Right-handed pitcher Bill Harris won 24 major-league games in a career that spanned 18 seasons, from his debut in April 1923 to his final game in October 1938. He won 257 games in the minor leagues, in the years 1921 to 1945.
His parents were Ed Harris and Minnie (Ragsdale) Harris. William Milton Harris was born on June 23, 1900, on a farm in Sachse, near Wylie, Texas, then a small community of 773 inhabitants. By 2010, the city of Wylie, about 20 miles northeast of Dallas, had grown to more than 41,000. Sachse itself is a Dallas suburb of more than 20,000. Ed Harris, a North Carolinian by birth, was a farmer at the time of the 1900 census. Minnie was a native of the Lone Star State.
Bill lost his mother in November 1907. Minnie’s grave is in the Ragsdale family plot at Sachse, though her marker reads, “Wife of Ed Harris.” Bill had an older brother, Garvin, born in 1897, and a sister, Nellie, three years younger. At the time of the 1910 census, Ed Harris and the three children were living in Loving, Texas, where he worked in a livery stable.
Willie Harris (as he was named in the 1910 census) attended school through the ninth grade in the yet more rural communities of Loving and Olney, Texas. Harris grew to 6-feet-1 with a playing weight listed at 180 pounds.
His first year in professional baseball was 1921 for the Charlotte Hornets in the South Atlantic League. He joined the team late in the season but quickly picked up the nickname “Speed Ball.” He was 3-4 in the Class-B play, but with a very good 2.22 earned-run average. “Several big-league scouts who looked him over made nifty offers for an option” after another year’s work, but all offers were rejected by the president of the Hornets.1 At the very end of the year, five days before Christmas, Harris married Thelma Gaddy.
In early May 1922 Harris was optioned to the Winston-Salem Twins in the Class-C Piedmont League. He was seen to need work at the lower level. The comment was: “Harris is a great pitcher; his greatest trouble is that he lacks what they make tennis racket strings out of. … If Harris could only get confidence in himself he would make ’em sit up and take notice.”2
Working under Winston-Salem’s manager Charles Clancy paid off. Harris won 24 games and lost 15; he recorded a 2.69 ERA. There was some thought that Clancy had “truck-horsed” him too much; he threw 321 innings.3 After the season was over, Harris was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds on October 16.
Harris made his major-league debut on April 23, 1923, in a Redland Field home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He worked the last two innings of the game, and saw the Pirates’ lead increase from 11-9 to 15-9; he was charged with two earned runs in the top of the eighth and another two in the ninth. Five hits (one a homer), two walks, and a hit batter made for a shaky start to what proved a long career. Harris worked only once more before July but by the end of the season had appeared in 22 games, with three starts and 3-2 record and a 5.17 ERA. Sportswriter W.A. Phelon of the Cincinnati Times-Star got a little carried away in his praise of Harris after his first start, on July 30, a 5-4 complete-game win. Pat Moran‘s Reds made a run at the pennant, falling 4½ games short. In late July they needed some deliverance. Phelon wrote, “The fifth pitcher has arrived. The one man needed to complete the staff and make the Reds’ defense airtight against all comers has shown his wares, and Pat Moran at last rests easy. Will Harris is it with a capital I.” He described Harris’s pitching as “brilliant” and “elegant,” and continued to rave.4
A 5.17 ERA is a long way from deliverance, of course, and in three May 1924 relief appearances, Harris gave up seven runs in seven innings and was part of a May 29 deal, traveling to Minneapolis with two other players and $15,000 in exchange for Chick Shorten and Hugh Critz. Harris was 28-28 in 1924 and 1925 for Minneapolis, and began 1926 with them, too, before moving back east to Asheville, where he played through 1928, except for 1927, when he started in a Nashville uniform and was 15-9 with the Macon Peaches, “one of the steadiest tossers on the club.”5 Back with Asheville in 1928, Harris was 25-9 (3.36).
From 1929 to 1931, Harris worked in the Texas League, for Waco, Dallas, Galveston, and Fort Worth. At the end of the 1931 season, although he had a record of 11-21, he was asked to join the Pittsburgh Pirates. His ERA had been a very good 2.87; during 1931 he had not only pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Shreveport on May 3, but had also pitched two three-hit games, three four-hit games, and six five-hit games. In his first appearance for the Pirates, Harris threw a five-hit shutout against Cincinnati. He won his second start, too, beating the New York Giants, 5-1. His third complete game resulted in a hard-luck loss, 1-0, to the Boston Braves. Harris started four September games; the fourth start resulted in a 6-4 loss. Most of the runs in the fourth game were unearned; he finished the season 2-2, with a 0.87 ERA.
Harris spent all of 1932 with the Pirates, appearing in 37 games (17 starts) and posting a 10-9, 3.64 season. He won both games of a July 27 doubleheader against the Giants, with two innings of relief in each game. He put in another full season with Pittsburgh in 1933, exclusively in relief, with 31 appearances and a 3.22 ERA. His record, less consequential for any reliever, was 4-4. In 1934 Harris was with the team most of the season, but was up and down with the Albany Senators. He was used only very sparingly by the Pirates – 19 innings in 11 games, with a 6.63 ERA. With Albany he was 9-2.
From 1935 through 1938, Harris pitched for Buffalo, winning 60 games over the four seasons. One of the wins was a seven-inning perfect game against Toronto on June 3, 1936. He had also thrown a seven-inning no-hitter in the Texas League. On July 30, 1936, Harris threw another no-hitter, against Newark, a full nine-inning game, the first night no-hitter in the International League.
There was one final stint in the majors, though, during Harris’s tenure with Buffalo. He signed with the Boston Bees, but was with Albany again during the 1938 season until August 2, when the Boston Red Sox sent Johnny Marcum and $20,000 to Buffalo for Harris. The Red Sox needed pitching. Lefty Grove and Jack Wilson both had subpar arms. The team hoped Harris could help get them through the rest of the season.
The Red Sox used Harris in 13 games. Ten of them resulted in decisions, evenly split 5-5. His best game was a 1-0 shutout of the White Sox on August 27 in the second game of a Fenway Park doubleheader. The one run came in the bottom of the seventh inning, when Ben Chapman scored from second base on a “double squeeze play” bunt that Harris laid down. He’d tried to sacrifice earlier in the game, but bunted into a double play. Chapman was off before the pitch, was almost to third base when Harris’s bat tapped the ball down the third-base line, and slid across home plate before the ball could be fired back from first base to the plate.6 That season he pitched to a 4.03 earned-run average. It was his last time in the majors.
The Red Sox sold Harris to the Jersey City Giants in a cash transaction on December 15, 1938. He thus joined the New York Giants organization and played with the Jersey City team from 1939 through 1943, winning 18 games in 1939 and 10 in 1940 (the years he was 39 and 40 years old). In 1941 he won another 10. In 1942 the 42-year-old Harris appeared in only 11 games and in 1943 only four.
Harris was manager of the Class-D Erie Sailors (also a Giants farm club) in 1944 and 1945. He pitched in 25 games his first year (and was 8-4), but put himself into only one game in 1945. The PONY League team finished in fifth place the first year, and seventh in 1945.
Beginning in 1946, Harris took up work as a scout for the Giants. He is credited with signing Barnes Martin, Harvey Gentry, Rance Pless, and Julius Watlington, and is credited as the second scout in the signing of a Giants player with a more recognizable name – Willie Mays. Rod Nelson, chair of SABR’s Scouts Committee, writes, “Alex Pompez had arranged for Giants GM Carl Hubbell and farm director Jack Schwartz to see a private workout at the Polo Grounds when the Birmingham Barons were in New York to play Pompez’s Cubans, where they saw both Alonso Perry and Mays. (Make no mistake, Mays was the primary target.) Hubbell then dispatched both Ed Montague (the Giants’ Southern territory scout, based in Florida) and his trusted right-hand man Harris (a former teammate, who resided in South Carolina) to independently follow the Barons on the road home and finally at Rickwood Field, where they shared facilities with the Red Sox affiliate. Both Harris and Montague’s roles were minimal, but they are listed as Scout 2 and Scout 3.” Nelson fully credits John Klima’s book Willie’s Boys.7
From 1952 to ’56, Harris scouted for the New York Yankees (he signed Bobby Richardson in 1953), and then for the Washington Senators (1957-59), and the Yankees again (1960-62). Mixed in were two brief managerial stints – for the Porterville Packers for most of the 1950 season, and for the Yuma Sun Sox in part of 1956.
Harris suffered a coronary at Matthews, North Carolina, and died 13 days later of an acute post-coronary thrombosis on August 21, 1965, at Mercy Hospital in Charlotte.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Harris’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 “Casey” Crandall, “Hornet Pitching Staff Has Plenty of Strength,” Charlotte Observer, December 4, 1921: Section 2, 1.
2 “Harris Goes to Clancy for Try out As Pitcher,” Charlotte Observer, May 6, 1922: 9.
3 Charlie Brown, “In the World of Sports,” Greensboro Record, July 14, 1923: 8.
4 “Harris Wins His Baseball Game,” Charlotte Observer, July 31, 1923: 11. Phelon’s story was reprinted in the Charlotte paper.
5 “Harris A Tourist,” Macon Telegraph, February 26, 1928: 24.
6 Gerry Moore, “Sox Entrench, Win Twin Bill,” Boston Globe, August 28, 1938: B1.
7 E-mail to author from Rod Nelson, August 29, 2015.