It wasn't any inflated sense of his worth as a ballplayer that made Danny Gardella want to sue the national pastime.
As an erratic, 5-foot-7 outfielder who batted .272 for the New York Giants in 1945 against war-thinned competition, he knew his limitations.
Nor was the Bronx-born Gardella a closet Stalinist bent on torpedoing American institutions, although no less a baseball god than Branch Rickey would publicly accuse him of "leaning to Communism."
No, what really drove Gardella into court was the infuriating idea that the "big-headed guys" who ran baseball would think nothing of drumming him out of their game and then humiliating him in front of a hometown crowd in a meaningless exhibition.
Gardella's 1947 lawsuit was the first significant challenge to baseball's exemption from federal antitrust law, a challenge that badly rattled the club owners and foreshadowed the historic but unsuccessful suit by Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood that reached the Supreme Court 25 years later.
"I feel I let the whole world know that the reserve clause was unfair," Gardella, now 74, said in a recent interview. The reserve clause, then a part of the standard major league contract, bound a player to his club for his career--or until his owner decided to trade or fire him.
"It had the odor of peonage, even slavery," Gardella said.
Gardella's lawsuit helped pave the way for free agency, which has sparked bidding wars for stars and journeymen alike, driving big league salaries to today's stratospheric levels. It also created some of the conditions that led to the current, season-killing strike.
When Gardella reported for spring training with the Giants in 1946, he hoped to leverage his power-hitting credentials--18 home runs and 71 runs batted during the 1945 season--into a tryout at first base, where his fear of fly balls would be a lesser liability.
Unfortunately for Gardella, the front-runner was slugger Johnny (the Big Cat) Mize, back from the war and ready to reclaim his old position.
Mize was headed for Cooperstown, Gardella for Mexico.
Mexican League baseball was a sizable cut below the U.S. big leagues in terms of crowd size, talent and playing conditions. But for at least a few seasons after World War II, the pay looked terrific.
League President Jorge Pasquel, a businessman who owned the Vera Cruz team, had opened his wallet to lure major leaguers across the border. Offering double and triple the salaries paid by tight-fisted U.S. owners, Pasquel landed such stars as Giant pitcher Sal (the Barber) Maglie, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen and Cardinal pitcher Max Lanier.
Gardella got twice his $5,000 salary with the Giants to jump to the Mexican League. He recalls sharing a cigar in the outfield one day with Babe Ruth, who, though 10 years retired and sick with the throat cancer that would soon kill him, had made a lucrative detour from a Mexican fishing trip.
"He got $10,000 just to hit a few balls," Gardella said.
As Gardella figures it, the cash Pasquel was throwing around was not investment capital aimed at fattening gate receipts and owner profits.
Pasquel was an ally of Interior Minister Miguel Aleman Valdes, who in January of 1946 was designated as the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which--then as now--was as good as being elected. Aleman went on to become one of Mexico's most influential presidents, sometimes called the architect of modern Mexico.
Gardella, who knew enough Italian to quickly pick up Spanish, thinks the imported baseball stars were simply meant to boost Aleman's popularity.
In any event, the tactic didn't go over well with Pasquel's fellow owners or with the poorly paid Mexican ballplayers, who resented the sums being lavished on interlopers from \o7 El Norte\f7 .
Regardless of how serious a threat Mexican ball might have posed to the big leagues, the owners' concern level rose quickly. True competition from Mexico might force player salaries higher and cut into profits.
Baseball Commissioner Albert B. (Happy) Chandler acted in June of 1946, announcing that U.S. players who had jumped to Mexico would be banned from the big leagues for five years.
Chuck Stevens, a former St. Louis Brown who now runs a benefit group for retired ballplayers, remembers sitting at a railroad siding in San Antonio in 1946 and watching teammate Vern Stephens sprint to catch the train after a club official--alerted to the impending ban--had rushed to ransom the power-hitting shortstop back from Mexico. Stephens had bolted so abruptly that he left all his clothes in Mexico, Stevens said.
For Gardella, at least at first, the blacklist was a non-event. Mexico meant money, baseball and exotic trips, all of which beat riding a bench behind Johnny Mize. After a season in Mexico, Gardella became the home run king of the Cuban League. When he was back in the States, he could always find a game on the semipro circuit. Life was a Havana cigar.