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Featured T.R.'s Memoirs

Boys of Arlington: Harrah, Bell and good times and bad at Arlington Stadium

(Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK)

 

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at Rangers greats Toby Harrah and Buddy Bell and the deep connection they shared.

 

The Indians were getting ready to trade third baseman Buddy Bell, according to rampant rumors circulating as the 1978 winter meetings opened in an Orlando hotel.

Down in Texas, nobody was really talking about Rangers third baseman Toby Harrah. The big news surrounding the Rangers  was just a few miles away where — in a bizarre twist of timing — the trial began between former manager Frank Lucchesi and infielder Lenny Randle.

Two years earlier, Randle had savagely attacked Lucchesi before a spring training game in Orlando, pummeling the 50-year-old manager with several blows to the face. The two had been talking privately at the batting cage when Randle, upset at losing his starting job to second baseman Bump Wills, erupted and took out his anger on Lucchesi.

Harrah never punched any of his managers. He might have grumbled and sniped behind their backs — or questioned their decisions in the media. He might have bristled at suggestions his defense just wasn’t good enough but …

Trade Harrah, the last remaining Ranger from the inaugural 1972 team? Nobody saw that coming as the winter meetings opened the week of Dec. 4, 1978.

“I can’t trade Toby,” owner Brad Corbett said. “He’s like a son to me.”

“Toby Harrah is my shortstop,” said manager Par Corrales, who had replaced Billy Hunter after the Rangers’ 87-75 finish.

“I think Toby is the key to our club next season,” vice president Eddie Robinson said.

Things change quickly. Before the week was over, Lucchesi settled out of court, and a trade of historic significance was completed between the Rangers and the Indians.

The Rangers traded Harrah for Bell. Straight up between Cleveland and Texas. Third baseman for third baseman. Nobody else was included in the deal.

The historical significance?

By getting traded for each other, Bell and Harrah eventually set a dubious “record” for the most career games played by two players who were traded for each other and neither ever played in the postseason. Bell and Harrah combined to play 35 seasons in the major leagues and 4,560 games without ever experiencing postseason play.

That’s what happens when 30 of those 35 seasons are spent with either the Indians or the Rangers. That’s what happens when you play most of your home games in either Arlington Stadium or Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, two of the worst facilities in the game.

Yet, Harrah and Bell are two iconic players in Texas, beloved fan favorites from the early years of a struggling, wayward franchise. They are enshrined in the Rangers Hall of Fame, ostensibly for what they did on the field but more likely because they had the intestinal fortitude and staying power to survive as long as they did in the Texas heat, hijinks and hysteria.

Bell and Harrah survived because they loved the game and they loved Texas and could talk baseball for hours, whether it be in the clubhouse or over a cold beer at a late-night watering hole somewhere in the American League.

They are two American success stories who have spent their entire adult lives working in baseball. Harrah was born dirt poor, the son of a West Virginia coal miner, while Bell was the son of Reds outfielder Gus Bell, the patriarch of a three-generation family that includes current Cincinnati manager David Bell.

Brother Mike Bell was the Rangers’ first-round pick in 1993. He had a brief big-league stay with the Reds in 2000 and had a promising postseason career as a manager/executive cut short when he passed away in 2021 because of cancer.

Buddy’s younger son, Ricky Bell, played 10 years in the minor leagues. The father and three sons combined on a book in 2005 called Smart Baseball: How Professionals Play the Mental Game.

Toby Harrah and Buddy Bell. They were Rangers. They were Arlington Stadium. They were pure baseball. There was a point for each of them where it looked like they had a chance to manage the team.

Big steal for the Rangers

Harrah, undrafted out of high school, was 18 and working in a factory in his hometown of Marion, Ohio, when the Phillies signed him to a free-agent contract on Dec. 27, 1966. The Washington Senators took him the next year in the minor-league draft, one of the most fortuitous, if not astute, moves in franchise history.

By 1971, Harrah was the Senators’ shortstop and leadoff hitter, going 2-for-4 in an 8-0 victory over the Athletics on Opening Day. One year later, he and the rest of the Senators moved to Texas.

Harrah should have been the Rangers’ first All-Star, and technically he was that first season. He was selected to the team by Orioles manager Earl Weaver but had to drop out because of a shoulder injury. No other Ranger was selected to go.

No matter. From 1972 to 1976, Harrah was one of the better shortstops in the American League and an All-Star in 1975 and 1976. Harrah thrived under Billy Martin, who managed the Rangers from 1973 to 1975. Martin was a volatile and temperamental boss, quite tough on his players, but it made Harrah a much tougher player.

“Toby was super,” Martin said. “He did everything I ever asked of him.”

Harrah wasn’t the best defensive shortstop in the league. He had above-average range but committed a lot of errors, twice leading the league in 1974 and 1976. There were more than a few times Harrah could get irritated and clash with the local writers over criticism of his defense.

(The Associated Press)

However, he was a serious offensive threat during a time when most shortstops were light-hitting glovemen or speed guys.

Harrah’s best year was in 1975, when he hit .293 with 20 home runs and 93 RBIs. His offensive WAR that season was the second-best in the league behind Rod Carew. The next year, Harrah was the starting shortstop for the American League in the All-Star Game.

Harrah committed a career-high 36 errors in 1976, still the Rangers record for most by a player at any position. He also earned his own footnote in baseball history on June 25, when played both games of a doubleheader against the White Sox and did not get a single chance on defense. Not one ball was hit to him.

That has never happened again in baseball history. But the statistical oddity wasn’t noticed until two days later. The big news that day was Harrah’s walk-off grand slam to win the first game.

The Rangers moved Harrah to third base the next season. He wasn’t happy about it, but this was at the advent of free agency and owner Brad Corbett was ready to spend, signing shortstop Bert Campaneris to a five-year contract. Campaneris had started for Oakland on three world championship teams from 1972 to 1974, but he was also 6 ½ years older than Harrah and well past his prime.

Harrah still had an excellent year in 1977, hitting .263 with 27 home runs and 87 RBIs. He also led the league with 109 walks with a superb eye at the plate that was characteristic of his entire career. In 12 of 16 full seasons in the big leagues, Harrah walked more than he struck out.

Another historical oddity occurred on Aug. 27, 1977, in an 8-2 victory over the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Harrah came to the plate with two on in the seventh inning against Yankees left-hander Ken Clay and hit a high drive to deep right field. Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella couldn’t get it and crashed into the wall, unable to recover in time to stop Harrah from an inside-the-park home run.

Bump Wills then hit Clay’s next pitch to deep center, and it glanced off the glove of center fielder Mickey Rivers. He couldn’t recover in time either, and Wills circled the bases to give the Rangers back-to-back home runs on consecutive pitches.

Harrah slipped badly in 1978, and so did Campaneris. By August, Harrah was back playing shortstop but also feuding with manager Billy Hunter. It looked like one of them would have to go, and, in fact, both did. Hunter was fired after the ’78 season, and the Rangers decided that 21-year-old phenom Nelson Norman was their shortstop of the future.

Nobody really saw it coming, but on Dec. 8, 1978, Harrah was traded to the Indians straight up for Bell. A straight-up trade for two players playing the same position is a bit unusual, but the logic of this one was simple.

The Indians wanted more offense from third base, and the Rangers wanted more defense.

“Do I like the deal?” Corrales said. “Yes, I do. Buddy Bell is one of the best in the league. And now we can put Nelson Norman at shortstop and tighten up the whole left side of our infield. Last year we made [157] errors.”

Defensive magic at third

Buddy Bell is one of the best third basemen in baseball history. He is not in the Hall of Fame for a variety of reasons, including bad knees and bad teams. But all the advanced metrics developed over the years have placed Bell among the top 20 third basemen in the game’s history.

If you look at www.baseball-reference.com, he is ranked 15th overall among the third baseman in career WAR and 20th when only the top seven seasons are considered.

Defensively? He is third, ranking only behind Brooks Robinson — the greatest ever — and Adrian Beltre. Bell won six straight Gold Gloves with the Rangers beginning in 1979, and no modern metrics are needed to figure out why. He led the league in fielding twice and ranked in the top five all six seasons. He also led the league in range factor four of the six seasons.

Or just watch him: the soft, quick hands, strong arm, diving to his left and right, athletic ability to jump up and throw out the runner, adept at turning the double play. There’s no argument as to the greatness of his defensive ability.

(Getty Images)

Offensively, he blossomed in Texas, even while playing in a pitcher’s park. He hit .299 with 18 home runs and 101 RBIs in his first season with the Rangers and kept it up despite increasing knee issues. Over seven seasons in Cleveland, Bell had a combined slash of .274/.328/.382. Over six full seasons in Texas, it was .301/.358/.445.

The fans and media loved him: blond and good-looking, well-spoken and easygoing, played the game hard, played it right and played it to win. Bell and Jim Sundberg were the faces of the franchise.

But Bell hated losing, and it got to him. Not that he was alone in that regard, but Bell wasn’t afraid to speak his mind about it. He did so after his second season in Texas when Corrales — highly regarded in the clubhouse — was fired after a 76-85 season.

“I just don’t want to play here anymore,” Bell said after the final game. “I can’t believe the people with the money are surrounded by people who don’t know what’s going on. Pat Corrales isn’t the problem with this team. He was never the problem with this team, and if they don’t know that now, they’ll never know it.”

The real problem for the Rangers circa 1975 to 1984 was they had bad drafts and a bad farm system. William Simpson, David Hibner, Amos Lewis, Tim Maki? All first-round picks for the Rangers in the ’70s and never got anywhere near Arlington. Prospects like Nelson Norman often ended up being a bust.

But nobody cared about the farm system back then.

Bell was mollified when the Rangers hired veteran manager Don Zimmer to replace Corrales and rescinded his trade demands. The Rangers almost made the postseason in the strike-impacted 1981 season and, after finishing with an overall record of 57-48, had high hopes going into 1982.

“I haven’t felt this good about a team since I came to Texas,” Bell said coming out of spring training.

Then, the Rangers lost 98 games, Zimmer was fired, and Bell said, “It’s a shabbily run organization right now. I’m afraid things aren’t going forward anymore. It’s just like we’re an expansion team.”

Doug Rader took over in 1983, the beginning of the Reign of the Tahitian Warlord, as Phil Rogers termed the mercurial manager in The Impossible Takes a Little Longer, a terrific history of the Rangers’ first two decades in Texas.

Rader, colorful and combative, shook things up right away. He had the Rangers in first place at the All-Star break before a second-half collapse took them out of contention. Rader grew irate at his team’s performance, and the shit hit the fan after a 4-2 loss to the Mariners on Sept. 10. The Rangers, at that point, had lost 43 of their last 65 games and were 17 ½ games out of first place.

A number of veterans decided to drown their sorrows with a late night in Seattle that lasted into the early morning. Rader was in the hotel coffee shop when Bell and Co. finally returned from their night out. Rader blasted his veterans in front of the young players in a team meeting that afternoon, and Bell wasn’t happy about it.

“This team doesn’t have an attitude problem,” Bell said. “It has a talent problem.”

The Rangers finished 77-85 that season and 69-92 in 1984 as they dropped to last place. As the Rangers struggled, there were constant rumors Bell would be traded. The Dodgers were prominently mentioned, but nothing got done until it was too late.

In September of 1984, Bell was named team captain almost out of the blue. It wasn’t long after that, though, according to Rogers, that Rader criticized his team’s effort and again Bell took exception to the criticism.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing how we don’t do this and we don’t do that,” Bell said. “We’re short. We need to have a better team. We don’t have a good enough team.”

That was still the case for the 1985 season. Rader was fired by new general manager Tom Grieve after only 32 games and was replaced by Bobby Valentine. It was clear that the Rangers were in desperate need of a rebuild and one way to facilitate that was trading Bell, who by this time was ready to get the hell out of Arlington.

The problem was he wasn’t playing at his usual high level. At the beginning of July, the time when clubs begin serious trade discussions, Bell was hitting .236, and everybody knew about his knees.

Valentine, who had been hired away from the Mets, called their manager, Davey Johnson, and expressed frustration in the tepid interest in Bell.

“Davey, you’re talking about an All-Star third baseman,” Valentine said.

“No,” Johnson said. “I’m talking about a guy who hits .260 and drives in 60 runs.”

The Dodgers still needed a third baseman, and they opted for Enos Cabell, who was hitting .245 for the Astros and nowhere near Bell’s level as a player.

“I must have a disease,” Bell said.

Finally, the Rangers pulled off a decent trade, sending Bell to his hometown of Cincinnati. In return, the Reds sent outfielder Duane Walker and pitcher Jeff Russell to the Rangers. Walker was released after the season, but Russell proved to be a good return, eventually becoming an All-Star as a starter and reliever.

Road back to Arlington

In a twist of fate, both Harrah and Bell finished their careers with the Rangers.

Harrah had five productive seasons with the Indians from 1979 to 1983 and one bewildering year with the Yankees in 1984 at a time when mercurial owner George Steinbrenner was haphazardly acquiring veteran players without a clear idea how they would be used.

The Yankees even discussed using Harrah in the outfield in 1985, but instead traded him in spring training back to the Rangers for outfielder Billy Sample. Harrah rejoiced at the news.

“It’s like Christmas,” Harrah said. “I haven’t been this excited about baseball in a long time.”

(The Associated Press)

Harrah ended up as the Rangers’ regular second baseman in 1985 and walked 113 times, which still stands as the club record. His .432 on-base percentage is the second-highest. Harrah proved to be a great acquisition, but his 1986 season wasn’t as fun. Harrah hit .218 with reduced playing time, and the Rangers declined to pick up his option.

Harrah was 38 and still wanted to play, but there were no takers. In January, the Rangers gave him a job as a minor-league manager. He did that for two years before joining Valentine’s staff as a coach in 1989.

Bell had a revival in Cincinnati, enjoying two good seasons for the Reds in 1986 and 1987. The Reds were building a strong core of young players around Eric Davis and Barry Larkin, and Bell proved to be a good veteran addition at third base. He was no longer a Gold Glove defender but still solid defensively. He also hit a combined .281 in those two years with 37 home runs, 145 RBIs and a .436 slugging percentage.

The Reds finished in second place both years, not helped by manager Pete Rose being distracted from his real job because of his daily obsession with gambling odds.

Bell’s knees started giving way in 1988, and he ended up on the Reds bench before being traded during the season to the Astros. Then he became a free agent and shocked everybody in 1989 by signing a one-year deal with the Rangers.

The Rangers had Steve Buechele at third base and envisioned Bell as a right-handed hitting designated hitter who could back up at both corner spots.

“My loyalty to the Rangers is a helluva lot deeper than people realize, deeper than I realized,” Bell said. “This is something I wanted to do for quite some time. The memories I have are very good. The fact that we didn’t win here left me with an empty feeling.”

Bell was 1-for-3 on Opening Day in a 4-0 victory over the Astros. A week later he underwent knee surgery — the sixth of his career — and missed three weeks.

On June 24, with his batting average at .183, Bell decided to retire. There was no formal press conference. Instead, it was announced to the crowd in the third inning of a 7-3 loss to the Indians. Bell, fighting back tears, spoke to a handful of writers in the privacy of the training room while the game was still going on outside.

“My career was pretty much a secret to begin with,” Bell said. “Might a well keep it that way.”

Who wants to be a skipper?

Both Harrah and Bell stayed in baseball long after their playing days were over. Both also had a brush with the job of Rangers manager.

Harrah was made interim manager by Grieve on July 8, 1992, after Valentine was fired with a 45-41 record. There were four games left before the All-Star break, and the assumption was the Rangers would conduct an extensive search and pick a new manager before the second half started.

Instead, the Rangers won three of those four games, and Harrah was named for the remainder of the season. But the Rangers stumbled to a 32-44 record down the stretch, and Harrah didn’t get to keep the job. Kevin Kennedy was hired in the offseason, having been recommended by scouting director Sandy Johnson.

The Grieve-Kennedy arrangement lasted two years. Grieve was fired first after the Rangers finished 52-62 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He was replaced by Doug Melvin, who came over from Baltimore. Melvin immediately fired Kennedy, and the assumption was he would hire Johnny Oates, who had also recently been dismissed by the Orioles.

Bell was serving as manager Mike Hargrove’s bench coach with the Indians. On the morning of Oct. 18, Melvin called Indians general manager John Hart and asked permission to interview Bell. Hart relayed the request to Bell, who told Hart he wanted to talk to his family and Hargrove before getting back to Melvin.

Melvin finally hooked up with Bell that night by phone and said there would be no interview after all.

Melvin later told me that he was concerned the Red Sox were going to hire Oates. He didn’t want to wait, and he didn’t want to waste Bell’s time. Oates was hired, and Bell was left, well, holding the phone.

“I am absolutely shocked at the way things developed,” Bell said. “It just proves to me that they weren’t serious about interviewing me anyway.”

Bell went on to manage the Tigers (1996-98), Rockies (2000-02) and Royals (2005-07) before retiring as a vice president with the Reds in 2023.

By the way …

His bench coach with the Rockies? Toby Harrah.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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