Ned Garver, who was a standout player on one of baseball’s worst — and most colorful — teams, the old St. Louis Browns, and was the last major-league pitcher to win 20 games in a season for a team that lost 100 games, died Feb. 26 at a hospital in Bryan, Ohio. He was 91.
He had kidney disease and died of a heart attack, said a son, Don Garver.
Mr. Garver spent parts of five seasons with the hapless Browns, from 1948 to 1952. During that time, the team never finished higher than sixth place in the eight-team American League.
A sturdy 5-foot-10 right-hander, Mr. Garver was recognized as the Browns’ best player, “a jewel in a pile of rocks,” sports writer Rich Westcott wrote in his book “Splendor on the Diamond,” “a thoroughbred among nags.”
In 1950, despite a record of 13-18, Mr. Garver finished second in the American League in earned run average, behind Hall of Famer Early Wynn of the Cleveland Indians. The Browns finished in seventh place, 40 games behind the pennant-winning New York Yankees.
The next year, they were even worse. The team often drew fewer than 2,000 fans per game.
“The crowd didn’t dare boo you,” Mr. Garver once said. “The players had them outnumbered.”
At the midseason break for the All Star Game, the Browns had won only 22 of their 74 games; exactly half of those victories were credited to Mr. Garver. He was named the American League’s starting pitcher at the All Star Game and allowed one unearned run in three innings.
In July 1951, the Browns were bought by Bill Veeck, a renegade owner and one of baseball’s greatest showmen. He promptly signed 45-year-old former Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige, who became one of Mr. Garver’s closest friends on the team.
Veeck also offered a one-game contract to 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel. On Aug. 19, 1951, Gaedel came to the plate for the Browns as a pinch hitter, wearing uniform No. 1/8. He walked on four pitches, then trotted to first base, bowing to the roaring crowd.
The American League president condemned Veeck for making a “mockery of the game,” but the Gaedel episode has entered baseball lore as perhaps the most remarkable crowd-pleasing stunt of all time.
The same month, Veeck placed a newspaper advertisement for a “grandstand manager” and received more than 4,000 responses.
On the night of Aug. 24, 1951, with Mr. Garver on the mound against the Philadelphia Athletics, two fans donned Browns uniforms as the team’s nominal managers. Taylor, the regular manager, sat in a rocking chair in street clothes, smoking a pipe.
The Browns printed signs for 1,115 fans, with a green “Yes” on one side and a red “No” on the other. When the grandstand managers pondered a point of strategy, a Browns official held up a sign with a question — “Infield Back?” or “Shall We Steal?”
The fans responded with what can be called democracy in action or perhaps one of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing.
In the first inning, after Mr. Garver allowed a three-run homer, the crowd was asked, “Shall We Warm Up Pitcher?”
Overwhelmingly, the fans held up their “No” cards.
“It was the strangest thing I have ever seen in baseball,” Mr. Garver told ESPN the Magazine in 2014. “When I saw all the ‘Nos,’ I appreciated that.”
When Mr. Garver went on to pitch a complete-game 5-3 victory for the Browns, more than 1,000 managers could claim some credit.
By mid-September, Mr. Garver had a record of 16-12 and needed to win four more games to reach 20, a benchmark of baseball excellence.
“The odds of you winning four in a row with the Browns in 1951 were damned slim,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2001.
Yet he won his next three starts before taking the mound against the Chicago White Sox on the final day of the season. With the score tied 4-4 in the bottom of the fifth inning, Mr. Garver — one of his team’s best hitters as well as its finest pitcher — came up to bat.
“And, son of a biscuit,” he said in 2001, “I hadn’t hit a home run all year, but I hit a home run over the Sealy Mattress sign in left field.”
The Browns won, 9-5, to secure Mr. Garver’s 20th victory, which he called “the greatest feeling I ever had as a player.” His 24 complete games led the American League.
On a team that finished with a record of 52-102, no other pitcher won more than six games. The only other pitcher in baseball history with 20 victories for a team that lost 100 games was Irv Young of the 1905 Boston Beaneaters.
Ned Franklin Garver was born Dec. 25, 1925, in Ney, Ohio. He grew up on a farm and played baseball on semipro teams in Ohio and Indiana.
He enlisted in the Navy during World War II but was discharged because of flat feet. After four years in the minor leagues, he made his major-league debut with the Browns in 1948. As a rookie, he finished fourth in the league in earned run average.
In 1952, Hall of Fame hitter Rogers Hornsby was named the Browns’ manager, but he proved to be a taciturn, uncommunicative team leader. Within weeks, he had alienated his team.
He was fired by owner Veeck, who visited the players in the locker room.
“A happier group you’ve never seen,” Veeck wrote in “Veeck as in Wreck,” his 1962 autobiography. “I made a little speech in which I apologized to them for hiring Hornsby in the first place. When I finished, Ned Garver whipped out a two-foot silver loving cup and presented it to me on behalf of the club.”
The inscription read: “To Bill Veeck. For the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation, June 10, 1952. From the St. Louis Browns.”
But the team continued to flounder, and Mr. Garver was traded to Detroit later that season. He went 14-11 with a 2.81 ERA for the Tigers in 1954, then pitched for the Kansas City Athletics and Los Angeles Angels before retiring in 1961 after 14 seasons. His career record was 129-157, with a 3.73 ERA.
Mr. Garver’s highest salary as a player, his son said, was $29,000. During the offseason, he worked in factories, drove school buses and refereed basketball games. He later scouted for the Cincinnati Reds and spent 18 years as personnel director of a meatpacking company. He also served eight years as mayor of Ney (prouncounced “Nay”) before settling in the nearby town of Bryan.
His first wife, the former Dorothy Sims, died in 1995 after 51 years of marriage.
Survivors include his wife since 2001, the former Dolores Hart of Bryan; three children from his first marriage, Don Garver and Ned. A. Garver, both of Bryan, and Cheryl Garver of Defiance, Ohio; three stepchildren; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
After the 1953 season, Veeck sold the last-place Browns, and the franchise became the Baltimore Orioles.
Although Mr. Garver played for other teams, he always considered himself a St. Louis Brown.
“It was the best time of my life,” he told the Associated Press in 2002. “The Browns gave me my chance. If it hadn’t been for baseball, I’d have been milking cows.”