My birthday is one of the most famous and most important dates in U.S. history!
I pause here to let the full impact of that statement sink in while you say, “Who does this guy Harrelson think he is? What an ego for a guy who was only a lifetime .236 hitter!”
Okay, let me repeat:
MY BIRTHDAY IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS AND MOST IMPORTANT DATES IN U.S. HISTORY!
You see, I was born on June 6, 1944, and the reason it’s such a famous date, I have to admit, is not because that’s the day I was born. Students of American history and people who are old enough to remember World War II (it was in all the papers) will recognize June 6, 1944, as D-day, the day of the invasion of Normandy, the pivotal successful offensive for the Allied forces against the German army and a critical point in winning the war in Europe.
As precocious as I like to think I was, of course I remember none of this. My dad was in the service in World War II, but it was never mentioned when I was a kid that I was born on D-day. I found out about it later when I was growing up and people told me I was born on D-day. My reaction was “What’s D-day?” That’s when I found out that it’s a big deal; the date of my birth is an honored and important one in our nation’s history.
Lindsey Nelson, who, along with Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy, comprised the Mets’ radio and television broadcasting team for all the years I played for them, loved that I was born on D-day. Lindsey, who had served in the 9th Infantry Division, never failed to wish me happy birthday on the air and in person when June 6 arrived.
Recently I did some research to see which other major league players were born on June 6. I found one Hall of Famer, Bill Dickey, the great catcher for the New York Yankees in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Others born on June 6 were Mark Ellis, Tony Graffanino, Dave Bergman, Gaylen Pitts, Merv Rettenmund, and Carlton Willey.
I knew Carl Willey. He was a right-handed pitcher from Maine who was with the Mets from 1963 to 1965. That was before I got there, but in 1965, when I was playing for the Mets’ AAA International League farm team in Buffalo, Willey was sent there by the Mets either on a rehab assignment or to work out some mechanical problem. He was a veteran nearing the end of his career, trying to hang on a little longer. Meanwhile, the Mets, desperate for pitching, were hoping Carl could add some leadership and experience to their staff.
When June 6 rolled around, Carl said to the Buffalo manager, Kerby Farrell, “Skip, I’m taking Bud out tonight. It’s our birthday. We’re not playing.”
It was Willey’s thirty-fourth birthday and my twenty-first, so we went out. Being the veteran and the class guy he was, Willey picked up the tab.
* * *
Of the major league players born on June 6, only one was born on June 6, 1944, D-day, and that was Derrel McKinley Harrelson, who entered the world that day in Niles, California, a small town in Alameda County. At one time, during the silent-film era in the early 1900s, Niles was the home of the movie industry. Many of Charlie Chaplin’s films were made there.
In 1956, Niles merged with four other small communities, Centerville, Irvington, Mission San Jose, and Warm Springs, to become the city of Fremont, which is situated almost equidistant between Oakland and San Jose, about twenty-five miles south of Oakland and twenty miles north of San Jose.
You’re probably thinking, “What kind of name is Derrel? And where does the McKinley come from?”
As for the McKinley, I can only guess that it probably was because of William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president of the United States, who, coincidentally, was born in Niles, Ohio, and had some Irish blood in his family as does mine, and who was assassinated in September of 1901, in the second year of his second term as president. It wasn’t uncommon back then for parents to give their sons the names of prominent Americans.
McKinley has been the middle name in my family for six generations. It started with my great-grandfather and then right on down to my grandfather, my father, and then me—my older brother missed it and I got it. I passed it along to my son, Tim, and when he had a boy, I told him, “It’s up to you,” but he didn’t let it die, and so now the Harrelson clan has a streak of six generation of McKinleys.
Now about the Derrel! Well, how many Derrels do you know? Everybody, I’m sure, has come in contact with a Darrell, a Darryl, even a Derrell (two l’s), but how many know a Derrel (one l)? I’ll print my name, D-E-R-R-E-L, and people will look at it and probably say to themselves, “He must be wrong,” so they’ll change it to D-A-R-R-E-L or D-A-R-R-E-L-L. People who try to pronounce it the way it’s spelled will call me “Dee-rell.” When I hear “Dee-rell,” I know right away it’s a solicitor.
In all my years, I have come across only one other person named Derrel, and that was Derrel Thomas, a little switch-hitting infielder from California who played for the Astros, Padres, Giants, Dodgers, Expos, Angels, and Phillies in the 1970s and 1980s. I guess his folks didn’t know how to spell either. Or maybe the name Derrel is just “a little switch-hitting infielder from California” thing.
When the Mets moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field and replaced all the Hall of Fame busts with plaques, they asked us what we wanted on our plaque. Some guys, such as Jerry Koosman and Keith Hernandez, opted for just their first and last names. Koos said, “Nobody knows my middle name.” I said uh-uh, I want my full name on my plaque. A lot of people know my real name. So my plaque reads DERREL MCKINLEY HARRELSON.
That’s my name and I’m proud of it, and that’s what I wanted on my plaque.
My old teammate Ed Kranepool is the only person who has ever called me Derrel. I don’t know why, but that’s what he called me the first time I met him, and that’s what he still calls me to this day. Nobody else calls me Derrel. Nobody ever has. At home I was always Bud. I was told that came about because my brother, Dwane, who is two years and two months older than me, called me Bubba because he couldn’t say brother and that evolved into Bud. I was Bud, never Buddy. My dad had a relative named Buddy, so I became Bud to distinguish between us.
That reminds me that another Mets teammate, Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman, called me Bub, but then Choo-Choo called everybody Bub, probably because he didn’t know their names.
Ron Swoboda once challenged Coleman, saying, “Choo-Choo, I bet you don’t even know my name.”
Coleman is said to have replied, “You’re number four.”
Somebody once asked Choo-Choo what his wife’s name was and he said, “Mrs. Coleman.”
So Choo-Choo called me Bub, but at least he was close, and it sounded like Bud.
Not until I came to New York and was playing with the Mets did people begin calling me Buddy. Tom Seaver started it, and some others picked it up. Now some people call me Bud and some call me Buddy. I don’t have a preference, and I’ll answer to either one, but for the record, I sign autographs Bud.
In school, my nickname was Buddo. The first time I went back with the Mets to play in San Francisco, I heard someone in the stands yell, “Buddo.” I knew exactly where that guy was from.
My ancestry is English-Irish-Dutch-Swedish–Cherokee Indian. My folks were typical Middle Americans, Mom and Dad both “Grapes of Wrath” migration: my mom, Rena, from Merkel, Texas, my dad, Glenn, from Wewoka, Oklahoma (which might account for my affinity with Mickey Mantle, also an Oklahoman). Mom and Dad had three children. My brother, Dwane, is the oldest, I’m in the middle, and my sister, Glenna, is the baby.
We didn’t have money for extra stuff when I was growing up. Dad was a mechanic/car salesman. Mom was a homemaker when I was young. Later, she got her real estate license. My dad worked his butt off to provide for us, and he and my mom were always involved in the lives of us children. We’d go camping and boating, and from a young age, we children were very involved in all sports. My mom and dad were always in favor of our sports, always supportive.
Both my father and mother were athletes. Mom was a hurdler. Dad was a good football player. He also played baseball and basketball. Who knows how far he could have gone athletically, but he dropped out of school in the tenth grade because he had to go to work. My dad was my first Little League coach. When I talk to Little League groups, I tell this story, embellishing it only slightly:
“When I got to be old enough to play Little League, I was smaller than all the other kids, and when the coaches selected their teams, I was picked by another coach, not my father. I was disappointed.
“‘You didn’t choose me?’” I said.
“‘No,’ my dad said. ‘Somebody took you before I got the chance. I took your brother first, and when my turn came up again, you were gone.’
I had one talent when I was nine years old. I could cry. So I cried. My tears obviously got to my mom because she told my dad, “Oh, that’s terrible, you have to do something.” Through tears I was saying, “I wanted to be on your team, Dad.”
That did the trick. The next thing I knew, my dad was on the phone with the coach who picked me. My dad made a trade and threw in some cash to complete the deal, and that’s how I got to play on my father’s team.
* * *
Niles was in the Hayward school district, and I started at Hayward High along with about a thousand others that made up my freshman class. When I was a freshman, my brother, Dwane, was a junior, and he was a stud, a big-deal athlete, a star baseball, football, and basketball player. I idolized him. In baseball, he was a shortstop/catcher. He had a great arm, good power, and he could run.
In his junior year, a Washington Senators scout told him, “If you have a good senior year, we’ll sign you.” Dwane didn’t have a good senior year, so instead of signing, he went to Coalinga Junior College, a rich oil school down in the Central Valley toward Fresno. One day he was playing shortstop and he got wiped out on a double play. He would have been better off if his leg was broken. Instead, he got his ankle twisted, and he was never the same after that. He was sidelined a long time. He couldn’t play sports so he dropped out of school, got married, and that was the end of his athletic career.
It’s sad because Dwane was the athlete in the family. In high school, I was the “little” Harrelson.
The area in and around Hayward was growing rapidly, and Hayward High was so crowded that they built a new school, Sunset High, and redistricted all the students. I was sent to Sunset for my sophomore year. My class would be Sunset High’s first graduating class. The schools in the area were integrated, and Sunset got most of the blacks and Hispanics. However, they decided to keep Hayward High’s senior class intact so they would graduate together, and my brother, Dwane, who was a senior, stayed at Hayward High. As a result, for that one year, my brother and I attended different high schools.
Moving to Sunset proved to be fortunate for me for my athletic career. In the beginning, Sunset had only two classes, freshman and sophomore. It didn’t field a varsity baseball team, so I was still playing jayvee ball as a sophomore.
Throughout my high school years, my dad was my biggest booster. He was always positive. And he never interfered. He wasn’t one of those fathers who would try to coach me or come to the games and yell at the umpires or complain to the coach if he thought I deserved more playing time than I was getting. I’d never see him sitting in the stands, but I always knew he was there. His business was near the high school, and he’d come up and sit in his car in the parking lot and watch the game.
If I made an error or didn’t get a hit, he wouldn’t try to correct me, even though he could have because he knew the game. If he saw something I did that was wrong, he wouldn’t say, “You looked bad” or “You should have done so-and-so,” nothing like that. He’d never say anything negative. He was always positive and always supportive. Throughout my professional career, my dad was the most proud guy.
In my junior year, Sunset fielded a varsity baseball team, and I came to a turning point in my life. I got to play against some good competition, such people as Ed Sprague, who pitched for four major league teams, and George Mitterwald, who caught for 11 seasons with the Twins and Cubs. And I started playing shortstop.
Until then I had never played shortstop. Not ever. I didn’t play much at any position my first year of Little League. When my dad did put me in a game, I played a deep right field. Later, I moved to the infield: a little second base, a little third, but never shortstop.
The man who gets the credit (or blame) for making me a shortstop was my high school baseball coach and mentor, Don Curley. “You’re the fastest player on the team and you have the best arm,” he told me, and moved me from third base to shortstop. I wore him out hitting me ground balls. He must have hit me thousands. He’d hit me ground balls in practice, and when practice was over and the rest of the guys were packing up and getting ready to leave, I’d say, “Mr. Curley, would you hit me some more ground balls?”
I had a good junior year, made all-league, and the scouts started coming around, from the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Yankees, and the Mets. Dolph Camilli was the area scout for the Yankees. He was a big name in baseball and a local hero. Born in San Francisco, he was a two-time All-Star for the Dodgers when they played in Brooklyn. He led the National League in home runs and RBIs and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1941, helping the Dodgers win their first pennant in twenty-one years. He seemed eager to sign me. He gave me his card and told me the Yankees would be willing to send me to college.
As a kid I was a Yankees fan. California had no major league team at the time, so the only major league baseball I got to see was the “Game of the Week” on television, and that usually meant the Yankees against somebody. To me, the Yankees were gods and Mickey Mantle was my favorite player. Later, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, I became a Giants fan, and Willie Mays replaced Mickey Mantle as my favorite player.
About the time I was beginning my senior season of baseball at Sunset High, the New York Mets were beginning their first season in the National League. I couldn’t follow them because they were never on television in California, but like most people at the time I thought they were laughable because they were so bad. Yet there’s a fatalistic symmetry in that the Mets came into existence the year I graduated from high school. Colliding as they did, those two events might indicate that the stars were aligned to make me a New York Met.
While I had been mildly aware that the National League was expanding from eight teams to ten, and that one of those new teams would be playing in New York, that didn’t consume my attention or capture a great deal of my interest. I was not jumping on the Mets’ bandwagon and becoming a fan of the fledgling team, something that I later learned was a trend for young people in and around New York at the time. I was eighteen years old, and like any other high school senior I had enough going on in my life to occupy my thoughts without concerning myself with something that was happening three thousand miles away.
Whatever knowledge I had about the Mets came from the Giants having come to California from New York, where they had played their home games in a place called the Polo Grounds, which, coincidentally, was where the Mets played their home games in their inaugural season of 1962.
I had a great senior year and was all-league again. That really boosted my confidence. It also boosted my confidence that I got offers to sign out of high school. It was tempting, and flattering, but I thought I should go to college instead.
At Sunset High I had played baseball, basketball, and football on a team that had 150-pound tackles. In football, I was the lone kickoff receiver, the lone punt returner, the safety on defense, and a 140-pound running back. The only time I left the field was for extra points.
In basketball I was a guard, fast and quick. I could drive, but I wasn’t a good shooter. I would take two guys with me to the basket, then dump the ball off to an uncovered teammate for an easy basket. I got a lot of assists. I’d take one guy to the basket and a bigger guy would come up, and that’s when I’d dump it off. We played against some good competition, such as the famous McClymonds High from Oakland, which had produced Bill Russell and Paul Silas in basketball and Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Curt Flood in baseball. They had guys five feet eight that could dunk. I was five-ten and I could rebound and touch the rim, but I couldn’t dunk. McClymonds kicked our butts. They beat us warming up. We saw these little guys dunking the ball in warm-ups, and we were beat before the game started.
I didn’t have any college offers. I knew I was too small for football, but I thought I could play basketball and eventually get a scholarship at San Francisco State. So that’s where I went, but when I got there, I decided I didn’t want to play basketball. I wanted to play baseball. I went out for the baseball team as a walk-on. When I told one of the varsity players that I was trying out for the team, he asked me what position I played. When I said shortstop, he said, “Not here. We have a senior at shortstop and he’s the coach’s pet.”
I asked him what position I should try out for and he said, “Third base. They don’t like him.”
So I tried out for third and I made the team.
I didn’t play at first, but then the coach stuck me in the lineup and I was on fire. I kept hitting and the coach kept playing me, and eventually the other third baseman quit the team. I was starting at third base on the varsity, and at the same time they were working me out at shortstop with the jayvee. I was so busy there was no time to study.
My hard work soon paid off. I had a good freshman season at San Francisco State. We played a top-notch schedule against schools such as Stanford, and soon the pro scouts were putting the rush on me. I decided it was time to take advantage of that and give pro baseball a shot. I had eliminated the Cubs and the Cardinals and narrowed my choices down to the Yankees and the Mets. New York fascinated me because of its long tradition and history in baseball and because the city is the world capital in finance, entertainment, and culture. My mom tried to talk me out of signing with a New York team.
“You’re going to get killed,” she said.
“Mom,” I said, “you watch too much TV.”
Later, after I signed my contract, my mom and dad came to New York and I showed them areas in and around the city to try to convince them that even if you work in the city, you don’t have to live in the city; there are some beautiful areas in the New York suburbs.
There was no free agent draft in those days, and no agents. The only indication a young baseball player had of his worth was based on the offers of the teams interested in signing him, and I was getting my share of calls from major league scouts in my area.
“They keep calling you and making you offers,” my dad said. “If I were you, the next time they call, I would tell them to make you a final offer.” And that’s what I did. The Yankees’ offer was $16,500. The Mets’ was $13,500. I thought at the time it was all the money in the world, but after I bought a car and a new wardrobe, there wasn’t much left, so I was forced to get by on my salary of $500 a month. Even though the Yankees offered more money, they were scary to me. I still looked upon them as gods. I was overwhelmed and somewhat intimidated by their tradition, their many championships, and their legendary players. I wondered if I was good enough to make it with the Yankees. I was afraid if I signed with them, I’d be stuck in the minor leagues forever. I had pretty much made up my mind from the beginning that I was going to sign with the Mets because I was little and because the Mets were brand-new. The team was just being organized so I figured my advancement to the major leagues would be quicker with the Mets than it would be with the Yankees.
Another reason I leaned toward signing with the Mets was their scout that followed me. His name was Roy Partee and he had been a backup catcher for the Boston Red Sox in the 1940s. He was a wonderful man, someone I trusted, and he became a friend.
Although it wasn’t a condition of signing with the Mets or the reason I chose them, it didn’t hurt that I was going to start my professional baseball career in Salinas in the Class A California League, just about sixty miles from home. Coincidentally, in 1962, the Mets had operated a California League team in Santa Barbara, which is almost all the way down to Los Angeles. However, in 1963, the year I turned pro, that team would be moving to Salinas, practically in my backyard. I considered that an omen.
The year I signed, the Mets also signed Dick Selma, who would join me at Salinas and who was from Fresno, about seventy-five miles east of Salinas. In 10 seasons in the major leagues with the Mets, Phillies, Padres, Angels, Cubs, and Brewers, Dick would win 42 games and save 31 more.
Since I signed after the school year, the California League season was already under way when I joined the Salinas Mets. To make room for those of us who signed late, some players had to be released. I felt bad about that because one of the players they released was a guy I got to know and like when I worked out with the team.
At Salinas, I got into 36 games, had 136 at bats, batted a cool .221, and began a streak in which I hit a home run in five consecutive professional seasons.
If the minor leagues are supposed to prepare you for the major leagues, playing for Salinas certainly did just that. The 1963 Salinas Mets won 49 games and lost 91, so you can see I was totally prepared to play with a team that lost 397 games in my first four major league seasons.
Copyright © 2012 by Bud Harrelson and Phil Pepe
Foreword copyright © 2012 by Darryl Strawberry