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Original Issue


Bud Harrelson does not exactly have blacksmith's arms, and he wears down to a twig in the dog days of summer. But he is holding New York together—almost—as it battles for its very life

It's in the record book, but who's going to look at it?" Bud Harrelson was saying, and then added in the accepted manner of all good athletes, "and what good does it all do if you lose the game?"

Harrelson was sitting on a stool in the clubhouse. It was late on one of those steamy mid-August afternoons that are apt to send loving couples to the divorce court, and the World Champion New York Mets had just been whomped by a collection of whozats called the Houston Astros.

When the game began, Tom Seaver was pitching for the Mets, trying to become the second 18-game winner in the National League this year. Behind him at shortstop was Derrel McKinley Harrelson (see cover), all 5'10" and 146 pounds of him bent over, concentrating, his arms dangling loosely. Harrelson was well aware at this point that he had not made an error in nearly two months, not since the 23rd of June in Chicago. In the meantime, he had handled 219 chances (104 putouts, 115 assists), and if he completed this game intact he would tie a major league record set the previous season by Don Kessinger of the Cubs—54 consecutive games by a shortstop without an error. Such things are important to today's Mets, because their bats usually seem to be made of Styrofoam and rolled up copies of the Daily News. Harrelson was aware of the impending record only because a baseball writer in Atlanta had brought it to his attention several days earlier. "I didn't mind his telling me," said Harrelson. "It's his job." Among other things, Harrelson is noted for a generous disposition.

The first batter of the game, Jesus Alou, sent a routine grounder to Second Baseman Al Weis, who backed away uncertainly and then conducted a serious argument with the ball. Error No. 1. Seaver survived that inning undamaged and, with the Mets up, Harrelson walked and eventually scored a run on a Cleon Jones single. It still seemed like the formula that had raised the Mets from obloquy to primacy: tight pitching, Harrelson leading a consistently superb defense and helping to scrounge an occasional run.

On this afternoon the script went awry as it so often does these days with the Mets, who are vainly spinning their wheels in pursuit of stumbling Pittsburgh. Line drives whistled through the infield like cannonballs at Balaclava. The Mets treated the baseballs as dangerous enemies, and Seaver was driven from the game after the sixth inning, his earliest departure of the year. Only Harrelson remained immune to the epidemic of bootery. Once, after gracefully saving a grounder headed for left field, he forced a runner at second, then kicked the dirt in disgust. He felt that his hurried throw had been too low to permit the double play. He was the only person in the ball park to think so. "Buddy," says roommate Seaver, "sets impossible goals for himself." In the very next game Harrelson muffed an easy ground ball on the first ball hit to him in the first inning, the errorless streak ended and he was freed to focus his concentration on the more important issue of the moment: helping the Mets back into first place before the season has run its course.

As September arrived, the Mets were no longer last year's eager, straining young men with a bottle full of lightning. Yet, despite their obvious troubles, their clubhouse was a cheerful place, free of intense dedication. Last year, when the ball took miraculous bounces for them, every day was like Bob Cratchit's Christmas. Now the pop flies were falling between fielders, nobody covered the bag for the game-winning double play, six-run leads were squandered as if there were a million tomorrows. Seaver, the team leader in pitching and enthusiasm, lost five out of six games that should have put him over the 20-game mark. Harrelson, whose quiet competence unites the infield, was down to skin and bones under the double burden of summer heat and wasted opportunities.

Even with 158 pounds of springtime beef on him, Harrelson looks strangely frail in the company of professional athletes. His present peaked state is a team joke. The others kid him about having sand kicked in his face like the 98-pound weakling, and Harrelson's cheerful young face lights up with the gags. "Pretty soon," he says, "the only thing you'll be able to see is my nose."

To be sure, Harrelson has what the late Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune used to consider a sign of character in a man, what he called "a bone in the face." Harrelson's is a good, well-chiseled face, full of humor and punctuated by bright blue eyes and a wide, generous mouth. The ears are prominent, and the wavy brown hair—like the owner—is neatly trimmed to fit an earlier time and a disappearing ethic. The sideburns barely reach the earlobes. As he sits naked in front of his locker, one cannot miss a vertical scar across his kneecap. It is a testament to the fearless way Harrelson makes the pivot on the double play.

The career of Harrelson, who is 26, parallels the Mets' story. He was signed as a freshman out of San Francisco State in 1963, when the Mets were only a year old and ransacking the countryside for young talent while holding the franchise together at the old Polo Grounds with Casey Stengel's wit and a lot of creaky leftovers like Frank Thomas and Gil Hodges—the latter, of course, destined to return and lead a march to glory. Harrelson was in college on a basketball scholarship, but the baseball scouts from the Yankees and Cubs and Cards were all on his scent. He chose the Mets and their modest bonus of slightly over $10,000 only because he thought it was a quicker road to the majors.

For the next few years Harrelson and a lot of other young men were being sifted through the Mets sieve in places like Salinas and Buffalo and Jacksonville, but only three of that generation of neophytes survived to become part of the New Breed that began to staff the mother club in 1965. The others were Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda.

Those early years in the tules were not the best of times for a young man with such a strong attachment for home and family as Harrelson has. When one sees his attention wander—when, say, he is fully dressed in uniform, a solitary figure seated at his clubhouse locker with chin in hands—he probably is not thinking about how to repair a batting slump or where to eat that night. It is quite possible that he wondering what his wife Yvonne may be doing at the moment, or whether daughter Kimberly, 3½, and son Timothy, 1, have learned any new words in daddy's absence.

The strong sense of family was born out of a hard struggle. Harrelson's forbears forsook Oklahoma for California in the days of the dust bowl and stopped in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno, where so many of the migrating Okies scraped a living picking crops. His parents were raised there, married young and then during World War II moved on to war work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bud was the middle of three Harrelson children who grew up around Hayward, where Glenn Harrelson, Bud's father, later sold cars and then started up his own used-car business.

Bud is proud of his father and the other members of his family. "He's not the normal guy you'd hear of," he says of Glenn, "who'd sell you a piece of spit. When he sells you a car you'll come back for another. He's a smart businessman, and he's helped me and my older brother Dwane a lot in business. He's not the type you're going to walk all over. We're all pretty much alike in this respect. We're independent. We like to be our own bosses. And we love our family life."

There are a lot of cousins and relatives scattered through the Central Valley, so Bud and Yvonne like to take the children home at Christmas for a month or so of visiting. "It's only fair to the grandparents to let them see the kids as they grow," says Harrelson. "My family means more to me than anything."

Harrelson's first year away at Salinas was not too bad. He had just started courting Yvonne, and she could drive over on weekends with his parents. The next year at Buffalo was misery. Yvonne, who was only just out of high school, was working as a dental assistant in Hayward, and they would write each other almost daily. They had planned to be married in the early spring of the following year, but soon after Harrelson returned home they decided they couldn't wait. Yvonne went to Jacksonville with Bud, and baseball was no longer such a lonely game.

By the time Harrelson reached the Mets to stay in the late stages of the 1966 season, the team was about to finish better than 10th for the first time. The following year it slipped back again, and it was not a pleasant experience for an ambitious young shortstop. "The losing feeling has a way of rubbing off on you," Harrelson recalls. "When you lost, that was it. You just lost. When you won it was like winning the World Series. Even so, in '67 there were a lot more new ballplayers coming up, and we could feel things falling into place. We just had to get over the feeling that losing didn't really matter. We just had to get over it."

Gil Hodges arrived to take charge in 1968, and, as Harrelson describes it now, "We began to change the meaning of the word 'amazing.' " Even so, it was not a good year for Harrelson, who was limping along on the knee he had injured breaking up that double play in Jacksonville a couple of years earlier. Before the season ended he went into the hospital to have the cartilage removed, and the next year he helped bring the miracle to Shea Stadium.

The way everyone looks back on it now, there seems never to have been any doubt that Bud Harrelson would become a shortstop of some stature. Roy McMillan, another of the players obliged to close out a glorious career with an inglorious team, held the job when Harrelson arrived. Harrelson quickly adopted McMillan as a model for fielding, and McMillan remembers the schooling of his young pupil in detail. "I knew he'd be a good one," he says. "He had good hands, good range, got a good jump on the ball and he didn't have trouble with the double play. The thing I tried to teach him was to use his body when he made a throw and always to get into a set position when he made it from deep in the hole. That's the toughest play for a shortstop, and he does it very well.

"He wasn't a real good hitter, so I worked with him on taking advantage of his speed. I bet we worked on bunts some days 200 to 300 times." By that time Harrelson, a natural righthander, had appraised the scene carefully and had decided to emulate Maury Wills, the small, switch-hitting short fielder of the Dodgers. He explains about learning to hit left-handed: "I had to live with the fact that I wasn't going to be a hero hitting those home runs. I'm not a home-run hitter, I'm not a .300 hitter and I'm not going to make $125,000 a year. [He does make at least $30,000.] All I'm supposed to do on offense is get on base and score a run. I may not be as much of a hero to the fans, but I'm just as much of a hero to the club. I have to take advantage of what I am. I am Bud Harrelson, contact hitter, who has to hit the ball on the ground. If I try to hit a fly ball, I'm thinking wrong."

Except during the 1968 season when he was lame, Harrelson developed into a steady .250 hitter. Then came this spring, when his average suddenly soared over .300. "He was like a kid in a candy store," Seaver recalls. "He didn't care who the pitcher was or where he threw the ball. He hit a home run over a fence for the first and only time." Then the mid-summer weariness set in, the weight fell off and the strength left Harrelson's arms and his hands. Signs began to appear in the stands referring to him as Twiggy. His average has dropped to .245 (.287 right-handed, .229 left-handed), and there was an 0 for 27 stretch when everything looked like a swinging bunt. "I can't take my slump into the field with me," Harrelson kept telling himself. "I'm paid to field, and if I'm not thinking about what I'm doing out there, if I'm not expecting every ball to be hit to me, I'm going to make errors." Hodges and the coaches tried to get Harrelson to relax at the plate, but they were not overly bothered by the slump. "He's not a strong boy, and he gets tired," Hodges pointed out, "but we just have to play him and let him help the club defensively. He can go 0 for 4, and if he does his job defensively he's 4 for 4 as far as I'm concerned."

From the very beginning there was never any question about the rest of Harrelson's ball game. The manager, the coaches—among them Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost, who have seen all the great shortstops since World War II—the other players, the teammates, all agree.

YOST: The shortstops, the real good ones, are defensive-minded. Bud is like that. He is quick, he can run real fast and he has the very good arm. Boudreau was very good, but he was not as fast as Harrelson. Rizzuto was as good as anyone defensively, but his arm was not as good as Bud's.

BERRA: When he first came up he was green all right, but he was just like he is today—easy, friendly. Everybody liked him, and he could play already, too.

MARTY MARION: Harrelson always impressed me as the guy who held the Mets together. He's a lot better than they give him credit for being, both in fielding and hitting.

MAURY WILLS: Harrelson can make all the plays. He's quick, active, has an outstanding arm and excellent anticipation. He knows how to play a hitter after he's seen him around the league awhile. That shows good knowledge of how to play the game.

GIL HODGES: With the kind of ball club we have, if we don't have a great shortstop we're in a lot of trouble. I don't believe the club could have had the kind of year we had last year without Harrelson. This year he's capable of doing a more outstanding job because he knows the hitters, and he can steal bases. In a couple of more years when he gets to know the hitters even better and our pitchers better, he'll get to the point where he can conserve some of his energies and not get so tired.

SEAVER: Bud and Tom Agee are the most important parts of this team defensively. They're always on top of the game. Bud is a great help to me and the other pitchers when things aren't going well. He'll run to the mound and tell us to slow down. Or he'll say to make sure we get the next one or ask if I want him to cheat a little on the hitter. He may even tell me I'm dropping my shoulder a little or not getting down enough on my right leg.

WILLS: His most outstanding factor is that he is good every day. When I say he's consistent, I mean that perhaps today he will be outstanding, tomorrow he will be fantastic, the next day consistent, down a bit the next day, then back to outstanding and so forth. He's taken more hits away from me than any other shortstop in baseball.

ROY McMILLAN: Bud is the kind of fellow who wants only to play and win, and he'll do anything it takes for his team to win. He doesn't shoot off his mouth and is quiet, which is probably the reason he has been overlooked in some quarters, but you can't condemn a fellow for that. He's a great shortstop and a fine fellow. Any honors he's got coming are long overdue.

HODGES: It's getting so the unusual play for him is now routine

SEAVER: Bud is a very thoughtful guy with other people. He loves country and Western music and always travels with a cassette recorder. But he knows I have different tastes, so he brings a Barbra Streisand cassette and the other stuff I like.

WILLS: At bat he's what I call a tough out—he works at staying at bat. He has not yet hit for great average, but he has the potential. One thing is for sure, he's one of the best bunters in the league.

YOST: Bud is still young, and he gets better as he gets more confidence, but right now I would rate him with the best. The only one in the league who is close is Kessinger.

SEAVER: If I were a manager, Buddy has the qualities I would like to see in everybody on my team. He gives 100% effort all the time, and when he leaves the field he never has to say "if."

MET FAN: So who needs an if? The rest of those trees play like The Twig and we win it in a breeze. Oney, when they gonna play it?