Bud Harrelson, RIP: Don’t Back Down

God rest her soul, my paternal grandmother (herself a victim of Alzheimer's) called her favorite Met "my little cream puff." The reference was to Bud Harrelson's not-so-tall or large dimensions, surely. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, a longtime Mets coach and their manager for three and two-third seasons, merely called him Shorty.

The only Met in uniform for both their World Series triumphs (as their starting shortstop in 1969, as their third base coach in 1986) was anything but a cream puff on the field. "Buddy was 150 pounds soaking wet," his Hall of Fame teammate and best friend Tom Seaver remembered three decades later, "but he wouldn't back down from anyone."

Not even from Pete Rose, who plowed him moments after Harrelson threw on to first to finish a 3-6-3 double play in Game 3 of the 1973 National League Championship Series. Not even from umpire Augie Donatelli in the World Series to follow, Donatelli calling him out at home despite Oakland catcher Ray Fosse seeming to miss the tag and provoking a wild Met argument around the plate.

And not even from Alzheimer's disease, with which Harrelson was diagnosed in 2016 and against which he fought a bold fight until his death at 79 Thursday morning. Some of the obituaries that followed lasted several paragraphs before mentioning the Rose play and the infamous bench-and-bullpen-clearing brawl that erupted. Some of them lasted only several syllables. It almost figured.

Rose entered Game 3 of the set between the Mets and the Reds steaming over Harrelson's post-mortem following Mets righthander Jon Matlack's Game 2 2-hit shutout. It wasn't braggadoccio by any means. The .236-lifetime-hitting Harrelson's grit was matched by his wit. He observed Matlack had "made the Reds look like me out there" at the plate, adding only that he thought, "It looked like they were swinging from their heels."

That doesn't seem normally to be an observation that would steam a team, not even a Big Red Machine. Indeed, as New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro observes, most of the Reds weren't interested when Rose tried to use Harrelson's benign remarks as the equivalent of what we call today bulletin-board fodder.

The most "printable" of Rose's post-mortem replies, in Vaccaro's word, was, "What's Harrelson, a [fornicating] batting coach?" Hall of Famer Joe Morgan even warned Harrelson during pre-Game 3 practices that one more such remark would get him punched out, and Rose was going to get him at second if given the opportunity. Some of the Big Red Machine weren't exactly renowned for a sense of humour about themselves.

So, come the Game 3 top of the fifth, Morgan tapped one toward Mets first baseman John Milner, who threw to Harrelson to get Rose (a one-out single up the middle) by 10-plus feet for one before Harrelson winged it back to Milner to get Morgan for the two. The next thing anyone knew, Rose had plowed and thrown an elbow at Harrelson and the pair were up and swinging.

"When he hit me after I had already thrown the ball I got mad," Harrelson once remembered. "And we had a little match. He just kinda lifted me up and laid me down to sleep and it was all over." It wasn't all over that quickly, alas. To say all hell broke loose in Shea Stadium after Mets third baseman Wayne Garrett hustled over to try protecting Harrelson would be to call a prison riot a debate.

The less-than-willing Reds had little choice but to back their impetuous star. After order was restored at last, Rose took his position in left field and that portion of the Shea crowd let him have a shower of debris that included a glass bottle near his head. It got so out of hand that the Reds' Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson pulled his team off the field. ("Pete Rose has done too much for baseball to die in left field," the ever locquacious Anderson said postgame.)

A forfeit to the Reds was threatened. Under National League president Chub Feeney's urging, Berra led Seaver plus Hall of Famer Willie Mays and outfielders Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones to plead for peace in the stands. Order was restored and the Mets finished what they started, a 9-2 Game 3 win and a five-game triumph over the Reds for the pennant.

Rose didn't hold a grudge for very long. Handed the Good Guy Award by the New York contingency of the Baseball Writers Association of America the following January — the long since disgraced and banished Rose was one of the game's great notebook fillers during his playing days — Rose accepted it ... from Harrelson himself.

"I want the world to know," Harrelson cracked as he presented Rose the award, "that I hit him with my best punch. I hit him right in the fist with my eye." In due course, Rose returned the favour, signing a photograph of the fight, "Thank you, Buddy, for making me famous."

In some ways, Harrelson was responsible for the Mets making it to that postseason in the first place. He missed significant regular season time with an injury and the Mets slumped almost coincidentally. But when he returned to action the Mets — with or without a little firing up from relief pitcher Tug McGraw's "You gotta believe!" holler, aimed sarcastically at first (at a pep talk by general manager M. Donald Grant) — ground their way from the basement to the National League East title that September.

"You had Seaver, who was the greatest pitcher I ever saw," Rose told Vaccaro in 2008, "and you had great hitters like Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, and later Rusty [Staub] and Milner. But the heart and soul of that team — ask anyone who played against them — was Bud Harrelson."

Harrelson's weak bat was offset by his sure-handed play at shortstop; he averaged turning 57 double plays a season in his 12 prime seasons from 1967-1978, even missing significant time to injuries. He also retired being worth +34 defensive runs above his league average, retroactively leading the National League's shortstops with a +17 1971.

He roomed with Seaver for the entire time they were Mets together, having first met in AAA-level ball in the Met system. "We were perfect roommates," Harrelson remembered in his memoir, Turning Two. "Tom did all the reading and I did all the talking."

After finishing his playing career with two seasons in Philadelphia (where Rose was a teammate) and one in Arlington, Harrelson returned to the Mets and soon became their third base coach. That was Harrelson giving Ray Knight a pat and running down the third base line with him as Knight scored, after Mookie Wilson's grounder skipped through hapless Bill Buckner's feet, to finish the Game 6 comeback win that sent the Mets toward their 1986 World Series conquest.

Later, when Davey Johnson was finally cashiered as the Mets' manager 42 games into the 1990 season, Harrelson took the bridge and helmed the Mets to a 71-49 record the rest of the way, good for a second-place NL East finish. The following season, enough of the 1980s Mets' contending core players were gone and suspicions arose that Harrelson was just the dugout figurehead while bench coach Doc Edwards called the shots.

The Mets went 74-80 under Harrelson, toward a fifth-place NL East finish, before he was executed before the season's final week. There were those who thought Harrelson's problem was trying to manage like a pal more than a leader. Harrelson himself said, candidly enough, "If the public wanted a manager with vast experience, I wasn't it ... If they wanted somebody who would grow with the organization, I think that was me."

In due course, Harrelson helped bring minor league baseball to Long Island as the co-owner, senior vice president, and first base coach of the Long Island Ducks. He even managed the Atlantic Leaguers to a first place tie in their maiden season. Then, come 2016, after a few incidents first attributed to aging's mere memory lapses, Harrelson and his former wife, Kim Battaglia, got the fateful diagnosis.

Battaglia remained his close friend and primary caretaker. Harrelson was part of the contingent of 1969 Mets — organized by outfielder Art Shamsky, also including pitcher Jerry Koosman and outfielder Ron Swoboda — who trekked to California for a final visit with Lewy Body dementia-stricken Seaver at his vineyard a year later. The journey was recorded by Shamsky with Erik Sherman (who accompanied the group) in After the Miracle. (Seaver, alas, died in 2020.)

The former Mrs. Harrelson urged Shamsky to have voluminous photographs taken to help Harrelson remember the trip. Harrelson himself admitted to Sherman that he'd begun writing numerous notes to himself to help him fight the Alzheimer's memory robbery. He also described co-owning and promoting the Ducks as "the best thing I've ever done in baseball," indicating his displeasure that the now-former Wilpon ownership was not always kind to himself and too many other former Met stars.

Harrelson and his former wife even joined and became active with the Alzheimer's Foundation after making his diagnosis public in 2018. "I want people to know you can live with this and that a lot of people have it," he said. "It could be worse."

When traveling with Koosman, Shamsky, Sherman, and Swoboda for that final Seaver visit, Harrelson had nothing but praise for his former wife ("She's the best ex-wife I ever had") who urged him on. "She'll call me and go, 'You know you have to go to the doctor. Our son T.J. can bring you'," said the twice-divorced father of five. "Married, we just didn't gel after awhile. But I still love her and give her hugs. Kim doesn't have to do what she does, but I appreciate it."

Perhaps not quite as deeply as she and his children appreciated Harrelson's grace under fire as he fought the insidious disease that finally claimed him. The scrapper who didn't let Pete Rose intimidate him became the elder who didn't let a medical murderer intimidate him.

Now Harrelson can be serene and happy in the Elysian Fields with his old roomie pal Seaver, his old skippers Berra and Gil Hodges, and too many other 1969 and 1973 Mets who preceded him there. Maybe Grandma Gertie will elbow her way out there to shake his hand, and maybe Harrelson can give her a wink and a "Your little cream puff, huh?"

Leave a Comment

Featured Site