Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day, while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp—yes, I spent summers at a place called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it—we exchanged some conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry, Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977, largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably well—you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did—I was going to be satisfied. So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal done.
Why did I like Harrah so much? In the mid-1970s, Harrah represented a rare breed: an American League shortstop who could hit. Keep in mind that Robin Yount had not yet entered his prime, Alan Trammell wouldn’t arrive in Detroit until 1978 (and even then he was only 20), and Cal Ripken, Jr.s’ debut remained several years away. Most American League shortstops fell into the one-dimensional category of all-field and little-hit, including the likes of Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Dave Chalk, Frank Duffy, and Tom Veryzer. Compared to those noodle bats, Harrah looked like an Adonis in the batter’s box.
The plan to bring in Harrah sounded good. Considering the depth of the Yankees’ pitching staff, giving up a second-tier pitcher in addition to Dent seemed doable. There was just one problem. The Rangers had to agree to the deal, too. They negotiated with the Yankees off and on, with Harrah’s name periodically being mentioned in rumors, but the two sides could not reach the appropriate compromise. After the 1978 season, the Rangers finally received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only it didn’t come from the Yankees. Instead, the Rangers found a trading partner in the Indians, who agreed to give up All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell.
Harrah spent five mostly productive seasons with the Tribe. By the early 1980s, I had forgotten about Harrah, who had entrenched himself as a durable and productive player in Cleveland. It was time to move on. The dream had ended.
In February of 1984, with the Yankees collecting infielders the way I once collected postage stamps, the team announced a surprising trade. The deal sent reliever George Frazier and minor league speedster Otis Nixon to the Indians—for Harrah, of course. By then, Harrah was no longer a shortstop; he had long since been converted to third base. He was no longer an All-Star either, with his home run production falling off from 25 to nine in his final season with the Tribe. At 34, Harrah looked well past his prime.
Lots of folks didn’t understand the trade, including me. The Yankees already had Graig Nettles and Roy Smalley available to play third. Nettles eventually vacated the premises, mostly because he ticked off The Boss with the contents of his tell-all book, Balls. Harrah ended up splitting time with Smalley, hit all of one home run in pinstripes, and slugged an ungodly .296. Clearly not the player he once was, Harrah became trade bait after the season, sent to the Rangers for outfielder Billy Sample. Harrah would play better in Texas, but that only made me feel worse.
In the meantime, the Yankees continued their search for a new shortstop, some of whom could hit, some of whom could field, and some who could barely stand up. Smalley tried and failed, as did Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, Rafael Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Spike Owen, and even a fading Tony Fernandez.
The Yankees’ quagmire of shortstop mediocrity continued until 1995. That’s when Toby Harrah finally arrived. Not the actual Toby Harrah, but a newer, better version of Toby Harrah. Like Harrah, he would receive his fair share of criticism for his defensive failures, but he would do wondrous things offensively and help spearhead the next Yankee dynasty.
Yes, Toby Harrah finally did arrive—in the form of a 21-year-old phenom named Derek Jeter.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.