He was Buddy, always “Buddy,” never Derrell. His birth name was practically the answer to a trivia question.
He was, however, the embodiment of that nickname, a friend to all, and the acknowledged glue to the Miracle Mets of 1969 that shocked the world with the organization’s first World Championship.
An everyman, living proof that anyone of any body type could play baseball at a highly skilled level, his ever-friendly ebullient demeanor and his long-ago acceptance as a full-blooded New Yorker, and even more so as a Long Islander, made it that much more painful to hear of his passing just days ago at the age of 79.
The tributes for the only Met to be in uniform for both Mets Championships, first as a player, and as a coach in 1986, were plentiful and heartfelt.
From Steve and Alex Cohen: “We were saddened to learn of Mets Hall of Famer Buddy Harrelson’s passing. He was a skilled defender and spark plug on the 1969 Miracle Mets. The Gold Glove shortstop played 13 years in Queens, appearing in more games at short than anyone else in team history. We extend our deepest condolences to his entire family.”
From former teammates:
Ed Kranepool: “He always made perfect throws to me at first – everything was chest high. Buddy and I were with the Mets in the early days and he did everything to promote the team.”
Ron Swoboda: “There wasn’t a play he couldn’t make at short. When I played left, he saved me so many times coming back to catch pop-ups. We must have had 50 collisions and he never complained once.”
Cleon Jones: “Buddy and I started out together in the minor leagues in Buffalo. He worked so hard to become the shortstop that he became.”
Art Shamsky: “We don’t win in 1969 without him. The heart of the team. He was such a big part of Mets history.”
And then there are the players who enjoyed his guidance as a coach in the 1980s, succeeding grandly with the team’s second World Championship in 1986.
Ron Darling: “Without a doubt, I learned more baseball from Buddy than any other person in the Mets organization.”
Keith Hernandez: “I played against Buddy. Remember him as a feisty player who would do anything to win. As a coach, he was so caring and giving. He was the best third base coach in the game. Also, he threw the best BP in baseball. He was just a great man.”
Kevin Mitchell: “I don’t score the tying run in Game 6 without Buddy’s advice. He gave me the tip that Bob Stanley throws a lot of balls in the dirt. What a nice man he was.”
That’s another adjective that everyone associated with Buddy…”nice.”
He never turned down a request for an interview, an autograph, or the occasion to appear at a benefit, or Little League banquet, or any other event to meet with kids, raise important charitable funds, or promote the Mets. He was all-giving of his time and experiences.
If you look at his stats, young fans might question what all the fuss is about. But the Gold Glove shortstop (1971) was much more than his numbers, a .236 BA in 16 seasons in the bigs, just seven home runs and 267 RBIs, 1,120 hits and 633 walks in 1533 games. Even his highest average as a Met (1965-77) was just .258.
The two-time All-Star was born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Niles, California. But once he found his way to New York, he became a New Yorker, and a Long Island resident since the “Miracle” year.
His legacy includes bringing professional baseball to Long Island as a co-founder of the Long Island Ducks and the Atlantic League along with Frank Boulton in 2000.
“Bud’s impact on Long Island will be felt through Ducks baseball for as long as we play,” Boulton said in a news release. “He was a one-of-a-kind human being and he is missed greatly.”
Whenever Harrelson’s name is brought up, his legacy also includes a famous brawl between himself and Pete Rose in Game 3 of the 1973 NLCS. The background to that battle was initiated by an off-hand comment Buddy made to the press after Jon Matlack shut out the Reds in Game 2, 5-0. He said Matlack made the Reds “look like me hitting.”
That gang from Cincinnati took offense to that comment, so when Rose slid into second base attempting to break up a double play the following game, he came up swinging at Harrelson. Both benches emptied, the crowd got so riled up they threw trash onto the field, and peace wasn’t restored until Mets manager Yogi Berra, along with the G.O.A.T., Willie Mays, and other players walked out to as far as the outfield to plead with fans to calm down.
But here’s the kicker. Harrelson was eventually traded by the Mets to Philadelphia after the 1977 season, in a giveaway deal for a not-as-talented infielder named Fred Andrews who never even played one game as a Met. To honor his former mentor and manager Gil Hodges, Harrelson wore No. 14 as a Phillie. The following season, the Phillies signed Rose to be their first baseman, and who then requested his number with the Reds, 14. Buddy gracefully relinquished the number and switched to 15.
As is sometimes the case, today’s baseball brawlers can someday be tomorrow’s teammates, and eventually good friends, and that was the case with Harrelson and Rose. They later appeared at baseball card shows together and gladly signed photos of them brawling.
Full disclosure, I also had the pleasure of multiple occasions of interactions with Harrelson that I will always cherish. Covering the Mets for the now-extinct team publication, Mets Inside Pitch, Buddy always was gracious with his time for a friendly interview and baseball conversations. As manager of the Mets (1990-91), Harrelson welcomed me into his office at Shea Stadium for a one-on-one interview, which for a young reporter, was a great experience.
And FYI: With a two-year mark of 145-129, Harrelson remains one of only a handful of Mets managers to achieve an above .500 winning percentage. This list includes: Gil Hodges, Davey Johnson, Bobby Valentine, Willie Randolph, Mickey Callaway, and Buck Showalter.
In the early ‘90s, I enjoyed being a participant at a Mets Fantasy Camp, of which Harrelson also was physically and financially involved and he couldn’t have been nicer to me and all of the other participants. By chance, I had Buddy as my manager and the great Mel Stottlemyre as the pitching coach on my randomly assigned team, and both treated me as they would any major leaguer.
“It was a dream come true to have Buddy and Mel running my team,” said Ed Kavanagh, one of the many participants who agreed they made us feel like World Champs. “Oh, yeah, it was like being one game away from planning our own trip down the Canyon of Heroes.”
In recent years, Harrelson suffered from that horrible Alzheimer’s Disease, a crippling attack on the mind that can rob you of your mental capacity and relationships with family and friends, your memories, and eventually your ability to communicate. It is a cruel fate dealing with dementia in your later years.
To honor Harrelson’s memory and what he meant to the Mets, it is not a bad idea to contribute to any charity fighting to cure Alzheimer’s.
Rest in peace, Buddy.