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In the spring of 1945, a crane operator for U. S. Steel went shopping. Frank “Red” Haller had worked in the steel mills in Joliet, Illinois, as did his father before him, but he wanted a better life for his sons. List in hand, he elected to purchase baseball equipment at Barrett’s Hardware Store, so his sons could learn the game. The bill came to $68, and it took him a year to pay off his debt.1 When his wife Julia learned of the purchase, she was quite angry, as the Haller household had little to spare, financially. As Red told it, “Tom’s mother wanted to murder me. Here you haven’t got 25 cents to buy a loaf of bread, but you spent $68 on this.”2 Red’s older son Bill would become a major league umpire. His younger son Tom went on to excel at all sports and emerged as the starting catcher for the San Francisco Giants teams of the 1960s.
Thomas Frank Haller was born on June 23, 1937, in Lockport, Illinois. He was the youngest of three children, preceded by sister Joyce and brother Bill.
At Rockport High School, Haller starred in football and basketball as well as baseball. His football prowess won him a scholarship to the University of Illinois where he played quarterback. During his junior year at Illinois, in 1957 he was third amongst the Big Ten Conference quarterbacks in passing. Against Ohio State, in the Big Ten opener, he went 10-for-13 with 183 yards passing, but the Illini lost to Ohio State, 21-7. The following week, he led his team to a 34-13 upset over Minnesota. Later in the season, in a nationally televised game, they toppled Michigan 20-19. They ended the season rolling over Northwestern 27-0.
During the summer of 1957, Haller honed his baseball skills playing with the Moose Jaw Mallards in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. His 18 homers opened the eyes of the professional scouts.
Haller was signed by the San Francisco Giants scout Gene Thompson on February 25, 1958, for $54,000. Part of that money, $2,500, was sent directly to the University of Illinois. Haller, the star quarterback, had left school with one year of eligibility remaining. His feeling was that, “It was only fair to repay the money since I cannot continue to compete for the university.”3 His father also stipulated that he would return to school and get his degree, and that he did. He spent the next three off-seasons at Illinois, completing his degree in Physical Education, graduating in 1961.
Haller’s first stop in the minor leagues was Phoenix in the Pacific Coast League, where he played for John “Red” Davis.
Tom married Joan Alexander on April 13, 1958, just before the season began and arrived late for the April 15 season opener against San Diego. They had met while in high school and started dating at the then tender age of 16. Joan was on the cheerleading squad in high school and remembers that the loudest cheerleader of all was Tom’s mom, who by then had gotten over her anger at Red’s buying all that athletic equipment. Tom and Joan were together until Tom’s untimely death in 2004. They had two sons, Tom Jr. and Tim. Tom and Joan became grandparents when Tim’s daughter Ellen was born in 1986.
Haller started the 1958 season well, and, after 22 games, was leading the league with six home runs. He broke out on April 19 against San Diego with a pair of homers. The first came off Julio Guerra in the fourth inning, and the second, in the ninth inning, broke a 4-4 tie and sent everyone home. Three days later, he hit another pair of homers against Sacramento.
Haller suffered a split finger when he was hit by a foul tip on May 9, and missed nine games. During his time out of the lineup, he lost his league lead in homers, as teammate Felipe Alou and Salt Lake’s Dick Stuart caught fire. He got back into the lineup in time to have his third two-homer game of the season on May 27 against Seattle in a 5-3 win. On June 14 against Salt Lake City, he had a grand slam in the third inning, and tied the game with a single in the eighth as Phoenix went on to an 8-7 win in ten innings.
The team was the class of the league and they won the pennant by 4½ games. Phoenix Municipal Stadium was a veritable launching pad with the foul poles only 320 feet from home plate, and the Giants went on to set a PCL homer record with 205, including 16 by Haller. His 16th homer, a pinch-hit grand slam in the eighth inning, provided the margin of victory in an 8-7 win over San Diego on September 2. They clinched the pennant three days later.
Despite his home run productivity, his batting average was only .228 and he led the league in passed balls.
Haller was reassigned to Double-A, the Class A Eastern League for the 1959 season. At Springfield (Massachusetts), he batted .276. He also caught a pitching staff that included a 21-year-old Juan Marichal. Marichal and Haller advanced to Tacoma in 1960 and would eventually become battery mates in San Francisco.
Haller showed his trademark durability in June. On June 7, he was beaned in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against Reading at Springfield. He was taken for x-rays that proved negative and accompanied the team to York, PA where he went 2-for-5 with an RBI the next day. He went on to hit in six consecutive games, going 11-for-24 and raising his batting average 40 points.
On June 26, he had his first professional four hit game, hitting four singles in an 8-2 win over Binghamton. Haller was named to the All-Star team and saw action in the July 20, 1959 game in Williamsport, going 1-for-3 in the contest.
In August, the team went on a 22-10 tear and moved into first place on August 26. The Giants won their final eight games and clinched the pennant on September 6, as Haller went 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored. They continued their success in the post-season playoffs, defeating Binghamton in three straight and taking three of four from Williamsport to win the 1959 Eastern League championship.
The next season, Haller was back in Triple A at Tacoma. Once again, he was on a team contending for the pennant. Haller’s bat came alive with a grand slam in a 6-1 win over Portland on June 4. On June 16, he met with Hank Sauer, the former Giant outfielder who was serving as the team’s roving hitting instructor. After the lesson, Haller hit three consecutive home runs in a 9-1 win over Spokane.4 In June, Haller had eight homers, 23 RBIs, and batted .296. Haller’s June surge did not go unnoticed, as he was selected to the All-Star team for the second consecutive season. He went 1-for-2 with a double in a losing cause.
Tom Haller was not the only member of his family moving up the ladder to the major leagues. His brother Bill, an umpire, began the 1960 season in the Northwest League. On August 4, he was promoted to the Pacific Coast League and, as luck would have it, was told to report to Tacoma for a series between Spokane and Tacoma.5 On August 5, in the seventh inning of first game of the series, Tom stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter, and the Haller brothers were in the same game for the first time.
For the 1960 season, Haller finished with a .251 batting average, hitting 13 home runs and driving in 42 for the second place Tacoma Giants. More important, with the aid of coach Roy Partee, he honed his skills behind the plate.6
Alvin Dark was appointed Giant manager in 1961, and one of his first decisions was to install Tom Haller as his everyday catcher.
Haller’s first major league game was with the Giants on April 11, 1961. He started each of the team’s first eight games that season. His first hit, a home run came against Vernon Law of the Pirates in his second game on April 12 to tie the score at 1-1. The Giants went on to win by a 2-1 margin.
His glove play was exceptional and when tested on the evening of April 25, he came through. The Giants were leading the Dodgers 3-0 in a game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. In the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers mounted a rally. With two runners on base, Wally Moon lined a ball towards centerfield. Willie Mays charged the ball, caught it an inch off the ground for the out and rifled a throw home. Haller had totally blocked the plate and Maury Wills, trying to score from third, was out easily.7
Haller’s defensive skills couldn’t hide his batting average. The Giants obtained catcher Ed Bailey from Cincinnati, and Bailey took over the chores behind the plate. Haller got into only 30 games with San Francisco and was hitting a lowly .145 when he was sent to Tacoma on July 6.
The 1961 Tacoma team was the class of the PCL and they won the Pennant by 10 games. Haller got into 56 games with Tacoma. Haller came through with two hits, including a homer, in a doubleheader sweep of Hawaii on July 17 that put Tacoma in the league lead by two games. In August, they went on a tear, winning 16 games in a row, and it was all but over.
Despite the occasional clutch hit, Tom only hit .205 at Tacoma, but his glove and acumen were such that the Giants elected split time between him with Bailey in 1962.
Carl Hubbell was the Giants farm director at the time, and he saw in the young Haller the qualities that would bring him to the forefront in any discussion of the great defensive catchers of the decade. “Haller brings a quarterback’s mind to catching. He’s an intellectual behind the plate.”8
Haller hit .261 with 18 homers 55 RBIs for the Giants in 1962. Haller and Bailey combined to give the Giants 35 home runs and 100 runs batted in as the club they battled the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League Pennant.
As the season wore on, Haller’s name appeared increasingly in the starting lineup. His clutch hitting, game calling, and gun for an arm could not be kept on the bench. As Harry Jupiter of the San Francisco Examiner reported, “Watching Haller is a joy. Runners are cautious, knowing Tom has an excellent arm, and nobody is better at catching foul pops behind the plate.”9
Haller’s throwing arm was the key. The Dodgers that year were built around speed with Maury Wills leading the charge. Haller’s arm was needed against the Dodgers and he started 13 of 18 games played between the two teams. Over the course of the regular season, Haller gunned down 36% of those trying to steal against him. He only made four errors that year and his fielding percentage of .992 was second in the league.
He was a great signal caller for a staff that was led by Jack Sanford and Juan Marichal. Haller caught Sanford regularly. Sanford had his best year in 1962, and Haller worked with Sanford to keep his pitch count down enroute to a 24-win season, including a streak of 16 straight victories. 10
As the Dodgers and Giants battled down the stretch, Haller played a pivotal role with his bat. On September 29, against Houston, Haller singled and clobbered a three run homer as the Giants earned their 100th win of the season 11-5 and pulled to within one game of the league lead.
The Giants and Dodgers ended the season deadlocked and went on to play a best-of-three series for the National League pennant. Haller caught Game Two in Los Angeles with Sanford on the mound. The Giants took a 5-0 lead but the Dodgers came back against the Giants’ bullpen, scoring seven runs in the sixth inning, and going on to win the game 8-7. The Dodgers’ seventh run scored when Lee Walls ran over Haller at home plate, forcing Haller out of the game. He needed six stitches to close the gash in his right forearm11 and missed the decisive third game, won by the Giants 6-4.
The Giants faced the New York Yankees in the World Series. After winning the second game by a margin of 2-0, the Giants were even in the series at 1-1. Sanford, who pitched the complete game, was quick to acknowledge Haller’s role in his great season. He exclaimed “Hey didn’t that Tom Haller catch a good game? There’s the guy who will be the take-charge guy of this club within the next couple of years.”12
The Giants lost the Series in seven games. Haller went four for 14, highlighted by his performance in Game Four. Wife Joan, who was then expecting the couple’s second child, was on hand with Tom’s parents to witness the game at Yankee Stadium. Not long after the family was settled in their seats, Haller gunned down Yankees leadoff hitter Tony Kubek trying to steal second. Haller’s throw was so quick that Kubek reversed himself and was tagged out when he fell trying to get back to first. In the second inning, on a 3-2 pitch, Haller slammed a Whitey Ford slider into the seats and put the Giants into a 2-0 lead. They won the game 7-3, and knotted the series at two games apiece.
The Yankees won two of the next three games to take the Series. On the last play of that final game, with two runners on base, Willie McCovey lashed a hard line drive to the right side of the infield. Bobby Richardson grabbed the liner, and the Giants were frustrated.
On May 22, 1963, Haller hit his first major league grand slam to propel the Giants to a 10-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Candlestick Park, giving Sanford his seventh win. After the game, Sanford was particularly appreciative of his battery mate. “Haller and me. You don’t think I could do it all by myself, do you? Tom may call some pitches you wonder about, but they work.” 13
In June, he homered in three consecutive games played. Once again the Giants and Dodgers fought it out for the pennant, but in 1963 the Dodgers prevailed as the Giants slumped badly in July, losing 13 of 20 in one stretch. San Francisco faded to third place in the late going. For the season, Haller hit .255 with 14 homers and 44 RBIs.
In December 1963, the Giants traded Bailey to the Milwaukee Braves for veteran catcher Del Crandall, and Haller’s playing time increased substantially. He had started 79 games in 1963. He started 105 games in 1964, and that number increased to 125 in 1965.
On May 31, 1964, Haller caught all 23 innings of the second game of a doubleheader with the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. In that game, Gaylord Perry entered in the bottom half of the thirteenth inning. Perry was struggling when Haller went to the mound and instructed him to try out that “new pitch” (aka the spitball) that he had been working on. Perry had been working on a spitter for some time, but had yet to use it in a pressure situation. If there was ever a time to use it, this was it. Haller said, “It’s time to break the maiden, kid. I think you can do it.” Before resuming his position behind the plate, Haller told Perry, “Throw it when you can get it on the ball. Don’t worry about me. You throw it. I’ll catch it. Let’s go.”14 Gaylord, who had been struggling, pitched ten innings of shutout ball, before leaving the game for a pinch-hitter in the top of the 23rd inning. The pinch-hitter was Crandall, who delivered the game winning hit.
Haller by this point was well-established as the Giants’ first-string catcher. He put together another good season at the plate, batting .253 with 16 homers and 48 RBIs.
The end of the 1964 season was nerve-wracking. The Giants were in fourth place, eight games off the lead on September 18. The Phillies were in command with a six-game lead. Then the Cardinals, Reds, and Giants gave chase, as the Phillies couldn’t win. With Tom Haller going 6-for-13, and homering in each game, the Giants won four in a row and were within two games of the league lead with two games left in the season. When the dust settled, the Giants finished in fourth place, 2 games behind the pennant winning Cardinals.
Haller batted .329 with eight homers in the September drive. He attributed his great finish in 1964 to crouching at the plate and becoming a more aggressive hitter.15
In 1965, Herman Franks replaced Dark as Giant Manager, and the Giants and Dodgers contended for the pennant in a season marked by highlights, streaks, and controversy. Haller got into 134 games, his highest to date, and produced 16 homers and 49 RBIs.
In midseason, in a move that would have an impact on the rest of Haller’s life, the Giants acquired Len Gabrielson from the Cubs. Gabrielson was installed as the everyday left fielder and became Haller’s roommate. The two became lifelong friends.
The Giant-Dodger rivalry was intense. On Thursday, August 19, the Dodgers came into San Francisco for a four-game series. At the time, the Braves led the Dodgers by ½ game and the Giants were in third, one game behind. Everyone was looking for an edge. In the second game of the series, Maury Wills set up to bunt and Haller moved up. Wills pulled back, hitting Haller on the glove. Wills got first base. Later in the game there were harsh words between the Giants bench, especially Marichal, and Dodger catcher John Roseboro. This escalated, two days later, to Roseboro sending a return throw to the pitcher just past Marichal’s ear, and Marichal swinging his bat at Roseboro’s head.
From September 4 through September 16, the Giants won 14 consecutive games, taking the league lead by 4½ games. However, they lost eight of their next 14 games. During that stretch, Haller hit two home runs and drove in five runs on September 2716, but the Dodgers won 15 of their last 16 games including 13 in a row, and went on to defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.
In 1966, Haller earned his first All-Star berth when he was named as a reserve player for the National League team. He finished the season with career-highs of 27 home runs and 67 RBIs, as the Giants again finished second to Los Angeles, this time by 1½ games, despite winning eight of their last nine games. Haller batted .292 in September.
His durability was put to the test that season. Haller was behind the plate for all 15 innings on May 10 in a 2-1 win at Pittsburgh and played 17 innings (7 at catcher and 10 at first) on May 13 against the Mets. In the May 13 game, the Mets jumped to a 4-0 lead, and Haller’s two-run-homer in the seventh inning started the Giants scoring, as they went on to win 5-4. Over the course of the season, he went the distance in 12 extra-inning games as a catcher.
His home runs were not only numerous, they were timely. He had seven game winning hits that season, five of which were home runs. On seven occasions, a Haller home run produced the first run of the game.17
Haller was again named to the National League All-Star team in 1967. The Giants finished in second place for a third consecutive season, as the Cardinals ran away with the pennant, finishing 10½ games in front. For the season, Haller batted .251 with 14 homers and 49 RBI.
Over six years, the Giants had had six consecutive winning seasons, but only one pennant to show for their labors.
In February 1968, the Giants traded Haller to the Dodgers for Ron Hunt. It marked the first deal between the teams since they had moved to the West Coast. When owner Horace Stoneham told Haller that the Giants were looking to trade him, Tom asked to be traded to a West Coast team. However, he was surprised when he was traded to the hated Dodgers. The Giants need at second base was such that they felt the need to trade Haller. Hunt was installed at second base, allowing Hal Lanier, with a rifle arm, a great glove and range, to stay at shortstop.
The move to Los Angeles was a move away from the cold of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Players’ wives rarely could remain in the stands on those very cold nights, and Joan Haller remembers heading towards the parking lot in the late innings and listening to the game on the radio in her heated car waiting for the game to end and Tom to emerge from the clubhouse.
In Los Angeles, Haller was reunited with Len Gabrielson, but, for the first and only time in his professional career, played for a team with a losing record. Playing in spacious Dodger Stadium, he saw the need to refine his swing. He became less of a pull hitter and went to all fields. As he stated, “I decided to begin hitting to the opposite field, sacrificing homers for singles, doubles, and – if I could get them, triples.”18
Yes, his home run productivity dropped from 14 in 1967 to four in 1968. However, he had a career-high 27 doubles, batted a team-leading .285, led the Dodgers with 53 RBI, and earned his third consecutive All-Star nomination. He also played well defensively with career highs in assists (81) and in double plays (23). He led the league in gunning down runners with 48, which represented a career high of 49% of runners trying to steal. He guided the Dodgers’ pitching staff to the second-best team earned run average in the league, although the team finished the season in seventh place.
His time in Los Angeles was well spent and he was well-respected by everyone with the team. Fresco Thompson noted that “Pitchers shake off Haller less than any catcher in the league” and Walt Alston stated “Perhaps what I like about him most of all is his spirit and attitude.”19
Over the next three years with the Dodgers, he batted .272, but after 1971, it was time for a changing of the guard. In 1971, Haller shared catching duties with Duke Sims, who had been acquired from the Cleveland Indians. By this time, Tom’s throwing arm was showing the signs of age. He only threw out 31% of runners trying to steal, and Sims completed 12 games that Haller had started during the season.
Haller was traded to the Detroit Tigers in December 1971, and served as a backup to longtime Detroit All-Star and Gold Glover Bill Freehan, as well as Sims, who the Tigers acquired in August. Haller got into only 59 games and batted .207 with two home runs and 12 RBI.
The year was nevertheless memorable. On July 14, when the Tigers played the Kansas City Royals, the plate umpire was Tom’s brother Bill. It marked the first time that brothers had appeared in the same game as catcher and plate umpire. The Tigers won the American League’s Eastern Division Championship, and Haller went to the post-season for the first time since 1962. He only appeared once in the League Championship Series, grounding out as a pinch-hitter in the second game. It was his last major league appearance.
Toward the end of his playing career, Haller spent his off-seasons selling insurance for the John Merrick Agency, and after his disappointing 1972 season, he decided to work full time as an insurance salesman. Tom retired as an active player at the age of 35.
During his 12-year major league career, Haller batted .257 with 134 homers and 504 RBI. Behind the plate, he was the picture of consistency, adept at handling pitchers, blocking the plate with his formidable 6’ 4” body and gunning down runners with his strong arm. He gunned down 261 runners during his career. Simply stated, the pitchers knew they were being guided by someone who understood every facet of the game.20
He was unhappy in the insurance business, and he was lured back into baseball in 1977 when Giant manager Joe Altobelli hired him on as bullpen coach. He was a Giant coach for three years before assuming the role of director of farm operations in 1980. In 1981, he became vice president of baseball operations and served in that role until late in the 1985 season. The team was 56-88 at the time of his dismissal en route to a last place finish in their division. He was named to the San Francisco Giants’ 25th anniversary team in 1982. In 1986 his former manager Al Dark, then the farm director for the White Sox, hired him as manager of the Double A Southern League Birmingham Barons.
In June of that year, Haller was named general manager of the White Sox, but he was frustrated in that position as the real power rested with Ken Harrelson who was the director of baseball operations.
Haller left baseball at the end of the 1986 season and relocated to Palm Springs, California. He worked as an agent for a mortgage company before taking over a building services maintenance company in 1991. He was not above getting himself a bit dirty and was well respected by his staff of 38. He and Joan became friendly with one of their staff, Gilberto De La Torre, and were named godparents to the De La Torre’s newborn child.
In the summer of 2004, shortly after vacationing in Colorado, Tom contracted the West Nile Virus. He fought the disease for three-and-one-half months before passing away in Los Angeles on November 26, 2004 at the age of 67.
Fred Claire, a baseball executive who was with the Dodgers during Haller’s time with the team, said it best:
“Tom Haller was one of those people who made you feel good about life by simply being in his company.”21