What happens to those that try and fail?
"Death On The Diamond" reads the headline in the June 8th, 1971 edition of The Evening Independent. The story, from the Associated Press:
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Bruce Gardner, former All-American college baseball player and minor league pitcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, was found shot to death Monday on the baseball field at the University of Southern California, police said. Officers listed the death as an apparent suicide pending a coroner's report.
Police said the body of Gardner, 32, was found about 15 feet from the pitcher's mound at Bovard Field, where he had starred from 1958 through 1960.
He held a diploma he received from USC in 1960 in his right hand and a pistol in his left, officers said, his All-American certificate lay a few feet away.
Gardner had been a significant prospect since high school. According to a MiLB.com historical project, Gardner's mother refused to allow him to sign a $50,000 contract with the Chicago White Sox as a 17-year-old so he would attend college. At USC, Gardner recorded a 50-5 record, but he only earned $20,000 to join the Brooklyn Dodgers organization following his graduation. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick was Gardner's roommate at USC. "Yes," Gillick said of Gardner, "he sure had the talent to make it as a major leaguer."
Gardner pitched in the Dodgers' vast minor league system for five seasons. He opened his professional career as a 21-year-old reliever at Triple-A Montreal in 1960, despite the fact that he was seven years younger than the average International League player. He posted a 3.97 ERA with a more walks than strikeouts and was sent down to C-level Reno in 1961. After the season, he spent six months in the United State Army under the reserve training plan and suffered an arm injury during his training, something that would nag him for the rest of his career.
In 1962, he was awful in a second shot at Triple-A, this time with Spokane of the Pacific Coast League, as he allowed a 6.00 ERA in 45 innings covering 10 starts and five relief appearances. He scuffled through two more stops in A-ball over the next two years and was then out of affiliated baseball. His career numbers: a 4.01 ERA over 444 innings, 103 appearances and 60 starts.
The MiLB.com collection adds that Gardner was a high school friend of Herb Alpert and Phil Spector and made forays into the music business after his playing career. He was a successful broker. But by 1971, he had quit to become a substitute teacher and a JV baseball coach. "The thing was that he always thought he could make it in the majors," a friend of Gardner's told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He was always bringing that up. That's the one thing he wanted."
The symbolism of his suicide made it obvious. Athletic failure weighed on him for his entire adult life. This story, as well as a story of an American high school football player who killed himself in 1971, was included in Harry Edwards's 1973 work Sociology of Sport as an example of the ignored negative side effects of what author Harry Edwards calls the American sports creed. Edwards writes:
Though the cumulative impact of the claimed benefits of sports on society and individuals cannot be measured or quantified, a comparative perspective is clearly implied. That is, the creed suggests that without sport, American youth would have less character, be less physically and mentally fit, less courageous, less disciplined, have less opportunity for achievement and thus America would on the whole experience a decline in its quality of life.
This is a theme present throughout much of packaged American sports media. Amateur coaches talk not just of winning games but molding men. Men "build character" in order to win games and later succeed in life. But people can get caught up in the glory of sports. This was already a major part of American culture by 1949, as seen in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Protagonist Willy Loman remains fixated on his son Biff's final high school football game at Ebbets Field late into his life. In this passage from Act I, Willy remembers Biff on gameday:
WILLY: Like a young god. Hercules — something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out — Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!
The sporting myth is just one of many challenged in Death of a Salesman, and that myth has only grown in the 65 years since its publication. Edwards expands on its negative aspects:
The creed abounds with testimonials and stories detailing how sports opened up opportunities to a better life, but there is no mention of the more tragic side of sports involvement or the fact that for every winner there is at least one loser; for every athlete who makes the team there is one less position available for someone who desires to participate.
The calculus for the professional athlete is even bleaker than Edwards suggests. Branch Rickey's model, as constantly repeated throughout Dollar Sign on the Muscle, was "quantity out of quality." "The farm system," author Kevin Kerrane writes, "was a strategy for saving money: instead of bidding against other major-league teams for minor-league players, Rickey wanted to grow his own." In the Cardinals' system under Rickey, Kerrane continues:
The competition among so many young players in the system operated as a kind of natural selection, and it kept constant pressure on the veterans at the top. Rickey, as Enos Slaughter once said, "would go into the vault to get you a nickel change." He was able to bully and bluff major-leaguers, bound by the reserve clause, into absurd salaries. the minor-leaguers could be left on the farms until, as Rickey liked to say, they "ripened into money."
When Gardner was in Rickey's Dodgers system, his first club, the Montreal Royals, was one of three Triple-A clubs the organization owned. For every major-leaguer the system produced, it spat out hundreds of losers. The structure of the league has changed in the years since -- now, the job of spitting out losers is more and more outsourced to colleges and Latin American countries -- but the results are similar.
The sins of those who push the American sports creed are not sins of commission. Sports produce innumerable inspirational stories and achievements. The pressures of sports has the potential to turn coal into diamonds. But we so often ignore those crushed to dust in the process, left without a functioning life, left without living wages, left without life skills or an education, left with nothing but a varsity letter certificate.
Sporting glory and accomplishment should be celebrating, and raucously. But there are so many indications that our sporting culture fails to deal with loss, defeat and failure, like the use of the Hall of Fame as a punishment or the constant cultural fixation on "the glory days." We forget that there is no star without those who try and fail to reach his level. There might be no better indication than Bruce Gardner's darkly symbolic suicide, a story that starkly shows what can happen when we do not value those who try yet fail.