HARDER, MELVIN LEROY “MEL” (15 October 1909-20 October 2002) was a longtime pitcher and pitching coach for the CLEVELAND INDIANS.
Harder was born in Nebraska and signed a minor-league contract with the Omaha Buffaloes. While there, he attracted the attention of Indians scout Cy Slapnicka, and was signed by the Indians, making his major league debut in 1928, and quickly became a mainstay in the team’s starting rotation. On 31 July 1932, he was Indians’ starting pitcher in the first major league baseball game at CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM, taking a hard-luck 1-0 loss to Lefty Grove and the defending American League champion Philadelphia Athletics. (He threw the first pitch at Cleveland Stadium and the last pitch, in a ceremony following the final Indians game there in 1993.)
Harder pitched in the All-Star Game in four straight years, from 1934 to 1937, getting the win in the 1934 Midsummer Classic at the Polo Grounds and the save the following year in front of the hometown fans. He also got the save in the 1937 All-Star Game. His 13 scoreless innings remain an All-Star Game record. He also had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1934 and 1935.
Harder retired after the 1947 season with a career record of 223-186. Harder’s 20 seasons as a pitcher and 582 career appearances remain club records (as are his 186 losses), and he’s second to BOB FELLER in wins, starts and innings pitched. Ted Williams called him the toughest pitcher he ever faced, and Harder is the only pitcher ever to strike out Joe Dimaggio three times in one game.
The year after his retirement, Harder became the Indians’ pitching coach, a specialization that was still novel in those days. Harder counted Bob Lemon’s conversion from outfielder to pitcher as one of his successes, and on his watch as pitching coach, the Indians assembled one of the best collections of arms in baseball history. One of his former pupils, Herb Score, said “If Mel Harder couldn’t teach you a curveball, then no one could.” Harder remained the Indians’ pitching coach until 1963, when he was succeeded by another former pupil, Early Wynn, who said, “Mel Harder made me a pitcher.” Harder was pitching coach for the New York Mets in 1964, the Chicago Cubs in 1965, the Cincinnati Reds from 1966 to 1968, and the expansion Kansas City Royals (managed by former Indian Joe Gordon) in 1969, making him the only person in Major League history to play in the majors for 20 years and then coach in the majors for another 20.
Harder was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame, and his number 18 was retired in 1990. In 1993, he threw a ceremonial first pitch at the groundbreaking for Jacobs Field. In 2001, he was one of 100 Indians players honored as the team’s best during its centennial year.
Harder met his wife Sandy on a blind date while pitching for Omaha in 1927. They had two daughters, Gay and Penny, and five grandchildren. Sandy died in 1989. Mel Harder is memorialized at Harder Field in Chardon, Ohio, where he was a longtime resident. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the field.