|Name:||Melvin Leroy Harder||Position:||Starting Pitcher|
|Accolades:||Retired #18, 4 Time All-Star (1934-37), Top 25 MVP (1934-35, ’38)|
|Best Season (1934)||20||12||.625||2.61||44||29||17||6||255.1||246||74||6||81||91||1.28||.243|
For the Indian, a team with five pitchers in the Hall of Fame and nine other Hall of Famers who pitched for the team, it may be surprising that their longest tenured player of any type and a record holder in multiple career numbers is, in fact, not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Instead, Mel Harder is the only player in team history that the Indians broke their own rule for and retired his number without election to the most elite club in baseball.
At the age of 17, Harder began his semi-professional career in the Western and Mississippi Valley Leagues, but it wouldn’t be long until he caught the eye of Major League scouts. After just one year in the minors, Harder was signed by the Indians for the 1928 season, joining the only team he would ever play for through the rest of his career.
In that first year and his second, Harder was a rarely used reliever. There really wasn’t any other kind of reliever in the 1920’s and with a steady rotation featuring Wes Ferrell, Willis Hudlin and Jake Miller, there was little need for Harder, who made 34 appearances with a 6.35 ERA during those seasons. Despite this inconspicuous start, Harder joined Hudlin and Ferrell in the rotation on a part time basis in 1930, making 19 spot starts and 17 relief appearances. This was his best year to date with a 4.21 ERA and 45 strike outs in 175.1 innings and he was just getting started. The following year, he made 24 starts (along with 16 relief appearances) and pitched 194 innings. This would begin a stretch of ten consecutive seasons with at least 24 starts and 180 innings pitched.
At the age of 22, 1932 was Harder’s first real break out season. Now fully entrenched in the rotation (still alongside Ferrell and Hudlin with Clint Brown joining them), he finally lowered his ERA below four with a 3.75 in an incredible 254.2 innings. The consummate work horse, Harder would do the same each of the next three years, throwing more than 250 innings each season.
The Indians didn’t have great teams during the 1930’s, only winning more than 88 games and finishing above third place once in Harder’s entire career, but that didn’t keep Harder himself from winning games. Like it or not, he won 15 games for the first time in 1932 and would finish his career with 223 total, second in Indians history. While this is a testament to his longevity, he won ten or more games 13 times and 20 or more games twice during his career. These are numbers not reached by the Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn who pitched for the Indians during the more successful 1940’s and 1950’s nor those pitchers who stood on the mound while the Tribe racked up run after run in the 1990’s. Harder was not an “innings eater”, but a terrific hurler who every day gave his team the best chance to win.
If 1932 was his breakout season, 1933 through 1935 has to be considered Harder’s prime. In ’33 he posted an AL best 2.95 ERA in 31 starts, 14 of which were complete games. Never one to need a day off, he still pitched in relief, finishing games in ten of his 12 relief appearances and earning four saves. It was this season that put Harder on the map in the era and the next year, he would be awarded for both 1933 and the first half of 1934 when he was selected to his first All-Star game. After winning 15 games in two straight years, he won 20 for the first time in 1934 and dropped his ERA to 2.61.
The following year, with Ferrell gone, Harder would enjoy this as the first of his four seasons as the Tribe ace before another young starter, Bob Feller, would assert himself and take that role in 1939. While he had good years and bad in his prime and throughout his career, Harder was always dependable and durable, completing 17 games in 1932, ’34 and ’35 and 181 in his Major League career. His 1936 season was arguably the worst in his career (5.17 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 1.5 WAR), but he was still the ace and made it to his third of four straight All-Star games. This was the year of Feller’s debut and it wouldn’t take him too long to surpass Harder as the number one starter.
Harder was back to great in 1938, winning 17 games with a 3.83 ERA in 240 innings and that stretch continued into 1939 when he won another 15 with a 3.50 ERA in 208 innings. While these two seasons were greater than both of his previous two, he didn’t receive All-Star recognition for either, a fact that shouldn’t be too surprising given that Feller was the Tribe’s lone pitcher selected both years. The latter year would be Harder’s final year of the runs mentioned earlier as he would never again throw for 200 innings in a season.
At the age of 30 in 1940, Harder’s career was waning. He pitched in just 68 innings in 1941, although he did have a resurgence from 1942 through 1946, a period where many players were absent, including Feller, due to World War II, while Harder was much too old to be considered for the draft or enlistment. In these years, he held a 3.47 ERA over nearly 700 innings, winning 41 and losing 42 as he continued to provide the Indians with solid innings in his old age.
Harder’s losses are also worth mentioning as he holds the team career record with 186 (to be fair, he also holds the career record for games pitched, 582, and is second to Feller in total innings). This still gave him a winning record over his career with about a 55% winning percentage. The accumulated losses speak more to his longevity and the fact that he played during a poor period for the Tribe than his own ability. Despite playing through the offensive resurgence of the 1930’s, Harder posted a career ERA of 3.80, better than Hudlin (4.34) and not too far from the Hall of Fame Bobs who were between 3.23 and 3.25.
The 1947 season would be Harder’s final as a player and he went out without much fanfare. Making just 15 starts, Harder only struck out 17 batters in 80 innings, although he did record his final shut out, the 25th of his career. At 20 seasons and 37 years old, he had finally had enough.
You may consider Harder unlucky as the Indians won the World Series the very next year behind Feller, Lemon and Gene Bearden. It is certainly difficult to play 20 seasons with the same team and even harder to do so without making the post-season a single time. In addition, most players with such a lengthy career are in the Hall of Fame and Harder is the only player to play 20 years in the same city who isn’t.
Before feeling too poorly for Harder, know that he did get his ring. After retiring as a player, Harder became the Indians pitching coach and helped develop some incredible arms from 1948 through 1963, including Hall of Famer Early Wynn, Rookie of the Year Herb Score and the tremendous arms that turned into Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant. He also was used as interim manager for three games in 1961 and 1962 and is the only manager to ever win every game he managed with at least three games in charge.
After Cleveland, Harder coached for the Mets, Cubs, Reds and Royals before retiring from the sport for good after the 1969 season. In 2002, one of the most loyal and underrated players in Cleveland Indians history died at the age of 93. He should be remembered as one of the greatest pitchers in Indians history and one of the greatest people in Cleveland history.