Before he made his name with Philadelphia and Atlanta, Gene Garber was a reliever for the KC Royals.
The year 1973 was, for the KC Royals, one of promise and disappointment. The Royals posted their second winning season and seriously contended for the first time; but after spending 42 games in first place, a remarkable feat for a franchise in just its fifth campaign, they fell seven games short of the American League West Division title and the playoffs.
The season was also the first in Kansas City for a sidearm, sometimes submarining pitcher who later starred for the Atlanta Braves and had good campaigns with Philadelphia. Like the Royals’ overall effort, Gene Garber’s 1973 was both promising and disappointing.
Garber, then 25, was new to Kansas City, having spent parts of the three previous seasons with Pittsburgh before the Pirates traded him to the Royals to get Jim Rooker two weeks after losing the National League Championship Series to Cincinnati. Garber had been an unremarkable 0-3 with a 5.61 ERA in 20 games for the Bucs; Rooker was 21-44, 3.93 in four KC seasons, then won 82 games in eight for Pittsburgh and pitched twice as the Pirates won the ’79 World Series.
The Royals immediately made Garber a part of a bullpen that would include Doug Bird, Bruce Dal Canton, Steve Mingori and Mark Littell. In his first appearance, and the club’s fifth game of the young season, he showed why.
Garber entered the April 11 game against Texas in the fourth inning after Steve Busby, who later lost his promising career to a torn rotator cuff, worked himself into a bases-loaded jam and gave up a run-scoring single to get the Rangers to within five at 8-3. Garber retired the first two hitters he faced (one on a sacrifice fly that plated Texas’ fourth run) and the Royals escaped the rally.
The right-hander faced 20 more batters and, although he gave up two more runs, finished the game to notch his first major league win.
Garber again pitched in long relief six days later and earned another win. This time, manager Jack McKeon summoned him in the eighth inning of what became a 14-frame affair against Oakland; with two outs, starter Wayne Simpson gave up a single to Reggie Jackson, who Sal Bando then doubled home to tie the game at 4-4. Garber intentionally walked Gene Tenace and retired Gonzalo Marquez on a grounder to end the threat. He held the A’s scoreless for the next six innings until Hal McRae walked them off with a run-scoring single in the 14th.
Now winner of the only two games he’d pitched, Garber earned his first big league save two days later, then saved two more in a row before taking his first loss of the season April 26 when he left the game against Milwaukee with the bases loaded and Dal Canton gave up a grand slam that put the Brewers in front for good. But Garber won for the third time two games later.
Although April had been kind to Garber–he was 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA and three saves in seven games—May was just as good. He went 2-0, saved three more games, and was under 2.00 again with a 1.80 ERA.
But in June, Garber’s promising campaign turned disappointing. In the first three games alone, opponents battered him for 11 runs in six innings; not surprisingly, he was charged with the losses in each contest. Although he won two games after that, he lost another and saved just one, and posted a dismal 11.30 ERA for the month.
Garber won two, lost four, and saved four games the rest of the way and pitched in, but didn’t lose, the Aug. 16 game against Boston, a 6-4 defeat at the hands of the Red Sox that dropped the KC Royals out of first place in the West. They never regained the division lead.
For Garber, the season ended with a 9-9, 4.24 ERA record; his 11 saves were second on the club to Bird’s 20. A late September start would be his eighth of the season and the last of his 19-year big league career.
Garber leaves the KC Royals
The ’73 season proved to be the only full campaign Garber spent with KC. McKeon used him less in ’74 and the club sold him to Philadelphia in mid-July. He led the NL in appearances (70) and games finished (47) the following season, and went 33-22 with a 2.68 ERA and 51 saves before a June 1978 trade sent him to Atlanta.
Garber saved 141 games, including 30 once and over 20 three other times, for the Braves, no small feat considering they had only three winning seasons in his 10 years in Atlanta. (He ranks third on Atlanta’s all-time list behind Craig Kimbrel’s 186 and John Smoltz’s 154). He also averaged almost 56 appearances per campaign.
Several weeks after the Phillies sent him to the Braves, Garber, small for pitchers at 5-feet-10, put an abrupt end to Pete Rose’s 44-game National League record hit streak: he struck out Rose to end the game, and finish off the streak, in Atlanta’s Aug. 1 16-4 win:
(Garber previously got Rose to line into a double play and Braves’ starter Larry McWilliams retired Rose twice).
The return to the KC Royals
With just a month left in the 1987 season, Garber’s Braves were out of the NL West race, but the KC Royals were well within striking distance of first place in the AL West. On Aug. 31, Atlanta traded the reliver back to the city where he claimed his first major league victory; Garber appeared in 13 games and saved eight down the stretch, but the Royals finished two games behind division-winner Minnesota.
Garber became a free agent after the season, then re-signed with Kansas City. But he and fellow reliever and Kansas City great Dan Quisenberry found themselves released on July 4; Garber was 0-4 with six saves at the time, and never pitched again.
Years later, the Braves made Garber a spring training pitching instructor.
Gene Garber had his best years in the National League. But he was a Royal before his career took off.