Cleveland Third Baseman Toby Harrah attributes much of his success at the plate this season to a 20-foot fall he took on, honest Injun, a Friday the 13th before spring training in 1981. Harrah was painting the outside of his two-story house in Fort Worth when the ladder slid out from under him and he tumbled onto a brick porch. The results: sprained wrists, bruised kneecaps and elbows, splattered paint, bucket on head.
Last season, when Harrah got off to another of his notoriously slow starts, his injuries gave him a good excuse. But after having fully recuperated during the strike he came back and batted .330 in the so-called second season, though without much power. Now the 33-year-old Harrah is off to the best start of his 12-year major league career. At the end of last week he was batting .370 and he ranked in the top four in the American League in runs (26), homers (seven) and slugging (.640).
"When I fell last year, I really banged myself up, so the rest during the strike helped me," Harrah says. "But when I returned I still didn't have my strength back. After the season ended I tried to build myself up by swinging the lead bat—Ted Williams has always been real big on swinging the lead bat—and I started working out on the Nautilus a little. And I got stronger than I'd ever been."
You might even say Harrah has worked his way back up the ladder. Through Sunday he had hit in every game but one this season, though one single won't show up in the books. Against Seattle on April 27, he slapped a first-inning hit to left off Floyd Bannister. As Harrah stood on first, Home Plate Umpire Terry Cooney fielded Harrah's bat, a Louisville Slugger C243 that features a thin handle and a big barrel. Cooney was suspicious, because he thought the bat had made a funny noise when it hit the ball. He tapped the handle on the ground and—what's this?—the thin end fell off about an inch up from the knob. After a brief consultation, crew chief Bill Kunkel called Harrah out and ejected him for tampering with the bat.
Now Harrah flew off the handle. He stormed the Indian dugout and threw another bat onto the field. "Hey," he yelled, "if that bat's no good, take this one, too." It too had a detachable handle. Harrah later explained that he had broken the 34½-inch C243 he had used in the first 14 games and, lacking any other bat of that length, decided to replace it with a sawed-off 35-inch model. "I told a clubhouse man, 'Just shorten a couple of my bats about half an inch so I can use one in a game,' " he says. Harrah, who now has a supply of legal 34½-inch lumber, hit safely in his next 10 games.
Harrah was born in Sissonville, W. Va. on Oct. 26, 1948. "My mother named me Colbert Dale," he says. "My grandmother didn't like it and nicknamed me Toby, and I've been Toby ever since." In 1966 the Phillies signed him as a second baseman, though he says, "I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to spring training. I had a girl friend at home. My high school coach told me, 'Go down there and give it all you've got for one month and, if after that you want to come home, come home.' I went, and I've been playing ever since."
Harrah was picked up by the Senators after one year in the Phils' organization, and in 1971 he jumped from Class AA to the majors, becoming Washington's starting shortstop at the tender age of 22. The next year the Senators moved to Texas. Every season thereafter the Rangers seemed to pose the same shortstop question: Toby or not Toby? But Harrah always held his job, becoming a three-time All-Star.
Harrah hit only 13 homers in his first three major league seasons, but as he grew more confident, more aggressive and stronger, bulking up from 160 to 180 pounds, he began pulling the ball. From 1974 to '79 he averaged nearly 20 home runs a season, and in 1976 he was a real rarity: a shortstop who batted cleanup. He lost that distinction the next season after the Rangers signed Bert Campaneris as a free agent and Harrah agreed to play third.
Despite his exceptional play for the Rangers, Harrah didn't find life in Texas all that pleasant, mainly because he felt he was being asked to shoulder all the blame when the Rangers lost, which in 1976 was fairly often. "Every day you could just open the paper and read about how bad Toby was," says Indian First Baseman Mike Hargrove, Harrah's teammate in Texas. "The treatment he received from the press was terrible."
Harrah, who still holds five Texas career batting records, was traded after the '78 season to the Indians for their third baseman, Buddy Bell. Unfortunately, some of the writers and fans he found in Cleveland weren't much kinder than the ones he had left behind; they felt it was the Indians' worst deal since Cleveland sent popular slugger Rocky Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn in 1960. "I think it hurt Toby," Indian Centerfielder Rick Manning says. "The fans didn't appreciate him, particularly when Texas came to town. He wasn't relaxed."
The specter of Bell lingers still. Harrah homered in Cleveland's 1982 Opening Day 8-3 loss to Texas. Bell homered twice. The following day there were pictures of and stories on Bell in the Cleveland papers. After Harrah went 3 for 4 with four RBIs in the Indians' second game, he snapped at writers, "Buddy would have had six RBIs."
It's true that Bell may be the finest defensive third baseman in the game and that the fans may sometimes be right when they hoot "Buddy would've had it" when a ball gets by Harrah. But Harrah gives Cleveland power and speed his predecessor doesn't have.
"Toby Harrah, in my opinion, handles the bat as well as any man in either league," Indian Manager Dave Garcia says. Harrah says his bat control stems from his days as a scrawny shortstop when he learned to bunt, slap the ball to right and hit and run, because those were things expected of-a shortstop.
Harrah now bats second in the Cleveland lineup, a position that makes use of his unselfishness and batting versatility. "I have seen a runner start for second and then Toby hit the ball through the hole left by the breaking fielder," Hargrove says. "And on the next at bat he may hook a pitch that's two inches outside for a home run."
"He's a complete ballplayer," says Oakland Manager Billy Martin, Harrah's boss for parts of three seasons at Texas. "He's a real battler. He wouldn't have been traded if I'd been there."
When Harrah was there he was called Rowdy Harrah. One year he and a whole posse of Rangers sought revenge on that noted clubhouse prankster, Gaylord Perry. As Perry emerged from the showers after the last game of the season, Harrah and his co-conspirators tackled him, bound him with athletic tape—and left.
But Harrah is deadly earnest about baseball. "Toby would be a great major league manager," Manning says, "except he wouldn't accept all the politics that go with the job." True, Harrah, who would like a college coaching job someday, is polite, but not politic. His fiery temperament seems to exude from the bristles of his trim reddish-brown beard and the strands of his strawberry-blond hair.
Hargrove says that Harrah is "emotional" and "high-strung." Sometimes he "pouts," Garcia says. "I've told him time and time again that if he could be up for every game he'd be in the Hall of Fame."
"Baseball is an emotional game," Harrah says. For stability, he turns to his wife, Jan. "That's J-a-n," he says. "Don't confuse her with Pam, my first wife, or Pam might sue me. She's already sued me for everything else I have."
Toby and Jan are in the process of fixing up their 19th century Fort Worth home, aiming to restore it to its onetime elegance. It's a big house with columns, the centerpiece of their 40-acre spread. As part of the restoration Harrah is still painting, though one lucky tumble is about all a guy could ask for.