by Martín Abresch
“Scowl at the pitcher and swing hard,” might be the most famous blah blah blah, but the consistency of Gardner’s high level of play is truly impressive. Also he was great in the field.
Mortimer Gardner debuted in the big leagues as a teenager with Tom Guthrie's 1887 Baltimore Crabbers. Though well regarded as a prospect, management preferred another promising young center-fielder, Bimm Sawyers. On July 17, 1890, the Crabbers traded Gardner and two others to the Pittsburgh Weavers for first-baseman Ferdinand Farnsworth. Farnsworth finished his career with fewer than 100 at-bats. By the century's end, Farnsworth for Gardner had become infamous as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
Coincidentally, the center-fielder who won the Baltimore starting job, Bimm Sawyers, had been traded by Pittsburgh almost exactly one year prior to the Gardener trade. On July 18, 1889, Pittsburgh traded Sawyers to Rochester for pitcher Grant McGee. After the 1889 season, Rochester disbanded, freeing Sawyers to sign with Baltimore and win the center field job in place of Gardner. Sawyers had a brilliant season in 1891, winning the batting title (.343) and leading the league in slugging (.522), but injuries derailed his promising career.
The Pittsburgh Weavers finished dead last in 1890, but young acquisitions like Gardner and McGee would soon propel the team to success. In fact, Pittsburgh management seemed to have a knack for making savvy acquisitions.
In Pittsburgh, Gardner immediately impressed. In his first full season with the Weavers, he finished in the top five in runs (113), doubles (29), triples (30), stolen bases (82), and WAR (6.3). He also led the league with 107 strikeouts and became known for his technique inside the batter’s box: scowl at the pitcher and swing hard.
Gardner was not a big man—he stood a few inches short of six feet—but he was a mean one. He played with a chip on his shoulder, and that anger fueled his success. He liked to stand close to the plate, ready to swing hard at outside pitches and daring pitchers to throw him inside. He was hit by 153 pitches in his career—a number that puts him within the top ten all-time—but he refused to give an inch. If a pitcher didn’t hit him, then his quick wrists usually enabled him to turn on an inside heater and drive it into left field.
“There was nothing sensible in pitching to Gardner,” wrote Royal Ricketts in his autobiography. “I might as well have been instructed to catch a wasp with my bare hands. He glared at me as if my intention to toss the ball plateward was a personal affront. His swing, quick and powerful, impressed upon me the sensibility that he wished to return the ball direct back but with double the force, thereby to lift my head from my shoulders.”
In 1948, Mortimer Gardner was elected to the Hall of Fame.