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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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Indians’ Tribe loses its Chief

Mel Harder was called “Chief.” As a man who wore the uniform of the Cleveland Indians for a record 36 years as a pitcher and coach, it was fitting. From Prohibition to the Cold War, he was the Indians. Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau and the stunts of Bill Veeck may have grabbed more headlines, but it was Harder who was always there, winning ballgames and being a quiet leader through some of the most successful stretches in franchise history.

With the death of Harder Sunday, a week after turning 93, baseball lost a piece of its living history.

Harder once surrendered five hits in a game to Babe Ruth. He was the last pitcher to hold Joe DiMaggio hitless before his 56-game hitting streak. DiMaggio never got a lot of hits off Harder.

He batted .180 lifetime off the right-hander. Ted Williams once called Harder the toughest pitcher he ever faced.

Harder didn’t have the blazing fastball or table-drop curveball of Feller, whom he is second to on the Tribe’s all-time win list. What he had was above-average stuff and an uncanny ability to get the most out of what he had.

Harder was a olden-day cross between Orel Hershiser and Greg Maddux, working the corners, throwing sinkers and curves with great control, tricking hitters.

Harder’s most famous game might actually be a loss. On July 31, 1932, he faced Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics in the first game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Harder pitched magnificently, but gave up an eighth-inning RBI single to Mickey Cochrane and lost to Grove, 1-0.

Harder finished with 223 career victories from 1928 to 1947. He spent the final decade of his career pitching with pain from an elbow injury that never totally healed. But he wasn’t finished when he stepped off the mound. There was a new class of young pitching talent for Harder to impart his knowledge upon. He helped condition the legendary Cleveland pitching staffs of the late ’40s and early ’50s as the Tribe’s pitching coach. He coached guys like Early Wynn, Gene Bearden and Mike Garcia. He and Boudreau took a light-hitting, cannon-armed outfielder named Bob Lemon and turned him into a Hall of Fame pitcher. Satchel Paige made his major league debut under the eye of Harder in 1948. In the late ’50s and ’60s, he coached Herb Score, Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant.

When the Indians parted ways with him following the 1963 season, two generations of Cleveland pitchers had learned from Harder. He had coaching stops with the Mets, Cubs, Reds and Royals before retiring from coaching in 1969.

The Indians retired his number, 18, in 1990, one of only four Indians to receive that honor as of then. He continued to contribute to baseball as a history source for writers. Harder had a good mind for facts and could recall them well, and he remained an avid follower of the Indians. Along with President Bill Clinton, he was asked to throw out one of the ceremonial first pitches when Jacobs Field opened in 1994.

One of the few honors Harder did not receive was election to the Hall of Fame. He remains one of the greatest players not in Cooperstown. If Harder was bitter, he never let on. He never complained. He took the same approach whenever he received a compliment about the young arms he developed, insisting it was they who had the talent and asked the right questions.

In September 1994, a documentary on Harder premiered on the PBS station in Cleveland. It was called “Pride of the Indians.”

All of the people Harder influenced had a chance to give back to the Tribe’s chief. People from Feller to McDowell turned up for the camera to laud Harder and talk about the influence he had on their lives and careers. The producers had a hard time condensing it all into an hour.

The show ends with a shot of Harder in his 1930s Indians jersey meeting Charles Nagy, wearing his modern Indians uniform, at home plate in Jacobs Field. Nagy hands Harder a baseball, and the two walk up the first baseline into the distance.

Past and present together for a fleeting moment. Two examples of quiet class and excellent pitching talent. Maybe, then, it is no coincidence that Nagy may be embarking on a coaching career of his own, following in the footsteps of an all-time great.

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