a professional infielder in the New York Giants chain since 1945, save for a couple of years that he spent in the service.  He didn’t reach the big leagues until 1954, and considered quitting baseball altogether when he got returned to the minors the following year.  In less than three-hundred at bats spread over two seasons, he managed to bat just .207.

Gardner was a thick-wristed shortstop/third-baseman, known as  “Shotgun” due to his powerful throwing arm.  Manager Paul Richards moved him to second base when he joined the Orioles, and he teamed with shortstop Willy Miranda to give Baltimore a first class keystone combination…at least on defense.  “If Willy Miranda could hit .290 and Billy Gardner could hit .310,” imagined Richards.  “We’d be in business.”

Miranda couldn’t do better than .194 in 1957, but Gardner hammered enemy pitching at a .350 clip for the month of April.  The Orioles leadoff hitter led the American League in hits until the first week of June.  After Baltimore won three out of four at Yankee Stadium, with Gardner collecting eight hits, New York skipper Casey Stengel said “We’re gonna hafta watch that little feller closer after this.  We always knew he was tough, but we didn’t know he was quite this tough.  He’s one of them ‘bust your neck’ ballplayers”.

Gardner batted .291 with fifteen walks, scored twenty-five runs and slugged three homers in Baltimore’s 19-11 June (the Orioles best month of the 1950’s), but his most impressive work came on defense.  He played fifty-five consecutive games without an error at second base from May 1 to June 30, prompting speculation that he might challenge the league mark for fewest miscues in a season.  Gardner did not break the record, but he did lead American League second sackers in fielding in 1957.  “I just want to help the team climb the ladder,” Gardner insisted.

When a representative of tea and spice giant The McCormick Company read that quote, they made Gardner the first pro athlete to receive their unsung hero award.  The silver tray that came with it proved to be the first of many honors Gardner’s play in 1957 would inspire.

Prior to a Friday night game in August against the Yankees, Gardner was recognized with a prize as the most popular Oriole.  When the team traveled to New York the following week, fans from Gardner’s hometown of New London, Connecticut presented him with a station wagon.  In between, Gardner continued the best season of his career with his only two-homer game as a major leaguer.  It took place in Washington, DC, where Gardner’s second blast of the game, in the ninth inning, broke a tie to give Baltimore a 5-3 victory.

Gardner’s batting avergae dipped to .262 by season’s end, but he had a knack for coming through at the right time as his .308 mark with runners in scoring position would suggest.   His single against the Tigers on June 21 to complete a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, and a game-winning hit in the bottom of the eleventh against the Yankees on September 2 were just a pair of his more memorable successes.

Gardner was one of only two American League players to start every game in 1957, and the weight he carried on his six-foot-one frame dropped from 192 to 170-pounds in the process.  He tied Minnie Minoso of the White Sox for the league lead in doubles with thirty-six, and served as the lynchpin of a Baltimore defense that set a new major league record by playing eighty games without an error.

The Sports Boosters Assocation presented Gardner with a trophy prior to the September 20 contest at Memorial Stadium to recognize him as Most Valuable Oriole, as voted by the broadcasters and sportswriters covering the team.  Aided by Gardner’s tie-breaking single in the top of the ninth to beat the Yankees five nights later, Baltimore rode a furious 11-4 finish to the first .500 record in modern Orioles history at 76-76. 

Gardner played 361 consecutive games for the O’s until getting drilled in the back by Yankees pitcher Don Larsen the following August.  The impact nearly caused Gardner to swallow his chewing tobacco.  He never again approached the success he had in his Most Valuable Orioles campaign in two more seasons in Baltimore, but played well after a trade to the Senators in 1960.  Washington manager Cookie Lavagetto paid Gardner the ultimate baseball compliment, calling him “all ballplayer” and naming him team captain. 

Gardner’s big league playing career ended three years later, but he resurfaced as a coach with the Expos in the late seventies, and managed both the Twins and the Royals in the eighties.  Now 80-years-old, “Shotgun” Gardner still lives in Connecticut.

by MALCOLM ALLEN

onetoughdominican47@hotmail.com

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