SABR

George Harper

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice.

From 1922 to 1929 George Harper batted .314 with 91 home runs for five National League teams. Only six NL players hit more home runs during those years.1 He was a superb defensive outfielder with a cannon arm. In a career that spanned from 1913 to 1936, Harper amassed more than 2,500 hits with a .312 batting average for six major league and 12 minor league teams. He also distinguished himself as a baseball equipment innovator.

George Washington Harper was born on June 24, 1892, in Arlington, Kentucky, one of 12 children born to John and Martha Harper.2 George grew up on the family tobacco farm in western Kentucky. He attended high school and played baseball in Fordyce, Arkansas.3 To support himself, he worked for 15 cents per hour at a stave factory cutting wood for barrels.4

In 1913 Harper joined the Paris (Texas) Boosters of the Class D Texas-Oklahoma League, and he batted .309 with 38 stolen bases. Noticed by Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, Harper was given a 16-game tryout with the Kansas City Blues.5 He performed well for the Class AA Blues but was returned to Paris for further seasoning.

Meanwhile, Harper’s 18-year-old girlfriend Johnie Warmack attended the Third District Agricultural School (now known as Southern Arkansas University) in Magnolia, Arkansas. Harper used a ladder to help her “escape” through a dormitory window, and the young couple eloped, getting married in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1913.6 School officials, and especially Johnie’s father, were not pleased, but it was a successful union: George and Johnie were married 48 years, until her death in 1962.

Harper hit .308 and swiped 42 bases for the Paris club in 1914, and George and Johnie celebrated the birth of their first child, daughter Nelle Mae, in September. In 1915 Harper stole 34 bases for the Fort Worth Panthers, and his .299 average was third among qualifiers in the Class B Texas League. For seven games in July, Detroit Tigers scout Mique Finn and New York Yankees scout Bobby Gilks watched Harper demonstrate his skills.7 The Tigers drafted him, and at age 23 he was headed to the major leagues.

At Tiger spring training in March 1916, Harper turned heads. One reporter described him as a “natural batsman” with a “flawless” swing, and “fast as a bullet” in the outfield.8 Harper threw a ball 389 feet in a field test. In a spring game against the New York Giants, he caught a fly ball in deep center field and pegged a throw to third base that caught “by 30 feet” a runner advancing from second.9 Despite this impressive showing, it was recognized that Harper was “green” and that he would be well served by regular playing time on a Class AA team. For Harper to go to the minors, though, he would have to clear waivers. Tiger manager Hughie Jennings feared another team would claim Harper, so he kept him on the major league team for the entire 1916 season.10

There was little room for Harper in the Tiger outfield. The Detroit Tigers were the best hitting team in the major leagues in 1916, led by the great Ty Cobb (.371) in center field; Bobby Veach (.306) in left field; and 36-year-old Sam Crawford (.286) and 21-year-old Harry Heilmann (.282) sharing time in right field. As a rookie and fifth outfielder, Harper appeared in 44 games (mostly as a pinch hitter) and started only nine of them. In one of those starts, he singled and doubled against the Chicago White Sox, but in a close play at home plate, he fractured his ankle when he slid into pitcher Red Faber.11 Harper described his speed in 1927 as “pretty good,” but he was “as fast as Ty Cobb” before this injury.12

Crawford’s retirement and Heilmann’s military service meant more playing time for Harper in 1917 and 1918, but he remained a part-time player and never got comfortable at the plate. He had three-hit games against Carl Mays and Eddie Cicotte, and a two-hit game against pitcher Babe Ruth, but in 400 at-bats spread over three seasons, Harper averaged .220. The Tigers gave up on him and assigned him to the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association, and Harper (temporarily) gave up on baseball.

With the oil industry booming in southwest Arkansas, sawing wood for oil rigs was profitable.13 Harper acquired a sawmill near Stephens, Arkansas, and turned his attention to managing the business. He played one game for Little Rock in August 1919,14 but returned immediately to his sawmill. The new decade began tragically for George and Johnie when their five-year-old daughter Nelle Mae died in January 1920. The Harpers’ second child died at birth.15 They had no other children.

Harper found someone to look after his sawmill while he mounted a baseball comeback. He played the second half of the 1920 season and batted .305 for the Oklahoma City Indians of the Class A Western League. In 1921 Harper was the star of the team. He hit two home runs in a victory over Des Moines16 and two homers in a doubleheader sweep of Tulsa.17 Harper finished the year with 238 hits, 50 doubles, and 19 home runs. His .393 average was second in the league. Harper’s outstanding season included a 26-game hitting streak.18 Among Western League outfielders he had “no rival in covering ground,”19 and tallied 29 assists. In September 1921 the Cincinnati Reds purchased Harper and teammate Oliver Mitchell for a Western League record price of $26,000.20 At age 29 Harper was headed back to the major leagues.

Pneumonia kept Harper from spring training with the Reds in 1922,21 but he was ready for the start of the season. Edd Roush held out for most of the year, which opened a spot in the outfield. Harper made the most of the opportunity with a .340 average, seventh best in the league, and his .952 fielding percentage was second best among NL right fielders. The Sporting News reported, “he seems to have the strongest throwing arm in the league.”22 Nevertheless, he was relegated to reserve duty when Roush rejoined the team. Harper started only 21 games in 1923, and his average fell to .256. In May 1924 the Reds traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies.

On the Phillies Harper received consistent playing time and emerged as one of the National League’s best hitters. His .349 average in 1925 ranked sixth in the league. In 1,100 at-bats from 1924 to 1926, Harper slugged 41 home runs. Among the pitchers he took deep were Hall-of-Famers Grover Alexander and Dazzy Vance. On July 25, 1924, against Elmer Jacobs of the Chicago Cubs, Harper hit a rare inside-the-park grand slam in Baker Bowl in the Phillies’ 10-4 victory.

The power hitters of the 1920s stood 6’0” on average and weighed 185 pounds.23 Harper was a solidly-built 5’8”, 167 pounds. His left-handed bat was well suited to the Phillies stadium. Baker Bowl’s mammoth right-field wall was closer to home plate and taller than Fenway Park’s Green Monster.24 Harper hit .363 at the Bowl and .280 on the road. He led major league outfielders in fielding percentage in 1924; his .98621 percentage nipped Ty Cobb’s rate of .98618.

Harper was quiet, serious, earnest – a man of “fine character”25 – and he was inventive. Not satisfied with ash bats which were easily chipped and broken, he experimented with different kinds of wood, applying his expertise from the lumber industry. Harper chose persimmon for his bats because of its strength and durability.26 He got “good wood” on the ball.

In the 1920s the spikes on a baseball shoe protruded from a small metal frame attached to the sole under the ball of the foot. The frame gradually wore through the sole and hurt the player’s foot.27 Harper extended the frame rearward to solve this problem. His invention increased shoe life and comfort. He patented the invention28 and earned royalties from it.29 Harper’s patent is cited by seven other patents, including a 2006 Nike patent pertaining to cleat configuration.30

Harper’s 1926 season ended in July due to illness,31 but he recovered during the offseason. Stuffy McInnis, the new Phillies manager, felt he had a surplus of outfielders entering the 1927 season,32 and so the Phillies traded Harper to the Giants. John McGraw, the Giants manager, sought Harper to replace the ill Ross Youngs in right field.33

The formidable 1927 Giants lineup featured Freddie Lindstrom (batting second), Edd Roush (third), Rogers Hornsby (cleanup), Bill Terry (fifth), Travis Jackson34 (sixth), and George Harper (seventh). Except for Harper, each of these players is in the Hall of Fame. Hornsby (.361), Harper (.331), and Terry (.326) had three of the top ten batting averages in the league. Harper also contributed 16 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 84 walks. In 20 games against the rival St. Louis Cardinals, he hit .455 with five home runs and 18 RBIs. One sportswriter called Harper the hardest working and most consistent player on the Giants.35

Harper was off to a slow start in 1928, hitting .228 in 57 at-bats, when McGraw traded him to the Cardinals for catcher Bob O’Farrell. The trade opened a spot in the Giants outfield for 19-year-old Mel Ott. The Cardinals were elated to get Harper, who hit .305 for them with 17 home runs in 272 at-bats. He went 6-for-8 with two home runs in consecutive games against the Cubs in July, and he clubbed a pinch-hit walk-off home run to beat 25-game-winner Burleigh Grimes and the Pirates in September. Against the Giants, Harper batted .388 with six home runs.

The first-place Cardinals held a two-game lead over the Giants when the teams met on September 20, 1928. In the first game of a doubleheader, Harper blasted three home runs with his persimmon bat and drove in five runs in an 8-5 Cardinal victory. He hit the first two homers off 25-game-winner Larry Benton, and victimized reliever Jack Scott for the third. Harper was the first player in Cardinal history to hit three home runs in one game. He considered this game to be the greatest thrill of his baseball career.36 The Cardinals won the pennant by two games over the second-place Giants. Do you suppose McGraw regretted that trade?

In the 1928 World Series, the Yankees swept the Cardinals in four games. Harper went 1-for-9 in the Series with two walks. His sole hit was one of three hits allowed by Waite Hoyt in the first game. In the finale Harper stood helplessly in right field as five home runs sailed over his head, three off the bat of Babe Ruth and one each by Lou Gehrig and Cedric Durst.

In the offseason the Cardinals decided to go with younger players, and they sold the 36-year-old Harper and 37-year-old Rabbit Maranville to the Boston Braves. Harper batted .291 for the Braves in 1929 and led the team with 10 home runs; however, the Braves traded him in the offseason to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League for a 24-year-old slugger named Wally Berger. Harper’s major league career was over. When Harper was given the opportunity to play regularly, he was among the best in the major leagues. Unfortunately, that period was short: He became an established starter at age 32, and by age 37 he was deemed too old for the big leagues.

Harper batted .308 with 97 RBIs for the 1930 Los Angeles Angels,37 but the Angels released him in May 1931.38 The Oakland Oaks picked him up for the remainder of the 1931 season. He played briefly in 1932 for two Texas League teams, the Shreveport Sports and the San Antonio Indians. Harper did not play in 1933 and was reported to be an oil well salesman in Texas.39

In 1934 and 1935, Harper played for the Eldorado (Arkansas) Lions of the Class C East Dixie League. Harper’s home was in McNeil, Arkansas, 40 miles from Eldorado. He was player-manager of the 1934 team. His .344 average in 1935 was second in the league,40 proving he could still hit at age 43. In 1936 Harper played for the Jackson (Mississippi) Senators of the Class C Cotton States League and the Augusta (Georgia) Tigers of the Class B South Atlantic League. Both teams were affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, the team that brought Harper to the major leagues in 1916. He had come full circle, and at age 44 he retired from professional baseball.

After his retirement Harper managed local teams and organized baseball schools in which he and other coaches mentored young ballplayers.41 In 1945 Harper managed a team at the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot near Camden, Arkansas. He celebrated his 53rd birthday by playing for the team, one inning at each position, in a game against the Texarkana National Guard. To promote the sale of war bonds, Harper promised to buy one $25 bond for each hit his team got. His team routed the opponent, and he made good on his promise by purchasing 20 bonds.42 One of the hits was his own eighth-inning home run.

In 1953 Harper was named a “goodwill agent” of the state of Arkansas by Governor Francis Cherry.43 Harper was active in his church and community, and he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and croquet. In 1970 he was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Harper died in Magnolia, Arkansas, on August 18, 1978, at the age of 86.

 

Notes

1 The six NL players who hit more home runs from 1922 to 1929 than George Harper hit are: Rogers Hornsby (220), Cy Williams (169), Jim Bottomley (146), Hack Wilson (137), Jack Fournier (102), and George Kelly (100).

2 Baseball Magazine, June 1926. John Harper had 20 children in total – eight by his first wife and 12 by his second wife Martha.

3 New York Sun, March 3, 1927.

4 Waterloo (Iowa) Evening Courier, September 26, 1928.

5 Kansas City (Kansas) Star, August 22, 1913.

6 James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009 (Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris, 2009).

7 San Antonio Light, August 1, 1915.

8 Detroit Free Press, March 18, 1916.

9 Detroit Free Press, March 29, 1916.

10 Detroit Free Press, April 2, 1916.

11 Hutchinson (Kansas) News, June 14, 1916.

12 New York Sun, March 3, 1927.

13 Lumber, Kreichbaum Publishing Company, May 17, 1920.

14 Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 1919.

15 Anniston (Alabama) Star, March 29, 1953.

16 Oklahoma Leader, July 28, 1921.

17 Oklahoma Leader, August 8, 1921.

18 Hamilton (Ohio) Journal, June 2, 1922.

19 The Sporting News, January 19, 1922.

20 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, 1922.

21 Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, March 14, 1922.

22 The Sporting News, April 5, 1923.

23 This was determined by averaging the height and weight of the 20 players who hit the most home runs in the 1920s.

25 Buffalo Courier, January 14, 1926.

26 Baseball Magazine, June 1926.

27 Baseball Magazine, June 1926.

28 Baseball Cleat, U.S. Patent no. 1,867,219, July 12, 1932.

29 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 21, 1930.

30 Article of Footwear Having a Regional Cleat Configuration, U.S. Patent no. 7,007,410, March 7, 2006.

31 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 23, 1927.

32 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1927.

33 The Sporting News, January 20, 1927. Ross Youngs suffered from kidney disease and died in October 1927.

34 George Harper and Travis Jackson lived five miles apart in southwest Arkansas.

35 Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 1927.

36 Anniston (Alabama) Star, March 29, 1953.

37 Oakland Tribune, June 2, 1931.

38 Oakland Tribune, May 16, 1931.

39 Syracuse (New York) Herald, August 29, 1933.

40 The Sporting News, October 31, 1935.

41 Camden (Arkansas) News, February 1, 1940.

42 Camden (Arkansas) News, June 26, 1945.

43 Anniston (Alabama) Star, March 29, 1953.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.