LOS ANGELES Police Department Death Report: File No. 71-045 104
Date/Time deceased discovered: June 7, 1971. 0900 hours
Interviewing officers: Det. Richard Ortiz, Det. George Kellenberger.
Officers notified of possible suicide at Bovard Athletic Field (baseball field), University of Southern California campus.
Officers observed deceased lying on his stomach on the grass. Deceased was in an open area of the baseball field approx. 18 ft. n/w of the pitcher's mound. Both hands were partially under the face and neck, with the left hand clutching a Smith & Wesson .38 specl. rev., 3" barrel.
The deceased had a gunshot wound to the left temple with an exit wound in the right temple. The body was rigid. The bullet that passed thru the head could not be located.
Next to the body, officers found a laminated plaque with the deceased's name on it, naming him as All-American Baseball Player of the Year for 1960. Under the right portion of the body clutched in the right hand was a laminated plaque of a B.S. degree from Univ. of So. Calif. issued to Bruce Clark Gardner.
Approx. 3 ft. from body toward pitcher's mound was full-page typewritten statement taped to smooth wood board and resembling the laminated plaques. The note indicated possible suicide. It was unaddressed and unsigned .
At 6 o'clock that morning, Bruce Cameron, a USC caretaker, had seen a body lying prone on the baseball infield, but he didn't approach it. He thought it was a student sleeping off a drunk. A couple of hours later, he and Mitharu Yamasaki, another campus caretaker, came closer. At heritage Hall, where the USC athletic offices are housed, Virgil Lubberden, who often got to work early, saw them through a window. Jess Hill, then director of athletics, told his assistant to see what was going on.
"He was sprawled out, face down," Lubberden recalled. "I didn't realize at first it was Bruce. It was just unbelievable when I found out who it was."
Bruce Clark Gardner won more games -- 40 -- than any pitcher in USC history, including Tom Seaver, Bill Lee, Jim Barr and Steve Busby. Before he ever pitched a varsity game, he was offered a $66,500 bonus by the Chicago White Sox. He was handsome, intelligent, sensitive and articulate. cIn junior high and high school, he was president of the student body. He was a talented pianist and entertainer. Nearly everyone who knew him came away feeling better for it.
In retrospect, it really ended for Bruce Gardner seven years earlier when he was released by Salem (Oregon) of the Northwest League. In 1960, fresh out of USC, he had signed a modest bonus contract of $12,000 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The next year in the minors he won 20 games. Then he hurt his arm. By 1964, his professional-baseball career was over. At 25, Bruce Gardner, who had been brilliantly successful all his young life, considered himself a failure.
Until now, Gardner's lengthy suicide note was never made public. Nor were the contents of his four thick, meticulously kept scrapbooks -- 15 x 13 artform black naugahyde-covered books with 20-ring acetate pages -- which he started to keep at 17.
At first, the scrapbooks tell a love story between Gardner and life. There are numerous photos of his parents, of young Betty Fegen, a pretty, 25-year-old blond when she met Joe Gardner, and dark-haired, round faced Joe ("robust, singing, smiling, friendly" wrote Gardner).
Betty and Joe married in 1937. Joe worked in an automotive parts store, and later started his own gas station. Gardner was born Oct. 30, 1938. Baby pictures and photos of Gardner with his pictures -- he resembled his father -- dominate the early pages. Happy childhood, happy family.
And then, suddenly, a funeral notice: "In memory of Joseph J. Gardner."
Under it, Gardner wrote: "March 3, 1941, my father, Joe Gardner, died of strep throat, probably complicated by his own rheumatic fever as a boy" -- and, ironically -- "his death just preceded the use of penicillin."
Despite his father's death, his boyhood seemed full and joyous -- Cub Scouts, Halloween costumes, singing in a synagogue choir. And, at 10, he began to write about what would be the love and consuming passion of his life: baseball.
October, 1948: "Today was Halloween," he wrote. "I went trick or treating. I also thought about baseball. I made believe that I was the second Babe Ruth. When the Babe Ruth Story came to a local theater, I went in at 2 and came out after midnight. I sat through the main feature twice just to watch the Babe three times."
And at 12, in 1950: "Ever since I have been playing baseball, it has been my ambition to one day be in the big leagues."
He was becoming a standout sandlot pitcher, as well as a model student. He wrote original poems, won "posture" contests, represented his school in citywide oratorical contests, and was elected president of the student body of Bancroft Junior High in 1953.
When Gardner was about 10, Samuel Fegen, Betty's father, came to live with them in their two-floor, three-bedroom apartment in the primarily Jewish Fairfax district of Los Angeles. An orthodox Jew born in Russia who achieved prosperity through real estate investments in the U. S., Fegen was a strict man who would get up every morning at 4, tuck his fringed prayer shawl into his black pants, and walk to the synagogue to pray.
Under his grandfather's influence, Gardner was bar-mitzvahed, an occasion he describes glowingly. But this is the last mention of religion in the scrapbooks.
Meanwhile, there was growing tension in the home. "The grandpa was always accusing Bruce of stealing, of doing something wrong," recalled Barry Martin Biales, who would become one of Gardner's best friends, the executor of his estate and, ultimately, the owner of his scrapbooks. "Bruce would get upset, being accused of things he never did. And his mother she was very frugal. There was a lock on the telephone. It was like a twilight zone in that house."
Not surprisingly, Gardner sought" support outside the home -- usually in the form of father figures. He found several, invariably baseball coaches -- Bob Malcolm, his junior high school coach; Frank Shaffer, his coach at Fairfax high; and Tony Longo, father of his friend, Mike Longo, and coach of Gardner's American Legion team. "I practically raised Bruce," Tony Longo would say later. In the summers, Gardner's friends had a routine: meet at school, go to the beach, play baseball at a local park. But Gardner would skip the beach to wait for Longo to take him to play baseball.
Gardner's devotion to baseball was paying dividends. He gained a reputation as a left-handed pitching star in sandlot, American Legion and high school ball. Large crowds watched and cheered him.
In high school, Gardner was an honor student (he would finish 76th in a class of 403 in a school with a high academic reputation), student body president, honorary mayor of Los Angeles for a day, and a piano player and singer who entertained at school assemblies.
Gardner's high school was a stream of successes. He made the varsity at 16, was 11-2 as a junior, and 18-1 in his senior year, leading his team into the city finals.
MAJOR league scouts came to his games. One was Harold (Lefty) Phillips of the Dodgers, considered a highly astute judge of baseball talent (he later managed the California Angels). Some time after Gardner's senior year in high school, Phillips filed the following confidential scouting report: "Has good stuff for 18-year-old but might be as good now as he ever will be. Real intelligent boy -- might be too smart, Know-it-all type. With a litle more pitching and knowledge and experience should go into AA or at best AAA."
The Dodgers were anxious to sign him, even sending Larry Sherry -- a former Fairfax High Schhol pitching star and then a minor leaguer in the Dodger farm system -- to persuade Gardner. But Gardner had already turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates of $4,000, and the Dodgers' offer had not been enough to keep him from college. On the advice of high school coach Shaffer and his mother, he had opted for an athletic grant-in-aid to USC.
A primary reason for attending USC, only 10 miles from his home, was Rod Dedaux, the finest college baseball coach in the country. Dedeaux's sales pitch -- that he'd work to get Gardner a bonus later and that a college education was worth $100,000 -- mae sense to Betty Gardner.
Gardner, in his desire to attach himself to an older man, sensed Dedeaux would fill the void. A graying, paunchy ex-ballplayer, he had become a wealthy trucking magnate in L. a. But, like Gardner, Dedeaux loved baseball first. That accounted for his USC salary -- $1 a year.
The freshman team at USC was coached by Joe Curi, which was fine for Gardner. "Curi, loved me because I didn't complain and I was always ready," he wrote. "I was 10-0 for the season and held the USC varsity to a 0-0 tie. I was USC's freshmen athlete of the year over my teammate Ron Fairly and shot-putter Dave Davis. I was quickly becoming the best unsigned prospect in the United State."
This, it seemed, was likely to change quickly. Bob Pease, Gardner's manager on a sandlot team and bird dog for the White Sox, recommended him to Hollis Thurston, Chicago's top scout on the West Coast. Gardner, accompanied by Tony Longo, was flown to Chicago for a tryout.
Gardner threw to a catcher in the bullpen at Comiskey Park. The big leagues. For 20 minutes, Thurston, Longo, Manager Al Lopez, General Manager John Rigney and Farm Director Glen Miller watched the 6-1, 185-pound southpaw.
The Thurston turned to Longo and said, "We'll take him." He mentioned a big bonus figure. Long said, "you'll have to talk to his mother." Gardner was only 18, and needed his mother's consent to sign.
The big number was $66,500, enormous in 1957. Gardner rushed home to tell his mother the news, Betty Gardner was not moved.
"Bruce came over to my house to talk with my father, who he was very close to," said Biales. "He looked sad. He told us about the offer, and said his mother wouldn't let him sign. My father said, 'Are you kidding? That kind of money doesn't come along every day.' Bruce said he had pleaded with his mother. I remember him saying, 'I was in tears. I asked her to, please, just sign it. I can go to school in the off-season. I'm ready now." p
Apparently, Mrs. Gardner was influenced greatly by Dedeaux, who emphasized the value of a college education -- and that Gardner would get an even better deal after he graduated as a star. "I didn't approve of his signing, because I felt he needed security for the future. I wanted to help him become a success and make a lot of money. The trouble, I suppose, was that he felt I was interfering with his goal." (Betty Gardner remembers her son fondly -- "he was magic, a wonderful, adorable person" -- but finds it too painful to say much more about him now.)
Gardner, the dutiful son, stayed and, on the surface, seemed happy. "I don't know of anyone who enjoyed college more than Bruce," said Dedeaux.
On the field, Gardner made All-League in each of his three varsity years. In his last two (27-4), he made All-NCAA District 8, and, in his final year, he was all-American. In 1960, he was named player of the year, after leading the Trojans to the final game of the College World Series (USC lost).
During Gardner's senior year, his grandfather died, which caused some family problems. His grandfather's will had been changed shortly before his death, leaving everything to Betty Gardner and nothing to his other daughter and three sons. (Two cousins estimated the inheritance at more than $100,000, although Mrs. Gardner wouldn't confirm the figure.)
"Bruce went to see his aunt and uncle," recalled Biales, "and they did-not want him in the house. 'Go tell your mother to give us the thousands she took, they told him.
"'Why blame me?' he said.
"'We didn't want you showing up anymore,' they said."
This disturbed Gardner, who had a great sense of family. Growing up without a father, he had clung to his relatives. But as he was hurt, so he would turn around and exhibit kindness to to others.
After Gardner's senior year, Phillips upgraded the scouting report: "Tall, rawboned, long arms, good agility. Best fast ball tails away high and outside. Sharp-breaking curve. Should be signed for somewhere in the amount of the first-year draft price." Translation: a bonus of $12,000, to be paid out in three $4,000 installments. Gardner agreed. Phillips signed him.
Gardner was smiling in newspaper photos of the signing, but he later wrote: "I cried that night. I had thrown away three baseball seasons. I had thrown away a very important amount of money. And though I had a college degree, I couldn't see its importance. I was older, and there was something wrong with my arm. It took me a long time to warm up the last few games at USC."
The severity of his arm problem was never spelled out, but the arm was strong enough for him to enter professional baseball at the highest level of the minor leagues, the Dodgers' AAA team in Montreal in the International League.
Oddly enough, however, by major league standards he was less of a prospect than after his freshman year. At 18, he didn't have the outstanding fast ball. But he might have developed one. At 21, he didn't have that fast ball, and he never would.
TO THE hardened veterans of pro ball, Gardner must have seemed vulnerable, Cleancut, seemingly naive, a musician, college kid. There were few collegians in pro baseball then, and only a few had degrees, as Gardner did. Many players had not finished high school. Some veteran managers had not even attended high school.
After some undistinguished appearances at Montreal, where his record was 0-1, he reported for his first spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., in 1961. The facilities were first-rate, but the caliber of baseball minds did not impress Gardner. "I can't believe these people," Gardner told Biales. "The only smart guy I met there was Walter O'Malley." O'Malley owned the Dodgers and once gave Gardner $100 for playing his favorite song on the lounge piano.
That first spring, Gardner still had not gotten over a case on mononucleosis.
Gardner, who was supposed to be assigned to Greenville in AA classification, was sent instead to Reno of the California League, Class C. "What a waste." Gardner told a friend. "I'll probably win 40 games. I should be pitching AAA ball."
Gardner was 20-4 at Reno. In is Dodger scouting report, Reno manager Roy Smalley described Gardner: "Excellent attitude, exceptional aptitude. Improving steadily, has endurance, good fielder, hits well, mentally tough. Has a chance to make majors." Smalley did not mention Gardner's occasioned habit of standing on his head in the dugout, sometimes while the national anthem was being played.
The official 1962 program of the Dodgers lists a handful of players with exceptional promise on their minor league clubs. One was Gardner: "Former Trojan Bruce Gardner topped the California League in four departments. His 20-4 record gave hme top victory total, and best percentage (.833). He also pitched most complete games, 18, and was the ERA leader with 2.82."
After the season ended, Gardner went to Fort Ord, Calif., to fulfill a military obligation. He was to serve six months and be out in time for spring training. But he Cold War esclated into the Berlin Crisis, active duty rosters were frozen, and Gardner injured his arm in maneuvers -- possibly one time when he fell off a truck. Finally released in July, he was assigned to Spokane, a AAA team in the Pacific Coast League.
Gardner had made $600 a month in Reno. He expected a minimum raise to $800 and thought he would probably get $1,000. He received a new contract for $700. And that wasn't the worst of it "I came into Spokane at 7 in the morning -- and there my mother was in the car packed to overflowing and no place to go," he wrote.
He finished 1-5 in Spokane. There were hysterical shouting matches with his mother in which Gardner dredged up old hurts about not signing the big bonus contract. He was suffering, his arm hurt, and he was failing as a pitcher.
Spokane Manager Preston Gomez's succinct report in Gardner: "Says arm hurts. so have to wait for him to get better before make determination."
In 1963, he was assigned to Salem (Oregon) in Class A, pitched poorly, and was sent to Great Falls (Mont.) in the Pioneer League. His last night in Salem was spent with a girl named Jo. "It was the most beautiful time I'd ever had. In the morning she brought her baby over (from a previous marriage), made breakfast. I dreamed of life as it should be, packed everything I owned again into the car and traveled to Great Falls."
There, getting by on guile, he was 10-4 with a 4.07 ERA. And the dream of a major league career persisted. That December he sent Christmas cards with a picture of himself in a Dodger uniform.
Gardner's last training camp was in 1964 at Vero Beach. "Bruce was the hardest working guy I ever saw, "said Jimmy Campanis, his catcher that final season. "He would run and run and run." But he broke an ankle practicing slides and wasn't ready to pitch agan until early summer, when he reported to Salem. A rule of thumb among major league teams is three years to rise in the minors. Salem was Gardner's last chance.
At the ballpark, Gardner struggled to a 2-2 record in 19 appearance, finished none of his three starts, and had and ERA of 5.40. An old USC teammate, Marcel Lachemann, played in the same league that year and thought Gardner pitched "almost like an amateur. It was sad watching it." He was nearly 26-years old, a faded prospect.
"I was up in the press box late one night after a game," remembered Bob Schwartz, sports news editor of Salem's morning newspaper, the Oregon Statesman. "I saw Bruce on the field, fully dressed. He was standing on the mound. I'm sure he didn't know I was there. He smoothed the rubber with his foot, then walked around the mound. I went back to work. When I finished, he was gone."
In a confidential Dodger report a scout wrote: "Has no future." Gardner concurred. "My arm could only take an inning," he wrote. "Damaged by now." But he felt bitterness toward thte Dodger organization: "Too many kinds of people that can't be decent unless you're leading the bandwagon."
From the scrapbooks: "Notice Of Official Release. September 30, 1964.
You are officially notified of the non-disposition of your contract. You are released unconditionally. Fresco Thompson."
Gardner now faced the classic dilemma of the former pro athlete, the one-time star: What do you do when the cheers stop, when the lifelong dream collapses? Whom could he blame? Whom could he strike back at?? He was not a violent person. He never even threw at a hitter. He remembered when Marilyln Monroe committed suicide, now he felt. One day, about a month after he was released, Gaardner went to Vernon, a small town near Los Angeles, and bougt a .38 Smith & Wesson blue stell pistol in a pawn shop.
He told Biales: "I went home to plan to kill myself, but the phone rang and got my mind off it."
Biales was stunned. "Are you serious?
"Yeah," said Gardner. "Everything's so low. The baseball's over and there's nothing left for me."
Gardner wrote: "Now my career is over. Eight years late and now my mother is concerned. My mother's philosophy is to get concerned when it's too late, but create the predicament by not using reason before hand. She sayssays a scout reneged. I guess because I didn't sign. He didn't renege. She shouted, "No,' at me. I'm afraid the shadow of Rod Dedeaux in the wings made her unable to move in any direction.
"Quit bothering the wrong man (Fresco Thompson), mother! Looking back, I don't see what I could have done differently except to quit baseball earlier. My life taken away."
Outwardly, Gardner seemed to adjust. He was a real estate saleman, then sold mutual funds. He dressed nattily and flashed jewelry. In 1968, he won a trip to Bermuda and the next year was awarded another trip -- to Puerto Valera, Mexico -- for his sales success.
There he fell in love with a "beautiful intelligent and charming girl" from Vancouver named Donna. He wrote a song about her the first day he met her, "with the sound of xylophone and mariachi in my mind."
In 1970, his mutual funds career colapsed because of a slump in the market. Friends and relatives who had invested with him lost money -- and he felt guilty about it. He trained to become a bank manager for a savings company, but he was let go after four months. He was told he didn't have the background for the position.
To earn a steady living, Gardner took a job as a physical education and health teacher at Dorsey High School in Soutwest Lost Angeles. It's a predominantly black school, with a small percentage of Oriental students, Gardner also coached the junior varsity baseball team to a 13-2 record, winning a championship for the first time in the school's history.
On Friday afternoon, June 4, 1971, Vassie Gardner, no relation who played on the team, was playing basketball in the Dorsey gym and turned to see his coach staring at him. "He was just standing and watching me," he said. "I never saw that stare before. I guess he knew he was going to go away."
Gardner stayed in all of Saturday and Saturday night. He fastidiously arranged his bookshelves. In his bedroom, there was a neat pile of Playboy magazines, which would later shock one of his aunts. His clothes in the closet were hung meticulously in section -- pants, suits, coats. Stacks of record albums neatly flanked his stero. The blond wood furniture was dusted. The seascape oil painting on the wall behind the stereo was perfectly straight. The lid of the piano was pulled down over the keys.
On Sunday, Virginia Searles, the manager of his apartment building, saw Gardner neatly folding his wash in the laundry room. She said, "Good morning Bruce." He said, "Good morning." That was it. She knew Gardner was a private person, though friendly. If he didn't want to say anything more, that was fine.
That was the last time anyone saw Bruce Gardner alive.
Sometime after midnight, it is presumed Gardner rose from his bed and began his final preparations.
The chronology is uncertain, but he probably sat down at his Remington manual typewriter to type his suicide note. He poured himself a shot of Scotch.
Gardner then placed one copy of the suicide note into the last page of his scrapbook and carefully taped the other note onto a wooden board.
He washed his glass and returned the bottle of Scotch to the cabinet.
He shaved, brushed his dark brown curly hair -- cut short because he didn't like the way it kinked.
He put on a tan sport shirt thin collar, a black sweather, blue-striped slacks and black loafers. Then he slipped into a brown corduroy jacket with buttons.
He gathered the three plaques he would carry with him: the baseball All-American certicate, his USC diploma, the suicide note.
From the back of his top drawer in the bedroom, he removed the pistol and put it in his jacket pocket.
Before leaving, he made his bed. A detective would say later that the apartment was so tidy it looked as if Gardner had been expecting guests.
He picked up the plaques, closed the lights, walked outside and double-locked the door. It was cool in Los Angeles for a June morning, 57 degrees. He bottoned his Jacket. It was about 3 a.m. He drove to the USC campus.
Gardner got out the car with his three plagues, the gun in his pocket. He walked past Founders Hall, then through the slightly dewy hedge to the baseball field. The gate was locked. He climbed over the wooden fence, probably at its lowest point -- along left field -- where it was 7 feet high.
The moon was three nights short of full, and it cast a bright light, creating shadows on the field. Gardner walked across the moist grass to the pitcher's mound, surrounded by empty stands which were once filled with fans cheering for him. He placed the suicide note on the grass at the edge of the circle. He walked a few feet more and lay down, halfway to second base. He lay straight. When they found him, he wouldn't be crumpled and awkaward. His right elbow cradled the All-American plaque and his degree. With his pitching hand, he removed the pistol from his jacket pocket then raised it to his temple.
The only the typewriter note nearly would be left to explain.
Let my blood be the pathetic proof to those who have heard Rod Dedeaux say that a college education is worth $100,000 more in a man's lifetime. Because it is so decetifully true. The man who starts at $800 a month will wind up, after 40 years, with $100,000 more.
And isn't that enough reason to shatter the hopes and dreams of an 18-year-old boy who has the opportunity to sign professional baseball with offers high in five figures?
The keep him in college, don't let him believe that he could do anything with that kind of money but squander it. Don't ask what it is the boy wants to accomplish, because he might tell you that he would like to go into professional baseball, especially in light of the fact that many know baseball have regarded him very highly. And that it's his love.
Then don't look too carefully at the facts. Don't think that a good student -- president of Bancroft Junior High and Fairfax High -- with the determination of a winning miler. captain and three-year cross-country runner, and the excellence of an All-City pitcher, could possibly have the where-withal to make decisions concerning his own life.
Since he is too young to sign for himself, scare his mother. It's even easier because his father passed away when the son was three. Let the mother feel that her boy will be wandering skid row if he leaves college. So that when he begs her to let him sign, she has nothing but shouts of "no." Do all these things carefully, Rod Dedeaux, and you will have an All-American. And his mother will get her vicarious college degree. Don't let any of his advantages get in the way of your National Championship.
He'll have graduated before your half-truths become the realities of his place in the world. And then he'll wonder where is the magic in the education you don't seek, and why so much energy is compulsively wasted in containing his bitterness and moving one foot in front of the other to get to each day's meaningless job. Where his $800 a month won't buy the home he's never had meet the friends he's never entertained, nor call the mother he never wants to see. To what direction have the fragments of his broken heart discarded his ability to give and receive love?
But given another 32 years -- in retirement he'll be able to look back with that overpowering joyful knowledge that some people in their work-a-day world jobs didn't earn the $100,00 more that he did in his. And that's when he'll hug his diploma and die of unhappiness. But somehow I don't need to wait anymore for that day. I reached it years and years ago.
I saw no value in my college education. I saw life going downhill every day and it shaped my attitude toward everything and everybody. Everything and every feeling that I visualized with my earned and rightful start in baseball was the focal point of continuous failure. No pride of accomplishment, no money, no home, no sense of fulfillment, no leverage, no attraction. A bitter past, blocking any accomplishment of a future except age. I brought it to a halt tonight at 32.