When Bob Feller began setting team pitching records for the Cleveland Indians, he often was erasing the name of Mel Harder.
Born in Beemer, Harder grew up in Omaha and starred at Tech. He graduated at age 16 and was on the roster of the Omaha Burch Rods of the Western League by the time he was 17.
Omaha manager Snake Henry hid the newspaper sports section from young Harder before playing in Waco, Texas, to keep his young pitcher from learning he was getting his first start. The ploy apparently worked, The World-Herald reported, because "the kid hurled with the coolness of a veteran."
Within three months, Omaha had sold his contract to Cleveland for $18,000.
Harder made his major league debut on April 24, 1928, at age 18, throwing 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. But he struggled the rest of his rookie season, and the Indians limited the innings for their talented young pitcher.
"I didn't have much of a curveball until I got to professional ball," he said. "I also had to learn a change-up when I made it to the pros. Over the years, I had to mix it up more."
He finally moved into the starting rotation in 1930 and was a mainstay for 15 seasons, leading the American League in ERA at 2.95 in 1933. He also was a solid fielder and led the AL in putouts four times.
Harder's manager, Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, took a shining to the young Omahan.
"He has never quit trying to learn," Johnson said. "He wouldn't give a sign of complaint, even if I asked him to pitch batting practice before a game he was scheduled to start."
That eagerness to throw might have led to him being overworked.
After 20-win seasons in 1934 and 1935, Harder faced shoulder and elbow injuries for much of the rest of his playing career. He still won another 126 games while pitching through 1947.
Harder was at his best in his four All-Star Games, from 1934 through 1937, picking up one win and two saves and pitching 13 scoreless innings against the best of the National League. He is the only pitcher to work more than 10 scoreless innings in All-Star competition.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder retired with a then-team record of 223 victories.
"That ought to be good for at least five points on my batting average," Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio said when Harder retired. "I never could hit that fella."
Taking the microphone to salute Harder at his final game in Cleveland was Feller, who would finish with 266 victories.
The young Feller, known for his blazing fastball, had learned to throw a curve from the veteran.
Harder became Cleveland's pitching coach, one of baseball's first, the next season and helped guide the Indians to a World Series title in 1948. The staff included Feller, Bob Lemon and Satchel Paige.
Harder stayed with Cleveland in that role through 12 managers to give him 36 years in the Indians organization before leaving in 1964. His coaching career ended with Kansas City in 1969.
The closest he came to reaching the Hall of Fame was in 1964, when he got 51 of the 151 votes necessary.
His final moment on the big stage in Major League Baseball was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the last game at Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium in 1994.
It was a fitting honor. He had thrown the first pitch in the first game at the stadium in 1932.
Played for: Omaha Tech High and Cleveland Indians
Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: Pitcher Ad Liska, from Dwight, pitched for the Washington Senators from 1929 through 1931, part of a five-year major league career. Harder and Liska were the starting pitchers in a July 18, 1930, game won by Washington 8-6.
Best moment as an athlete: Harder pitched five shutout innings to win the 1934 All-Star game, even though history remembers only the five consecutive strikeouts recorded by the National League's Carl Hubbell in that same contest.
Harder was No. 27 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »