Harlin Pool had a name that could’ve fit just about anything. He could have been the main protagonist of a gritty detective novel, a comic book character, a movie star.
But more than anything, he had the perfect baseball name. Harlin Pool—that just rolls off the tongue. It’s the name of a guy who might’ve been discovered playing ball on some dusty sandlot amongst fields of corn in Iowa somewhere.
In reality, he was born, died and is buried in California. The truth always gets in the way of a good story.
No matter. Pool was a real man and he did play baseball—even spending a couple years with the Reds in the mid-1930s.
Though the leftfielder started in Arizona, hitting .409 in the dry air of the desert his first campaign, the formulative years of his career were spent with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.
After a couple middling seasons in 1931 and 1932, he had a solid year in 1933, batting .328 with 219 hits, 48 doubles and 10 triples. It’s a stunning line by today’s standards, but he didn’t even top his own team in hits—Frenchy Uhalt did, with 221—and he finished nearly one hundred behind the league leader, Ox Eckhardt. In 189 games (the PCL played loooong seasons), Eckhardt had 315 knocks and a .414 batting average.
On May 22, 1934, the Reds shipped outfielder Art Ruble* to the Oaks in exchange for Pool, who had been batting .329 in 170 at-bats through 50 games. Though Pool could hit the ball well, he couldn’t hit far—he hadn’t hit a home run all season and had just five in 630 at-bats the year before.
*Ruble, for his part, was also a minor league star. He batted .350 and .385 his first two seasons, respectively, then had a .376 average in 1932. He hit just .207 in 145 big league at-bats.
Instantly, Pool found success in the big leagues. In his first ten at-bats, he had six hits including three for extra bases; he had hits in six of his first seven games and in 10 of his first 13.
On July 8, in his 79th game of the year, he hit his first home run—a grand slam!—off of 21-year-old Cardinals wunderkind Paul Dean, brother of Hall of Famer Dizzy. Just a few days later, on July 12, he slugged his second dinger of the season … and, as it turns out, the final one of his career.
As slow-footed as he was powerless, Pool didn’t steal his first base until July 18. He stole another on September 2 and a third on September 25, then no more in his time in the major leagues.
The home runs couldn’t have come at a better time. After his hot start, his production dipped, with his average falling into the low .200s during one particularly rough patch. It was a stretch that would last more than a month—from June 14 to game one of a July 25 doubleheader, he batted just .267.
But it was a stretch that would be quickly forgotten. Starting in the second game of that two-game set, he began an eight-game hitting streak in which he went 19-for-33—that’s a .576 batting mark—and had no fewer than two hits each game. His season average rose 50 points in just over a week. Though he hit .277 through the first 25 days of July, he finished with a .395 mark for the month as a whole.
The hot hitting continued. In August, he batted .326, rattling off one 12-game hitting streak in which he batted .354 and another six game streak in which his mark was .440.
He cooled off with the September temperatures, but still hit .306 for the month and worked another pair of hitting streaks. The first was for six games, but in it he didn’t even bat .300. To finish his season, he put together a nine-game run in which he batted .455.
From the first game of his resurgence in July to the end of the year, Pool had 78 hits in 222 at-bats for a .351 average. He walked only 10 times, but he whiffed just nine times, as well.
On the year, the 26-year-old rookie hit .327 with 117 hits in 99 games. Sure, he had issues in the field—his 10 errors in the outfielder were among the most in the league—but his hitting acumen could not be denied. He led the Reds in batting average and on-base percentage, outperforming Hall of Fame teammates Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey and Ernie Lombardi.
But his big league run would last just a couple months more. Within that short span, he would play in the first night game in history, against the Phillies, on May 24, 1935. It was the last notable moment of his career.
Despite his hot hitting the year before, Pool was relegated to bench duty to begin the next season, not playing a complete game until May 1. After an 0-for-4 showing on May 5, his batting average fell to .176; even a 3-for-6, three run game on May 8 couldn’t save him.
After hitting .222 in limited action in April, he batted just .172 in May with his season average slipping below .200 for good on May 29.
On June 2, against Pittsburgh, Pool appeared as a pinch hitter for Reds starter Paul Derringer in the bottom of the fifth. He grounded out weakly to pitcher Jim Weaver to end his career.
From his beginnings in some desert league in Arizona to that last weak dribbler to finish his career in an Ohio city an entire country away, Pool carried a stick that rarely missed the ball, swung by arms that barely propelled it or legs that hardly propelled him.
Whether it was because of a lack of power or speed or some other factor, Pool’s career at the highest level of baseball ended almost exactly one full year after it began.
But for that first go-round in 1934, that run of not even 100 games in which he rose so quickly, then tumbled, then rose even higher, Pool made a name for himself.
And boy, Harlin Pool … what a name it was.
After he left the major leagues, he returned to the farm and played in cities like Toronto, Dallas, Seattle, and really where it all started, Oakland. His average never dropped below .329 again. In 1939, he appeared in three games with the San Francisco Seals, collecting four hits in seven at-bats to conclude his career.