Leading man without a voice

September 06, 1970

Organist Gary Abbott, hidden away in his County Stadium cranny, knocked out Harper Valley P.T.A., and Tommy Harper strode determinedly to the plate and took his stance—well back, snugly crouched and angled slightly toward the right of second base. The Brewer who brought big-league respectability back to Milwaukee was ready to show what can happen when all the good things a man has learned in seven disparate years are finally put together.

Tommy Harper, at 29, is quiet, introspective and overlooked. He has emerged as the most productive leadoff batter in baseball, better than Minnesota's Cesar Tovar, Cincinnati's Pete Rose and the Mets' Tommie Agee. They have reputations. Harper has none. But this season Harper has hit for average (.300) and power (26 home runs) and flashed the kind of speed (31 stolen bases, 32 doubles) he had last year when he stuffed his size 10 feet into size 8½ shoes—for speed—and stole more bases (73) than any American-Leaguer in more than half a century. He very well could become the fifth major-leaguer ever to total more than 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a single year. Willie Mays accomplished the feat twice, in 1956 and 1957. Henry Aaron (1963), Bobby Bonds (1969) and Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns (1922) are the others.

To Baltimore Oriole Pitcher Jim Palmer, the combined virtues—and terror—of Harper's speed and power are obvious. "If you put it over the plate he can hit it out," he says. "If you pitch him loose and walk him you know he'll steal second." Always admired for his quickness—he has stolen home on fastballer Sam McDowell and once scored on a pop foul between third and home—Harper has had troubles with the bat. Over the last three seasons he averaged only .228. Frank Robinson, a teammate when Harper came up with Cincinnati in 1963, believes he would have come along much sooner "had he been left alone to develop and not moved around so much." Robinson considers Harper an excellent outfielder, but Harper has had to play every outfield and infield position but first base during a career that has taken him to four cities in the last four years. Harper thinks that playing regularly at last has helped him, but the real change, he believes, was brought about by his sudden aggressiveness at the plate, where he now takes his swings instead of waiting out a walk. "If you get your hits everything else will come," he says. "That's why a leadoff man shouldn't waste his first at bat. Before a game I start psyching myself just so I'll be ready for that first time up. I don't want to be interviewed, and I don't want to talk to anybody. I just want to be ready."

Self-psyching Harper has led off with home runs six times this season, and the silence has been reverberating, which is partly of Harper's doing. He shuns autograph seekers and personal appearances. "I don't enjoy notoriety," he says. "Last year it nearly drove me crazy the way people kept asking questions, like did I think I'd break the base-stealing record."

A measure of Harper's success in ducking fame was dished up by an 11-year-old Brewer fan last week. "Tommy is our best player," he said enthusiastically. "But Ted Kubiak is my favorite." And that is all right with Tommy Harper, whose feet and bat do his talking.

PHOTOIN A RARE PUBLIC APPEARANCE QUIET BREWER TOMMY HARPER TEACHES YOUNG KIDS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)