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Jack Harshman: From the Baseball Hall of Fame Library Player Files, Part 2

As this timeline enters his White Sox years, we continue to find out that even his story's wrinkles have wrinkles.

We ended the previous installment with the White Sox signing Jack Harshman for the 1954 season. He made an immediate impact, going 14-8 with a 2.95 ERA over 177 innings in his rookie season. Paul Richards worked him in and out of the rotation, partially to minimize the impact of his control lapses, and also to build up his arm strength.

By the second half, it seemed like he figured out the whole starting thing. He went 9-4 with a 2.34 ERA, holding opponents to a .208 batting average against. During that stretch, he pulled off the two most remarkable starts of his career -- the 16-strikeout game against Boston, and the 16-inning shutout against Detroit.

He almost added another feather to his cap two years later.

Nearly three feats of strength

On June 21, 1956, Harshman beat the Orioles and ex-Sox Connie Johnson by a score of 1-0. Considering Harshman won a 16-inning game by the same score in 1954, that doesn't stand out by that scant description alone.

Here's what's unique about this pitching duel: Harshman and Johnson each threw a one-hitter, making it just the third such game in history at the time.

Nellie Fox came through with the White Sox's lone hit in the first inning, a double that drove in Jim Rivera, who led off with a walk and stole second. In an interview with Sports Collectors Digest on Feb. 21, 1997, Harshman said Fox's hit was a fly into right-center that either outfielder should have caught.

The lone hit Harshman allowed might have been an out if a key player weren't missing:

"Our leftfielder was normally Minnie Minoso, a fielder that could go toward centerfield extremely well and consequently would guard the left field foul line a step or two more than normal because he could go the other direction so well. That day, Dave Philley happened to be playing left field beause Minnie was hurt. [Gus] Triandos hit a looping line drive down the left field line that I feel that Minnie might have caught. Philley could not run like Minoso and almost made the catch as the ball dropped off his glove for a legitimate double. I'm not saying the ball should have been caught, but it was one of those questionable things that had Minnie been playing left field it might have been caught."

We've read a lot about Minoso's defensive prowess, so it's cool to hear specifics about what made him so valuable in the field. Harshman recovered with a fine defensive play of his own, fielding a bunt in time to throw out Triandos at third to thwart the Orioles' biggest threat.

Minoso was in the field for Harshman's 16-strikeout game, though, and Harshman said Minoso was the guy who alerted Harshman to the possibility of history. You have your choice of how Minoso is quoted.

Via Harshman: "The boy up in the scoreboard tells me you've got 15 strikeouts. Did you know that you had 15 strikeouts?" (Sports Collectors Digest interview)

Via the Tribune Press Service: "Boy in scoreboard back of me tell you have 15 when Ted Williams fan to end the seventh inning." (July 27, 1954)


In the same interview, Harshman provides some interesting insights on Marty Marion, his manager in 1955 and 1956. I wrote about Marion's White Sox history after he died in March of 2011, and noted that Marion had his team in the thick of a pennant race in 1955 before a late-season fade. The chief cause seemed to be the pitching, especially the pitching of Dick Donovan, who was a shell of himself after his appendectomy (which sounds very familiar, hmm?).

But Harshman tells us why Marion received an unusually large share of the blame:

"He was still kind of green handling things. I liked Marty as a man. One year I felt that he became a little panicky in that we honestly had a chance to win the pennant. He became a little bit concerned about his pitching rotation. He was trying to protect making decisions as closely as he possibly could. For whatever reason, he took me out of the rotation and pitched Billy Pierce, Bob Keegan and Dick Donovan to death. I never understood why."

Sure enough, there's a big void in Harshman's game log from 1955. From his last start in June to his first start in August, Harshman alternated fine outings with awful ones. Marion, like Paul Richards before him, occasionally skipped Harshman, but this turned into a layoff. Harshman made a couple long-relief appearances before returning the rotation 21 days later. He went the distance in an 11-1 victory over the Washington Senators.

The Sox held half-game lead in the AL over the Yankees and Indians when the Sox entered a key four-game series in Cleveland. Harshman beat Sal Maglie in the opener on Sept. 2, but the Sox lost the next three to fall 1½ games behind. Harshman beat the Senators agaiin on Sept. 7 to maintain that gap, but the Sox slowly slid out of it.

There were a few different ways to point fingers, but you'd be hard-pressed to pin it on Harshman. Starting with that Aug. 27 complete game, the Sox won the last five games Harshman started, and came away with the victory in his lone extended relief appearance, too.

Commercial break

Here's Marty Marion for Gillette Razors. The title of the video says 1953, but Marion didn't manage the Sox until September of 1954.

We now return to our program ...

Personal life

That Saturday Evening Post article from March 24, 1956, is a tremendous profile of Harshman's family life. The title is "The ballplayer and the lady," and the lead photo is so very 1950s: Harshman playing with his dog in the living room of the house as his wife and daughter smile.

But even before getting into the meat of the article, you know it's going to have unique twists. The photo caption calls his wife, Dee, an "airplane pilot, a registered nurse, and sometimes a supervisor of baseball managers," and identifies the girl as the daughter from Dee's first marriage.

The subhead is even more intriguing:

Jack Harshman could hit the ball a mile, but his batting average was anemic. Then, aided by the uninhibited girl he married, he turned into a surprisingly crafty pitcher.

"Uninhibited" didn't have the same connotation back then. In this case, it's because she gives advice and shares opinions about his pitching performances.

There may never have been a baseball wife quite like Frances DeVee Oldman Harshman. She is pert, pretty -- and candidly ambitious for Jack. Her terse, matter-of-fact husband refuses to blow his own horn, but this uninhibited little blonde has been doing it for him ever since they were married in 1950.

We learn a lot about Frances DeVee Oldman Harshman, who met Jack Harshman during one of his years in Minneapolis. She was a registered nurse, an "accordion virtuoso" and a pilot who had logged 850 solo hours in her own plane. She also knew a considerable amount about baseball, growing up with six brothers and playing softball herself.

This knowledge comes through in the article, helping to inform us about his development. While she didn't like the idea to convert him into a position player, she got on board when Harshman started believing he had a better chance of getting back to the big leagues that way.

She pinned his early struggles on an attempt by Paul Richards and longtime White Sox pitching coach Ray Berres to convert Harshman to a full-overhand delivery.

"We think an exhibition game between the White Sox and Milwaukee late that May was what saved the situation," Dee explained. "Jack was due to work and we decided it wouldn't do any harm to go back to his old three-quarter style. After all, it was good enough to win twenty-seven games for Nashville the year before. And the new method he'd been taught was definitely uncomfortable for him."

"Well, Jack pitched five innings of shutout ball against the Braves, and gave up only two hits. I think Mr. Richards was convinced. He gave Jack a starting chance shortly afterward in a regular game in Washington. Jack pitched a shutout."

(An exhibition game in late May? I'll hold off on pursuing that tangent right now.)

Dee Harshman also didn't care for Marion pulling her husband out of the rotation on a semi-regular basis, stressing that Harshman pitched better when he knew he was going every four or five days.

We also learn about Harshman's pitching style from ex-teammate Virgil Trucks, who said that if he'd studied hitters the way Harshman did, he might have won more than 160 games in his career. "When he isn't pitching, he's taking mental notes on those hitters -- I mean all the time," Trucks added.

And Jack Harshman did share some information on how he built up a five-pitch arsenal. He taught himself the screwball and the slider "just fooling around." Richards taught him the slip pitch, and Harshman figured out how to make the most of it:

"It's thrown exactly like a fast ball, except with a stiff wrist," Harshman explains. "The job is to control it. If not overused, it keeps the hitters just a little off stride."

This is all Harshman asks of any pitch. He doesn't think in terms of blowing the ball past the batters, despite his high strike-out ratio. "The object is to hurt their timing a little," he declares. "Most of the time they're going to hit the ball. You just try to keep them from getting that good swing at it."

There's so much more color to this article that I had to copy it for posterity, and I thought this angle might have been my lead to Part 1. But later in this file, I found this two-inch square cut from what looks like the Chicago Daily Tribune on Oct. 11, 1957:

Mrs. Frances De Vee Harshman, 27, wife of White Sox pitcher Jack Harshman, yesterday was granted a divorce in superior court. Mrs. Harshman charged cruelty. The Harshmans have no children.

By now, we know that Harshman's history has more twists than a high school sock hop. So when it came time to trade him, would you think that went off without a hitch?

The first Mike Sirotka

Of course not.

On Dec. 3, 1957, the White Sox traded Harshman, Larry Doby and Jim Marshall to Baltimore in exchange for pitcher Ray Moore, infielder Billy Goodman and outfielder Tito Francona. But the trade wouldn't be completed until the end of January due to circumstances that sound familiar.

Harshman experienced back problems that caused him to miss almost all of September. He came back at the very end to throw a complete-game victory against the Indians. He struck out nine over nine innings, while allowing just a run on six hits and three walks. Everything looked OK.

But the back problems were more serious than anybody let on. When the Orioles examined him in January, two other opinions emerged. From Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram and Sun on Jan. 18, 1958:

The Baltimore club recently asked Harshman to undergo examination by three orthopedic specialists, who found that there was something seriously wrong with his back, and that he lacked reflexes in his left foot.

One diagnosis has it that Harshman is suffering from a slipped disk in his spine. Another has the pitcher handicapped by a "congenital anomaly" -- that is, he was born with an improperly developed bone in the lower part of his spine.

Slipped disk or undergrown vertebra, the Baltimore club asks [Commissioner Ford] Frick to cancel the Harshman part of the trade, and force Chicago to substitute an acceptable pitcher.

In an AP story the next day, the White Sox defended their position, saying their team physician examined Harshman in August and found "only a muscle spasm which could be treated by diathermy." Harshman was flown from San Diego to Chicago to testify that three doctors he consulted on the West Coast did not discover a ruptured disc until after the trade was announced.

Another doctor from Johns Hopkins confirmed the ruptured disc diagnosis, but said Harshman could pitch in 1958 with the help of a "supporting corset."

While Sox fans know this he-said-he-said situation from the Mike Sirotka trade after the 2000 season, but at the time, the trade of perceived damaged goods had no sound precedent. Since Harshman could still pitch, Frick negotiated a compromise: The trade would stand, but the Sox would have to sweeten the pot a little by the end of the month. The Sox added Russ Heman to the trade to complete the deal.

Harshman went on to have a fine season for the Orioles in 1958. Although he posted a pedestrian 12-15 record, he set career bests in ERA (2.95), innings (236⅓) and strikeouts (161). It was the last full season of his career.

Previously in this series:

Jack Harshman Part 1 | Eddie Collins Part 2 | Eddie Collins Part 1 | Zeke Bonura | Ed Walsh | Ray Schalk | Minnie Minoso Part 1 | Minnie Minoso Part 2 | Fielder Jones | Luke Appling | Johnny Mostil | Eddie Cicotte