Saturday, July 25, 2015

Meet the Brewers #3: Tommy Harper

Identifying the first two Brewers was fairly easy. There can only be one first pitch and, since that pitch wasn't hit, the next logical person to highlight is the catcher. But who's next? To be fair, the answer is the same whether I look to the defensive record (which is what I am following) or to the lineup.

Angel leadoff hitter Sandy Alomar Sr. grounded out to second base to lead off the game. Manning second base and throwing Alomar out was Brewers leadoff hitter and, frankly, their only star in 1970: Tommy Harper.

Harper was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana, but his family moved to the West Coast while he was still in school. He attended Encinal High School in Anaheim, California, where his teammates included outfielder Curt Motton (himself a Brewer, briefly, in 1972) and future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.

Thank you, Stargell-Meme.

Harper was signed initially by the Cincinnati Reds in 1960 and made it to the major leagues in 1962 for good. The Reds tried him at third base, then moved him to right field, had him play some centerfield, and eventually settled on left field for him.  Even with the moving around, Harper had some pretty good seasons in Ohio, leading the National League in runs scored in 1965 and finishing fifth in walks drawn, fourth in strikeouts, and fourth in stolen bases that year with 35 -- 59 behind leader Maury Wills.  

Taking credit for this breakout season was Dick Sisler, who said that he "wanted to change Harper's swing" and did so by showing Harper "sequence pictures of [Al] Kaline, how he held the bat fairly close, then reached back for his power."  Sisler credited Harper with working hard over the offseason to make the changes, but then rewarded Harper by moving him to leadoff to "take advantage of his speed, and ability to get on base."

By 1968, though, the Reds decided that they liked up-and-coming left fielder Alex Johnson better than they liked Harper and traded him to Cleveland. Harper struggled in Cleveland, or so it would appear on the surface with his .217/.295/.374 slash line at the age of 27. But, in that year of the pitcher, the American League as a whole hit .230/.297/.339 -- putting Harper as at least average to slightly above average hitter nonetheless.  

Harper was left unprotected in the American League expansion draft, and the Seattle Pilots snatched him up with the third pick overall.  Harper was allowed to run wild by Joe "Pound them Budweisers" Schultz to the tune of stealing 73 bases in 91 attempts -- a mark which still stands as the Pilots/Brewers franchise record for most stolen bases in a season.  

Harper topped himself in 1970, joining what was then an elite club. Before 1970, only four players over five seasons -- Ken Williams (1922, St. Louis Browns), Willie Mays (1956 and 1957), Hank Aaron (1963) and Bobby Bonds (1969) had enjoyed seasons in which they hit 30 or more home runs and stole 30 or more bases in the same season -- the 30-30 club. 

The stolen base part was simple for Harper, even though his success ratio in 1970 (38 for 54) was pretty bad.  The surprising part was that Harper hit 31 home runs -- seemingly out of nowhere, since his previous best had been 18 and his previous year he hit 9. Indeed, after Harper in 1970, it took until 1983 (Dale Murphy) for a new member to join the club, even though Bobby Bonds put up four more 30-30 seasons.

Harper was named to the All-Star team in 1970 for the only time in his career. He wasn't exactly thrilled about the honor, though. The game was held in Cincinnati -- which the story to which I've linked says was not one of Harper's favorite towns. Indeed, Harper said that he really wasn't excited at all for the honor: 
I don't have any childhood dreams about playing in this game like some other players do. I happened to be an athlete with some ability, and mostly I was good at baseball. So that's what I play because that's where I can make the most money. The All-Star game is just another game. I'm not all excited about it. It's a lot of hard work.
After that incredible year, the Brewers apparently low-balled Harper on the first contract they offered to him. Harper let his displeasure be known when he came to town for the winter promotional tour. The deal was done eventually, and Harper enjoyed a decent year in 1971.

In the team's early years, however, the only thing that everyone knew would come for sure for the Brewers was change (and that line for me came from Love Spit Love's "Change in the Weather"). As I mentioned in Lew Krausse's bio, Harper was traded to the Red Sox after the 1971 season in a major deal for both teams.  

Harper played for three years for Boston before they traded him to the Angels for Bob Heise (by that time, Heise was a former Brewer too) after the 1974 season.  He split 1975 between his hometown California Angels and the Oakland A's before finishing up his career in 1976 with the Orioles.

After his playing career ended, Harper stayed in baseball and worked for the Boston Red Sox. Well, he didn't start there, as Harper stated in a candid interview in September of 2014 with the Boston Globe.  The Red Sox didn't want to hire him at first, so Harper went to the New York Yankees as a minor league infield instructor. 

But then the Red Sox offered him a job. It wasn't because they really wanted him to be a coach with them, but rather because they needed a black man in the organization as part of a settlement the club made with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Harper was named as the club's Affirmative Action representative without his knowledge, then was demoted from the position and lost the salary benefit that came with it. But, to the outside world, the Red Sox continued to call him their affirmative action representative.

The team was just continuing practices that had been ongoing for years. During his playing days, Harper and Reggie Smith (and this is quoting from news story now) "regularly received racist hate mail as Sox players in the early '70s. They were also targets of racial slurs from Fenway patrons." He and Smith also received disparate treatment from the club in spring training -- as the team provided free guest passes to the all-white Elks Club in Winter Haven, Florida, to all white players but not to their African-American players.  

As Harper said, "The most disappointing thing was that [the discriminatory practice] was never a secret to Red Sox management or the Boston media." The worst part of the practice was that it continued into the 1980s -- with Jim Rice making a joke about it when he was signed to a contract extension in 1985. 

To his credit, Peter Gammons noted the discrimination in his Sox Notes column at the time, and the Globe's Michael Madden dug into the issue further. Harper told Madden about the fact that it had occurred at least as early as 1972. For his part in helping Madden in breaking the story, Harper was barred from spring training meetings, was not given any regular season assignments, and then fired him the week before Christmas in 1985. Harper sued the team and won.

He left Boston after that as a baseball outsider -- someone who had challenged the status quo. The only reason he ended up getting employed in baseball again was because Al Campanis opened his fat, racist mouth on Nightline and claimed that black people "may not have some of the necessities" to be GMs and field managers. That got teams scared, and the Montreal Expos signed Harper as a minor league instructor soon after. 

He rejoined the Red Sox in 1999 when former Expos GM Dan Duquette hired him as a first base coach. Harper had been reassured that everything was better. It was not. Proving this point in 2002, Mike Stanley -- a white former catcher -- was hired to be a coach without any prior major league experience and given a salary $50,000 higher than Harper was receiving. 

To the current ownership's credit, the Red Sox changed things once the Yawkeys were out of the picture. The Red Sox inducted Harper into the team's Hall of Fame in 2010, and to this day Harper still serves in a consultant's role with the Red Sox at the age of 74.

I have three Tommy Harper cards showing him on the Brewers, and those three cards are pictured above.


  1. Excellent use of the Stargell Meme! One reason I like Tommy Harper is that he was a Topps All-Star Rookie.

  2. Awesome history story - growing up with the Sox in a 99.9% white Massachusetts community, I didn't really catch wind of the "Hey the Sox were/are kind of racist" story until after leaving the area, so there's lots of pieces of that story I've missed up til now, most of this post included. It's awful that the team was that crappy to people of color for so long, but I'm glad they're finally starting to right some of those wrongs, even if it took them until 2010 to do what other teams were doing in the 50's and 60's.

    1. I knew that the Sox were the final team to integrate in 1958 with Pumpsie Green getting signed, and I knew about the sham tryout for Jackie Robinson, but I was not aware that the issues carried on into the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s. That story from last year with Harper was incredibly illuminating.

    2. THe SOx had first shot at Jackie Robinson AND Willie Mays!! Could you imagine Having Robinson, Mays, and Ted WIlliams on the same team?! It was karma that the Sox won the World Series after the last ties to the Yawkeys (John Harrington and the Yawkey Trust) sold the team and fresh blood took over.

  3. Good read. Happy to see the Stargell meme catching on! haha
    That "courtroom sketch artist" card is kinda creepy.

    1. I'll use the Stargell meme whenever I can. It was pure happenstance but entirely fortuitous that it fit into today's post.

    2. And yeah, that courtroom sketch card -- from the 1970 McDonald's Set -- yikes.

  4. These Stargell memes are not getting old. Not even close. I may have to get in on the act.

  5. I met Harper a few months back at a card show. Very humble man. Had him sign his 64 with the rookie cup.