THE OTHER THIRD BASEMAN – TOBY HARRAH
Earlier we talked about former Texas third baseman Buddy Bell, who’s in the Rangers Hall of Fame. He amazed every Texas fan who watched him play defense, and his offensive skills were an added bonus. For six seasons, he was by far the team’s best player. His offense was well-above league average and his defense was absolutely stellar – he made plays Texas fans had never seen before, and made them look easy.
But there was another pretty good third baseman, before Bell: Colbert Dale “Toby” Harrah. Also a Rangers Hall of Famer, Harrah was friendly, genuine and likeable, great with the fans – and man, did he love to hit the baseball.
A FanGraphs check of the Rangers’ career “WAR-by-position” for the ‘70s and ‘80s shows that third base graded out as the best position during that time span, by a very wide margin, largely due to the 29.9 fWAR from Harrah and the 34.6 from Bell.
Harrah came up with the Washington Senators as an 18-year-old second baseman, a kid from small-town West Virginia who signed for $500 at a tryout camp. He debuted at age 20 and was part of the move from Washington to Texas, where he was installed at shortstop.
Young Harrah had a great sense of humor, especially about himself. He liked to say the town he came from was so small the phone book only had one Yellow Page. (Yes, I hear all you millenials sarcastically saying, “What’s a phone book?”)
One time when the Royals’ Paul Splittorff hummed a fast ball at his chin over some imagined offense, Harrah raised his hands to protect himself and the ball broke his wrist. He cheerfully told the media, “Better a broken hand than a broken face.”
He was also a practical joker. Before one road trip, Harrah took a razor blade and cut some of the stitches in the seat of Mike Hargrove’s pants. Naturally the trousers split open as Hargrove climbed on the bus to the airport. Toby quickly confessed, but only because “Grover” was about to beat the tar out of some other suspect.
Despite Harrah’s likeability, he got serious when the games started. “I was the type of player who would do anything to beat you,” Harrah said. “Hit behind the runner, steal a base, break up a double play, play every day. I wanted to win in the worst way.”
Harrah enjoyed a decent first season in Texas – he made the All-Star team – and the next year he started to get some innings at third base, as well. He grew into such a solid, versatile performer that his manager warned the front office if they tried to trade Toby, they’d “better be ready for a fistfight.”
His peak year was 1975, with a slash line of 293/.403/.458. His OPS+ was 145 and his 6.9 fWAR led all American League shortstops, earning him recognition as Rangers Player of the Year. His second-best season was 1977, leading the majors in walks and earning fWAR of 5.5. That’s also the year he and second baseman Bump Wills became the only teammates to hit back-to-back, inside-the-park home runs.
Harrah’s move to third became permanent in 1977, when Texas acquired veteran shortstop Bert Campaneris. Writers thought Harrah would be angry, but he told us, “They said it’s not about whether I could play shortstop, it’s about what’s best for the team.” I’ll just leave this here without further comment.
Harrah enjoyed a 17-year big-league career – eleven seasons in two stints with Texas, five years with the Indians and one with the Yankees. A four-time All Star, he had five seasons of at least 20 home runs and scored over 100 runs twice. Former teammate Tom Grieve, who had become the Rangers GM, brought Toby back in 1985 for a kind of farewell tour, primarly at second. His bat was still serviceable that season – wOBA of .379, wRC+ of 133. But 1986 was a struggle and he retired after the season, becoming the last original Ranger to retire as a major-league player.
His verve for the game had made him friends and fans everywhere he went. For example, he ranks No. 41 on a Cleveland fan-based list of the Top 100 Indians players of all time. He and Ruben Sierra were inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2009.
After his playing career, he managed in the minor leagues and, with the Oklahoma City Red Hawks, was ejected by the only woman umpire in pro ball, Pam Postema. He had a few choice words about being tossed by a female, but later apologized. He also coached in the big leagues for the Rangers, Indians, Rockies and Tigers. He retired in 2013.
An interesting parting note: On June 25, 1976, Harrah played shortstop in both games of a double header without getting a single fielding chance. The two games saw a total of 20 infield assists, but none were hit to Toby. He could have left his glove in the dugout.
Looking at his career, the stats might not rank Toby as the best third baseman to play for Texas, but as he once said: “Stats are like bikinis. They show you a lot, but they don’t show you everything.”