“(Jim) Hardin is one of those pitchers who doesn’t have an overpowering fastball or an outstanding breaking pitch. But his physical ability is of major-league caliber, make no mistake about it, and he’s the type who squeezes every ounce out of what he has.”1
Jim Hardin began his baseball life as a catcher, but made a 180-degree turn to find his future in the sport on the pitcher’s mound. Born on August 6, 1943, in Morris Chapel, Tennessee, near Memphis, he had been a catcher since the sixth grade, and a pretty good one at that. As a high-school sophomore he earned second team All-Memphis honors behind future 21-year big leaguer Tim McCarver (even though Hardin outhit his rival backstop, .475 to .470).
But one day when Hardin was a senior, the team ran out of pitchers. “Here, you pitch,” his coach told him.2 Jim took the mound and stayed there. He nearly went undefeated as a high-school pitcher save for some extra-inning defeats. Hardin impressed on the hill in American Legion ball too, and professional contract offers started coming in. After enrolling at the University of Memphis, he turned down higher offers and, still having pitched in only 14 games, he signed a contract with a $10,000 bonus from the New York Mets, figuring the expansion franchise would provide the shortest route to the majors
Though he had a strong right arm, Hardin had difficulty throwing strikes. With the New York-Penn League Auburn Mets in 1962 and the Quincy Jets of the Midwest League in 1973, he walked 184 batters in 184 innings and finished a combined 8-13 with a 4.79 earned-run average. He improved just slightly in 1964 after going back to Auburn to start the season. He walked 50 in 60 innings there but went 4-1, earning a promotion at midseason to the Double-A Williamsport Mets of the Eastern League, where he walked 48 in 63 innings. “I didn’t have a winning season until I got married in January 1964,” Hardin quipped about his combined 7-4 won-lost mark that year. “Donna deserves all the credit.”3 However, he still walked more than seven men per nine innings, and regressed to 5-10 back at Williamsport in 1965 despite improving his control even further (58 walks in 124 innings).
In November 1965 the Mets lost Hardin to the Baltimore Orioles in the minor-league draft for $12,000. Years later, Hardin still wasn’t sure what prompted the Orioles to take a flyer on a pitcher who’d yet to make it through a single season without getting sent to the bullpen. “We just went by the reports we got from Earl Weaver,” Lou Gorman, then the Orioles director of minor-league clubs, told Hardin. “The only times he saw you were when you faced his (Eastern League Elmira) club.”4
Hardin met pitching instructor George Bamberger for the first time in the Orioles’ minor-league camp in 1966, and Bamberger told him, “Don’t nibble around the plate. You’ve got good enough stuff to challenge them. Even the good hitters only get three hits in 10 tries.”5 Hardin joined the Elmira Pioneers for his third straight year in the Eastern League, and fired an early-season no-hitter against his old mates in Williamsport. He wound up making the bulk of his appearances in relief for the fifth straight year, though, finishing 8-2 with a 3.44 ERA.
Hardin was one of eight Baltimore pitchers sent to the Florida Instructional League after the 1966 season, and he worked with Bamberger every day. “He kept saying if you don’t walk anybody, and put the ball over with something on it, you’ll get the hitters out,” Hardin recalled.6 The right-hander went undefeated in seven decisions that fall before heading off to Mexico to reinforce his lessons. But Hardin’s winter-league season was cut short on Christmas Eve by a case of “turista” (the Mexican colloquial name for the diarrhea that strikes tourists because of changes in food and water). Unable to locate the one local doctor who spoke English, Hardin tried in vain to get medical personnel to insert a glucose treatment into his left arm, not his right. The vein in his pitching arm swelled up, leaving him sore and unable to pitch, so he went home.
Hardin attended his first major-league spring training in 1967. Though he was a long shot to make the Opening Day roster of the World Series champion Orioles, any chance he may have had was ruined when he went looking for bonefish off Key Biscayne on an off-day. Wading into murky waters in his canvas sneakers, Hardin startled a stingray nearly two feet in diameter, and was slashed by the creature’s sharp, poisonous tail through the top of his shoe. He was taken to a hospital to have the half-inch wound cleaned and received three shots. His foot swelled up so much that more than a week went by before he could put on a shoe, and the Orioles sent him back to their minor-league camp in the first round of cuts. “You spend five years in the minors, and you step on a stingray just as you’re about to get a chance?” scolded his wife.7
The setback proved only temporary as Hardin excelled after finally making it to Triple-A. With Rochester of the International League, the one-time wildman walked only 14 batters in 53 innings, and had a 2.04 ERA and a 5-3 record after hurling a shutout in Columbus with Orioles player personnel director Harry Dalton and superscout Jim Russo in the stands. Dalton and Russo had arrived to check out tall right-hander Gene Brabender for a possible major-league call-up, but Hardin forced his way to the front of the line. After missing his next start because of a bout of food poisoning, Hardin was called up to the big leagues a few days later. Jim Palmer described the 23-year-old pitcher as “promising, but not overflowing with confidence.”8
The 6-foot, 175-pound right-hander debuted with two scoreless innings in Washington on June 23, and compiled a 0.82 ERA in a handful of relief outings over the next three weeks. Most impressively, he walked only one in 11 innings. He surrendered a three-run homer in the fisrt inning of his first start, on July 23, but won eight of his first 10 decisions before a poor final outing. Overall, he won eight and lost three, limiting opponents to 85 hits and 27 walks in 111 innings and pitching to a 2.27 ERA including shutouts against the Kansas City Royals and the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox. It was a wonderful year for the Hardins, as Donna gave birth to their first child, Gina Michelle, in November. In 1971, they added son James, and Michael came along in 1989.
Hardin was a fine golfer, having won the minor-league portion of a tournament for ballplayers by the previous off-season. After he helped Earl Weaver’s Santurce club to the Puerto Rican league finals in the fall, he returned to the States just in time to win the first round of the National Baseball Players Golf Tournament in February. With spring training in full swing on March 16, Hardin recorded his first hole-in-one, on the sixth hole of Miami’s Kendall Golf Course.
By late June of 1968 Hardin’s pitching had earned him the cover of The Sporting News. “I’m basically a very uncomplicated pitcher,” he said. “My pattern is to throw fastballs and breaking pitches and just keep moving the ball in and out, up and down. I’d say I pitch just about the same way to everybody.”9
“For some reason, he’s not particularly liked by some of the guys,” Jim Palmer recalled in his autobiography. “But Brooks Robinson, Davey Leonhard, and me, we think he’s a decent guy if you get to know him, which most of the others didn’t do.”10
The quick-working Hardin won his first four decisions in 1968. By the time he notched his only career 10-strikeout performance, on May 25 against the Washington Senators, he’d won six out of seven, which grew to eight of 10. He strained his back in a complete-game victory in Detroit on July 21 that improved his record to 12-5 with a 2.13 ERA, and lost 10 pounds from an intestinal infection shortly thereafter, but came back strong to pitch a pair of shutouts in August and run his record to 17-8 with five weeks remaining in the season.
“He could flat-out pitch,” Jim Palmer recalled. “He learned self-hypnosis. He had his mantra–jam, J-A-M, and he had learned down in Puerto Rico to put himself under self-hypnosis. He put himself in a trance. He had great stuff, great command, great change-up, good fastball.”11
Hardin’s bid for a 20-win season went up in smoke when he lost five of his last six decisions, though three of the defeats came by scores of 2-0, 2-1, and 3-2. He finished the season fifth in the American League in wins (18) and complete games (16). “He was making $14,000 a year,” Palmer recalled. “They said if you had a good year — 18-13 with a 2.51 ERA apparently wasn’t a good year — we’ll give you a raise. Well, he didn’t get a raise, so he came down to the Instructional League in Clearwater, Florida, for like the last two weeks, then went down to Puerto Rico.”12
Hardin pitched a 5-0 shutout at Caguas in his first outing of the winter, an effort Palmer described as “one of the best games I ever saw pitched,”13 but more than six weeks had passed since his previous game action and he emerged feeling stiffness in the large muscle behind his right shoulder. Later, he admitted that the shoulder had begun feeling sore when he favored a bum ankle late in the ’68 season.
It didn’t help at all that Major League Baseball tried to increase offense by lowering the pitcher’s mound in 1969. “They’re liable to hurt some arms,” Hardin warned. “The pitcher has to drive off the rubber harder and open up his body quicker to get the same results as before. This is going to tell on the arm.”14 Regardless on the exact cause of Hardin’s woes, it quickly became clear that he was out of step as the Orioles began their march to three straight American League pennants. After a winless April with a bloated 5.48 ERA, he spent the season bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. “I’m not myself. I’m not throwing the same,” he said. “Whether it’s rhythm, or the arm or the back – I’m just not sure. I’m not 100 percent. This game is tough enough when you’re 100 percent.”15
Two of Hardin’s season highlights actually came with a bat in his hands. The .103 lifetime hitter’s first major-league homer was a game-ending blast off former Oriole Moe Drabowsky to beat the Kansas City Royals on May 10, and he also connected for a three-run shot against the Chicago White Sox in the most lopsided shutout win in Orioles history, a 17-0, two-hit win in July. (Of Hardin’s 24 major-league hits, three were home runs, three were triples and one was a double.) Overall in 1969, Hardin averaged fewer than six innings per start, saw his won-lost mark dip to 6-7, and watched his ERA soar more than a run per game higher, to 3.60. At one point, he used an analogy from a different sport. “The difference between this year and last is like the difference between hitting a 50-cent golf ball and a $1.25 golf ball.”16
Hardin and his wife purchased a home that fall in Miami just a few blocks from the home of Orioles first baseman Boog Powell. The pitcher worked out daily at a junior college trying to recapture his peak form, but treaded water in 1970, finishing 6-5 with a 3.53 ERA. After making 11 of his first 15 appearances in relief, he got an opportunity to start for a few months but got no-decisions in eight consecutive games. By season’s end, he’d won only three of 19 starts for a Baltimore club that went all the way to a World Series triumph. Hardin didn’t pitch a single inning in the playoffs for the second straight year, but still reveled in being a champion.
But Hardin’s right arm wasn’t going to keep him in Baltimore much longer. It started bothering him in 1970 after a September start in Cleveland when “the temperature had dropped 12 to 15 degrees” between innings, and had gotten progressively worse. He didn’t pick up a baseball all winter, and opened the 1971 season on the disabled list.
Hardin allowed 12 hits in just 5⅔ innings after being activated in late April, and the Orioles traded him to the Yankees for right-handed pitcher Bill Burbach on May 28. Burbach never made it to Baltimore at all (going straight to Triple-A), and Hardin was probably cursing New York before putting on pinstripes for the first time. After tossing five garment bags in his car and leaving Baltimore in a rainstorm after learning about the deal, Hardin reached the Big Apple after midnight and stopped for about 45 minutes to eat. When he returned to his car, all of his belongings had been stolen from his vehicle and he was left with only a shaving kit and the clothes on his back.
Plagued by a stiff shoulder and an arm that pained him all year, Hardin missed all of August and got into only a dozen games with the Yankees, going 0-2 with a 5.08 ERA. The league batted .343 against him in 1971, and New York released him shortly before Opening Day of 1972.
For weeks, Hardin called teams looking for a new employer, but without success. Finally, he reached Paul Richards, general manager of the Atlanta Braves, and offered to pay his own travel expenses if the National League club would just take a look at him. “I don’t throw quite as hard as I used to,” Hardin told Richards. “But I’d hate to think I didn’t learn anything in all these years in baseball.”17
The Braves signed Hardin on April 28 and brought him back to the majors just over two weeks later after a trio of decent outings for Triple-A Richmond. Hardin made 26 appearances for the Braves, including nine starts, and finished 5-2 with two saves and a 4.41 ERA in what proved to be his final season in professional baseball. His six-year major-league career ended with a 43-32 record and a 3.18 ERA.
Out of baseball at the age of 29, Hardin embraced his new life with gusto. He became a star commercial account representative with the Xerox Corporation in Miami, parlayed his usual 70s golf game into club champion status at the Mayacoo Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, and became an award-winning fisherman, earning the coveted Master Angler Trophy in the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament. Kite-fishing was his favorite method, and Hardin kept his own boat in Key West and obtained his skipper’s license. He also learned to fly and bought a single-engine Beechcraft airplane.
On March 9, 1991, Hardin and two friends flew to Key West to use his boat, caught a cooler full of fresh fish, and got back on the plane intending to make it back to West Palm Beach in time for a golf tournament. It was a trip he’d been making regularly for about three years. This time, tragically, less than two minutes after takeoff from Key West International Airport, Hardin made a “very panicky”18 radio call in the words of the National Transportation Safety Board investigator. His engine had stalled in strong, gusting winds, causing his propeller to fail and he tried to return to the airport for an emergency landing.
It was impossible. All three men died when Hardin’s plane crashed into a shopping center parking lot after what the Miami Herald termed “a valiant effort to miss a baseball park filled with youth league players.” “He didn’t have a whole lot of control from what we’re hearing,” said fellow pilot Bill Kieldsen, who’d known Hardin for two decades. “He probably saw the baseball field and made an abrupt maneuver to keep it from coming down there.”19 Jim Hardin was 47 years old.
1 “Man in a Hurry,” Oriole News, June-July 1969.
2 Doug Brown, “Hardin Giving Hitters A Hard Time,” The Sporting News, June 22, 1968, 3.
3 Brown, “Hardin Giving.”
4 Doug Brown, “Hardin Scores As Strong Man Of Orioles’ Hill,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1967, 12.
5 Brown, “Hardin Giving.”
6 Brown, “Hardin Giving.”
7 Brown, “Hardin Giving.”
8 Jim Palmer and Jim Dale, Palmer and Weaver: Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine (Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel, 1996), 24.
9 Brown, “Hardin Giving Hitters A Hard Time,” 3.
10 Palmer and Dale, Palmer and Weaver, 24.
11 Palmer and Dale, Palmer and Weaver, 24.
12 Jim Palmer, interview with author at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, May, 17, 2008.
13 Jim Palmer, interview.
14 Oscar Kahan, “Pitchers Moan, Batters Skeptical Of Low Hill,” The Sporting News, March 29, 1969, 15.
15 Doug Brown, “Back Pains Plague Hardin, So Do Tough A.L. Sockers,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1969, 10.
16 “Gophers Hurt Hardin,” The Sporting News, August 2, 1969, 24.
17 Wayne Minshew, “Braves Salvage Jewel Off Junk Heap: Jim Hardin,” The Sporting News, July 29, 1972, 3.
18 “The Death of Ex-Oriole Jim Hardin,” Misc Baseball (web site), http://miscbaseball.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/the-death-of-ex-oriole-jim-hardin/
19 “The Death of Ex-Oriole Jim Hardin.”