A gritty infielder who got by as much on determination as talent, Phil Garner established himself as a second baseman with the A’s under manager Chuck Tanner. When Tanner moved to Pittsburgh, he promptly traded for Garner, who was used at third, then at second after the Pirates acquired Bill Madlock. In 1978 Garner tied a major league record with grand slams in consecutive games (September 14 and 15).
Despite constant ribbing from teammates Madlock and Dave Parker, Garner was an important member of the 1979 World Champion Pirates. Impressed by Garner’s tenacity, teammate Willie Stargell dubbed him “Scrap Iron”. With Pittsburgh, Garner was sometimes called “the best number-eight hitter in baseball” — his .500 batting average in the 1979 World Series, with at least one hit in each of the seven games, underlined the contention.
Garner was traded to Houston in mid-1981 for the younger Johnny Ray, and while playing second base hit .274 and led the Astros with 13 homers and 83 RBI. In 1983 he moved to third full-time, replacing Art Howe, and served as the team’s primary third baseman until 1986, when he platooned with Denny Walling and helped Houston win the NL West.
In 1989, his playing days over after short unsuccessful stints with the Dodgers and Giants, Garner rejoined Art Howe as Houston’s first-base coach, moving to third (as he had so often during his playing career) in 1991. At the end of the season he was hired as manager of the Brewers — whereas Garner had once been called on to replace Howe, it was now Howe’s task to replace Garner.
With the Brewers, Garner kept a previously uninspiring squad in the division race until the last week of the ’92 season and finished second in the AL Manager of the Year voting to Tony LaRussa. 1993, however, was a different story. After Paul Molitor, Chris Bosio and Dante Bichette all departed in the offseason, Garner spent the disastrous 69-93 season in a slow boil, watching his team stall in seventh place. He was ejected and suspended for three games after participating in a late-September bench-clearing brawl with the Oakland A’s.
Although Garner snarled during the offseason that next year his players could “leave their golf clubs at home,” the strike-shortened 1994 wasn’t much better for the talent-barren Brewers — they finished fifth with a record of 53 wins and 62 losses. Fifth place became fourth place in ’95, and the team rose to third place finishes in the AL Central division in ’96 and ’97. Optimism reigned when the Brewers announced they would raise their payroll for the ’98 season, but resulted in familiar disappointment when the Brewers slipped back to fifth.
Garner was finally fired along with GM Sal Bando in August 1999, but attracted interest from a number of teams before signing on to replace Larry Parrish at the helm of the Detroit Tigers for the 2000 season. Garner’s hiring was marked by two blunders — not only did the Tigers neglect to inform Parrish he was fired until Garner was introduced as the team’s manager, they ignored commissioner Bud Selig’s dictum by not considering any minority candidates for the job.
Despite his team’s consistently mediocre finishes Garner has managed — and won — the most games in Brewers history.