Former Royals manager Billy Gardner died on January 3 at the age of 96. Gardner enjoyed a ten-year career in the big leagues as an infielder before managing in the minors with the Royals. He would eventually serve as manager of the Minnesota Twins for six seasons, and skipped the Royals in 1987.
Gardner grew up on a farm in Connecticut, signing with the New York Giants out of high school. He spent a year in the military, and didn’t reach the big leagues until age 26. In 1956, he was sold to the Baltimore Orioles and became a starter at second base. The next year he led the league with 36 doubles and enjoyed his finest offensive season, hitting .262/.325/.356. He was a terrific defender, earning the nickname “Slick”, and his performance earned him a 12th-place finish in MVP voting.
The Hall of Fame remembers longtime MLB infielder and former Twins and Royals manager Billy Gardner, who passed away on Jan. 3. pic.twitter.com/LHDkNTRM6X— National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ⚾ (@baseballhall) January 8, 2024
After four seasons in Baltimore, Gardner bounced around to the Washington Senators as they moved to Minnesota, then the New York Yankees, where he made his only post-season appearance in the 1961 World Series, earning a championship ring. Gardner finished out his big league career in Boston, and after playing in Seattle for their top affiliate for one more season, he rejoined the Red Sox as a third base coach. He then earned his stripes as a minor league manager before the Kansas City Royals hired him away in 1972, where he managed the Double-A affiliate in Jacksonville before moving up to Triple-A Omaha in 1975.
Gardner moved on to the Expos and then the Twins, taking over the helm of Minnesota in the middle of the 1981 season. He had a young, rebuilding club, and after a 102-loss season in 1982, he improved them to 70 wins in 1983 and 81 wins in 1984. He got off to a good start in 1985 but then the team went into free fall, dropping 19 out of 24. After a win in Kansas City, he was fired with a 27-35 record.
The Royals hired Gardner to serve as third base coach in 1987, with many seeing him as a contingency plan in case manager Dick Howser, who was battling brain cancer, could not manage that year. After the first day of spring training, Howser resigned, saying his weakened body was not up to the task of managing. A misty-eyed Gardner faced reporters as the new manager, saying “I just didn’t think it’d happen this quick.”
Gardner took over a Royals team that was a year removed from winning a title, but was attempting to integrate young players like Danny Tartabull and rookies Kevin Seitzer and Bo Jackson, with a group of veterans from their championship team. Gardner had a quiet, easy-going style with the club, winning them over with one-liners and a quick wit.
“There aren’t that many differences between Billy (Gardner) and Dick (Howser),” said Royals All-Star second baseman Frank White. “They’re both quiet in the dugout and quiet in the locker room. I think that’s good for a club like ours, with a lot of young guys. Billy’s a player’s type manager.”
Gardner had to navigate some delicate situations, such as moving star George Brett from third to first to make room for Seitzer, dealing with a superstar football player learning to play big league baseball on the fly in the national spotlight, and the devastating death of Howser that June. Nonetheless, Gardner’s Royals got off to a good start, and were tied for first on July 5 with a record of 45-35.
But the team was swept by the last place Indians and ended up dropping six of seven on a road trip going into the All-Star break. After the break, they were swept at home in a four-game series by lowly Orioles. With rumors the Yankees might fire manager Lou Piniella, many suspected the Royals might consider a change in skippers as well and bring Sweet Lou back to Kansas City where he began his career as a player.
The front office asked Gardner to be stricter with players, but the team continued to play lethargic baseball, falling under .500 after a sweep in Yankee Stadium. The team played a bit better in August, but still had a losing record of 62-64 when Gardner was fired on August 27.
“Billy’s a great guy, one of the nicest in the game,” remarked Brett. “But sometimes a manager has to get tough. He never did. So when a team of this caliber has been playing as bad as it has, it’s a lot easier to fire the manager than trade 24 players.”
The Royals offered the job to Hal McRae, who had been released as a player but was still serving as a hitting coach. But he did not want an interim job, so the team promoted Triple-A manager John Wathan to lead the team. Wathan brought a more aggressive style on the basepaths, and the team won 21 of 36 games under him to finish 83-79, just two games back of the first place and eventual champion Minnesota Twins.
Gardner returned to Connecticut and worked for a meat producer in his later years. He ended his managerial career with a 330-417 record overall.
He is survived by his wife Barbara and four children, ten grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His son, Billy Gardner Jr., was drafted by the Royals and spent a few years in the minors before becoming a long-time minor league manager. From everyone at Royals Review, we send our condolences to the Gardner family and his loved ones.