Obituary: Hal Naragon (1928-2019)

RIP to Hal Naragon, a long-time backup catcher in the majors and a coach after his playing days. He died on August 31 at the age of 90. Naragon played for the Cleveland Indians (1951, 1954-59), Washington Senators (1959-60) and Minnesota Twins (1961-62).

“The Indians family is deeply saddened by the passing of Hal Naragon. He will be remembered as a true gentleman, a great teammate and coach. Hal put the ‘magic’ in Barberton,” said Bob DiBiasio, Indians Senior Vice President of Public Affairs. Naragon was a high school hero at Barberton High, and the school’s baseball field is named after him.

Harold Naragon was born on October 1, 1928, in Zanesville, Ohio. As noted above, he went to high school in Barberton and was signed by the Indians after his graduation. One of his teammates was a lefty pitcher named Bo Schembechler, who would go on to sports glory of his own as a college football coach. The 18-year-old catcher, known for a good bat and a strong arm, was assigned to the Pittsfield Electrics. He struggled that first season, hitting .181, and the next season wasn’t much better as he split time with Class-B Harrisburg and Class-C Watertown.

Source: The Akron Beacon Journal, March 21, 1954.

Naragon began adjusting to pro ball in 1949, when he hit .264 for the Harrisburg Senators, clubbing his first two professional home runs in the process. He was a part of “Operation Marianna,” a project organized by Cleveland to develop new talent at a camp in Marianna, Fla. It featured players from some of the Indians’ lower-level minor-league teams, and no less a baseball authority than Cleveland VP Hank Greenberg tabbed Naragon as a possible major-leaguer. He hit pretty consistently in each of the next two seasons and was rewarded with a brief call to the majors in September 1951.

Cleveland was in the thick of a pennant race in ’51 (they finished second to the Yankees) and wanted a catcher to back up Jim Hegan and Birdie Tebbetts. Naragon played in 3 games and singled twice in 8 at-bats. His first hit came in his first at-bat, as a pinch-hitter against the Tigers’ Virgil Trucks. The hit came on the road, and as soon as the Indians made it back to Cleveland, the rookie catcher was honored with gifts presented by the Barberton Eagles in a pre-game ceremony.

In the offseason, the role of starting catcher was one the Indians needed to address. However, in weighing candidates, The Akron Beacon Journal pretty wrote Naragon off. “The youngster from Barberton is strictly a defensive catcher. He can’t hit. Occasionally he slaps a single or double.”

Any plans involving Naragon would have to wait for a couple of years. He was inducted on December 11, 1951. He served in the Marine Corps for two years and returned stateside to the Indians in 1954. He played for the Quantico Marines during his service, keeping his baseball skills sharp.

Naragon was fortunate to come back to a team that would win 111 games and the AL pennant, before losing to the New York Giants in the World Series. Hegan still held the starting job, but Naragon won the competition as the backup catcher. They caught a pitching staff that had Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Bob Feller in the starting rotation and a devastating 1-2 combo of Ray Narleski and Don Mossi in the bullpen. Hal Newhouser was also in the bullpen, giving the Tribe four Hall-of Famers on one staff,

Naragon played in 46 games for the AL champs, with a .238 batting average. He didn’t commit a single error behind the plate and threw out 11 out of 25 baserunners, too. He might have taken the starting role except for the fact that the light-hitting Hegan had some power in his bat. Naragon mostly sat on the bench as the Indians were swept in the World Series. He caught one inning of Game Three.

For the next three seasons, Naragon was a solid backup catcher for the Indians. While hitting wasn’t his strength, he had a couple of excellent seasons with the bat. He batted .323 in 1955 and hit his first MLB home run, a shot off of Jim Bunning that helped defeat the Tigers. He really turned the power on in 1956, with 3 home runs and a career-high 18 RBIs while hitting .287.

Despite his success in limited action — he never played in more than 60 games for Cleveland — he never really had the chance to start every day. He hardly ever played against left-handers. “I think I can do the job they want if they give me an opportunity,” he said in Spring Training 1957. “I think I hit lefties better than righthanders. However, I guess the days of two-platoon baseball are here to stay.”

Hegan retired after the 1957 season, and the starting job was given to Russ Nixon over Naragon in ’58. Youngsters Dick Brown and J.W. Porter also moved ahead of Naragon on the depth chart. He only had 9 pinch-hit at-bats with the major-league team all year, with brief appearances with the team at the start and end of the season. For the rest of the time, he was in AAA with the San Diego Padres.

Hal Naragon gets cooled off by teammate Bill Tuttle after leading the Twins to victory. Source: Star Tribune, August 3, 1961.

Naragon said he would welcome a trade if he wasn’t in the Indians plans. He got his wish in 1959. After starting the season in Cleveland, he was traded to the Senators on May 25 for Ed FitzGerald. While his average dipped to .241, Naragon saw plenty of action, appearing in 71 games with Washington.

“Believe me, the bottom dropped out of my world,” Naragon said about being dealt from his hometown team. “But, funny thing, after I broke into the Washington lineup and caught a few ball games, I was as much at home there as I was in Cleveland.”

Naragon lost his starting job to Earl Battey in 1960 and hit .207 in 33 games. He regained his batting form in 1961, when the Senators moved to the Twin Cities area and became the Minnesota Twins. He filled in ably when Battey was injured in late July and ended the season with a .302 average and 2 home runs. Even though he hit for exactly the same average as Battey, the Twins acquired Jerry Zimmerman to serve as a backup catcher for 1962. That deal reduced Naragon’s usage to 39 plate appearances in 24 games, and he struggled with a .229 average. He was placed on waivers at the end of the season for the purpose of granting his release. It didn’t end his time with the Twins, though. He was hired as a first base coach.

In his 10-year career, Naragon had a slash line of .266/.321/.334, with 262 hits. He hit 6 home runs, knocked in 87 RBIs and had a career OPS+ of 87. His lifetime fielding percentage as a catcher was an excellent .991, and he threw out 35% of all would-be base-stealers.

Naragon was a part of the Twins coaching staff through 1966. He also stepped in to manage the Twins in 1965 while manager Sam Mele was serving a 5-game suspension. The pitcher who gave him his first managerial win, Jim Perry, happened to be on the mound when Naragon caught in the majors for the very first time.

Naragon left the Twins in October 1966 when manager Mele accused him and pitching coach Johnny Sain of “cutting [him] up behind his back.” Both coaches were quickly snapped up by the Tigers, who made Naragon their bullpen coach. The move wasn’t without its controversy. Twins pitcher Jim Kaat penned an open letter criticizing the move. “Every move John Sain and Hal Naragon talked about, or attempted to do, was in the best interest of the Minnesota Twins baseball club and to attempt to improve our position. To me that is not disloyalty… Hal Naragon was the last instrument of communication between Mr. Mele and the players. Now there is a complete division.”

Mele lasted another year on the job before being fired. Naragon later noted that Mele did not have a good relationship with his players. “The thing that got me most is that he didn’t have the courage to tell me face-to-face he was letting me go,” he said.

Sain, who had a reputation as one of the greatest pitching coaches of his era, was quick to praise Naragon as well. “Naragon has done an unbelievable job and I’ve often been given credit that he deserves,” Sain said.

Naragon was a part of the 1968 Tigers team that defeated the Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. He left the Tigers after the 1969 season, going back to Barberton to work at his investment company. He also owned a sporting goods store in Barberton into the 1990s before retiring.

Naragon was a big part of the Barberton community and regularly attended high school games. In 2016, the school’s basketball coach Ken Rector said he remembered shopping at Naragon Sporting Goods as a kid. “Hal is at every game and he is just great with the kids. What a true community treasure he is.”

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