Harper was a very gifted athlete who was drawing attention immediately at the age of 18 when he began his professional career in the Cincinnati Reds organization. A natural center fielder, Harper was blocked at that position by Vada Pinson, so he debuted with Cincy in 1962 as a right fielder. But he was in left field for the next three seasons before switching back to right to make way for Deron Johnson.
The Reds never really knew what to do with Harper. He didn’t walk enough to be a leadoff man even though he had the best speed on the team and was one of the fastest players in baseball. The one year they tried it though, Harper scored a league-leading 126 runs and stole 35 bases in 41 tries. He didn’t hit for power enough to bat in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup, though he showed flashes, like in 1965 when he smacked 18 homers. And Harper struggled mightily against right-handed pitching, so much so that some in the Reds camp thought he should be a platoon player or a utility man. He was given brief chances to play at third base and even second base while with Cincinnati. When he had a poor year at the plate in 1967, the Reds traded the 27-year old to Cleveland for three players. Ultimately, Harper was a victim of a player logjam in Cincinnati.
After Cincinnati, Harper thrived on teams that let him be who he was. He was the first star the Seattle Pilots ever had (the only one). In 1969 he swiped 73 bases for the expansion team and played five different positions. When the franchise moved to Milwaukee and a cozy ballpark, Harper flexed his muscles and slugged 31 home runs. He became the first player in major league history to hit 30 homers and steal 70 bases at some point in their career.
Harper played for six franchises in seven cities after the Reds traded him. He led the league in stolen bases twice and earned MVP votes four times. He started his career as a heralded outfielder with amazing defensive ability. He was compared to Willie Mays as a defender in center field. Ironically, Harper finished his career as a designated hitter under Earl Weaver with the Baltimore Orioles in 1976.
Harper was acquired by the Oakland A’s for the stretch drive in 1975 and he performed well. In 34 games for manager Al Dark, Harper hit .319 with a pair of homers and seven runs batted in. He was a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts.