If you ask anyone in Ney, Ohio about Ned Garver you better be prepared to listen.
And just about everyone in this town of 400 people has a connection to a man who lived just below the surface of baseball’s spotlight during what many refer to as baseball’s “golden era.”
He was a fixture on baseball cards for a dozen years– one of those guys collectors may not think twice about when thumbing through a stack of them today. The truth is, Ned Garver was one of the game’s most respected pitchers– a winner even if his record seldom showed it.
The proverbial small town boy who made good, he was uniquely connected to many moments and men that defined the 1950s. None were bigger than what happened 70 years ago Thursday when Garver won his 20th game of the season for the hapless St. Louis Browns. He hit a tie-breaking homer that propelled the Browns to a rare win. Ned won nearly 40 percent of their games that year. The Brownies finished 52-102. Before there was such a thing called the Cy Young Award, Garver just missed capturing the American League’s MVP.
Hearing him talk about the home run still makes me smile. Anytime he told a story, he would have such a vivid memory of where and when and how. “It sailed right over the Seely Mattress sign. I knew we were gonna win. That was one of the best feelings of my life in baseball.” The game, he told me, took only an hour and 45 minutes. Look it up. He was right on the money.
Sandwiched between the Mantle, Mays and Musial cards was a common with a decidedly uncommon story. The numbers don’t lie. Ned Garver was a great player on bad teams. Over and over again.
His Bowman 1951 card #172 reads “Though Ned’s win-loss record was 13-18 last, he hung up the second lowest earned run average in the League (3.39). Tied for the most complete games with 22. Ned is also a good hitter. In a few games in 1950 he was spotted in the 7th slot of the St. Louis batting order. “
1952 Bowman #29 reads “Won 20 games for the last place Browns in 1951. Lost only 12. Ned’s wins were more than a third of the team’s total victories (52) Ned also led the American League pitchers in complete games with 24. A good hitter (.305 in ‘51).”
His 1952 Topps #212 echoes those thoughts. “He was the first pitcher since 1924 to win 20 games for a last place club … and his 20 wins were 38% of the team’s total victories. In ‘50 he held the AL lead in complete games and his 3.39 ERA was 2nd best in the league.”
1954 Topps #44 “Ned topped the Tiger mound staff in victories and won-lost last year… in August ‘52 came to the Tigers in an 8-player deal.” The accompanying cartoon panel remarks, “The Tigers tried him and Ned came back with the lowest era in ‘53!”
1954 Bowman 39 – “He worked in 30 games for the Tigers … He could probably be a big winner if he had a better hitting team behind him.”
1956 Topps 189 – “In 1950 and 1951 He pitched the most complete games in the American League.”
1957 Topps 285 – “The A’s used a wise philosophy when it came to Ned Garver – If you can’t beat him, buy him. And it was certain that the A’s always had a peck of trouble when Garver was on the mound. He holds a lopsided 21-7 lifetime record against them.”
Free agency was years away when Garver retired after the 1961 season, but there’s little doubt he would have been a hot commodity–and a bigger name in the hobby today–had it existed.
He wasn’t the last member of his family to appear in the big leagues, either. His name popped up again in 1985, on the back of # 27 Bruce Berenyi’s card, which reads, “HIs uncle, Ned Garver, was a big leaguer, 1948-61.”
That card came out around the time I first connected with Garver. I was a 15-year-old kid when I found Ned’s address and wrote to him on a whim (he was an accommodating signer by mail and in person).
He wrote back, just a few days later, from his winter home in Florida. I got an autograph but I didn’t know it at that moment, I also got a lifelong friend.
When he came back home, I got to know this former big leaguer, who was more than happy to share his many tales from his career and his life.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that Ned’s stories weren’t about him so much as the friendships he built. He was especially proud of those relationships, investing in others – something bigger than himself – even if he didn’t say it out loud.
My favorites were the visits to his home or lunch in “bustling” downtown Ney. Each time was an adventure. He’d show a trophy, telegram or a newspaper clipping or an authentic AP or UPI wire report – back from the days they were really sent by wire.
He wasn’t flashy, but he had a flair that commanded attention and when Ned talked, people listened. It wasn’t just the ball stories, it was the life lessons. It was how he treated you.
I can still hear him use the term “son of a biscuit.” It still makes me laugh. If you were really lucky, he’d exclaim “baloney sauce!” Ned was a throwback to a time when words mattered and he was very conscious of what he said.
Thousands of innings pitched. 129 wins. 14 big league seasons, including one magical 1951 campaign and seemingly unlimited stories. And that’s just his baseball career.
He talked about being asked to testify before Congress with the Celler Committee on challenging baseball’s monopoly and the reserve clause, an early step to free-agency and a players union. This in a day when even the biggest stars worked another job during the winter. When he talked to me, he didn’t talk with bitterness, but of disappointment that old timers who built the game weren’t given as much support after their careers back then.
He’d talk about his friendship with Satchel Paige, who became a teammate in St. Louis. He told me about segregated hotels and arrangements for black players on teams: the separate water coolers, rundown hotels, restaurant confrontations. Ned Garver was right there.
“I wasn’t trying to make a statement,” he said. “Satchel was my friend. Pretty hard to not stand by your friends.”
Paige respected Garver so much he invited him on brainstorming tours just days after the season ended and often remarked about Ned’s baseball wisdom. They could have started a pitching school together. Teammates would remark that listening to the two men talk was like a doctoral level of pitching.
Ned talked about a younger teammate in Detroit – Jim Bunning – a fellow pitcher for the Tigers. Bunning called Ned a mentor as he was getting adjusted to the major leagues. Bunning would later pitch a perfect game and throw a no-hitter. After his playing days, Bunning turned to politics.
Of course, he talked about his friendship with Ted Williams. He talked about how Williams would hold impromptu discussions about hitting. Ned would laugh when Ted would talk about watching the stitches on the ball as the pitch came in Williams often said that Garver was one of the toughest pitchers he faced.
I remember one visit where he brought out a broken bat that had been signed by Williams. This was about a year before Ted died when the two former big league combatants snuck off to Williams’ car to chat. That’s when he signed the bat and gave it to Ned. Williams said he had to be careful because his son John Henry wouldn’t let Ted sign things for free, even for friends. The bat, I’m told, had been in Ted’s hands when Garver jammed him with a pitch and broke it.
Then tales of rubbing elbows with the biggest names in entertainment at times. He told me when he would play in Los Angeles it wasn’t unusual for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to come into the clubhouse. There were the stories of promotional genius of Browns’ owner Bill Veeck and the three-foot-seven pinch hitter Eddie Gaedel, another memory from that storied 1951 season.
After he returned home, Ned served his community as a town councilman and mayor of Ney. This while working at a local meat processing company as their personnel director. In 2003, he wrote a book that has some of his baseball cards on the front cover.
There’s no accounting for the boys and girls who benefited from his involvement with youth sports, whether they were in a league or just liked to play.
In the 30 years that I knew Ned he never talked about what you couldn’t do, he talked about the power of “God-given gifts” and of persistence. The idea of playing major league baseball wasn’t a realistic thought as a boy growing up in rural Ohio, but he taught me about the power of dreams and how a farm boy could go anywhere even if he had to hitchhike to do it.
And he showed me success wasn’t worth much if you didn’t share it.