Now that relief pitchers are getting the respect they deserve–with recent elections of Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage–fellows like Gene Garber deserve a second look as far as Hall of Fame debate is concerned. Garber, who landscaped his facial fur a little better than Sutter, was a stellar fireman who pitched just before the creation of the closer. During his day, he was part of closer-by-committee staffs with fellows like Tug McGraw and Steve Bedrosian.
Originally a 20th round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1965, it took Gene several years in the bushes before he found his niche. Used as a starter in the minors, with various levels of success, Garber seemed to stall out at Triple-A. The Pirates, believing Gene to be a Triple-A pitcher swapped him to the Royals after the 1972 season. Royals skipper Jack McKeon remade Garber as a relief pitcher and Gene took to the role like a duck to water. With Kansas City in ’73, Gene saved eleven games and showed solid resiliency, hurling 153 innings.
After a shaky start to the 1974 season, the Royals made a near-sighted deal and sold Gene to the Phillies where he flourished. With Philadelphia, Garber posted a 2.06 ERA with a perfect 4-0 record after the deal. In 1975, Gene won ten games and teamed with McGraw to give the Phillies an amazing righty/lefty fireman tandem: the two men saved 14 games apiece. Gene led the league in games pitched and games finished.
Garber had his best year for strikeouts in 1976, as he averaged a strikeout per inning. Just as good in 1977, Gene saved 19 games on a solid 2.36 ERA. He fanned 78 batters opposed to just 23 walks, employing terrific accuracy while hosing down those pesky fires. He won Game 1 of the 1977 NLCS but his Phillies lost the series to the Dodgers. The Phillies traded Garber to the Braves in 1978 for fellow bearded hurler Dick Ruthven, and Gene had a combined ERA of 2.15 and 25 saves.
Garber posted an identical 25 saves with the Braves in 1979 which was good for third in the National League. In the strike shortened ’81 season, Gene had a trim 2.59 ERA. In arguably his finest season, Gene saved a career high 30 games in 1982 and posted a 2.34 ERA for Atlanta. The sensational stopper finished seventh in Cy Young Award voting and even received a few MVP votes as well.
When the injury bug bit Gene in 1983 he lost his closer’s role and joined the closer-by-committee. The Braves abandoned the committee closer in 1985 when they brought in Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter and used him as their man to nail down lids on the coffins. Acting as Sutter’s setup man in ’85, Garber posted a 3.61 ERA–far superior to Sutter’s 4.48 mark. When injury struck Sutter, the closer’s role was Garber’s once again and he didn’t disappoint, posting 24 saves for Atlanta in 1986 on a 2.54 ERA.
When the Kansas City Royals needed a shot in the arm in 1987, they traded a minor leaguer to Atlanta for Garber. Gene was a godsend for the Royals, nailing down eight saves in just 13 games for the Royals at the end of the season. Gene pitched one final year with the Royals at the age of 40 before calling it quits. He currently resides 16th all-time in games finished and 35th in career saves.
W 96/L 113/PCT .459/SV 218/G 931/IP 1,509/H 1,464/BB 445/SO 940/ERA 3.34