Curt Flood's refusal to accept a trade to the Phillies in 1969, and subsequent lawsuit against major league baseball, is often pointed-to as the turning point that toppled the Reserve Clause and brought MLB players free agency. Of course, Flood ultimately lost his decision before the US Supreme Court, and it was the result of something more like a clerical error a few years later - two players playing a season without a contract - which led to "the Seitz decision," where an arbitrator effectively ruled that players who reached the end of their contract were entitled to free agency.
Flood's challenge was one of many over the years which poked holes in the dam of the Reserve Clause. Twenty years before Flood refused his trade, another player tried to sue for the right to negotiate his own contract and choose his employer: Danny Gardella.
Gardella was born in New York City in 1920, and at age 17 joined his older brother Al in the Tigers organization. After a few years in the minor leagues, he left affiliated ball to head back to New York and work in a shipyard. In 1944, he was playing for the shipyard's semipro team when a New York Giants scout saw him and signed him to contract.
It was the height of World War II, and the big leagues were hemorrhaging talent to the military. Gardella joined a Giants outfield that still contained Hall of Famer Mel Ott, and over 47 games of the 1944 season, put up a respectable .250 / .323 / .464 slash line.
The 1945 season was the one with the most established players overseas and the most semipro shipyard workers in the league. Gardella played 121 games and hit .272 / .349 / .426, including 18 home runs.
Coming into the 1946 season, the Giants offered Gardella a $5000 contract, a $500 raise from the previous season. But Gardella had a better offer. At a gym in New York, he had met Jorge Pasquel, a wealthy Mexican businessman who had just become president of the Mexican League and was determined to draw major league players south of the border. He offered Gardella $8,000 to play in Mexico.
Gardella joined Cardinals pitching great Max Lanier and 15 other players in defecting to the Mexican League for the 1946 season. Many of those players immediately regretted their decision, finding poor playing conditions or contract agreements which were not met. But Gardella played the entire season in Mexico, including a game sharing the outfield with Babe Ruth - nearing the end of his sad, Jose Canseco-esque retirement tour. The next season, Gardella won the home run title in the Cuban league.
MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler's reaction to the players who left the league had been swift and cruel. In April of 1946, he announced that any player who left for Mexico would face a 5-year-ban, making the return to pro ball in the US for many of them difficult if not impossible.
But Kuhn went even more Super-Villain on Gardella. Before a semipro exhibition game in Staten Island in late 1947, Kuhn sent a telegram to the ballpark which was read over the loudspeaker, Big Brother style, announcing that any players who played with the "Mexican defectors" would be blacklisted from Major League baseball. Gardella pulled out of the game, but it steeled his resolve to take action.
A few days later, Gardella had found a lawyer and filed a $300,000 lawsuit against the New York Giants, the National and American Leagues, for engaging in a conspiracy to restrain trade. A district court judge rejected the claim, citing the infamous 1922 ruling establishing baseball's antitrust exemption, but a federal appeals court ordered a jury trial.
At this point, Gardella's lawsuit was becoming big news. A newsreel even survives of Gardella himself stating his case. It was apparently filmed at the hospital where he was working as an orderly, and Gardella wears his hospital scrubs. But the owners weren't sitting on the sidelines either, with big guns including Chandler and Branch Rickey condemning Gardella, intimating he might be a communist, etc.
Now at this point, you might be wondering what the Cardinals connection is, or why this post isn't being written on Viva El New York Giants. I'm getting to that.
While the owners blustered publicly against Gardella's challenge to the Reserve Clause, privately they feared it would succeed. In October of 1949, they negotiated a settlement which paid Gardella $60,000 and promised him an opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now, why Gardella was offered a spot specifically with the Cardinals is unknown. Whether it was a specific point he negotiated for, or for some reason the lawyers representing the owners made that offer, it's unclear. But history suggests the Cardinals never had much intent of employing one Danny Gardella.
Gardella broke spring training with the Cardinals, as they opened the 1950 season with a three-game series in St. Louis against the Pirates. He rode the bench for the first two games, then was inserted as a pinch hitter in the late innings of a blowout loss in the third game. Gardella batted for the pitcher, flied out to right field, and was replaced by a new pitcher.
Following the game, Gardella was optioned to the minors. He never made another major league appearance.
Gardella moved back to New York, where he fathered a large family and worked a variety of blue collar jobs until his death in 2005. He maintained pride for his role in ultimately toppling baseball's reserve clause, telling The Los Angeles Times in 1994 "it had the odor of peonage, even slavery."