The lanky lefty took an unusual route to the White Sox, where he would eventually set a notable franchise record.
We've talked about Jack Harshman twice already this offseason in the "White Sox Feats of Strength" series he inspired. The first focused on his record-setting 16-strikeout performance against Boston on July 25, 1954, and the second centered on his 16-inning shutout against Detroit the following month.
In these accounts, we learned that Harshman's origin story was more interesting than most. He came up with the Giants as a power-hitting first baseman by trade, but was encouraged to try pitching when it looked like he wasn't going to fix the hole in his swing. In just a short time, he developed five pitches -- fastball, curve, slider, changeup, and a slip pitch/palmball/"The Thing."
Let's see how he got there using the clippings in his Hall of Fame Library player file.
Harshman as a first basemen
Harshman had noteworthy power as a prospect for the New York Giants in the late 1940s, hitting 37 homers in the Western International League in the same season he turned 20, 1947. He hit 24 the following year while playing for Jersey City of the International League, a much more advanced level.
The Giants gave him a look at the end of the season. His first at-bat didn't go so well, as he told Sports Collectors Digest on Feb. 21, 1997:
He finished that cup of coffee with two singles in eight at-bats, but he spent the next year in the minors, hitting 40 homers for Minneapolis in 1949. That led to his first real chance in the majors in 1950, when he broke camp as the Giants' starting first baseman at the age of 22. But Leo Durocher didn't like his chances, and pretty much wrote him off before the season started. From an April 17, 1950 clipping authored by Bill Roeder:
Perhaps the most belittled rookie ever to come to the Polo Grounds is the power hope. [...] He'll open at first base, but Durocher is already thinking negatively about his chances and talking enthusiastically about rookie [Tookie] Gilbert, the kid who will be brought up if Harshman fails.
Harshman hit a three-run homer off Boston's Johnny Sain on April 19, but struggled otherwise, going 4-for-32 over his first nine games. Those would also be his last nine games as a first baseman in the majors. The Giants called for Tookie Gilbert, and Gilbert played the rest of the season, even though he didn't hit much better (.220/.314/.307, good for an OPS+ of 64).
Gilbert's story is similar to Harshman's, because he hit 33 homers at Nashville in 1949 as a 20-year old. That power never amounted to anything in the majors, but he received the longer look nevertheless.
It's possible nepotism was involved to some degree. Tookie's father was Larry Gilbert, and Larry Gilbert was part-owner of the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association. The teams did business together, as Harshman would find out when he spent 1951 and 1953 playing for Nashville.
But those two seasons were quite different. In 1951, Harshman slugged 47 homers (to just 22 doubles) as a first baseman.
In 1953, Harshman went 23-7 with a 3.27 ERA over 259 innings as a pitcher.
He made the change on the suggestion of ... Larry Gilbert!
Switching to pitching
Apparently Gilbert had a keen understanding of what we now would call "park factors," as Harshman said in a Joe Williams column on June 28, 1956:
[Gilbert] pointed to the short right-field fence in our park and said: "That's what made you a home run king, not your bat." I finally got the idea. Next season, I was working on the other side of the street."
Gilbert offered his perspective to the Saturday Evening Post. From a feature on Harshman on March 24, 1956:
"Here this fellow Harshman hit forty-seven home runs for us in 1951," Gilbert adds. "He set a league reord with six grand-slammers. He drove in 141 runs. And still I wanted to make a pitcher out of him. Well, I was thinking about all the 108 times he fanned. And his lousy .251 batting average. Terrible! Sure, he knocked in 141 runs, but he did it on only 136 hits. As a fielding first baseman, no complaints; as a hitter, he would never do."
"But the clincher to me was his good live arm," Larry concludes. "Don Osborn, our 1951 manager, had him throw batting practice one August night in Sulphur Dell. I watched from my office above the stands, and I've been enthusiastic about Harshman ever since."
Harshman started his pitching endeavor in earnest for Minneapolis in 1952, and his results were OK for the circumstances (6-7, 4.67 ERA over 131 innings). The Giants gave him another end-of-year trial on the mound, but he struggled in both his appearances. So Harshman ended up back in Nashville thanks to a trade engineered by Durocher. From that 1997 Sports Collectors Digest article:
Durocher wanted Al Worthington. Mr. Gilbert said you can have Worthington if you give me Harshman. That made me the actual property of the Nashville ballclub, but I was still under a major league contract with the New York Giants, which meant I was making a major league salary.
White Sox reap the rewards
With the last trade to Nashville, the Giants lost their rights to Harshman, so he was available to any team who showed an interest. The legendary Carl Hubbell, the Giants' farm director, liked Harshman, and recommended him his friend (and White Sox manager) Paul Richards.
General manager Frank Lane had an inside track on Harshman, but he took his time sealing the deal because scouts were cool on Harshman's ceiling. Lane described the pursuit in the aforementioned Saturday Evening Post profile:
"The Harshman case is an example of why general managers can't always accept managers' or scouts' reports as gospel. Our scouts in the South weren't too keen about him from the start. But his record continued to attract my attention. I took a ten-day option with Larry Gilbert to buy him. This was in late July of 1953."
"I sent two more scouts down to Nasvhille to look at him. 'Not fast enough,' they reported. Luke Appling, our manager at Memphis that year, admitted Harshman was a good double-A pitcher, but said it was doubtful he could win in the big leagues. I told Gilbert I was unfair to hold him up. We would waive our option."
Harshman kept winning, though, and Lane couldn't take his eyes off his stat line. So in September, Lane went to Memphis to see a Harshman start. He liked what he saw against a right-handed lineup in a live-ball league, and he called Gilbert to talk about a deal.
The one problem: Since the Sox waived their option, the Indians stepped in to check out Harshman. Cleveland talked with Gilbert about Harshman's services, but they ultimately passed on Harshman, too. When the Indians' option expired at 6:30 a.m., Gilbert immediately called Lane, and they hammered out a purchse for the price of $25,000.
"In the fall when I met with our scouts, I stated clearly that I had purchased Harshman on the strength of what I had seen myself. If Harshman failed, the expenditure would have to be charged to my stupidity."
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers has another quote from Lane that describes why individual evaluators might not have been impressed with Harshman at any point:
"One [scout] said he had a fine curve but no speed. Another one said he threw a good slider, but his curve wans't good enough. Another one said that his change-up was great, but he didn't have the speed to make it work. Well, I decided that a guy with all those pitches ought to be able to pitch."
Lane would be proven correct, as we know from the previous Feats of Strength posts. Hopefully you're not Harshmanned out just yet, because this one is a two-parter.
Previously in this series: