Saturday, March 25, 2017
Remembering the fleet of foot Tommy Harper
Mincher would explain years later, the Pilots were a standard expansion team full of players either on the way up (green) or on the way down (maybe washed-up). Mincher was trying to stick up for the team's manager, Joe Schultz, who he felt was unduly criticized by Jim Bouton in the book "Ball Four."
Mincher was a power merchant in the 1960s. He became a journeyman. Tommy Davis was a big name who batted in the No. 3 spot. Davis had been spectacular with the Dodgers. An injury slowed him. Then we have Tommy Harper. You might say Harper was in his prime for that 1969 season. You might note it was the Pilots' only season. They have been described as an "orphan" team, based on Seattle now having the Mariners and Milwaukee only caring about the Brewers.
The Pilots moved to Milwaukee after the 1969 season. The Braves had a fine run in the brew town before moving to Atlanta.
Harper was a speed merchant with the '69 Pilots. Students of sports journalism will associate the Pilots with Bouton and his writing. I was perhaps too much a fan of Ball Four back in the day. It was a book that had to come out at some time. Journalists were itching to get past the established template for sports books. It was decided that the traditional way was too dry, superficial and predictable. Questioning the orthodoxy in everything was fashionable back then. "Ball Four" fit right in.
We sometimes revise such thoughts. Today I have no problem reading the traditional sports biography. We all know human beings have warts. In '69 I guess it was some sort of revelation. Mickey Mantle was not a Greek god. Roger Maris was a jerk? Well, I really don't think Maris was a jerk. Harper was treated pretty generously by Bouton, as I recall. Bouton tended to be easy on players of color.
I'm certain that Harper deserved generous treatment. His odyssey in the big leagues began in the Reds organization. First he sizzled in the minors with Topeka as he batted .324. He climbed to AAA which saw him play for San Diego in its pre-big league incarnation. Harper batted .333 for San Diego. That's one hit in every three at-bats, my modest grasp of math deduces. He hit 24 home runs. He got a taste of big league ball, getting the starting nod at third for six games.
Harper would develop into a versatile player in the field. He played with the big league Reds on a platoon basis in 1963-64. Mostly he saw work in the outfield. It was in 1965, the same year our Twins won the American League pennant, that Harper blossomed. Playing left field, he batted leadoff, stole 35 bases, hit 18 home runs and scored a league-leading 126 runs. He became a fixture at leadoff. He proved capable at all three outfield positions. He could be tapped as a backup infielder.
But as is so common in baseball, he'd have to move along to another team. It was on to the Cleveland Indians for 1968. His bat lost some of its pop, nevertheless he was drafted by the new Seattle Pilots as the third pick in the expansion draft. He doubled to left as the first-ever Pilot to come to bat. He scored on Mike Hegan's home run.
Making mark on the basepaths
It was in stolen bases where Harper really carved out his niche in Pilots/Brewers history. He was off to the races for 73 stolen bases, the most by an A.L. player since Ty Cobb burned up the basepaths for 96 in 1915. The 73 still stands as the standard for franchise history. Harper helped the Pilots with his sheer versatility, making starts all over the diamond.
The Pilots felt they had to pull up stakes after their '69 season. Bouton would say that Seattle at that time cared more for its art galleries and museums than for sports. He meant that as a compliment. We all know that Seattle today is ga-ga for its sports franchises. The interest in the arts probably remains too. The '60s were different times in many respects.
Harper was at his best in 1970 for the new Milwaukee Brewers. Harper made his only All-Star Game appearance that year. He posted several statistical personal highs. He made the 30-30 club by hitting 31 home runs and stealing 38 bases.
Harper moved on to the Red Sox after the '71 season. He became a fixture in center field and at leadoff for those early '70s Red Sox. In '73 he led the A.L. in stolen bases again, with 54. That stat was the franchise best up to that point.
A negative specter
We don't like to be reminded of racism in baseball's past. Harper was a target for unpleasant experiences in Boston. He got some satisfaction with a lawsuit. He sued the Red Sox for firing him in 1985 for complaining in the media about the club allowing the segregated Elks Club in its spring training base of Winter Haven FL to invite only the team's white personnel to its establishment. Back in the '70s I played some gigs with a dance band at Elks Clubs. I'm rather ashamed when I read about Harper's experience. There's an incantation in Elks lingo where they talk about how "the great heart of Elkdom swells and throbs" (at a certain time of the evening). That great heart was rather a myth, I might suggest, or an outright travesty. (In an irreverent vein, I might quote my trombone friend Leroy B. who said one night, "it has to swell before it can throb.")
Harper not only succeeded with his suit, he was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010. He coached for the Red Sox in 1980-84 and 2000-02. He would also coach for the Montreal Expos (1990-99). He returned to Boston as a player development consultant.
Harper has been described as "a central figure in the troubled racial history of the Red Sox." He persevered and is warmly remembered today in all cities where he played. That includes Oakland where he had a renaissance in 1975. Joining a contender appeared to give him a healthy jolt. He batted .319 in August and September. He got penciled in at first base. On the basepaths he showed his forte by going 7 for 7 in stolen bases. His versatility allowed a long-of-tooth Billy Williams to play at DH - the former Cub could still hit.
Harper was age 34 when when finally making the playoffs. He batted just once and drew a walk. The A's got swept by those Red Sox. Harper got his release and then had one more stint, an uneventful one, with Baltimore.
I'll always remember Harper as that Pilot who streaked from base to base in 1969. I can put "Ball Four" aside. Harper, Mincher and Davis were standouts in a lineup that could be quite interesting. And Jim Bouton threw the knuckleball.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org