In the summer of 1980, Mark Stewart, a writer who as of today has published more than 200 books, spent a weekend with Bob Feller and his wife.
“One of the conversations that stuck with me was Bob talking about how valuable Mel Harder was to the 1954 Indians,” said Stewart. That team won 111 games and featured Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, and Feller.
Harder, said Stewart, “brought something very different to the position of pitching coach. He managed the entire staff; whoever was on the mound, there was probably a good reason why that particular pitcher had the ball.”
“Prior to Harder, that position was often filled by an old catcher who did a lot of other things on the club, so the term “pitching coach” might very well have been used to describe Harder first. Harder had the ability to notice small things and present the idea of making minute adjustments in a way that pitchers would be receptive to. He also understood how to handle fading veterans like Feller and Hal Newhouser, front-line guys like Wynn and Lemon and Garcia, and late-inning people like Mossi and Ray Narleski, who were not yet battle-tested—all at the same time. Consider that when Harder broke into the big leagues, major-league coaching staffs were full of guys who thought the best answer to a sore arm was getting your back molars pulled out by a dentist!” added Stewart.
Harder had a double career of 40 years: pitching for Cleveland for 20 seasons, and was a pitching coach for 20 seasons (16 with Cleveland, and one year each with The New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds, and Kansas City Royals.)
As a pitcher, Harder had several distinctions.
While Carl Hubbel gained notoriety in the 1934 All-Star Game by striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession during the first two innings, Harder got the win in the 9-7 AL victory by pitching five scoreless innings. Players gave him a “rousing ovation” when he entered the locker room, according to the Boston Globe.
In four successive All-Star games (1934-37), Harder pitched a total of 13 scoreless innings, a record that still stands.
His 223 wins are second in Cleveland history, behind only Feller’s 266.
On May 14, 1941, at Yankee Stadium, Joe Di Maggio went 0-4 against Harder. The next day, he began his 56-game hitting streak (which was ended by Cleveland hurlers). On his radio show in 1951, The Yankee Clipper said Harder had the best curve ball he ever saw. For his career, DiMaggio batted .180 against him.
In a 2001 Associated Press article, Ted Williams said, “Mel Harder was a great pitcher. He had a great curveball, great control. And the thing about Mel was that every one of his pitches did a little something. He was so tough.”
In a recent interview, Stewart said, “By all accounts, Harder had extremely good secondary pitches. My sense is that he was aware of things like the importance of maintaining a consistent release point and altering speed and location just enough to keep sluggers like DiMaggio from squaring up. I can’t say that Harder had the ‘best’ curve, but his execution of that pitch created a lot of defensive swings.”
Melvin Leroy Harder was born on his family‘s farm, near Beemer, Nebraska, on October 15, 1909, and grew up in Omaha. In his SABR biography of him, Stewart wrote, “Harder was an athletic boy, but because he was nearsighted, he did not compete in many sports. Eventually, the bespectacled teen found his way to the pitcher’s mound and discovered he could make a baseball do fantastic things. He had a smooth overhand delivery that produced a natural sink. Harder used a traditional curve as an off-speed pitch, but this would not become his ‘money pitch’ until later in his career. By his late teens he could change speeds and locations well enough to ruin the timing of opposing hitters, and was considered enough of a prospect to warrant a contract offer from the minor-league Omaha Buffaloes.”
A gum insert card (from the Tattoo Orbit Gum Company) features a colorized photograph of baseball player Mel Harder, 1933. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
On August 27, 1927, Harder, then pitching for Omaha of the Western League, was bought by Cleveland for $18,000 and two players.
“Despite a glowing evaluation from their scout, the Indians had no illusions about the type of player Harder might one day become: a dependable but decidedly un-flashy innings-eater whose success would hinge on his ability to entice batters into getting themselves out,” wrote Stewart. “That is precisely what Mel Harder became. During the 1930s he enjoyed as much success as any pitcher of this kind. In an era marked by lusty hitting, Harder stood out as a pitcher who was especially stingy when it came to giving up the long ball. He didn’t hurt himself with walks and was adept at getting opponents to pound balls into the dirt.”
In 1928, the 18-year old Harder made the Cleveland team out of spring training, but was used mostly in mop-op situations. He began pitching more frequently during the next three seasons, ending with his being a swingman, starting and relieving.
“In 1932,” wrote Stewart, “it didn’t take much to understand the value of Mel Harder, now entering his prime years at age 22. He went 15-13 with a 3.75 ERA, placing him in the top ten in that category. Harder completed more than half of his 32 starts and was among the stingiest pitchers in the American League when it came to yielding homers and issuing bases on balls.”
The following season, Harder led the league with a 2.95 ERA, but because of poor run support finished at 15-17.
He won 20 games in 1934, with an ERA of 2.61 and led the league with six shutouts. The following season he won 22 games.
In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitching, author Bill Neyer wrote:
“Harder’s prime lasted three and a half seasons: from 1933 through the first three months of the 1936 season. Over that span, there wasn’t a better pitcher in the American League, as he won 71 games and lost only 46.”
From 1936-40, he won 15, 17, 15, 15 and 12 games. During those years, Cleveland finished second in the league three times and third once. In 1940, they finished only a game behind the Detroit Tigers for the pennant.
(Original Caption) Members of the Cleveland American League Baseball team turned musical in the Wardman Park Pool where the combination of cool water and soothing (?) music helped them to forget the terrific heat. The players playing are: Joe Sprinz, Eddie Montague, Mel Harder, Bob Leeds, Joe Sewell, Eddie Morgan, Earl Averill, Glenn Wyatt, Bibb Falk, Luke Sewell, Charles Jamieson, John Goldman, with Herb Gordon orchestra leader, conducting. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
But after the 1936 All-Star game, Harder felt a twinge in his shoulder and pitched poorly the rest of the season. According to Neyer, in spring training of 1937, Harder “got up the nerve to cut loose. He could still pitch. Maybe not as hard as before, but he could still pitch.”
In 1935, the Newspaper Enterprise Association ran a series of articles on how to play the game as written by players; it chose Harder to explain pitching, and he wrote, “no pitcher won 20 games without using his head – pitching to weaknesses, mixing things up, etc.”
In 1944, at the age of 34, Harder had his last impactful season, finishing 12-10 with an ERA of 3.71. He made 27 starts, completed 12 of them, and threw 196.1 innings.
He pitched until 1947, his 20th season in the majors. In a June, 1947 interview with the Associated Press, when he was 37, Harder explained his longevity: “I give them the best I got. If I get them out, I’m glad. If it doesn’t, I don’t stay awake nights brooding about it. After all, those guys are paid to get hits, too.”
On October 15, 1947, Indians owner Bill Veeck announced that Harder was appointed coach-at-large, in charge of pitching for Cleveland and its 19 farm clubs. “There isn’t a member of the Indians’ pitching staff from Bob Feller down who doesn’t testify that Mel Harder has helped him,” said Veeck. “What’s more, they don’t merely admit it, they brag about it.”
“Harder was an astute judge of pitching mechanics, which means he could suggest fixes when he saw something wrong, but also that he knew when to leave guys alone,” said Stewart. “Sam McDowell had excellent mechanics throughout his career and I doubt Harder messed with them when he had McDowell. Harder was especially good with guys in their 20s who had well-developed repertoires—even if they weren’t that great to begin with. Think of people like Barry Latman and Gary Bell and Mudcat Grant and Jack Kralick. I think Harder had a very positive impact on their careers.”
In the 1950s, he helped the Indians develop one of the best starting rotations in history, with Feller, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn, who anchored Cleveland’s 1954 season of 111 wins.
Harder taught Bob Feller how to throw a curveball and helped Bob Lemon transition from being an everyday player into a pitcher – and he taught him how to throw a slider. When Harder retired, he gave Lemon his “little black book” on hitters. “I threw practically the same pitches he did,” said Lemon. “I was very fortunate. He spent a lot of time with me. He changed my mechanics. His word was gospel.”
Baseball Magazine features a photo of baseball player Mel Harder (1909 - 2002), of the Cleveland Indians, September 1938. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Stewart said a pitcher who was a big contributor to the 1954 club was Art Houtteman. “(He) was getting smoked in Detroit and doing dumb stuff like experimenting on the mound during games. When the Indians traded for Houtteman, Harder deconstructed his entire pitching motion and built him back into a really good pitcher. The Feller-Houtteman combo as 4 and 5 starters was terrific for the Indians for three years, and those were years when Feller didn’t really have enough gas in his tank to hold down a full-time spot in the rotation.”
McDowell, who recently published his autobiography, Sudden Sam: the Rise, Fall and Redemption of Sam McDowell, said, “my relationship with him was limited as such prior to me signing with the Cleveland Indians, doing anything with Indians. Immediately after I signed with them, they flew me to Cleveland so Mel Harder could look at me; I pitched on the sideline three different times so that he could give a report to Charlie Gassaway, who was going to be my manager in D Ball at Lakeland, FL.”
McDowell wrote that Harder said when he first saw him “he has the best fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup I’ve ever seen; he doesn’t need any help with his mechanics, what he needs to do is pitch, he needs lots of experience in pitching in professional ball. He advised the young pitcher to “give as many pitching starts as you can, you’re going to learn by experience.’ When I came up in ’62, basically it was nothing more than I was wild; my mechanics were all good, I was wild by trying to overthrow and he kept working on me. I was trying to understand that I didn’t have to throw that hard. That I had to work on my control.”
“I don’t know of anybody on the team or previous with Mel Harder, who didn’t have nothing but accolades about the man. I mean he was, at all times, he was a gentleman, he knew what he was talking about, he didn’t try to BS anybody, he was upfront, was honest with each individual, and I would say that (he) probably had the most respect of any pitching coach ever, from the players and the pitchers,” said McDowell.
After the 1963 season, Harder was let go by the Indians and was replaced by Early Wynn, one of his former pupils.
“Cleveland… fired pitching coach Mel Harder, after 36 years with the team, ending what is believed to be the longest continuous career with one club,” began a UPI story on Harder being axed.
“These things happen in baseball,” said the club’s general manager and president Gabe Paul.
Harder was quoted in the story saying, “I’m not bitter.”
NEW YORK - JULY 25, 1964: (L ro R) Former players firstbaseman Hank Greenberg #5 (Detroit Tigers), pitcher Mel Harder (Cleveland Indians), now pitching coach for the New York Mets, and outfielder Joe DiMaggio #5 (New York Yankees), talk on the bench prior to Old Timer's Day festivities on July 25, 1964 at Shea Stadium in New York, New York. The Old Timer's Day festivities preceded a regular game between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Mets. (Photo by: Olen Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
In addition to his 36-consecutive-year-record with Cleveland, Harder played another role in the team’s history.
On July 31, 1932, Harder was the starting pitcher when Cleveland began playing in Municipal Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the country. He was on the short end of a 1-0 loss to Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics.
Decades later, Harder threw out the ceremonial last pitch at Cleveland Stadium on October 3, 1993.
After leaving Cleveland, Harder was a pitching coach for the New York Mets, the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs, and the first-year expansion Kansas City Royals.
After spending 20 years in the minors as a player and manager, Harry Dunlop was named a coach for the expansion Royals in 1969, the team’s first season.
“I asked Mel if he wouldn’t mind rooming with me, my first year in big the leagues. I wore the poor guy out asking questions. He was such a great guy, just a class individual. He taught me (more) about … pitching than I’d ever known before, and helped me out the rest of my career,” said Dunlop.
One question Dunlop had for Harder was how to tell the difference between a AAA pitcher and the major league pitcher.
His answer, said Dunlop, was something he never forgot: “You find the pitchers aren’t big league players, the ones having trouble pitching, they might have good stuff, and two quick outs, but then all of sudden there are two men on base. The inability to close innings is the biggest thing you’re gonna notice, between throwers and pitchers, and my God, how many times you’re watching a ballgame and there’s two quick outs, and all of a sudden two guys on, same thing now as it was then.”
Harder had another piece of advice for Dunlop: “He would always say, room pitchers with catchers if you can. (If) a pitcher you think needs a little work, room him on the road with a catcher, and they’ll become closer and they’ll get to know each other better. I always tried to do that when I was managing, and I always had pretty good success with it.”
When Harder was 90, the Associated Press did a long article on his career and his not being voted into the Hall of Fame.
“The next time an argument arises over who belongs in the Hall of Fame, bring up Harder’s name,” stated the article. “He’s not in Cooperstown despite statistics that probably warrant an induction.”
The article, published in 2000, pointed out that 18 pitchers in the Hall had fewer than Harder’s 223 victories.
“He had 15 or more wins eight times, one of only 24 pitchers in baseball history to do so,” the article reported.
“I guess I was pretty good,” Harder said. In 1976, he said about the Hall of Fame: “If I live long enough, maybe I’ll get in.” He died in 2002 when he was 93.
Despite his accomplishments, he might never be enshrined.
“I believe if a campaign were mounted to advocate for Harder, and his SABRmetric numbers compared well to mid-level Hall-of-Famers, that he might get in, because most of his standard stats speak fairly eloquently to the type of pitcher he was,” said Stewart. “Harder was an above average pitcher during the entirety of the 1930s and was clearly the Indians’ best player in the mid-30s, before Bob Feller came along. Context is probably important here. There were some good hitters on the Indians when Harder played—Earl Averill, Hal Trosky, Joe Vosmik, Jeff Heath, Ken Keltner—but they never really had their big years together, which probably cost him a lot of wins.”