Forgettable Joe Harris deserves to be remembered

Joe Harris batted .440 for the Washington Senators in the 1925 World Series

Joe Harris made his major league debut in 1914 and played his last game in 1928, which should have given him a 15-year career. But in-between he was derailed by several events, all of which were beyond his control. Nevertheless, Harris hit .317 with a .404 on-base percentage in ten big league seasons that saw him wear six different big league uniforms.

With better luck, Harris might have put up even bigger numbers and his name (though common) would be more recognizable to fans of baseball history. 

The first obstacle for Harris was getting a chance to play. In June of 1914 the New York Highlanders purchased the 23-year old first baseman. The New York manager was Frank Chance, the former star of the Cubs. For some reason, Chance played Harris in left field in his big league debut in St. Louis, inserting him in the middle of the game against the Browns. Harris struck out his first time up, was hit by a pitch the next time. The following day, Chance played his untested young player at first base, and Harris excelled: he played well around the bag, walked three times and produced a sacrifice bunt to support a New York win. But when the team went back east, Harris was not with them. He was sent back to the minors. Chance had apparently seen enough. Maybe Chance, who had been a superior first baseman in his day, saw something he didn’t like about the young Harris. Maybe it was because the incumbent New York first baseman was a man named Charlie Mullen, who happened to be a close friend of Chance. At any rate, Joe hit .386 with power that season in the minors. He spent all of 1915 and 1916 in the minors, still hitting the ball hard and playing well. But no team came calling. In those days, with just 16 big league teams and without a sophisticated scouting system, good players could be stuck at the lower levels. If they did get to pop their heads up, one little thing could stop them from getting a job. Like Frank Chance not liking you.

Late in the 1916 season, the Indians, acting on a tip from a scout who saw Harris play in Chattanooga, snatched him up in the Rule 5 Draft. After finally getting a chance to play semi-regularly, Harris hit .304 as a 26-year old rookie for a Cleveland team that finished in third place in 1917. Harris found himself in the lineup with Tris Speaker and Ray Chapman. But fate intervened when Harris was drafted into service by the U.S. Army. He reported to boot camp early in 1918 and by June he was on the ground in France fighting for the 320th Infantry Division. Harris had some close calls in Europe: once his group was bogged down in a gun fight with Germans in a thick row of hedges. Harris had to climb out of his foxhole from beneath the dead body of one of his fellow soldiers. Another time, a truck he was traveling in was shelled and several soldiers were killed, Harris narrowly escaped. Finally, Harris’ luck ran out when an ambulance he was in flipped over. Harris suffered a fractured skull, broken ribs, and other injuries. He was unconscious for nearly three days. It looked like he might not recover, let alone play baseball again. But Harris mended and after several months, when the war ended he was shipped back to the United States. It was the spring of 1919 and he’d missed more than a full year.

Somehow, despite the severity of his head injuries, Harris was back in a baseball uniform and playing for the Indians in June of 1919. He played brilliantly, hitting .375 in 62 games with 46 RBIs. Before a game in September, Cleveland fans presented him with a silver cup and other gifts, welcoming back their war hero. But the Cleveland front office wasn’t as generous as the fans of Cleveland, and after the season, they sent a contract to Harris that called for a pay cut! Understandably irritated, Harris sent the contract back unsigned. As the winter turned to spring, it became obvious the two sides couldn’t agree on a dollar figure, and Harris decided to make the first move. He accepted an offer to play for an independent team in Pennsylvania. The “outlaw” team offered Harris much more money and business opportunities (they set Joe up with his own pool hall). For the next two years, while the Indians refused to offer Harris a pay raise, he batted over .400 against inferior competition. In that era, a player had no recourse when a big league team owned their contract: if he didn’t like the terms of his contract, he could either swallow his pride and sign, or quit. Most players accepted their fate.

Harris had to apply for reinstatement to the big leagues after playing two seasons with an independent club, which Joe did several times. He hoped that new baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would declare him a free agent. Finally, at the winter meetings in 1921, the Indians traded Harris to the Red Sox in a multi-player deal that brought veteran first baseman Stuffy McInnis to Cleveland. Harris reported to Boston for spring training in 1922 after two years away from the majors, hoping that the relationship with his new team would be better.

Harris’ swing was made for Fenway Park. A 5’9 righthanded batter, Harris had a slight uppercut. He smashed drives off the Green Monster in left field and feasted on big league pitching despite his absence. In three full seasons for the Red Sox, Harris hit .317 (.339 at Fenway) and showed his superb pitch recognition, posting an on-base percentage just a tick below .400 in a Boston uniform. He was known as a great curveball hitter, but pitchers still foolishly challenged him with the breaking pitch throughout his career. In 1923 when he batted .323, Harris received a few MVP votes. The following year he got a few more. The fans along the first base line at Fenway Park loved to call him by his nickname “Moon”, which was possibly given to him by a female admirer because his face was round. 

He was 34 years old as the 1925 season started and the Sox had a young first base prospect, so they dealt Harris to the Senators in April. Washington was the defending world champions, and Harris thrived with his first winning club, batting .323 and leading the team in RBIs after he entered their starting lineup. The Senators repeated as pennant-winners and in the subsequent World Series against Pittsburgh, Harris was a star, batting .440 on the strength of 11 hits (six for extra bases) in the seven games. Harris produced a game-winning hit in Game Three and socked three home runs in the Fall Classic, but the Nats lost.

In 1926 the Senators had a loaded lineup and with Joe Judge returning to first base, Harris found himself as a fourth outfielder and fill-in. He still hit, batting .307 in 92 games with 54 RBIs. One of the reasons Harris found himself as a utility player was a relic from his war days: his right eye had suffered damage when he was tossed from that ambulance in France, and even after two operations his vision was fuzzy. Harris adjusted his batting style as a result, opening his stance and turning his hips toward the mound so he could look directly at the pitcher. Harris hit .314 after the operation, but time was starting to run out on his career.

The Senators traded Harris to Pittsburgh in the spring of 1927, the Pirates having remembered his hot bat from the World Series a few years earlier. Now 36-years old, Harris was slated to be a pinch-hitter, backup first baseman, and corner outfielder. But team injuries and his torrid bat led to Harris having one of his best seasons. In June he was hitting a blistering .446, and the veteran ended up batting .326 with a .402 on-base percentage in 129 games. He hit nine triples in his first season with the Bucs, marking the sixth straight season Harris had at least nine three baggers.

The fine season by Harris helped lift the Pirates to the NL pennant, and the veteran found himself in the World Series a second time, although his team was easily brushed aside by the Yankees, one of the greatest teams of all-time.

In 1928 the Bucs couldn’t bring themselves to give a starting job to a 37-year old war veteran with a bum eye. But Harris was still hitting, he batted .391 (9-for-23) in limited action over the first few months of the season. The Pirates traded him to Brooklyn, which at that time was like being exiled to Siberia, and Harris played out the rest of the season, his last in the major leagues. But he still had hits in his bat: Harris hit nearly .400 in one season in the Pacific Coast League at the age of 38; he batted .333 with Toronto when he was 39 years old; and even after undergoing a life-threatening gallbladder operation, “Moon” Harris came back to hit over .300 after his 40th birthday.

The era before the establishment of the organized minor league system (and the expansion it led to) was a difficult one for a baseball player who was misunderstood or got blackballed. Harris was one of several talented players who toiled in the First World War years who was labeled a malcontent because he refused to play for less money than he was worth. He was unfairly characterized as “damaged goods” after his brush with death in the war. Could you imagine something as insensitive as that happening today? Well, no one blinked at it back then. But in spite of the obstacles that kept him from being on a big league roster when he was truly ready, from playing every day, and from getting the respect he deserved, Harris continued to do what he was born to do: hit a baseball.

Harris accumulated close to 1,000 hits in the big leagues and nearly 1,000 more in the minors. He missed a year and a half due to service in World War I, and two years due to a contract dispute. The teams that owned his rights should have had him in their lineup for about 500 more games, but they failed to understand how good a player Joe was. I figure he conservatively could have had 2,000 hits in the big leagues had he been afforded a more favorable path.

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