"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: Toby Harrah


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.


1 RIYank   ~  Mar 31, 2009 6:26 pm

Cool, thanks, Bruce.
The years following 1978 are mainly a blank to me. I was in college, and I just didn't have much attention for baseball.
I definitely remember that Jeter guy, though.

2 Dimelo   ~  Mar 31, 2009 7:56 pm

Finally a few nice words written about Jeter.

3 monkeypants   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:15 pm

[2] Yep. But in the meanwhile, avoid Nomaas, River Ave Blues, and others...the last few days have been a Jeter-criticism-fest. I guess when A-Rod is out...

4 monkeypants   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:17 pm

In spring training news of note (to jump start some banter), I was pleasantly surprised that Tomko did not make the team as some sort of obligatory "long man."

5 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:32 pm

Alvaro Espinoza..amazing to think of how many craptacular players the Yankees had in the 80s..I remember being convinced that Mike Pags would be our power threat for the next ten years...D'oh!

6 RIYank   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:36 pm

Joba's up to speed. Whew.

7 Dimelo   ~  Mar 31, 2009 10:21 pm

[3] Tell me about it!!! The Yankee interwebs are filled with Jeter bashing. It really is getting old, the comments on LoHud are the most hilarious. Especially when Pete throws a ZING at ARod, then that automatically starts all the anti-Jeter talk.

Let's go Yanks!!!!

8 monkeypants   ~  Mar 31, 2009 10:33 pm

[7] It has been interesting, for me anyway, to watch this growing anti-Jeter tide. Back in the day, the man could do not wrong, but all of us in the know--you know, we read Bill James and Rob Neyer etc--recognized that his defense was not very good, and he was NOT a better hitter than Nomar or A-Rod. Still, even the critics recognized the man was a fine ball pleyer.

Then a few years ago the tide began to turn. I don't know why--maybe success breeds contempt, maybe being "objective" (which is often the blog code word for hyper-negative) became hip, maybe too many read Fire Joe Morgan without proper catechesis and now have the zealotry of a convert. In any case, Jeter has gone from being a bad defender to a historically bad butcher in the field. He can't hit, he can't run. No matter what any numbers say he is now the among the worst, most overpaid players in baseball.

Even better, Jeter-bashing has now slipped into moralizing territory: he's smug, self-centered, selfish (damn you Jeter, why did you force the YAnkees to move A-Rod to 3B???!!!).

It has been truly amazing to watch the speed and ferocity of this process.

One more thing--this reminds me of the last years of Phil Simms, when he played for the Giants. Many fans could not wait for him to leave--to hand the ball over the Hostetler or draft a new start QB--and I was among the guilty. I remember distinctly watching a game one Sunday and Madden said that "Giants fans are going to miss Simms a lot more than they realize." And you know, he was right.

When Jeter finally hangs it up or is released--after this season if he really bombs, but more likely in two seasons--there is a very good chance that there will be a huge, gaping hole at SS for years. The critics will of course fault Cashman for not having a plan, etc. But in reality we have all become spoiled by having a HOF quality SS for the last dozen years. That kind of production is just not replaced easily.

9 Rich   ~  Mar 31, 2009 11:50 pm

[8] I think I view Jeter fairly realistically, which has been viewed as bashing by some of his most ardent supporters. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that Jeter can extend his career by making a position switch because I think playing the OF would likely take loss of a toll on his stamina (no more diving for balls at the edge of his range), and as a result, possibly boost his SLG.

As for Harrah, my lasting memory of him will be his return to the Stadium, after he was traded, when acted out on his bitterness over the way he believes he was mistreated as a Yankee by elbowing the 1Bman (I can't recall his name) in the face as he tried to beat out a bunt or an infield grounder.

10 The Mick536   ~  Apr 1, 2009 8:26 am

Just thinking out loud. Maybe Yankee fans should be divided into those who started with Jeter and those who were on the bench prior to that time. More tweaking could be done back to the oldest who maybe can still remember JoeD's first game and the 1939 team. I start in the early 50's. I have seen the ups and downs. Doesn't give me cred, but it does mean I have seen, read, and heard a lot about a team I root for 365 days a year.

In the late 70's and 80's, I went to a ton of games. People gave away early Spring and late Fall tickets. Not many people went to the games, or if they did, they left early. Worked in the Bronx and didn't fear the subway back to Brooklyn or the streets. I sat all over the place, everywhere but the good seats. Loved the bleachers best. Not going back again. Cannot afford it.

I saw many of those SS's. Hope you do the 3B's too. But there were others, less noteworthy that the ones mentioned (even if they played only one game) who can claim to be Yankees: Mike Fishlin, Wayne Tolleson, Paul Zuvella, Randy Vellarde, Jamie Quirk, Carlos Rodriguez, Mike Villego, Dave Silvestri, Kevin Elster, and Robert Eenhoorn (who?).

Anyone have any stories?

11 The Mick536   ~  Apr 1, 2009 8:37 am

Want some fun. Check out the box score for a random game in 1995 (retrosheet), say June 4. Yankees win 11-3. 22,000 at the game. Guess the starting lineups first. Lots of great names for just a game.

I also worked in the Bronx in early 90's. During breaks in night court, took in a few innings in bleachers. Great fans. Loved the 1994 team.

12 Raf   ~  Apr 1, 2009 10:49 am

I don't have a problem with Jeter, never did. I did find the he can do no wrong sentiment amusing, tho'

I thought he should've moved to CF or moved to 3b, but I knew it wasn't going to happen; why kvetch about it?

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver