John “Zeke” Garner, an outstanding pitcher who played when Maine town teams were popular and was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, died Tuesday at 98 from declining health.

Garner, a left-hander, was offered a tryout by Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1934 after graduating from Lowell (Mass.) Textile. After talking to his parents, Garner turned down the offer and went to work in the family business, the Kezar Falls Woolen Co., said his son John Garner Jr.

“My dad’s college coach, Rusty Yarnell, who had played with the Phillies, knew Mack and wrote a letter recommending my dad. The Athletics sent their top scout to watch him pitch. He beat the University of New Hampshire that day.”

“My dad told me one time that he wished he had gone to the tryout. He would have liked to have seen if he was good enough.

“He was quite a competitor, completely different from his personality, which was laid back. Unless you were a star, baseball players weren’t making a lot of money. The effects of the Depression were still around and his father felt it wouldn’t be a great life for him. It was better for him to come home and get started in the family business.

“The thing is, my dad might have had a good chance to make the team. The cupboard was kind of bare for the Athletics at the time because they had sold all their star players.”

So Garner, who was born in Parsonsfield in 1912 and graduated from Porter High in 1929, returned home, went to work and soon after started a family with his wife, Pauline, which grew to five children.

He kept his competitive juices flowing and his strong left arm in shape pitching for Kezar Falls in the Saco Valley League.

Many Maine towns had their own teams. Kezar Falls, with Garner on the mound, was one of the best.

When Kezar Falls had a break in the schedule, Garner would get recruited to play for a New Hampshire team.

“My dad played baseball in the Saco Valley League from 1927 to 1954,” said Garner. “He started playing when he was in high school during the summer and continued until he was 42. Kezar Falls won the championship in 1933 with an 18-1 record.

It was the golden age of baseball in Maine.”

Former college stars like Garner, players who had brief stints in the minor leagues, and strong local talent formed the nucleus of town baseball. And almost every player had a nickname.

“My dad gave himself the nickname Zeke,” said Garner. “His teammates at Lowell used to kid him about his accent. So one day he told them, ‘I’m Zeke from the Maine woods’ and it stuck.”

Garner had great duels with Jabber Joyce of Portland and Husky Aube of Westbrook.

“His best memories of baseball were those duels with Joyce and Aube,” said his son. “There was a 15-inning game with Joyce, followed by a 14-inning game. They both ended 1-0. My dad won the 15-inning game and Jabber won the 14-inning duel. In the 15-inning one, Joyce had 27 strikeouts and my dad had 16.”

There were no relief pitchers or radar guns. Joyce, a righthander who was around 6-foot-5, was known as an extremely hard thrower. And wild.

“My dad told me he thought Joyce threw 100 mph,” he said.

Garner’s best pitches were his fastball and an overhand drop. In his heyday, Garner’s fastball touched 90-91 mph, his son said. He developed a knuckleball later in his career.

Garner also pitched against the touring Philadelphia Colored Giants of the Negro Leagues when they came to Kezar Falls. Garner beat the Giants and after the game, the team’s star player, Cannonball Jackman, told him, “I don’t know why you’re wasting your time in the woods. You should be pitching in the big time.”

When Garner was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, Joyce also entered.

“It meant a lot to be inducted with him,” said Garner.

Garner was inducted into the University of Massachusetts at Lowell (formerly Lowell Textile) sports Hall of Fame in 1985.

The Garners sold the family business in 1961 and he and his brother, Allen, opened Ye Olde Wool Shoppe in Kezar Falls. In 1968, Garner started Ye Olde Wool Shoppe in Saco when the family moved to Scarborough.

Garner served on the Fryeburg Academy board of trustees from 1966 to 1980, and was its chairman from 1971 to 1980.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:

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