Billy Harrell: Two Careers of ‘Helping the Kids’

This article was written by Brian Engelhardt

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)


Billy Harrell has had two careers: his first started in 1952, when he signed with Cleveland and lasted for the next 15 years, during which he played for the Indians, Red Sox, and Cardinals organizations. His second career began immediately after his 1967 retirement from baseball, when he took a position as a juvenile probation officer with the New York Department of Corrections and extended for 25 years until he retired in 1992. In both of these careers he made a real differ­ence with the people he dealt with on a daily basis: in the first career it was his teammates; in the second career the young men and women who were assigned to him as a juvenile officer.

Over the course of his time in baseball he appeared in 173 major league games, compiled in three tours of duty with the Indians and one with the Red Sox. He had a modest .231 lifetime average, eight home runs, and 26 RBIs. At Triple A, where he spent most of his time, he was a productive hitter, usually hitting around .280 as well as being a slick fielder, at one time or another having played every position except pitcher and catcher. Kerby Farrell, who managed Harrell in 1953 with the Class A Reading Indians, then later at Cleveland in 1957, de­scribed him as having “such tremendous hands, he could play the infield without a glove.” Harrell’s .330 average and 84 RBIs with Reading in 1953 resulted in his win­ning the Eastern League MVP award.

All of this does not reflect the most lasting contribution he made to the teams he played for as well as to his teammates. Harrell is a remarkably unselfish, patient man who led and motivated teammates in his own very quiet but effective way.

These qualities are apparent when meeting Harrell for the first time. He still exudes a warmth in his personality and sense of humor that teammates enjoyed more than 40 years ago. An example of this is in Harrell’s reaction in September 2005, when he learned that the Reading franchise record of 170 base hits he set in 1953 had been broken by Chris Roberson (of the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies). Harrell immediately responded, “You tell Chris Roberson, ‘Congratulations.’ What was it anyway? Fifty­ two years? … I am surprised it held up that long.”

The Footsteps of Jackie Robinson

Harrell began his baseball career at a historic time, five years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line. Racial equality was anything but the reality in base­ ball at the time when Harrell signed in 1952. African Americans had played only for Cleveland, Chicago, and the St. Louis Browns in the American League, and on only three teams in the National League. Spring training facilities were segregated as well as outright barring black players from certain minor league teams in the South. Harrell, like other black players entering the game at the time, would find his good nature and patience tested on a regular basis by such practices.

Like Robinson, an All-American in football as well a star in basketball and track during his collegiate career at UCLA, Harrell enjoyed a standout athletic career in col­lege: in his case, basketball. Named Honorable Mention All-American in his senior year at Siena University in Albany, NY, Harrell received offers to play profession­ ally from the Minneapolis Lakers and the Harlem Globetrotters after his graduation. Harrell’s impact on Siena basketball is apparent in the annual presentation of the “Billy Harrell Award” to the men’s team leader in rebounds. Also like Robinson, who played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs before signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Harrell played briefly with the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons. Although his entry into baseball did not come with the fanfare that accompanied Robinson, Harrell was featured in a 1952 Ebony Magazine article titled “Future Jackie Robinsons: Amateur Teams will Supply Major Leagues With New Crop of Negro Stars” along with fu­ture African American major leaguers Earl Wilson, Dave and Dick Ricketts, and Johnny Lewis.

Harrell was assigned by the Indians to Cedar Rapids in the Three-I League (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa), so he was spared playing in the South. His wife was pregnant at the time, and he would have preferred to be playing closer to his home in Troy, NY. Florida was his first experience with institutionalized segregation. He recalled, “I had heard of drinking at ‘colored’ water fountains and those kinds of things, but when I came there and experienced them-it was so strange.” In Winter Garden, FL, a city ordinance forbidding black ballplayers playing with white players prevented Harrell and future major leaguer Brooks Lawrence, then members of the Reading Indians, from playing an exhibition with their team. Harrell found it to be “really a strange experience.”

Harrell also recalled the difficulty of having to deal with comments from the stands at certain stops in spring training. How he dealt with them is an indication of the strength of his character: “I heard them. It was a bad deal. But I just ignored it and tried to hit the ball. The guys on the team were behind me 100 per cent. You get base hits and that’s what I did. That’s how I handled it.”

After hitting .325 at Cedar Rapids in 1952, Harrell enjoyed his MVP season with the Reading Indians, then of the Class A Eastern League. The team was a remark­ able collection of future major league talent, winning a league-record 101 games. In addition to Harrell, there were 11 future major leaguers on the team, including Brooks Lawrence, Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Rudy Regalado, Joe Caffie, Earl Averill Jr., Bud Daley, Joe Altobelli, Gordie Coleman, Doug Hansen, and Rod Graber. Reading manager Kerby Farrell went on to manage Cleveland in 1957.

Harrell still has special memories of that team: “When I won the MVP award the fellas on the team, they really, really congratulated me. There was no big problem. No jealousy. It was a great group.”

In 1954, Harrell was promoted to Triple A Indianapolis, where he hit .307, playing at shortstop, third base, and the outfield. Things looked promising for the next year, since Cleveland shortstop George Strickland hit only .213 that season. During spring training Cleveland man­ager Al Lopez had described Harrell as “a cinch to become a big league shortstop.” Nonetheless, Harrell was back in Indianapolis when the 1955 season started. After yet another solid season at Indianapolis (and after George Strickland’s average dropped to an even lower to .209), Harrell was promoted to Cleveland for the last month of the 1955 season, where he appeared to make the most of his opportunities, hitting .421, with a .500 on-base percentage in 13 games. Harrell humor­ously recounts the events of first big league at-bat on September 2, 1955:

I was sitting on the bench and [Manager Al] Lopez is calling my name. Except he’s calling, “Farrell” and I’m not paying any attention. I still hear, “Farrell, Farrell”­ so then they said — “Hey, Billy, that’s you.” So I went up to hit. Virgil Trucks was the pitcher, and after two strikes and butterflies — I hit the ball, but it went right back to Trucks — an “at ’em” ball.

He looked forward to the next season:

I was excited after the end of 1955. The next year­ George Strickland was having problems at shortstop­ they told me they thought things would be really great for me. I had my hopes up.

George Strickland’s Hot Spring

The Indians appeared to have other ideas than to give Harrell a full shot, as that off-season they traded Larry Doby to the White Sox for veteran shortstop Chico Carrasquel — an All-Star in four of the last five seasons. As if the team’s acquisition of an all-star shortstop didn’t create enough of a problem for Harrell’s advancement, George Strickland hit .372 in spring training in 1956, so Harrell was sent back to Indianapolis, disappointed but characteristically taking things in stride: “After George had his hot spring, I went back to Indianapolis and I said to myself, ‘Well you know, it’s part of the game, part of life.”‘ Despite hitting .279 at Triple A Indianapolis in 1956 and .276 at Triple A San Diego in 1957, Harrell did not get back to the Indians until late in the 1957 season, when he hit .263, playing three infield positions.

The failure of the Indians to advance Harrell after the successful years on Triple A distressed several of his teammates, including Jim “Mudcat ” Grant, who not only played with Harrell at Triple A San Diego in 1957 and with Cleveland in 1958, but also shared accommodations with him when they were housed together in a separate barracks facility for black players used by Cleveland over several spring training sessions. Grant, who pitched for seven teams in his 14-year major league career (number­ing among his accomplishments that he was the first African American pitcher to win 20 games in the American League) respected Harrell’s fielding ability­ recalling Harrell as “a talented man…[who] could really pick it.” His respect also reached to Harrell’s character and the way Harrell handled the Indians’ failure to advance him, remarking:

I’m sure [Billy] was disappointed about the situation, but he never showed it. People talked about that it was a shame [that the Indians continued to keep Harrell at AAA], but unlike a lot of players where although they wouldn’t talk about things in public, in private there would have been yelling and screaming, in private con­versation that wasn’t the case with Billy. He kept it to himself.

Grant, author of the recently published Thirteen Black Aces, described Harrell as quiet, but as a teammate “with a lot to offer.” He added, “If you came to Bill he would always give you good advice — ‘cool down’ kind of advice.” He also explained how Harrell helped young African American teammates deal with the racial dis­crimination that they encountered in the 1950s and early 1960s:

Coming out of the east like he did, there was a lot that [Harrell] didn’t understand [about discrimination suf­fered by African American players] but he still was very helpful at times whenever you had a problem and went to him.

Grant compared Harrell to other African American players who helped him at that time: ” Bill gave you advice to cool down — he was calming.” Grant described teammate Larry Doby as “hotter,” while he described Monte Irvin and Joe Black as “kind of in between.”

The 30-year-old Harrell played the entire 1958 season with the Indians but hit only .218 in a reserve role. He was then placed on waivers, where he was claimed by the Cardinals and assigned to their Triple A team in Rochester, where he played in 1959 and 1960. Clearly his most vivid memory of his time with the Red Wings or, for that matter, of his entire baseball career was a regular season International League game between the Red Wings and the Cuban Sugar Kings played in Havana on July 25, 1959, which ended in a tie early in the morn­ing on July 26, when stray gunshots fired by the crowd in celebration of the anniversary of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution grazed two of the participants. (See sidebar below.)

In a unique set of events immediately following the “gunfire ” game in Havana, a few hours after the game ended, Harrell caught a plane from Havana to Toronto, where he played that night in the International League All-Star Game. The next day he flew back to Rochester in time for the July 27 regular season game that evening, resulting in Harrell playing in three games in three coun­tries in a space of two days.

“A Gentleman and a Scholar”

Before the 1961 season Harrell was acquired by Boston in the Rule V draft. He laughs about the transaction:

Maybe the Red Sox got me for $3 or $4 (under Rule V Draft rules at that time the price was considerably higher.) It’s funny, my wife and family were living in Troy, and we had another baby and I said, ‘Oh good, I’ m in Boston’ — it was pretty close by. I played one year (1961) in Boston, but then got sent out to Seattle (Rainiers, Boston’s Triple A Pacific Coast League team). I wasn’t close by anymore.

Harrell, now 34, assumed a role as a player-coach with Seattle, beyond the unofficial role of helpful team­ mate he had filled in prior years. One of his teammates on Seattle in 1962 was Dave Mann, also an African American, now sports editor of Seattle’s “The Facts Newspaper.” Mann’s career paralleled that of Harrell, in that both played for a number of years in the Cleveland organization before moving over to the Red Sox organi­zation. (Unlike Harrell, Mann never got to the majors despite occasionally hitting .300 or better and being among the league leaders in stolen bases in any league in which he played.) What impressed Mann most about Harrell was his attitude on returning to the minor leagues after having played for Boston the previous season:

Bill had been to the major leagues and now was down to show us how to go about getting there. On the field he was all baseball, all business. In the clubhouse he could have a lot of fun and laugh with the rest of us. Besides being a fine player, he was a teacher and instructor­ when he took infield practice he was very explicit as to what he thought the right things were to work on. And if you wanted to learn something, you were smart to see the way he went about things.

Mann added: “Billy was very unassuming, even though he had been to the major leagues. Not everyone that comes down is like that, I assure you.” Despite hit­ ting .294 with 17 home runs with Seattle in 1962, Harrell did not earn a return trip to Boston.

For the next four seasons, Harrell continued to play with Boston’s Triple A teams — at Seattle through 1964, then with Toronto in 1965 and 1966. Several of his younger teammates at Toronto in 1966 would go on to highly successful major league careers and, like Mudcat Grant, would later attribute a good deal of their success to Harrell’s guidance. One such teammate was Reggie Smith, who starred for the Red Sox, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants over the course of a 17-year career. Smith credits Harrell as providing a ” tremendous influence” on his development. He relates that Harrell “taught me how to become a professional in that he provided the sta­bility necessary that I needed as a young player. He taught me the ropes more or less.” He added,

At that time people thought I had a so-called chip on my shoulder — which I didn’t — it’s just that I was a fierce competitor. Billy taught me how to channel my energy, and had a very calming influence on me. He had always an anecdote or a story which managed to take a lot of tension out of certain situations. It really helped me keep things under control.

Notably, Smith won the International League batting crown the year Harrell worked with him.

In Harrell’s own recollections of the young Reggie Smith what impressed him most was Smith’s arm. Harrell remembers that, “[Smith] could fire it. Nobody ever had seen that kind of arm — he couldn’t play the in­ field — he threw the ball too hard at first base. They had to put Reggie in the outfield. He could hum it, I’m telling you.”  Harrell also remembers  how   he worked to calm down a rivalry that Smith had with yet another budding star on the 1966 Toronto team — future 1975 American League home run champion George “Boomer” Scott. Harrell remembers the raw talent of each player:

Scotty and Reggie both wanted to hit the most home runs, and they were in competition with each other. George would go off like a volcano and I’d cairn ’em both down, and I’d tell ’em we’re all part of the same team, and it would help. They had so much talent and I felt good for both of them.

Also at Toronto was Mike Andrews, who was a mem­ber of the American League champion 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox, an All-Star with the White Sox, and member of the world champion 1973 Oakland A’s. (Andrews was the focus of a clubhouse mutiny staged during the World Series by his teammates after he was disabled by owner Charles O. Finley following two plays questionably designated as errors. The team rallied be­ hind Andrews and threatened to boycott the next game until Finley restored Andrews to the active roster.) Andrews has been the chairman of the immensely suc­cessful Boston-based Jimmy Fund cancer research foundation since 1979.

He recalls Harrell as being “like a father” to the younger players,” adding:

I personally learned so much from Bill — not only play­ing infield, but the way he carried himself off the field as well. He was a stabilizing influence with a young team plus he was the consummate pro and was always so positive. People would get upset at times, but Billy would just say, ‘Now don’t get excited.’ It would settle things down.

Andrews noted in particular that the “calming influ­ence” that Harrell brought with him not only benefited the players on the team, but at times helped calm the team’s manager, a young Dick Williams (who the next year would go on to manage Boston to the American League pennant, and later in his career would guide Oakland to two world championships and San Diego to a pennant). Andrews recalls Williams as “sometimes being pretty brash.” Andrews added: “Billy could still hit well too-even at that stage of his career.”

Reflecting his role as a “player-coach” with the vari­ous Triple A teams, Harrell laughed and said, “I was the team grand pop. I’ve always felt that the older fellows should be helping the younger guys. I was there to help the kids — I was there to set an example — keep them calm.” Mudcat Grant refers to Harrell with a term Grant says he reserves only for select individuals, explaining, “We used to have a term for a special kind of guy — the kind of guy Billy was — we called that kind of guy a ‘gentleman and a scholar.”‘

Helping the Kids: Part II

When he retired from baseball following the 1966 sea­ son at Toronto, the same qualities of unselfishness and a desire to help that led to his success with his baseball teammates led him to take a position with the New York Department of Corrections in Albany and begin a new ca­reer of “helping the kids,” and specializing in working with juveniles. For the next 25 years, Harrell worked with youth, trying to help them to participate in sports and other activities, seeing them in his office once a week, while also going out to see them in their homes. Harrell took special care to “see that they got into school.” He also worked to commence and administer an after care program, where he arranged to have baseball teams for boys in group homes.

Harrell was proud of the success achieved, recalling, “After they moved on, a number of them came back, and they played against the institution. The kids then saw they could play ball so they could get straightened up and get a chance.” Harrell saw baseball as a great vehicle to teach the youths assigned to him. In Harrell’s view, “Baseball is a team sport.” Teaching the young men he worked with the value of working on the team was something Harrell viewed as an important les­son and a key to success. He concluded his thoughts on the matter, saying, “I think I’ve always been that way with the way I played, and that’s the way I look at life, being part of a team — I call it ‘being responsible.”‘

Harrell and his wife Miriam live in Albany. He spends time working for his church, and bowls in his spare time. He has a son, three daughters, five grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. The year 2006 was a big year for recognition of Harrell’s accomplishments: Siena retired his jersey in January and he was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in July. Harrell enjoys seeing his children and counts his blessings: “I’m lucky. My children are spread out all over — Chicago, Las Vegas, and Rochester — so I always got places to go­ like a free vacation.”

BRIAN C. ENGELHARDT is a SABR member who lives in Reading, PA. His promising basketball career ended abruptly at age 13 when the collapse of the 1964 Phillies stunted his growth. He has written several articles for the Reading Phillies website, the Berks Barrister, and the Berks County Historical Review.

 

Acknowledgments

A special thank-you to Susan A. Washington of the Rochester Public Library for her assistance in researching the events of July 1959.

 

Sources

Books

Moffi, Larry & Jonathan Kronstadt. Crossing the Line. Iowa City, IA, University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Swank, Bill. Echoes from Lane Field: A History of the San Diego Padres 1936-1957, Paducah, KY; Turner Publishing, 1997.

Articles

Bennett, Brian A., “On a Silver Diamond,” Scottsville, NY, Triphammer Publishing, 1997.

Doyle, Pat, “Gunfire in the Ballpark,” Baseball Almanac, February, 2003. www.baseball-almanac.com/minor-1eague/minor2.shtml

“Future Jackie Robinsons’: Amateur Teams will Supply Major Leagues With New Crop of Negro Stars,” Ebony, vol. 7, issue 7, May 1952.

Pitoniak, Scott, “The night bullets replaced cigar smoke in the Cuban air,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 28, 1999.

“Wings Refuse to Play After Havana Gunfire; Shanghnessy Gives OK,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 26, 1959.

Interviews

Dave Mann, interview with the author, September 15, 2005.

James “Mudcat” Grant, interview with the author, January 8, 2006.

Mike Andrews, interview with the author, October 15, 2005.

Reggie Smith, interview with the author, January 12, 2006.

Billy Harrell interviews with the author, September 10, 2005; January 13, 2006; July 2, 2006.

 


“Game Called on Account of Gunfire”

One of the oddest occurrences in baseball began shortly after midnight on July 26, 1959, during an International League game between the Rochester Red Wings and the home Havana Sugar Kings. The game was called a tie due to gunfire from the crowd because a member of each team had been grazed by stray bullets. (Presumably the game was called a tie and not a forfeit because the umpires didn’t want to anger already excited heat-packing home fans.) The story that ran on the AP wire dryly noted that it was possibly the first time in baseball history that a game was called on account of gunfire.

The crowd that night was particularly excited be­ cause it was the eve of the sixth anniversary of the July 26, 1953, storming of the Moncada Barracks by Fidel Castro and a group of his followers. That event, although unsuccessful in achieving its goal at the time (Castro ended up in prison as a result of the skir­mish) marked the beginning of the “26th of July Movement,” the name of Castro’s revolutionary or­ganization that eventually took control of the country on December 31, 1958.

Despite the political change in Cuba, the Sugar Kings continued to play in the International league. They were stocked predominantly with players from the Cincinnati organization, who comprised an inter­esting mix of former major leaguers like Lou Skizas, Carlos Paula, Yo Yo Davalillo, and Raul Sanchez, plus a number of future major leaguers including Mike Cuellar, Cookie Rojas, Leo Cardenas, Tony Gonzalez, Jesse Gonder, and Elio Chacon. The Sugar Kings were managed by Preston Gomez, who would go on to manage in the major leagues with the Padres, Astros, and Cubs. The Red Wings roster included former major leaguers Billy Harrell, Luke Easter, B. G. Smith, and Gene Green, along with future prospects that included Duke Carmel and Charley James. They were managed by Ellis “Cot” Deal, who had as an assistant future Yankee coach Frank Verdi.

Harrell vividly remembers the excitement in the air that night at Havana’s La Gran Stadium, as he re­ called that not only was there a large crowd, but that Castro himself was expected at the game. As a result, events of the evening were held up until Castro’s ar­rival. Harrell also noted, with a laugh, that while everyone was waiting for Castro’s arrival, “Castro’s son was down in the [Red Wings] dugout with us.”

Following Castro’s late arrival, the start of the regular game was further delayed as Castro pitched in a short preliminary exhibition for an army team. In addition, an earlier suspended game between the Sugar Kings and the Red Wings was completed. With the late start of the regularly scheduled game, it was close to midnight when the game went to extra innings. In the top of the 11th inning, Harrell hit a home run giving the Red Wings the lead, but the game was tied in the bottom of the 11th on a disputed play where the Red Wings argued that Havana’s Jesse Gonder failed to touch a base. The ensuing argument resulted in the ejection of Red Wings manager Deal, which may have saved his life.

A few minutes later, at midnight, gunfire erupted both inside and outside the ballpark as soldiers car­rying tommy guns and civilians with private sidearms all began to fire into the air in celebration of the July 26 anniversary. As Harrell described the scene: “Everybody was yelling, ‘Cuba Libre!’ , and they were shooting guns and everything. It was pretty scary.” At that point, both Red Wings coach Frank Verdi, coaching at third base in place of the departed Deal, as well as Sugar Kings shortstop Leo Cardenas were grazed by stray bullets. The umpires immedi­ately took the teams off the field. Verdi, who was wearing a helmet liner, which caused the bullet to only graze his head, said to reporters at the time, “It felt like I got hit with a blackjack. I don’t know if I would be talking to you had the bullet hit squarely.” Speculation was that if Deal, who didn’t wear a hel­met liner under his cap, had been coaching instead of Verdi, the bullet would have caused serious injury. The bullet that hit Cardenas went through his uniform, but didn’t penetrate his skin.

An international incident ensued. The Red Wings refused to play in Havana for the remaining games of the series. Frank Horton, Red Wings president, called the United States ambassador to Cuba and arranged an immediate exit. The Cuban management called Rochester’s refusal to play “absurd.” Harrell related: “We had a tough time getting on the plane that night.” (Actually, it was the next morning.) After a few days, matters settled and all other games in Havana that season were played as scheduled. In fact, the Sugar Kings won the 1959 Minor League “Junior World Series.” The next season the International League again tried to play a schedule with a team in Havana, but on July 13, 1960, the Havana franchise was shifted to Jersey City due to the political climate at the time.

The bullets that flew during the 1959 anniversary celebration of the “July 26th Movement” certainly cause those events to take a place at or near the top of the list of bizarre circumstances that have ended base­ ball games. 

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