Against All Odds: Ned Garver and the ’51 Browns

Ned Garver completed 24 of his 30 starts in the 1951 season. (via Detroit Free Press Archives)

Ned Garver completed 24 of his 30 starts in the 1951 season. (via Detroit Free Press Archives)

Few fans today remember seeing Ned Garver pitch. For one thing, when he died late last month, he was 91 and more than a half century removed from major league baseball. For another, in his prime he pitched for the little-watched St. Louis Browns.

But he has a special distinction, centered on his 1951 season.

Given the prevalence of five-man rotations, pitch counts and relief specialists, the 20-game winner is rare even on a dominant team today. Winning 20 games for a losing team is highly unlikely but it can be done (e.g., R.A. Dickey won 20 games and the NL Cy Young Award for the 74-88 Mets in 2012).

Winning 20 games for a last-place team is tough in any era, but it does happen.  Since the American and National Leagues broke into divisions, finishing last could mean anything from fourth to sixth place. Famously, Hall of Famer to-be Steve Carlton went 27-10 for the 59-97 Phillies of the NL East in 1972 and won the NL Cy Young Award. Two years later Nolan Ryan (also now in the Hall) went 22-16 for the 68-94 Angels of the AL West. Roger Clemens, not in the Hall of Fame but not for lack of credentials, went 21-7 for the 76-86 Blue Jays in 1997 and also got the AL Cy Young Award.

Through the first six decades of the modern era, finishing last meant eighth place (or 10th in the AL in 1961 and both leagues from 1962 to 1968). During those pre-division days, winning 20 games for a bottom-feeding team was particularly rare. A couple of pitchers who did so also flirted with 20 losses, as Noodles Hahn went 22-19 for the last-place Reds in 1901, and Scott Perry went 20-19 for the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia A’s of 1918.  The totals are particularly impressive considering the Reds played just 139 games (52-87), while the A’s ended at 128.

During a standard 154-game season, in 1923, Howard Ehmke went 20-17 for the 61-91 Red Sox. One year later, Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston of the White Sox went 20-14 for the 66-87 White Sox.

But the real standout of the bunch was Ned Garver of the 1951 St. Louis Browns (52-102, 46 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees), for whom he went 20-12. All these years later, Garver remains one of only two pitchers to win 20 games for a 100-loss team. (The other was Irv Young, who won 20 — and lost 21 — for the 1905 Boston Beaneaters.)

Born on Christmas Day in 1925, Ned Franklin Garver was signed by the St. Louis Browns. As a modest-sized right-hander (5-foot-10, 180 pounds.), Garver would probably receive little attention from scouts today.

Exempt from military duty due to flat feet, he made his pro debut in 1944 (the year of the Browns’only pennant) with the Newark Moundsmen (no, the team was not composed entirely of pitchers; the name derives from nearby Indian mounds) of the Class D Ohio State League. He turned heads with a 21-8 record and a 1.21 ERA.

He moved up to Single-A Elmira (Eastern League) and then on to Double-A Toledo (American Association) in 1945, and spent 1946 and 1947 with Double-A San Antonio of the Texas League. In the latter year he went 17-14 in 257 innings.

The Browns took notice. Having returned to their traditional pre-war status as doormats (59-95, good for last place and a total attendance of 320,474, in 1947), they were in the market for young pitchers.

Garver’s 1948 rookie year resulted in a 7-11 record in 198 innings. On a team like the Browns, however, just reaching double figures in victories qualified a hurler as an ace. In 1948 only two Browns pitchers surpassed Garver: Cliff Fannin with 10 wins and Fred Sanford with 12.

The next year Garver himself qualified as the Browns ace, leading the staff in victories with a 12-17 record. His ERA of 3.98, was no show-stopper, but given the staff ERA of 5.21, it was laudable.

In 1950, it was more of the same, as Garver went 13-18. More importantly, he improved his ERA to 3.39 while hurling 260 innings and tied Early Wynn for the league lead in complete games with 22. The staff ERA remained the same (5.20), and the team finished 58-96, ahead of only the hapless Philadelphia A’s. Attendance, never the Browns’ strong suit, sagged to 247,131, inspiring a number of quips. Garver’s stock line was “Our fans never booed us.  They wouldn’t dare.  We outnumbered them.”

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By 1951, Garver was primed to take center stage. Opening Day on April 17 was less than encouraging, however, as the White Sox trounced the Browns by a 17-3 score at Sportsman’s Park. Garver didn’t make it through the second inning.  Four days later, however, Garver went the distance in a 9-1 victory over the Indians in Cleveland. From that point, he was almost invincible through midseason.

After defeating the White Sox 4-1 in the second game of a July 11 double-header, his record was 11-4 on the brink of the All-Star game. He had half of his team’s victories.

Garver made it easy when the time came to pick the Browns’ representative for the July 10 All-Star game in Detroit. Casey Stengel not only chose Garver for the roster, he chose him to start the game. Garver did not embarrass himself, pitching three innings and giving up just one unearned run on an error by Nellie Fox.

Garver started the second half of the season in fine fashion with a 3-1 victory over the Red Sox in the first game of a double-header at Sportsman’s Park on July 15. The Garver/Browns ratio of victories held up, as both now had 12. Over the next two months, however, the Browns would inch ahead.

Midseason 1951 was the beginning of the Bill Veeck era. Always open to promotional possibilities, Browns owner Veeck was well aware of the marketability of a potential 20-game winner on a dismal team. His nickname for Garver was “The Team,” and after his 20-win season, he signed him to a $25,000 contract – a handsome annual salary in those days.

Garver enhanced his chances to win 20 games because he was rarely taken out for a pinch-hitter. According to Veeck, Garver was the best hitter on the team, which might sound like classic Veeck moonshine, but he wasn’t far off the mark.  The Browns hit .247 in 1951, but Garver, who sometimes was slotted sixth in the batting order, hit .305 in 95 at-bats.  Of all the other players on the roster, only outfielder Earl Rapp had a higher average (.327).

At any rate, it was obvious that playing to win was not as important as playing for Garver to win. Consequently, Garver appeared in three games in relief in 1951 in addition to his 30 starts.

No doubt manager Zack Taylor, who went along with all of Veeck’s stunts, was happy to give Garver every possible chance to achieve 20 victories. Given the Browns’ deplorable record, Taylor was hardly subject to the sort of second-guessing that the manager of a contending team might have to deal with.

On Aug. 19, when 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel made his famous sole major league appearance, waddlngb up to the plate at Sportsman’s Park during the second game of a double-header against the Tigers, Garver’s record stood at 14-8. Having just lost the day’s first game  he had gone 2-6 in the preceding five weeks.

The Browns lost the Eddie Gaedel game (6-2), so they were 0-2 for the day in front of their largest crowd of the season (18,000-plus ). On a day when the Browns were celebrating the 50th birthday of the American League as well as the birthday of their sponsor, Falstaff Beer, the team’s performance was less than festive and largely devoid of Falstaffian gusto. At the end of the day, Garver winning 20 games was not out of the question, but the odds were less favorable.

On Aug. 24, he notched his 15th victory in Veeck’s famed Grandstand Managers game, in which the fans voted on managerial decisions by holding up “Yes” or “No” signs. The fans retired with a 1.000 winning percentage as Garver and the Browns defeated the A’s by a 5-3 score.

On Sept. 13 at Fenway Park, Garver was on the losing end of the score (5-4) after a Red Sox walk-off victory in the 10th inning.  Garver’s record stood at 16-12, a superb season by Browns standards, but winning 20 was a longshot, since the Browns had just 17 games left on the schedule. But Garver was about to recover the mojo he enjoyed during the first half of the season. It didn’t hurt that in his final starts, he would be facing three teams (the Senators, Tigers and White Sox) that were out of the AL pennant race.

On Sept., Garver took the mound for the second game of a double-header at Griffith Stadium in Washington and came away with a 3-2 victory over the Senators. His 17th victory didn’t come easily; he had to labor 10 innings to get the complete-game victory.

Four days later, he had an easier time at Comiskey Park, defeating the White Sox 5-1 for his 18th victory. He had only two starts left but the Browns were finishing the season at home.

On Sept. 26, he had a relatively easy time against the Tigers, coming away with a 7-1 victory. So one start left, one victory needed for 20.

There was one other question to be answered at the end of the season. The Browns stood at 51-99 at the beginning of the final series of the season, a four-game set against the White Sox. Could they stave off a 100-loss season?  The suspense was immediately extinguished as the Browns lost the first game of the series plus two more for good measure.

So on the last game of the season, the only question  non Mound City minds was whether Garver could notch No. 20. The Cardinals, who rented Sportsman’s Park from the Browns, would finish the NL season at 81-73, good enough for third place, but well behind the Giants and Dodgers, who had a date with destiny at the Polo Grounds a few days later.

When Garver took the mound on Sept. 30, it did not go well initially. He was not effective in the early going and the two teams were tied at 4 after the top of the fourth inning. Then Garver took matters into his own hands.  He hit a solo homer in the bottom of the inning to give the Browns a lead they never relinquished. Final score: Browns 9, White Sox 5, with Garver garnering not only his 20th victory but his league-leading 24th complete game of the year. The second “winningest” pitcher on the squad was Duane Pillette with six.  Garver had racked up 38.4 percent of his team’s victories (impressive, but in 1972 Steve Carlton had 45.8 percent of the Phillies’ victories).

It was not only a superb way for Garver to wind up his season but also a merciful ending for Zack Taylor, who was managing his last game. It was arguably the most positive event of his managerial career (he also had a 16-year playing career as a catcher). His tenure with the post-war Browns had resulted in a 235-410 (.364 winning percentage) record.

At season’s end, Garver came in second in AL MVP voting behind Yogi Berra. If you’re wondering about the Cy Young Award, that must remain a matter of conjecture, as the award was not instituted for another five years.

Though Garver played 10 more seasons, 1951 was the high-water mark of his career. He never experienced a pennant race.  Indeed, he never played for a first-division team.

In August 1952 he was traded to the Tigers, who finished last that year. Battling assorted injuries, he remained with them through 1956, and while they escaped from the cellar, and even played above .500 in 1955 and 1956, fifth place was the best they could do.

After the 1956 season Garver was traded to the Kansas City A’s, who re-acquainted him with the hopeless atmosphere of Browns-like ineptness for four seasons. His reward was to be left unprotected in the 1960 expansion draft.

At age 35 he rounded out his career with the Los Angeles Angels, going 0-3 with a 5.59 ERA in 12 games before he was released. He finished with 129 victories and 157 defeats. His career ERA of 3.73 was the same as in his 20-game winning season. Today he is a member in good standing of a rapidly shrinking fraternity: former St. Louis Browns.

It is doubtful that Garver’s 1951 achievement will ever be matched. In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service honored Garver on the 45th anniversary of his 20-game season with a commemorative postmark at his hometown of Ney, Ohio.

Today 20-game winners are rare enough with teams that win 100 games, much less teams that lose 100 games. Yet when the topic of baseball conversation turns to the 1951 Browns, the first name that pops up is Eddie Gaedel, whose career consisted of one plate appearance.

Gaedel died just 10 years after his major league career began and ended. But, 64 years after the franchise played its last game in St. Louis, 15 other men who wore the Browns uniform survive.

Among them is George Elder turned  96 last week. It’s interesting to note that Jim Rivera is 95 and Don Larsen is 87, as they were not noted for behavior conducive to longevity. Other familiar names are Billy DeMars (91), a longtime coach with the Phillies; Roy Sievers (90) and Billy Hunter (88).

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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David Katz

Nice piece on forgotten history. Much appreciated.

Subway Alum
Subway Alum

Thanks for an interesting article. . . . There’s a profile of the 1944 Ohio State League, where Garver got started, in the SABR Biography Project collection.

Subway Alum
Subway Alum

. . . and also a well-done Garver biography.

John Autin
John Autin

Good story! However, there is one small error: Garver *never* batted 6th in 1951, and he started just one game there in his whole career, which was his highest starting spot. In ’51, he hit 9th in all 30 starts and 3 relief outings, and his 13 PH appearances comprised 8 in the 9th spot, 3 in the 8th spot, 1 in the 7th spot, and 1 in the 3rd spot. (That last one was batting for rookie 1B Ben Taylor, with a chance at walk-off heroics, but instead he struck out.) Garver started one career game in the 6th… Read more »

Clem Sammens
Clem Sammens

“he died late last month”
“Today he is a member in good standing of a rapidly shrinking fraternity: former St. Louis Browns.”

How long do departed Browns retain their membership in good standing in that fraternity?

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

I wonder if he started writing the article before Garver died and then neglected to change it. Anyway, it’s just a mistake.

Don F. Garver
Don F. Garver

I don’t know if my Dad batted 6th in the 1951 season, but I do know that he hit 6th several times during his long career in professional baseball. I also know that everything my father did in baseball, and in all parts of life, he did it with dedication and to the very best of his ability. His good friend Satchel Paige said that the only person who new more about pitching then Ned Garver was Satchel Paige himself. The time spent by the commenter above trying to find statistics to try and prove he wasn’t genuine and that… Read more »

Jimmy Denny
Jimmy Denny

I couldn’t have said it better myself Don Garver! That guy would definitely not make the “Prince of a Guy” list in Ned Garver’s eyes! He batted 6th as a pitcher and was also a pinch hitter because he was just that good of a hitting pitcher. That’s the facts! Congratulations on your phenomenal season! You’re my hero Ned Garver and you are missed dearly!

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