SABR

Oscar Harstad

This article was written by Mark Armour.

Oscar Theander Harstad, known to his family as Theander, and later in life as "O. T." or "Doc," played but a single season of major league baseball, then looked back proudly and fondly on his career during his ensuing seven decades of life.

Theander was the son of Norwegian immigrants. Bjug Harstad, Theander's father, was born in southern Norway in 1848 and emigrated with his family to Seneca, Illinois, in 1861. He attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and received a degree in theology from the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1874. Ordained as a Lutheran pastor, he was sent to spread the gospel to the pioneers of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Guro Omlid was also born in southern Norway, in 1858, and came to Harmony, Minnesota, in 1872. She lived there with her father and brothers until 1877, when she married Bjug Harstad, the local pastor. During the first several years of their marriage they lived in Mayville, Dakota Territory (which became North Dakota in 1889).

Bjug's interest in Christian education led to his being asked to build a Lutheran school in the Pacific Northwest. Accordingly, the family, including four children, moved to Parkland, Washington, in 1891. Bjug helped found Pacific Lutheran Academy, which later became Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma. He served as the school's first president beginning in 1894.

Theander was born May 24, 1892, in Parkland, the eighth of eleven children. They were a hearty brood: the first two children died in infancy, but seven lived at least eighty years. Their religious household was also filled with music and a love of athletics.

The large family lived in a house on a hill above the school grounds, boarding other children to bring in additional income. One of their boarders was Josephine Pyfer, who would later become Theander's wife. Money for the maintenance of the church and academy was always very tight; in 1898, at age 50, Bjug helped lead an eighteen-month expedition to the Klondike in Alaska to search for gold to help bail out his struggling school. He came home empty-handed.

As long as the farm work was done, their father let the boys play baseball, even on Sunday. The brothers would regularly play catch, and with a large family and boarders were often able to organize a game. The first ball game Theander remembered playing was called "scrub," where nine fielders and three batters would rotate places whenever a batter made an out. He also recalled making baseballs out of men's knitted socks, and sewing the cover back onto balls that had worn out. There would usually only be one or two gloves to go around in a game. The spartan training paid dividends: two of Theander's brothers, Oliver and Ingvald, later played minor league baseball.

Theander attended Pacific Lutheran Academy for high school and about two years of college. The first time Theander played on an organized baseball team was when the academy first organized one in 1908. His brother Oliver was the team's first manager and shortstop. Theander started out as a third baseman, but stepped in when the regular pitcher developed tuberculosis. He won his first game, and soon the tall (he would grow to six feet and 170 pounds) right-hander was dominating the competition. Over the next few years he pitched for the academy nine and for local semi-pro outfits. (His catcher was usually Tony Brottem, who later played in the major leagues.) He had a few opportunities to play organized baseball, but his father always objected: baseball was acceptable as a hobby, but not as a career.

Harstad was eventually persuaded to sign on with Chehalis of the Class D Washington State League in 1912. His team was in first place in July when the league folded. He spent a few weeks working in a sash and door factory, before finishing the summer with La Grande (Oregon) of the Western Tri-State League. He was still pitching for them early the next season when they too disbanded. He took a job as a carpenter and pitched for his company team for a while, before hooking up at the tail end of the 1913 season with Vancouver (British Columbia) of the Class-B Northwestern League, which was on its way to the pennant.

Harstad returned to Vancouver for the 1914 season and became one of the better moundsmen in the circuit. In May, the Sporting News reported that he looked "good enough to start against the best of them any old time." After a one-hitter late in the year, the same correspondent gushed: "Harstad ... continues to pitch brilliant ball and bids fair to head the list of winning pitchers." He finished 13-2 (a league-best .867 percentage) with a 2.33 ERA (second in the league) for the team that repeated as champions. Late in the season his contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians for $3500.

In San Antonio for spring training, Harstad was slowed by a sore arm. Nonetheless, Henry Edwards, the Cleveland correspondent for the Sporting News, claimed that Harstad "had a style that reminds the veterans of Addie Joss." His first appearance was April 23, in relief, against the Tigers, and he later remembered surrendering a hit to the first batter he ever faced: Ty Cobb. He surrendered the first and only home run of his major league career to New York's Fritz Maisel on May 13. On June 5, he won his first major league game, pitching four shutout innings of relief to defeat Walter Johnson and the Senators.

By mid-season, Edwards would write: "Harstad is demonstrating every time out that he has a great curve ball and a fair amount of speed." Harstad pitched thirty-two games, mainly in relief, won three of his eight decisions, and posted a 3.40 ERA. The Indians paid him $1500 for the season.

Years later, Harstad recalled the poor defense that the Indians had at that time-inferior, he believed, to some of his minor league teams. He remembered several of his teammates fondly, including Bill Wambsganss and Sam Jones, each a roommate, and Ray Chapman. Reminiscing about the game of that era, he talked of the ball itself-lop-sided, discolored, disfigured, and slippery. He did not doctor the ball himself, saying he always needed to have a good grip. He depended almost exclusively on a hard sinking curve ball, later lamenting that major league hitters were much better at hitting it than the players in the minor leagues had been.

Cleveland finished 44 1/2 games out of first place and was beset by a fair amount of turmoil. When manager Joe Birmingham was fired in mid-season, he sued the team for breach of contract. In August the team's financial problems led to the sale of Joe Jackson to the White Sox for three players and $31,500. At the end of the year, the league orchestrated the sale of the team from Charles Somers to James Dunn.

Near the end of the 1915 season, Harstad had a sore elbow, so the Indians sent him to Youngstown, Ohio, to see Bonesetter Reese, a renowned baseball "chiropractor" of the time. The treatment was a vigorous kneading of the area around the joint. By the next spring, the elbow was fine, but the treated area was sore. In March 1916 his contract was assigned to the Portland Beavers (Pacific Coast League) as partial compensation for the Indians purchase of Stan Coveleskie. The deal worked out well for the Indians, as Coveleskie became one of baseball's best pitchers for the next decade.

In early 1916, the sore-armed Harstad was sent to Class B Spokane, for whom he finished 14-7 to help capture the Northwestern League championship (his third in three seasons in that league). He returned to the Portland Beavers at the end of Spokane's season.

The twenty-four-year-old Harstad had determined that he was not going to have a long career in baseball and began to make plans for his future. Six decades later, he would say about his baseball career: "The pay was low, and there wasn't much hope of sticking in the big leagues very long. Not one new player in seven or eight lasted ten years." On September 9, 1916, he married Josephine Pyfer back home in Tacoma. A few weeks later, he enrolled at North Pacific Dental College in Portland.

When spring training began in 1917, Harstad was supposed to be in Honolulu with the Portland Beavers. He chose to remain in college, joining Portland in June. Out of shape, he was soon released. With many minor leagues disbanding because of the Great War, including the Northwestern League, he joined the unaffiliated Copper League, playing for a team in Hayden, Arizona. He pitched there the rest of the year, and went back to school in October.

In the summer of 1918, with severely limited opportunities for a minor league player, he pitched for St. Helens, a semi-pro team in the Shipyard League, and helped them capture the league title.

In 1919, Harstad graduated from dental school, and then rejoined the Portland Beavers, long after the season had started. He finished 6-5 in fourteen games. After the baseball season was completed, he practiced his new profession in Portland. Although he played two more summers in the Class B Western Canada League (for Saskatoon and Regina), and organized ball for town teams for a few more years (he recalled facing two of the Black Sox), his priority was now on his newly chosen avocation.

He kept at it for more than fifty years. Theander and Josephine spent a year in Portland, two in Fall City, Oregon, and finally settled in Freewater, Oregon in 1922, where they lived for sixty years. (The town merged with Milton and became Milton-Freewater in 1950.) They raised three children: Dorothy, Bill (who later joined his father's dental practice) and Helen. Dorothy remembers her childhood fondly, recalling a house filled with music and warmth.

In 1940, the entire family took a several-week automobile trip around the country. Doc took his family to Yankee Stadium for a game against the Athletics, reporting that Connie Mack still managed the same way he had in 1915. In 1947, he and Josephine bought a vacation place on Vashon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle. They had both grown up near the sound, and they had both yearned for the salt water.

Once son Bill joined his father's practice, Doc allowed himself a little more time for recreation. Josephine was very active in church and social activities, but Doc spent most of his free time as a sportsman. He was an avid hunter, fisherman, and rifleman. Once he had semi-retired (doing lab work for his son), he played golf every day he could until he was nearly ninety years old. On his ninetieth birthday, he went deep-sea fishing with his family off the Oregon coast.

Theander, called Doc by most of his friends by then, worked six ten-hour days, answered calls in the middle of the night, often from people who could not pay him for his services. He made all the dentures for his son's practice, and did so in his eighties, long after he stopped seeing patients.

In 1978, when Dr. Harstad was eighty-six years old, he filled out a questionnaire for Stephen Lerch, who was researching a doctoral thesis at Purdue University on the retirement years of former baseball players. Reading the survey today (Dr. Harstad's family kept a copy of the completed questionnaire), one is struck first with the meticulous care with which Dr. Harstad completed it. Although many of the questions required only that a box be checked or a number be circled, the questionnaire was eleven pages long, and likely took several hours to fill out. Several of his answers speak to his perspective on his career. Asked about how he felt retiring from the game, he checked the response: "I was looking forward to leaving baseball; I realized that it was only a temporary thing, and that there is more to life." The hardest thing, he wrote, was his own "envy of his former teammates still playing."

He also checked answers that read "Life in general is better for me now than it was when I was playing," and "Older players should realize it when their careers are over and give way to younger players." The survey shows that he was a man very satisfied with the life he had led and was currently leading, although he did not like getting old. He was as interested in life and living as ever. When asked what advice he would give to modern players, he wrote: "Stay in the major leagues long enough to draw a pension. No future in the minor leagues. Get out. Get a good education and go to work."

Although Dr. Harstad never regretted his decision to leave baseball for dentistry, he also enjoyed remembering his playing days. He regaled his friends and family with the memories of that long ago season he spent in Cleveland: seeing George Sisler start his first game as a pitcher for the Browns; playing with "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who drank Coca-Cola by the case; pitching to Ty Cobb; watching a young Babe Ruth swing the bat; hitting against Walter Johnson.

His daughter Dorothy remembers him faithfully answering autograph requests when he was in his nineties. At age ninety-three he wrote: "Baseball was good to me. I was just a green country kid who got to travel all expenses paid playing a game I loved."

Dr. Harstad passed away on November 14, 1985, in Corvallis, Oregon, a few years after his beloved wife Josephine. He lived a full life: he helped raise a close-knit family, worked at a profession he loved for over fifty years, and maintained his health and zest for life into his nineties. In his youth, he played a little baseball, leaving behind fond memories and no regrets.

Sources

In writing this article, I was especially fortunate to have the help and cooperation of Mrs. Dorothy Fenner, Theander's daughter. Besides being delightful company, she and her husband John Fenner invited me into their home several times, sharing memories and a well-organized box of papers relating to Dr. Harstad's career and life. Mrs. Fenner and her late sister Mrs. Helen Strickler each interviewed their father in his later years, and transcribed and typed his responses.

I also made use of the following:

--, Obituary, Milton-Freewater Valley Herald, November 27, 1985.

--, Obituary, Corvallis Gazette-Times, November 27, 1985.

Harstad, Adolph, A Brief Record of the Lives of The Rev. & Mrs. Bjug Harstad And Their Descendants, self-published, 1977.

Harstad, Dr. O. T., "Baseball Was Good To Me," Sports Collectors Digest, July 19, 1985.

Harstad, Dr. O. T., questionnaire filled out for Dr. Steven Lerch, Purdue University, for PhD thesis, 1978.

Lawver, Nathe, "Alaska," Pacific Lutheran Scene, Fall 1998.

Orchard, Vance, "Open Wide," Walla Walla Union Bulletin, July 22, 1974.

The Sporting News, multiple issues, 1914 and 1915.

Voss, Bruce, "Diamond Years," Mooring Mast, Pacific Lutheran University, April 27, 1984.

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