116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Editor's note: This is a continuing series of Eastern Iowa sports history 'Time Machine' articles. Mark Dukes worked at The Gazette from 1973 to 1998, the last 14 years as sports editor.
Horace Garner may never have set foot in Cedar Rapids for good had his baseball career panned out as projected.
Garner eventually spent parts of four decades here but only because fate intervened in his pursuit of the major leagues.
In the 1950s, Garner was widely regarded as the second-best prospect in the Braves organization behind former all-time home run king Hank Aaron. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Garner could hit for average and for power, had a strong throwing arm and above-average speed.
'No question he would have made it to the major leagues,' Aaron said in a 1995 Gazette interview with this reporter. 'Horace was very skillful. I think if he played in any other organization that didn't have as many prospects, he would have made it.
'He had one of the strongest throwing arms I've ever seen, even today. He was just a terrific athlete.'
While playing for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Garner was spotted by former Cincinnati Reds president Bob Howsam. The Braves signed him late in 1950.
'He was big and strong and could hit the ball 10 miles,' Howsam said. 'He could do a lot of things and I thought he would go a long, long way. He had fine ability, plus he was a good person.'
A knee injury in 1952 in Evansville likely curtailed Garner's advancement in the Braves' system as much as anything, even though he remained a productive hitter. Garner batted over .300 in seven of his nine seasons, winning three batting titles, and his teams won the league pennant all seven times.
'I hurt my knee while sliding for the plate that year,' he said in a 1958 interview. 'I played on it the following year at Jacksonville and didn't have it operated on until 1954. It was a difficult operation. The doctors had to take another piece out of my leg and sew ligaments back together.'
It was in Jacksonville in 1953 when Garner carved his name in baseball history. He, Aaron and Felix Mantilla are credited with racially integrating the South Atlantic League (Sally). That was true on the baseball field, but not so in terms of restaurant service, bathroom usage, hotel accommodations and verbal assaults by some fans.
'It was rough,' Garner said in 1985. 'Players talk today about pressure but they don't know what pressure is all about.'
Aaron said that season might have been a lot more trying without their elder outfielder.
'He was like a father figure to us,' Aaron told The Gazette. 'What I learned under Horace at that time still sticks with me today. Felix Mantilla and I were 18 at the time (Garner was 29) and anything might have happened to us.'
Garner batted .305 that year with 15 home runs and 71 runs batted in. But his knee hampered his speed. He went from 44 stolen bases to 12 in a span of two years, then never reached double digits in any season thereafter.
Aaron was in the major leagues with Milwaukee the following spring (1954) and Mantilla followed him in 1956. Garner, however, was relegated to a few more minor league campaigns. He spent two more years in Jacksonville and two more at Evansville in the Three-I League. He won two batting titles at Evansville with back-to-back season averages of .354 and .334.
Evansville dropped its minor league team in 1958, so Cedar Rapids picked up the Braves' Three-I League affiliation and Garner landed here. He hit a career-high 27 home runs and batted .313 in '58, leading the Braves to the Three-I title.
Fans at Veterans Memorial Stadium were wowed by his hitting prowess but by then, at age 33, Garner's chances of making the major leagues were nil.
'Garner is good for a club like Cedar Rapids,' said then-Rochester (Minn.) manager Burl Storie. 'He's a steadying influence and can show the younger players a lot about hitting. On top of that, he's a very good citizen and wonderful guy. Everyone always had a great deal of respect for him.'
Garner played one more season in the Three-I League with Cedar Rapids. He still was able to bat .309 with 17 home runs, but the Braves gave him his outright release in July. His nine-year career totals: .321 batting average, 157 home runs, 764 runs batted in.
Garner, born in Fogville, Ala., played in the local Manufacturers & Jobbers League in the ensuing years and even made one appearance with the Cedar Rapids club in 1961.
The Braves' loss was Cedar Rapids' gain. Garner spent the rest of his life here, raising a family and working for the city sanitation department. He also became heavily involved in the Cedar Rapids Ball Club, working concessions and serving on its board of directors for many years.
In 1999, four years after his death, he was among 10 individuals named to the club's charter Hall of Fame class.
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