Teaching young hitters now a priority for Harrah

Toby Harrah was involved with two of the most unusual feats in Major League Baseball history – one offensive, one defensive and both happening about a year apart.

On June 25, 1976, while playing for the Texas Rangers, Harrah played an entire doubleheader without taking one fielding chance. And, amazingly, he was the Rangers’ shortstop that day.

“It was crazy,” Harrah recalled. “The guys even joked that I should have just stayed on the bench. Actually, though, I wasn’t really aware of it, though I know I didn’t have much action.”

On the offensive side, Harrah drove in eight runs in a doubleheader, “But no one ever says anything about that,” he mused.

On Aug. 27, 1977, Harrah and teammate Bump Wills hit back-to-back inside-the-park home runs. That only happened one other time in major league history

“That’s gonna be hard to ever happen again,” Harrah said of the feat.

Wills and Harrah each connected off New York’s Ken Clay, on back-to-back pitches no less, with 40,000 fans watching the Saturday afternoon game in the Bronx.

“I hit the ball to right-center field, with Lou Piniella playing in right,” Harrah said. “The ball was almost out of the park. Piniella tried to catch it and just missed it, and he hit the wall full-speed and was down.”

A career of achievements
Colbert Dale “Toby” Harrah was a power-hitting infielder who spent 17 seasons in the majors, with stints in Washington/Texas, Cleveland and New York (Yankees). He was a four-time All-Star who had a .264 lifetime batting average with 195 home runs and 918 RBIs.

“I always wanted to be the type of baseball player who respected his peers and wanted them to respect me,” Harrah said. “I wanted them to say, ‘That guy, he’s a baseball player, one who can do a lot of things – run, bunt, catch, throw and hit. He can beat you in a lot of different ways.’

“I worked hard, hustled all the time and never gave up; and I hope that’s how others viewed me.”

Harrah played high school baseball in LaRue, Ohio. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1966. After one year in the Phillies’ organization, Harrah was drafted by the Washington Senators in the fall of 1967.

Harrah made his major league debut for the Washington Senators in 1969, at age 21, with one at-bat in eight games.
He didn’t return to the majors until 1971, where he stayed through the 1986 season.

Harrah turned on the power in 1974, hitting 21 home runs with 74 RBIs and 79 runs, marking his first of five 20-HR seasons. He also led American League shortstops in putouts.

A year later, Harrah hit .293 with 98 walks and drove in a career-high 93 runs. It was the first of his .400 on-base percentage seasons, and his .406 percentage that year was fourth-best in the American League.

In 1976, Harrah led American League shortstops in putouts and total chances per game. And, on Sept. 17, he played 17 innings at third base without recording an assist.

“The thing that stands out most from my career was the players. The guys you played with and against,” Harrah said. “I played in the big leagues for almost 17 years, so I hit home runs that won games and also made defensive plays that helped save games. But the last memory is the teammates who you play with. From Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins to Bert Blyleven and Len Barker to Jeff Burroughs and Rick Manning. It was all about the friendships, the camaraderie. That’s what I miss more than anything else.”

Harrah grew up about 100 miles south of Cleveland, and often listened to Indians’ games on the radio.
“I still can remember many of the Indians from that era – Leon Wagner, Dick Donovan, Luis Tiant and Larry Brown,” Harrah said.

At 12, he went to his first big league game, along with his Little League teammates.

“I’ll never forget that game, getting to see Carl Yastrzemski in person. What a beautiful swing he had. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I’d love to be doing what these guys are doing,’ ” Harrah said.

“It was a thrill to eventually play against Carl,” Harrah said. “Another fond memory is the great players I played against, such as Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton and so many others.”

Harrah’s first big league game was at Yankee Stadium.

“I was playing catch and looked over at the Yankees dugout and saw Mickey Mantle. I thought that was the best, that he was the best,” Harrah said. “And playing in Yankee Stadium . . . man, it doesn’t get any better than that. Every time I played in Yankee Stadium, I always thought about the great past players who also had been in that batters box; you talk about a thrill.”

Growing up, Mantle was always Harrah’s favorite player.

“Playing for Billy Martin was exciting; he was my favorite manager, by far. I enjoyed playing for him more than any other manager because I knew he was going to make me a better player,” Harrah said. “I also always enjoyed the way Pete Rose played. I had a tremendous amount of admiration for the way Pete Rose played baseball.”

And when Harrah made his major league debut with Washington, Ted Williams was the manager.
“That was a thrill. He was, arguably, the greatest hitter ever,” Harrah said.

As for the greatest pitcher ever, Harrah tabbed Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins.

“I never saw a pitcher who could command a baseball like Fergie could. He worked quickly, threw strikes, fielded his position exceptionally well and made it look easy,” Harrah said.

However, the toughest pitcher for Harrah to hit was Luis Tiant.

“I think it took me six or seven years before I finally got a hit off him,” Harrah said. “He’d see me in the on-deck circle and would smile.”

Conversely, Harrah said he seemed to always have success against Bert Blyleven, even hitting five home runs off him one year.

“I just happened to be lucky against him,” Harrah said. “He really had a great curve ball and other good pitches, too. I think he definitely should be in the Hall of Fame.”

In five seasons with Cleveland, Harrah twice scored 100 runs. He had one .300 season, when he hit .304 in 1982, and he led American League third baseman in fielding in 1983.

“It was a fun career that went too fast,” Harrah said.

Managing a team
Harrah had a brief managerial career, leading Texas in 1992, and that was enough for him.

“I never really wanted to manage in the big leagues. I did it more as a favor than anything else, and it was fun,” he said. “But after the two or three months that I managed, I realized that there is a lot of stuff that goes on while managing, which you don’t really realize until you take that job.

“To me, if you want to be a big-league manager, you have to have a tremendous passion for the job. You basically have to be available 24 hours a day. That job means dealing with the owners, press, the draft, minor leagues and so much more. There are a lot of things involved with the job that, to me, were more of a distraction than they were fun.”
Harrah later managed the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, with great success.
Harrah, now 59, makes some appearances on the show circuit, including the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland last year.

“I probably get more fan mail now than when I played, usually two or three letters per day, every day. I enjoy getting that fan mail because the fans are what it’s all about,” he said. “As a boy growing up, you always dream of someone asking for your autograph. Even now it’s a big thrill to be asked to sign an autograph. I still get tickled when someone asks for my autograph.

“It’s always nice to be remembered.”

Harrah’s rookie card is a 1972 Topps (No. 104). He later had cards from all makers, including Fleer, Donruss and others. But he doesn’t collect – cards or other sports memorabilia.

“The best man in my wedding is a huge card collector, and I really enjoy looking at his collection, including his Mantle cards and others. I enjoy his cards, but that’s it; I don’t collect,” Harrah said.

However, Harrah said his ’72 Topps rookie card is, in fact, his favorite, especially since he was wearing a Washington Senators hat in the photo on that card, he said.

Harrah is now the minor league roving hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers, a post he’s held for four years.
“I enjoy it a lot,” he said. “It gives me the chance to be around some good young hitters who have aspirations of getting to the big leagues.

“And it’s always nice to see former minor leaguers I coached now make it into the big leagues,” such as Curtis Granderson, who Harrah labeled, “a fine young man, the kind who you’d want your son to be like.”
Harrah added: “The minor leagues are fun, watching, listening and helping young athletes who have dreams of making it to the big leagues.”

So what about baseball in 2008?

“It’s a great game; it’s becoming an international game more and more. There are players from Taiwan, Australia, Japan, Venezuela and so many other countries. It’s a great game for everyone,” Harrah said. “I always had the passion for playing, and that’s what I really miss. We all have that little kid in us who loves to play, and I don’t think it ever goes away.”

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