Positions: rf, cf, lf, 1b
Teams: Detroit Stars (1919, 1931), Chicago American Giants (1920-1930, 1933), New York Lincoln Giants (1927), Homestead Grays (1928, 1932)
Height: 5' 7'' Weight: 160
Born: September 27, 1895, Russelville, Arkansas
Died: 1977, Chicago, Illinois
An outstanding defensive outfielder, Jelly Gardner had a good arm and great range. With his blazing speed, the punch hitter was an ideal leadoff man for Rube Foster's champion Chicago American Giants of the 1920s. He loved to run, was a good drag bunter, and could outwait a pitcher to draw a base on bails or get a good pitch to hit. With his ability to collect "leg'' hits, steal bases, take extra bases on a hit-and-run play, and sometimes to score from first base on a bunt, he could create a run with his speed. Cum Posey described his approach to the game by saying, "He could steal first base," which made him perfect for Foster's style of play. A left-handed batter, he had some difficulty hitting a left-handed pitcher's curveball. During his eleven years with the American Giants they won four pennants and a World Series.
In 1920 he joined the Chicago American Giants, and for six seasons under Rube Foster his personal performance was inversely related to the team's success. In his first three seasons, although he batted only .182, .219, and .236, the American Giants won the Negro National League pennant each year. In the next three seasons (1923-1925) he hit .302, .357, and .287, but the American Giants failed to win a pennant during that interval. Finally, in 1926, with Dave Malarcher at the helm, the two factors correlated as the left-handed line-drive hitter led the team with a .376 average and hit .300 in the playoffs as the team copped a pennant and defeated the Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants in the World Series.
Tough, scrappy, and very argumentative, he was quick to express himself verbally or with his fists. Gardner was a heavy drinker and liked the nightlife, and some players described him as "evil and jealous," while others cited him as being "good with his dukes." Once in a free-for-all with the Kansas City Monarchs, he kicked Frank Duncan in the mouth with his spikes, after Duncan had already been knocked unconscious by a policeman trying to quell the fighting. His disposition made him hard to get along with in the clubhouse. Foster was able to handle players of Gardner's temperament better than Malarcher, and trouble began to develop. In 1924 the right fielder had held out through the early spring of 1924, and in 1927 he jumped to the New York Lincoln Giants for part of the season. The next year he played part of the season with the Homestead Grays, who signed him after he quit the Chicago American Giants. Each year he returned to Chicago for part of the season, returning in 1929 for two more years with the American Giants until Foster died. His batting averages for the prior seasons were .289, .303, and .233.
In 1931 he played with the Detroit Stars, where he batted second in the order instead of his accustomed leadoff spot, and his average dropped off to .193. However, he still retained the same speed and baserunning skills that he had exhibited when he first began his career in black baseball in 1919, as a youngster batting seventh in the order as a part-time starter in left field for the Detroit Stars. His first year with the Detroit Stars was not amicable due to his differences with owner Tenny Blount.
Before signing with the Stars, Gardner learned the game of baseball while attending Arkansas Baptist College, where he was a cross-handed-batting infielder until the coach corrected him. In 1916-17 he played with the Longview Giants in Dallas, Texas, during the summers and returned to school in the fall. In July 1917 he was the left fielder for the Texas All-Stars when he first attracted the attention of the top black teams. He went to Chicago in 1919 and did odd jobs in addition to playing baseball.
After leaving baseball he worked in the post office, and on the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio Railroad as a porter and waiter until retiring in 1965.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.