Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 18 – Mel Harder
Bob Toth | On 16, Mar 2017
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Of the retired numbers in Cleveland Indians history, Mel Harder’s number 18 may be one of the lesser known and more under-appreciated of the bunch to be honored in such a way. It was largely due to Harder’s misfortune of being a Cleveland Indian during some very down years for the club during the 1930s and 1940s and retiring the season before the Tribe took the 1948 World Series.
It may have been enough to cost him a place among the baseball immortals in Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame.
“Chief”, as he would come to be called throughout his Major League career, was born in 1909 in Beemer, Nebraska. He joined the Indians prior to the 1928 season after a brief stint in the minors with Dubuque and Omaha and coming with a vote of support from scout Cy Slapnicka.
Just 18 years old, the right-hander spent his season relegated to mop-up work primarily while in the Tribe bullpen. He made just one start and would finish his rookie season 0-2 with a 6.61 ERA. He took the mound just eleven times the next season, all in relief, and spent a portion of the season in the minors.
In his third season in the organization, he got his first extended look in the rotation while working almost evenly as a starter and reliever. His workload increased in 1931 and by 1932, he was a full-fledged member of the club’s rotation. He went 15-13 on the year with a 3.75 ERA in 39 games (32 starts) and exceeded his prior career total of complete games with 17 and threw his first shutout. He also had the honor of throwing the first pitch at Municipal Stadium that season (and would reprise the task in 1993 by throwing the last pitch following the final game at the stadium, prior to the club’s move to Jacobs Field the next season).
Harder really came into his own in 1933, winning 15 games for the second straight season and posting a league-best 2.95 ERA while throwing 14 complete games and two shutouts. But he was dealt 17 losses as defense and run support from his teammates were at a minimum (his teammates scored three runs or less in 20 of his 31 starts) and the Indians had a changing of the guard in the dugout, where Roger Peckinpaugh was replaced by Walter Johnson and the club finished a game under .500.
In 1934, he made his first of four straight All-Star appearances and earned the win with five innings of one-hit relief in a 9-7 win for the American League team over the National League squad at the Polo Grounds. He won 20 games that season, finishing with a 2.61 ERA, 17 complete games, and six shutouts.
The next season, he established a new career-high with 22 wins while losing just eleven, the best winning percentage (.667) of his career. He worked another three scoreless frames in the Midsummer Classic that season at the infant Cleveland Stadium. Despite his productivity on the mound, only one other pitcher on the staff (Willis Hudlin – 15 wins) reached a double-digit win tally and the Indians finished 82-71, 12 games in back of the Detroit Tigers and nine behind the New York Yankees for second place.
Two more scoreless All-Star frames were on Harder’s stat sheet in 1936, but his season results were not what they had been previously for the 26-year-old. He finished 15-15 with a 5.17 ERA and pitched through a shoulder injury for much of the second half. He recovered some from the injury, but was never quite the same, yet was good enough to get that All-Star nod and worked three more scoreless innings to get what would equate now to his second save in the exhibition contests.
Harder remained steady, winning 15 in 1937, 17 in 1938, and 15 in 1939 as he began to team with a young and impressive Bob Feller in the rotation with several other strong potential pieces around them. The Indians, however, turned their 1940 season into a debacle as the players on the club revolted against manager Ossie Vitt, who had made a multitude of questionable decisions over the course of the season, including calling out the Tribe pitching leader after a rough start against the Boston Red Sox in June by asking him when he planned on earning his salary. A pennant-worthy team instead ended a game behind the Tigers.
Harder’s 1941 season was a lost cause. He finished 5-4 with a 5.24 ERA and was cut by the Indians before season’s end. Surgery followed and he was able to return to the club with new manager Lou Boudreau at the helm with many players heading off to the war effort, including his longtime teammate Feller. Harder won a spot in the starting rotation and worked solely as a starter, going 13-14 with a 3.44 ERA, 13 complete games, and four shutouts. He would only have one more full season after the 1942 season, when he was 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 30 games (27 starts) in 1944. The rest of his years were limited to no more than 19 games and 18 starts and his career came to a close following the 1947 season, the last time he would wear his number 18 on the field as a player.
The bespectacled Harder retired as the Indians’ all-time win leader (later to be passed by Feller), posting a career 223-186 record with a 3.80 ERA. His entire 20-year career was spent as a member of the Indians, a rare effort in his era and almost impossible to fathom and envision in today’s game. He also finished his career with a scoreless 13 innings of work in the All-Star Game, making four appearances, earning a win and two saves, allowing nine hits and a walk, and striking out five.
He would not stay away from the game for long and would finally get his first taste of postseason play, albeit now in the role of a coach for Boudreau and the 1948 Tribe. Harder, the pitcher, was often credited for helping in the development of both Feller and Bob Lemon throughout their careers and both were integral to the success of the Indians during their memorable championship season, just the second in club history. Harder worked with the club at their Oklahoma City minor league affiliate and also served as the club’s first base coach and pitching coach.
He worked with Tribe pitchers until 1963, helping the likes of former teammates Feller and Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, and Herb Score to become 20-win pitchers. He was later replaced by Wynn as pitching coach in 1963 when Wynn’s playing days came to an end, one of many suspect moves made by the Cleveland club and Gabe Paul during the 1960s.
Harder found employ with the New York Mets in 1964, the Chicago Cubs in 1965, and the Cincinnati Reds from 1966 to 1968 as their pitching coaches. He spent one final season with the Kansas City Royals during their expansion season in 1969 as a member of former teammate Joe Gordon’s coaching staff. He ended the baseball portion of his life with 20 years of time playing in the MLB and more than 20 years coaching in the game.
Harder passed away in 2002 in Chardon, Ohio, at the age of 93.
Over the years, both during his coaching career and after, Harder was mentioned frequently as a Hall snub and deserving of a place in baseball’s museum. Statistically, he may have been hindered by remaining with the Indians throughout his career instead of getting an opportunity with a playoff team. His numbers during his playing career make him an outside candidate near the top of the list of the best pitchers yet to be enshrined, but his name still comes up over the years for possible inclusion through the Veterans Committee. His contributions to the game from a coaching standpoint, including his work with the slider and developing many quality pitchers in his several decades of work in the role, are remembered, but have not been enough to earn him a plaque in Cooperstown.
While the game may not have recognized him for his contributions to Major League Baseball, both in Cleveland and elsewhere, the Indians did Harder’s legacy some justice when the club retired his number 18 in 1990.