Harder Rounds Out Indians All-Time Team Rotation
By Ronnie Tellalian
There is only one player in Major League history to both play and coach for 20 plus years. He is also the only eligible player not in the Hall of Fame that played for 20 or more years with the same ball club. At the time he retired in 1947, he was the Indians all time leader in wins, games started, and innings pitched. I had the honor of meeting him at a fundraiser for my baseball team back in 1996. A man I didn’t know was escorted into the room in a wheelchair. He appeared frail and old, but he had strength and joy in his eyes. He was introduced to me as Indians legend Mel Harder.
Starting Pitcher: Mel Harder
Harder began his professional career at the age of 17 with minor league teams in Dubuque Iowa and Omaha Nebraska. In his first pro season, he won 17 of his 33 starts and gained the attention of the Cleveland Indians. In 1928 the Tribe signed the 18 year old and he began his career in the Indians bullpen. By 1930, his diving curveball and good control earned him a spot in the Indians starting rotation. He didn’t blow anyone away in that first season, but he won 11 games with a 4.21 ERA.
Harder was relatively mediocre from 1930-1932, but steadily improved. His record over that three year span was 39-37 and he posted an unimpressive 4.29 ERA for his career up to that point. He also walked more batters (245) than he struck out (217). Things were improving though for the young Harder. In 1932 his ERA dropped below 4.00 for the first time and also for the first time he struck out more batters than he walked in a season, 90 strikeouts to 68 walks.
The 1933 season was a break out year for Harder. He won 15 games and led the league with a 2.95 ERA. To win that ERA title, Harder bested the likes of Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Grove.
As good as Harder was in 1933, he was even better in 1934. He won 20 games for the first time in his career. He pitched to a career best 2.61 ERA and led the league with six shutouts. He was also selected to his first of four consecutive All-Star games. An All-Star game that Harder won after pitching five shutout innings giving up only one hit. The 1934 All-Star game may be memorable to baseball historians; it is the game in which Carl Hubbell set a record by striking out five future Hall of Famers in succession: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin.
In his four All-Star games, Mel Harder was nothing short of dominant. He won one game and earned saves in two others. He gave up zero runs on 9 hits in 13 innings pitched, and he is the only pitcher in Major League history to pitch 10 or more All-Star innings without giving up a run.
Harder followed up his 20 win performance in 1934 with a career best 22 wins in 1935. He held opponents to a 3.29 ERA, tied a career high with 17 complete games, and set a career high in innings pitched with 287.1. Perhaps his most impressive feat of the season was allowing only 6 home runs on the year, a category in which he led the American League.
Harder went on to win 15 or more games in each of the next seven years, and pitched in a Cleveland uniform until he retired in 1947. He finished his 20 year career with 223 wins. He posted a career ERA of 3.80, and struck out 1,161 batters in 3,426.1 innings pitched.
In honor of his career, his uniform number 18 was retired by the Cleveland Indians in 1990. Harder didn’t blow hitters away with a Bob Feller fastball, he didn’t strike guys out at the torrid pace of Sam McDowell and he didn’t specialize in 20 win seasons like Bob Lemon. Mel Harder just pitched day in and day out, spending his entire 20 year career in an Indians uniform. He followed his playing career with 14 years as the Indians pitching coach. Herb Score credits his Rookie of the Year award to Harder helping him develop his curve.
Maybe Harder’s biggest claim to fame came at the expense of one of the greatest Yankees of All-Time. Joe DiMaggio recalled that he had more difficulty batting against Harder than against just about any other pitcher. DiMaggio batted only .180 lifetime against him and Harder struck him out three times in one game in 1940. Mel Harder is a true Indians legend and well disserving of our memory.