Tuesday, June 7, 2011

40 years ago: The death of Bruce Gardner

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

--Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1897

Not a lot of names come to mind if one thinks of lefthanded Jewish baseball pitchers. There was Sandy Koufax, who ended up in the Hall of Fame; there was Ken Holtzman, who didn’t end up in the Hall of Fame, but who had a very good career; and there was Bruce Gardner, who ended up in the hall of “what might have been.”

Born October 30, 1938, Bruce Gardner was a star pitcher at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles who followed advice to turn down a reported offer of $50,000 to sign with the Chicago White Sox immediately after high school in favour of attending the University of Southern California. He played in the Western Canada Baseball League during the summers of 1958 (Edmonton) and 1959 (Regina), and set a record at USC by compiling a won-lost record of 50-5 for his career. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Mr. Gardner for $12,000 in 1960 and assigned him to the Montreal Royals of the AAA International League for the last few weeks of the season. In 1961 Mr. Gardner was sent down to the Reno Silver Sox of the Class A California League, where he won 20 and lost just 4 for what may have been the best minor league team of the 1960s. He was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after, and injured his pitching arm when he fell off a truck. His baseball career never recovered, and he struggled for several more years in the minor leagues.

Despite being talented and apparently successful in many areas (his musical friends included Herb Alpert and Phil Spector), Mr. Gardner remained haunted by not having signed with the White Sox after high school and losing out on his chance to pitch in the major leagues. He coached the Dorsey High junior varsity team to their league championship in 1971, and then, on the night of June 7, hopped the fence of his old playing field at USC and shot himself in the head near the pitcher's mound. His USC diploma was in his right hand, and his All-America plaque was nearby. Mr. Gardner left a note reading:

I saw life going downhill every day and it shaped my attitude toward everything and everybody. Everything and every feeling that I visualized with my earned and rightful start in baseball was the focal point of continuous failure. No pride of accomplishment, no money, no home, no sense of fulfillment, no attraction. A bitter past, blocking any accomplishment of a future except age. I brought it to a halt tonight at 32.

Dave Breese, who’s now with the Lord, once commented about those who envy those who are apparently more favoured than they, adding that so much in life is only apparent. The last years of Bruce Gardner are an example of that—a handsome, multi-talented man who, although he missed out on a major league pitching career, appeared to be successful in everything else he tried in life, and appeared to have so much yet to live for. Many, if not most people, have experienced great disappointments, but most are able to carry on. As far as I know, Mr. Gardner didn’t know Jesus Christ, and was unfortunately unable to overcome his greatest disappointment. The Lord doesn’t promise anyone exemption from tough times, but He does promise that He will be with believers in and through tough times. It’s tragic that Bruce Gardner lacked that saving faith; if he had put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, he might be with us yet.

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