The Bruce Gardner Story
by Joseph Sutton
A friend of mine recently told me a story about Jimmy Stewart asking Robert Mitchum how he felt one day.
Mitchum’s answer was, “I feel terrible.”
Jimmy Stewart was taken aback. “You don’t look terrible, Mitch. Why do you say that?”
Mitchum replied, “Because I knew a man who told me he felt great one day and the next day he was dead.”
That little story reminds me of this wonderful human being I once knew at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. His name was Bruce Gardner. He went on to become an All-American pitcher at the University of Southern California. In his senior year, he led USC to a national championship and was named College Player of the Year. He held the record for the most wins ever by a USC pitcher. I bumped into him one day in 1971 at Norms Restaurant on Pico in Westwood. Bruce looked great and in good spirits. A week later, at the age of 32, he made the headline in every newspaper in Los Angeles: ALL-AMERICAN PITCHER COMMITS SUICIDE.
Bruce had everything going for him when I knew him at Fairfax (he was two years ahead of me). He was our student body president, a model student and a dedicated, hard-working athlete. He had curly brown hair, a perpetual smile, a positive attitude and he threw a fantastic curveball that became his signature pitch. He was the major reason why Fairfax was one of the best high school teams in Los Angeles his senior year. Upon graduation in 1956, Bruce was offered a $66,000 signing bonus by the Chicago White Sox (an enormous sum in those days). Since he was under the age of 18 at the time, he couldn’t convince his mother, his only living parent, to let him go pro. She wouldn’t give in because she wanted her son to get a college education.
What caused Bruce Gardner to put a bullet through his temple on the pitching mound at USC with his college diploma in one hand, a gun in the other and his All-American trophy nearby?
The following is what he was probably thinking when I saw him a week before his suicide: Here I am, talking to Joe Sutton, who, like everyone else I went to school with, expected me to be a successful major league pitcher. So what does he see? He sees a man who’s coaching JV baseball at Dorsey High. I’m a failure because of two people in my life: my mother and my USC baseball coach. They kept telling me that a college education was worth double the $66,000 signing bonus I wanted so much to take. It’s their fault that they didn’t let me sign with Chicago when my arm was young, fresh and strong. I wouldn’t be talking to Sutton today if it wasn’t for those two.
I truly believe that Bruce Gardner’s downfall was what he thought how others perceived him. To think that this is what happens to some athletes when their dreams are crushed. If something goes against them, they either turn to alcohol or drugs, and a few, like Bruce, commit suicide because they didn’t stand up strongly enough for themselves at an earlier age. Believe me, Bruce Gardner could have succeeded in anything he set his mind to do. To get Oedipal about this, he was his mother’s perfect pupil or “lover”: a boy who could do anything, and do it well. Because his left arm gave out on him after pitching four years in college and several more in the minors, he thought his world had crumbled. Bruce could have been contributing to the world today if only he didn’t blame others for the decisions he made in life. He could have been a great baseball coach. He showed brilliance as a writer, poet, singer and pianist. But no, he resented his mother and his college coach for his left arm going lame on him. That’s what he wrote in the suicide note found next to his body. What a tragedy. I believe he was rebelling against his mother, his primary influence, for smothering his dream of signing with the White Sox out of high school. Why do I say that? In his will, he left her $1.
There are millions of athletes whose careers have been cut short by an injury. What did most of them do when their time was up? They adapted. They turned to honing other innate abilities they possessed. They didn’t look back and blame their mothers, fathers, coaches or teachers for not going as far in athletics as they had wanted. What a shame that Bruce felt that way.
If only I had known what was going on in his mind a week before he stood on the pitching mound at USC and took his own life. I often wonder what I would have said to him had I known.
“I don’t think any less of you, Bruce,” is what I would have told him. “I respect you for who you are—a kind, sensitive, creative man—and not for what you think you should’ve been. You’re a considerate, articulate and intelligent human being. You’re a born leader. You’ve been an inspiration to those who’ve known you over the years. You shouldn’t think of committing suicide because you think everyone expected you to be a successful major league pitcher. We never expected any such thing from you. I’m so sorry you don’t realize that all we can ever expect of one another is that we take life as it comes and move forward. Don’t give up on yourself, Bruce. Remember, you gave baseball as gallant an effort as anyone could possibly have given. That’s reason enough to hold your head up high.”
If only Bruce Gardner had talked to someone about his feelings before putting a gun to his head.