Mel Harder and the Cleveland Indians are virtually inseparable.
Harder spent 20 years as a pitcher for the Indians – only Walter Johnson had spent more consecutive years pitching for one team – and an additional 15 as a coach. Although Cooperstown still has not come calling, Harder was named to the all-century team for the Indians and his number was retired by the Tribe.
The idea of Mel Harder associated with another team is almost laughable – and yet, it nearly happened.
In September 1941, as the Indians limped toward the finish line of a 75-79 season, the team released Harder, who had a lackluster year. Harder’s four wins that season were the lowest he’d had in more than a decade.
The cause appeared to be bone chips in his elbow, and he underwent surgery at Lakeside Hospital – with the Indians footing the bill, a sign to Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick that the team was interested in keeping him. The Indians were particularly desperate for pitching for the 1942 season, since ace Bob Feller joined the Navy following the Japanese bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.
But Cobbledick also reported that interest was high in the right-handed hurler, and Harder went to winter meetings to entertain offers from other teams. Harder, who later informed the Indians that he was only interested in pitching for them, ended up making the trip to Florida to Indians spring training. Roger Peckinpaugh, who had been elevated from manager to general manager following the 1941 season, said he was “especially tickled” to see Mel, who had left Cleveland for Florida still recovering from the flu.
“I paid particular attention to his throwing motion today, and it looked as smooth as ever,” Peckinpaugh was quoted as saying in the Plain Dealer. “He threw last year as if he was trying to heave a piano up to the plate. Mel told me after the workout that there was no trace of pain in his elbow.”
“I was surprised at how strong the arm felt today,” Harder said after throwing in spring training.
Finally, on March 23, Harder was officially brought back into the fold, signing what Peckinpaugh called a “conditional” contract, laden with incentives.
“I am very happy about Mel being back with us,” said Lou Boudreau, who had been teammates with Harder for four years, and had just succeeded Peckinpaugh as manager. “His showing this spring has been very fine.”
Harder went 13-14 for an Indians team that won 69 games, but his ERA dropped by 1.80, to 3.44. He remained with the Indians as a player for another five years before hanging it up after the 1947 season. His career record is 223-186 – still second all time in team history.