Friday, March 8, 2013

#511 - Toby Harrah

We get another batting stance shot, this one of an American Leaguer in Oakland. Toby Harrah is in the midst of his third year with the Washington/Texas franchise and he’s on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the premier AL shortstops, and possibly the best offensive one. Toby would produce some pretty decent RBI totals and would develop a knack for getting on base. Beginning in ’74 he would start just about every game for a bunch of years and he could run, picking up some impressive stolen base totals. But that’s all down the road. His biggest moment in an otherwise forgettable ’73 season may have been hitting the game-winner in an August defeat of Baltimore that ended a 14-game Oriole win streak. His worst was probably getting his hand broken when he raised it to protect his face from a Paul Splittorf chin music special. Toby also had the added bonus of having to play about half his games at third base, a position he shared that season with about five other guys. That was about as good as it got playing for Texas back then.

Colbert Dale “Toby” Harrah grew up in Ohio where at Elgin High in Marion he was a star in the big three sports as well as a sprinter in track. He then took a football scholarship to Ohio Northern University where after his first season he decided he made a mistake and got a Phillies scout to get him a tryout. He was signed that December of ’66 and the next summer split some military time with some shortstop time in A ball where he hit .256. He was then taken by Washington in the minor league draft and in ’68 at the same level hit .239. Things improved in ’69 with a .395 OBA in A ball and a .350 in Double A. He got his first at bat with DC that autumn and in ’70 returned to Double A where his solid season included 27 stolen bases and a .373 OBA.

In ’71 Harrah came up to the Nats where he walked into the shortstop position vacated by the Ed Brinkman trade to Detroit. In ’72 he became the first Ranger to get an All-Star nod after the team moved to Texas and stole 16 bases. In ’74 he maintained that .260 average and he had some trouble on the basepaths but his other numbers started popping with 21 homers and 74 RBI’s as the Rangers made a huge dash to respectability under Billy Martin. He also led AL shortstops in putouts. In ’75 Toby was one of the few guys on the team to up his numbers and he had a big jump: 293 with 20 homers, 93 RBI’s, a .403 OBA, and 23 stolen bases, while again putting in some games at third. Those numbers got him back to the All-Star game and after the season he began attending classes at Texas Wesleyan while also doing some volunteer coaching for the fall baseball team. Then a .260/15/67 season got him the starting role in that year’s All-Star game even though a leg injury cut down his average a bit and pulled his steals down to eight. In ’77 the Rangers went big in the free agent draft and nabbed Bert Campaneris and so Toby, showing his versatility, moved over to third for good, putting up a .263/27/87 year with an AL-leading 109 walks and a .393 OBA. In ’78 his stats slid a bunch due to a pulled muscle in his ribcage that kept him out of action about three weeks and limited his ability to swing. He did, however, record his lifetime high in stolen bases, with 31.

Harrah was a fan and owner favorite in Texas. He was also fond of staying out late. So when Cleveland came looking for power at the December ’78 MLB meetings, Ranger management obliged by sending Toby to Cleveland even-up for Buddy Bell. Indians fans felt betrayed by the swap and the press was fond of constantly reminding Toby of the deal, which many felt the Rangers got the win. So his time in Cleveland wasn’t exactly a honeymoon. But Toby’s numbers actually kept pace with his better years in Texas. In ’79 he revived his average to .279 with 20 homers and 77 RBI’s. In ’80 his homer total halved but his RBI total stayed level, and in the strike year of ’81 he upped his average to .291. His power stats took a bit of a hit that second season because he hurt his shoulder after falling off his roof the prior winter. But he then returned to the All-Star game in ’82 with a .304/25/78 season and a .398 OBA, his highest in Cleveland. Then ’83 just got nasty. Prior to the season his house burned down and his dad was killed in an auto accident. That came after off-season surgery to repair a heart murmur. And then, early in the season, came a broken hand. His resulting numbers would be a pretty big discount to his ’82 ones and after the season he went to the Yankees for reliever George Frazier and outfielder Otis Nixon.

When NY made the trade for Harrah, the intent was to have him back up Graig Nettles. But shortly thereafter Nettles went to San Diego and Toby became the starter. It was a forgettable season and by the end of the year he gave way to Mike Pagliarulo and wanted out. He was obliged the following winter when ex-teammate Tom Grieve, now the Texas GM, traded Billy Sample for him. Toby was offered a shot at the second base gig which he won. He pulled his average up to .270 and his 113 walks contributed to a huge OBA of .432. After his average slid to .218 the following season, Jerry Browne took his spot at second and Toby retired. He was the last Senator to play. He finished with a .264 average on over 1,900 hits, 195 homers, and 918 RBI’s. He also stole 238 bases and put up a .365 OBA. He is in the top 100 for assists, both at third base and overall.

Harrah tuned to managing immediately after playing, first for the Rangers in Oklahoma City from ’87 to ’88. He then came back to Texas as a coach for Bobby Valentine (’89-’92) before replacing him as manager the latter half of that last season. He then returned to the minors as a hitting instructor (’93-’94) before again managing for Norfolk (’95) in the Mets system. He then coached at Cleveland (’96), Detroit (’98), and Colorado (2000-’02). In ’03 he became Detroit’s minor league hitting coordinator until late 2012 when he became the assistant hitting coach for the Tigers. His managing record in the minors is 222-201 and up top is 32-44.

That’s some signature with Toby opting for his given name. That cartoon is awfully fitting since he played in Texas. Lots of other cards extol a pitching feat when he was younger: in his only game as a pitcher for his American Legion team he threw a no-hitter. Toby has one of the few last names that is spelled the same forward as it is backward. Toby gets mentioned a bunch in the "Seasons in Hell" book; a fun reference to him is when the author tells us that Toby played a whole game in '73 with congealed vomit in his hair.

Let’s hook up a couple of third basemen:

1. Harrah and Jon Matlack ’78 Rangers;
2. Matlack and Wayne Garrett ’71 to ’76 Mets.

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