Toby Harrah has been in the game of baseball for over 40 years, and the long-time infielder for the Rangers and Indians has loved every minute of it. Currently the minor league hitting coordinator for the Tigers, Harrah debuted with the Washington Senators in 1969 before going on to earn All-Star honors four times while spending all but one of his 17 seasons with the Senators/Rangers franchise and the Cleveland Indians. A shortstop and third baseman known for his patient hitting approach, Harrah finished among the league leaders in walks nine times, and in OBP six times. A right-handed hitter who broke into the big leagues under the tutelage of Ted Williams, Harrah had five seasons of 20 home runs or more and 238 career stolen bases to go with an OBP of .365. Harrah talked about his love for the game, including what it was like to play for managers like Williams, Yogi Berra, and Billy Martin, and with teammates like Joe Charboneau, Curt Flood, and Denny McLain.
Toby Harrah: I was in rookie league, and I got drafted Triple-A. That’s how it worked back then. The next year I was playing with the Buffalo Bisons, which was a Triple-A ballclub. The beauty of it, for me, is that we had Gene Freese playing third base, Hector Lopez was in left field, and John Orsino was the catcher. All three of these guys had played in the big leagues, and I was 18 at the time. It was like flying. I’m watching these guys play, knowing they had been in the big leagues, and I’m thinking, ‘You know, I can play baseball with these guys.’ That was all I knew. That’s when I realized, ‘Hey, you know what? They’re not that much better than me, and if I keep practicing hard, and keep my nose to the grindstone, maybe one of these days I can play in the big leagues.’
DL: Your first manager in the big leagues was Ted Williams, but before we get to him, let’s talk about some of the other guys you played for. What was Yogi Berra like?
TH: I wasn’t in New York very long, so I honestly can’t say that I can give you a great read on Yogi Berra. I was just there the one year, 1984, and everybody should play for the Yankees for one year, because they have a great tradition, and the Yankees front office, and George Steinbrenner… man, you couldn’t ask for better people. They treated you like family. But Yogi was a man of few words when I was there. Do you know how many team meetings we had that year? Zero. He never said anything. He’s probably the only manager who didn’t say five words to the whole team. But we had a good team and maybe that’s why. It seems like the worst teams I played for were the ones that had the most meetings.
DL: Given Berra’s reputation as being one of the game’s great characters and the number of memorable quotes attributed to him, does it surprise you that he said so little?
TH: He was probably that way to the press; I don’t know that he necessarily was to the players. But how can you say something that isn’t positive about a guy who has all those World Series rings and is loved by everybody? Who am I to say anything negative about Yogi Berra? I don’t want to be that dude. Yogi Berra was a great player and a great manager, and all that shit.
DL: You played for Billy Martin in Texas. What was it like playing for Billy?
TH: I loved Billy Martin. He was the best manager I ever played for, because he made baseball fun. He’s the only manager I played for that would go out after the game and drink a beer with you and talk baseball. On the field, I had a blast, because I knew he was going to make me a better baseball player. I remember one time, Jim Spencer hit a home run, and I was the next batter up. Stan Bahnsen was on the mound, and he threw a curveball away, strike one. Then a curveball away, strike two. I thought, “Good, he’s not going to hit me.” Wrong! The next pitch, he hits me with a fastball, on 0-2, and I thought he broke my elbow. I go down on one knee, because I thought I was going to puke. Billy comes up and he doesn’t even ask me how I’m feeling. He goes, “When you get on first, steal second on the first pitch.” Then he just walked away. I thought he was going to take me out of the ballgame, but heck no. He wanted me to go to first and then steal second!
DL: Did you steal successfully?
TH: No, I got picked off. Bahnsen gave me his balk move-his knee went like that-and he picked me off. So my elbow was killing me, I had just got picked off first, and I’m sitting down at the end of the bench near the water fountain, and Billy walks over and takes a drink of water. Then he just walks away without saying anything. But I played 162 ballgames for him that year. So the next year he says to me, “Toby, tell me if there is a pitcher who gives you trouble, and I’ll rest you against him, because I know I played you every game.” I said, “Oh man, Luis Tiant. I can’t hit him with a paddle.” We faced Tiant about five times that year and I played every inning of every game! I said, “Skip, I thought you were going to rest me.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no. I need you out there for your glove.” Billy would do things like that.
He’s also the only manager I ever played for that told me to go up to the plate and strike out on purpose. We were playing in Baltimore, and it was the top of the fifth inning. We were leading something like 6-2 and it’s starting to pour down rain. He was worried that we wouldn’t get the five innings in to get a complete game, and I’ll never forget that. He said, “Toby, come over here.” I did, and he said, “Go up there and strike out.” So I went up and struck out on three pitches. Nobody knew that. After the game he said, “Way to go,” because they called the game after five innings and we got the win. He simply wanted to win the game at any cost. I drove in something like eight runs on squeeze plays; I got like eight RBI that way. He liked to squeeze with me.
DL: How well did your teammates get along with Martin?
TH: It all depended on if you played hard. If you played hard for Billy, he was just great. But if you went out there and didn’t give it a max effort, or if you weren’t a good team player, he let you know about it. He was not afraid to embarrass you in front of everybody. The beauty of Billy was that you weren’t afraid of the opposition. You were more afraid of Billy than you were of the opposition, so you went out there and played your tail off, or he’d be waiting for you in the dugout. You maybe had to have played for him to understand this, and it was especially true in Texas where we were such a young team, but Billy took all the attention off of us. The sportswriters were always messing with Billy, so they left us alone. All we had to do was go out and play baseball. Most managers kind of stay to the sideline a little bit, and the press is always messing with the players; they’re focusing in on one player or another. But with Billy Martin, heck, every day you’d go to the ballpark and just play, because the press was concentrating on Billy. And he liked it that way. That’s why he wore number one; he was the man. Good or bad, he strove for that attention. He loved the turmoil, he liked the chaos. That was just the way it was with Billy. He kept things stirred up all the time, which kept the attention off of us. That made it a lot easier to play, because there was enough pressure on us young players as it was. He made it easier for us to just play baseball.
DL: Managers like Martin and Dick Williams tend to wear out their welcome after a couple of seasons because of their personalities. Is that true?
TH: Well, if you can have one good year and win a pennant, that’s better than having 10 years of mediocrity. You understand my reasoning there? Think about it. Shoot, I’d rather be a player for… how many guys never played on a World Series team but were great players? Ted Williams is a great example of that. Shoot, give me Billy Martin for two years, and then burn out, rather than 15 years with somebody who is mediocre so you never amount to a hill of beans.
DL: You didn’t have an opportunity to play in the postseason during your 17 big-league seasons. When you look back at your career, is that your biggest regret?
TH: Not really, because I don’t have any regrets. That’s the beauty of it all. There are no regrets at all, man. Just to put on that big-league uniform and go out there and play in the big leagues, for even one day… shoot, how can you have any regrets? I mean, I have none. That’s just kind of icing on the cake. Just to get a bite of the cake… I was pretty happy just with that.
DL: What was it like playing for Dave Garcia in Cleveland?
TH: Good old Dave Garcia. Just a super, super individual. He was just a beautiful man, a great baseball man who loved the game, and you’d want your dad to be just like him. He and Billy Martin were by far my favorite managers.
DL: You came to Cleveland in exchange for Buddy Bell. What was your reaction when you heard about the trade?
TH: Oh, I was really happy, because I had played in Texas for quite some time, and I had a chance to come to play for the Cleveland Indians, who had such a great history in baseball, over 100 years, while Texas had a history of about 10 years, which is a big difference. And Buddy Bell was a pretty good player, so I must have been not that bad myself to get traded for Buddy Bell.
DL: What was your Cleveland experience like, overall?
TH: Well, I loved it because I grew up in Marion, Ohio, about 100 miles south of there. I used to listen to Cleveland Indians games on the radio. They had Dick Donovan and Leon Wagner, and that bunch of players. [Gary] Bell. They were just a… I used to listen to the games on the radio, and you know how little kids are when you’re listening to Major League Baseball games. It’s something you dream about, becoming a Major League Baseball player. It really was a dream come true. My family got a chance to come up and see me play and you always like to play in front of your family and friends. And, of course, I always felt that during my career in Cleveland, I was a much more complete player than I was in Texas.
DL: Who among your Cleveland teammates stands out the most?
TH: I have to say Joe Charboneau. Cleveland was a little bit like Texas in that there wasn’t a very big payroll; I think they were just trying to pay their bills and draw some fans into that giant ballpark. They didn’t have any money, but Joe Charboneau comes along, and I don’t know where he played Double-A ball, but he comes to spring training, and nobody had ever heard of him, and he hits like seven home runs. The next thing you know he’s starting in left field and he ends up being Rookie of the Year. Then, the following year, he’s out of baseball. That was the Joe Charboneau… and Joe Charboneau was a great guy. He just had some injury problems and for whatever reason never got back to the big leagues. The guy had a great swing, and good power, and he’s just an amazing story. He came out of nowhere to become rookie of the year. He kind of shared left field with Miguel Dilone, who had a good year himself. I think Miguel Dilone hit .330 or .340.
DL: Unlike Charboneau, Dilone probably couldn’t drink beer through his nose.
TH: No. Charboneau was amazing. This guy could take an apple and break it right in half. He could also take a beer bottle, the twist-off kind, and put it in his eye socket to pop it open. Those are some of the crazy things Joe could do. And I don’t think he ever got beat in an arm-wrestling contest. He made baseball fun. He brought interest to Cleveland like David Clyde did in Texas, or like Mark Fidrych did in Detroit. He brought some interest to the Cleveland Indians, which they didn’t really have at that time. There were a lot of good ballplayers, but nobody really had that personality-somebody who was different, and was good, like Joe Charboneau. But there had been some good players going through there, don’t get me wrong. Len Barker… I was behind him when he threw the perfect game. He had a very good arm. Bert Blyleven, being the pitcher that he was. Rick Manning was a very good center fielder. Mike Hargrove was a solid first baseman. There were some good players in my five years there, but there really wasn’t the type of talent coming up through the minor leagues that made an impact. Von Hayes was there for a little while and Pat Tabler came along and was a good young player, but there were really no impact players back then.
DL: One of your teammates, when you broke into the big leagues with the Senators, was Frank Howard. What kind of hitter was Hondo?
TH: Frank Howard, as far as hitting the ball a long, long way… he could hit the ball out of anywhere. And Frank Howard is one of the finest men I’ve ever been associated with in baseball. He was my first roommate, and what a class act. I was lucky enough to have him the first time I was called up to the big leagues… I was just lucky enough to be around him a little bit. What a gentleman; what a professional this man was. He was such a beautiful man, and he could hit the ball as far as anybody. I don’t think there was a player in baseball who could hit the ball farther than Frank Howard. It was an honor to have him as a teammate.
DL: Denny McLain was also on that Senators team. What was he like?
TH: Denny McLain… when I was a teammate of his, his arm was pretty much shot, but he still competed. This guy was a competitor. You know, he was the last 30-game winner, and you have to take your hat off to him. To do that was an amazing feat. To be a teammate of his… you know, to be around Frank Howard, who could hit the ball farther than anybody in baseball, and Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived, and Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner… that’s pretty special company.
DL: Another notable teammate of yours, albeit briefly, was Curt Flood.
TH: Ah, Curt Flood. Yes. When I made the ballclub, with the Washington Senators, he was leading off and I was hitting second. It was like one day he was there, and the next day he was gone. But from the short time I was with him in spring training, there was another outstanding individual. He had a lot of class and really carried himself like a major leaguer. You wanted to be just like him, the way he went about his business. He was just a professional, all the way around.
DL: Flood is arguably one of the most under-appreciated players in baseball history because of what he did for the game. Do you agree with that?
TH: Yeah, in that respect, because I think a lot of players today, if you asked them about Curt Flood, they couldn’t tell you what he did as far as free agency and that type of thing-how he kind of got the ball rolling for everybody. And he was a super baseball player, just outstanding.
DL: Soon after the franchise moved to Texas, David Clyde made his big-league debut as an 18-year-old. What are your memories of Clyde?
TH: The thing that stands out in my mind about David Clyde is that he really brought attention to baseball in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Coming out as a high school pitcher, from Houston… it was amazing how hard he threw the ball and how he handled himself. Looking back, everybody knows it was probably premature for him to have come to the big leagues so fast like that, but it sure did bring a lot of attention to baseball in Dallas/Fort Worth. If I remember right, the bases were loaded and he ended up striking out the side, and to do that against the Minnesota Twins, who had some outstanding hitters at the time… it was just an amazing feat.
DL: Pete Broberg is another pitcher you saw come up at a young age.
TH: What I remember about Pete Broberg is that we were playing a game at Comiskey Park, and Richie Allen was hitting. Broberg was wild a lot inside, and he threw a ball that looked like it was going to hit Richie Allen in the head. At the time, I think he liked to be called Dick. It was, “Don’t call me Richie, call me Dick.” But anyway, it looked that ball was going to hit him right in the head, but somehow Dick Allen got out of the way of that ball. His helmet went straight up and his head went straight down, and the ball went between his helmet and his head. Dick got up, and he has his glasses on, and he didn’t do anything. He acted like nothing happened, really. The next pitch Broberg threw, he hit the ball to dead center field in the upper deck like there was nothing to it. He just went around the bases and back into the dugout, and I said to myself, “There goes a man right there.” It was amazing.
Coming Sunday: Part Two of this interview.