Mike Hargrove sat amidst the big-league elegance of the Texas Ranger locker room last week, dipping snuff, sipping soda pop and showing off his new All-Star ring as though it were the prize in his first box of Crackerjacks. Despite the prosperity that comes with a .336 batting average, the favorite son of Perry-ton, Texas appeared more country boy than country squire. He wore faded jeans, a T shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap. The cap was on backward, an unconscious testament to his unpretentious nature.
Like a lot of good old Texas boys, Dudley Michael Hargrove, 26, is partial to Coors beer, chicken-fried steak, country music and Western clothes. What he does not like is plastic people and mushy movies. Growing up in Perryton, a farming and oil-drilling community in the Texas Panhandle, there was nothing he enjoyed more than Sunday dinner at his grandmother's house and a prairie dog hunt afterward. But do not confuse this with outtakes from The Last Picture Show. Hargrove is, after all, a college man, having graduated three years ago from Northwestern Oklahoma State in Alva. "Perryton's not desolate," he says in a raspy, lightly accented voice. "I mean, there's no tumbleweed blowing down Main Street."
Still, Hargrove has caused quite a stir there. When he won a job as a designated hitter-first baseman last year, the local radio station quickly joined the team's broadcast network. When he batted .323 and was named the Rookie of the Year, he was honored by the Chamber of Commerce. And when this year's All-Star balloting began, local supporters offered a prize of a trip to Kansas City to watch Hargrove play to the person who gave him the most votes. The winner turned in 18,000.
Hargrove is as much a phenomenon for what he has done as for what he is doing. He did not play baseball in high school because the spring air in North Texas could chill a Nolan Ryan fastball. After Texas A&M backed off its offer of a football scholarship he attended Northwestern Oklahoma on a basketball grant. It was only after his father suggested he try baseball that he took a serious interest in the sport. "I didn't want to embarrass myself," Hargrove says. "I didn't know how good I would be."
Good enough, it turned out, to lead the conference in hitting his freshman year. But not good enough to draw serious major league attention. A Chicago Cub scout told him his deficiencies were "limited range, questionable ability and age." The Cincinnati Red man watched him hit a double and a triple in a tryout game and remarked, "Son, it's too bad you're a pitcher." With that, Hargrove went off and got "drunker than a skunk."
The one bit of encouragement he did receive came from a St. Louis scout who assured him he would be picked in an early round of the 1972 draft. Instead, he was chosen in the 25th round by the Rangers, who assigned him to their rookie team in Geneva, N.Y. To get there Hargrove invested his $2,000 bonus in a 3-year-old car. But after batting only .267 he almost wished he had stayed home. Then he remembered his father, a contract oil pumper in Perryton. "As a kid, dad had always wanted to play ball himself," Hargrove says, "but he missed his chances to try out. Once he had pneumonia and another time he had to stay home to harvest."
The 1973 season was spent playing Class A ball in Gastonia, N.C. After opening his stance and all but eliminating his stride, he exploded to a .351 average in a league where no one else hit above .291. His financial status was such, however, that during the early cold weeks of the season he and his wife Sharon slept huddled by the stove because they could not afford heating oil. Sharon laundered the team's uniforms and towels to get money to buy gas so she could drive to the park to watch Mike play. After batting .312 in the winter instructional league, Hargrove was invited to the Rangers' camp for spring training, where he astounded even himself by hitting .486. He had hoped to spend the 1974 season in Double A. Instead he had made the big club. "If you don't like the idea," Manager Billy Martin told him, "I can change my mind."
Hargrove loved the idea; he just had a difficult time getting used to it. "Mike has not changed one iota since the first day," says Shortstop Toby Harrah. "That's something you don't often see in someone as successful as he has been."
When Hargrove met John Havlicek during the Superstars competition last winter, he says he "like to choked." On the baseball field, however, he is more at ease. He has only average speed, power and defensive ability, but his hot bat and fiery temper have made him the scourge of the league. "He'll fight at the drop of a hat," says Catcher Jim Sundberg, his roommate. Hargrove has had run-ins with Sal Bando of Oakland and Jack Brohamer of Cleveland, and when the A's Bert Campaneris complained that Mike was tagging him too hard on throws to first base, Hargrove snapped, "If you're hurt, get out of the game." With that he began slapping Campaneris even harder.
This bellicosity may be an expression of Hargrove's suppressed desire to play football. Baseball seems to have won out for now, if only Martin can decide exactly what he wants to do with Hargrove. Mike began the season at first base, but has recently been in the outfield or, when a lefthander is pitching, on the bench. Martin admits that Hargrove is better suited to first and finds no fault with his performance against lefthanders, but he says personnel problems have necessitated adjustments. Hargrove prefers to play first (and every day) but he is not one to question his manager. "I don't figure I've been here long enough to talk to him about it," he says. "He's doing what he thinks is best for myself and the team."
Hargrove expresses himself at the plate where, if every piece of his uniform is in place ("I don't like distractions," he says), he can do special things. As an example, against Cleveland earlier this season he had four hits in five at bats, including two home runs. Even so, he says he is "less confident about my hitting than most people realize. I'm a lazy person basically, and it's only through my wife that I've learned how to push myself."
Sharon Hargrove has been up in the stands rooting for Mike since they started dating in Perryton 12½ years ago. Fittingly, and in keeping with the local custom, their first car date took them to the town's favorite necking spot, which happened to be a baseball field. Even when it is cold, Perryton's baseball field is good for something.