Gail Harris, 1931-2012

Boyd Gail Harris, Jr., who played in the majors from 1955-60 and hit 20 HRs as the regular first baseman for the 1958 Tigers, died last week at the age of 81.

 

My first knowledge of Gail Harris came from a passage in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, by Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris. But the Associated Press report of his death noted that Harris hit the last home run by a New York Giant. I thought I’d flesh that out with a few more game details and other notes:

 

On Sept. 21, 1957, Gail Harris carried the Giants to a 9-5 win in Pittsburgh with a career day: 4 for 5 with two home runs, a triple and 7 RBI, setting personal bests (and NYG season highs) in RBI and total bases.

It was the only win in the final 11 games of NY Giants history. They came in on a 6-game skid, then dropped their last 4 games, scoring a total of 2 runs.

After a 2-run triple in the 1st, Harris’s 3-run HR in the 2nd ended Red Witt‘s MLB debut. Witt was one of the top pitchers in the PCL that year, and he broke through in ’58 with a brilliant half-season: 9-2, 1.61 ERA in 106 IP for the surprising 2nd-place Pirates, with 3 shutouts among his last 7 games (including 2- and 3-hitters), and a trio of 10-K games in a 3-week stretch. Alas, Witt soon developed elbow trouble and went 2-13, 6.29 in the remainder of his career.

Harris hit a solo HR in his 3rd trip, off the pitching convert Eddie O’Brien. After failing two half-season trials — first as a SS (teamed at the keystone with twin brother Johnny), then as a CF — Eddie O’Brien took to the mound in ’57 and tossed a CG, 3-1 win in his first start, with 8 strikeouts. (The winning margin came from a 9th-inning HR by Frank Thomas.) That was a flash in the pan, though, and soon both Eddie and Johnny (who had also converted to pitching) were gone from the majors. Eddie appeared in just one more big-league game after that Harris HR. The O’Brien twins are two of just 18 modern pitchers with at least 5 games at both SS and P.

In his 4th time up, Harris delivered an RBI single off Whammy Douglas, another name (but especially a face) familiar to fans of the Boyd/Harris book. Douglas was then just 22 and another top Pirates prospect, closing out a decent rookie year with a 3.26 ERA in 47 IP. After the Harris hit, Douglas fanned Bobby Thomson to end the inning — and never pitched in the majors again. He had a good ’58 in AAA but hurt his arm in ’59, essentially ending his career.

In the 7th inning, Harris was retired for the first time, by Luis Arroyo, who thus became eligible to continue his MLB career — but he did have to wait a year-and-a-half before he again toed a slab in the Show.

In the 9th, Harris was on deck with two down and Willie Mays on 1st when Ozzie Virgil, Sr. made the last out. In 1956, Virgil became the first big-leaguer born in the Dominican Republic; there have now been more MLB players from the D.R. than from any two other countries outside the U.S.

The winning pitcher in Harris’s big game was Rubén Gómez, who stars in another passage in the Boyd/Harris book, about a famous beanball/retaliation incident between him and Joe Adcock. I have the sad duty to report that both their account and the one on Gómez‘s B-R Bullpen page contain errors. The book says the incident took place in 1957 in a nationally televised game, but it was actually July 17, 1956, on a Tuesday. The Bullpen bit says that Gomez hit Adcock after the slugger had homered in his previous AB, but it was actually Adcock’s first time up. (Here’s a newspaper account from a neutral source.)

The Harris outburst gave Gomez his 15th win and his last winning season. A week later, Gomez absorbed the only 1-0 CG loss of his career, on a 9th-inning tater by Frank Thomas. In the remainder of his career, Gomez went 15-26, 4.80, though he did blank the Dodgers in the 1958 opener, the first MLB game played west of Kansas City.

Harris performed his heroics batting cleanup, while Willie Mays hit in the unaccustomed #2 hole. It may have been done to get Mays more ABs in a batting title chase; he began the day trailing Stan Musial by 6 points. But by day’s end, the lead had ballooned to 11 points, and Mays thenceforth returned to his usual #3 spot in the order. The following year, Mays chased the batting crown to the wire. Trailing Richie Ashburn by 2 points going into the finale, Mays was shifted to leadoff and went 3 for 5, but Ashburn went 3 for 4 to clinch his 2nd title.

New York’s other two RBI in the Harris game came from:

  • Ray Jablonski, one of 11 men who had 100+ RBI in each of their first two seasons, and the only one to do it between Ted Williams and Wally Joyner; and
  • Bobby Thomson, collecting the last of his 704 Giants RBI. Thomson had been reacquired from Milwaukee in June for Red Schoendienst, who went on to lead the NL with 200 hits. That’s only time in NL history that a player led the league in hits while changing teams in-season. (Charlie Hickman did it in the AL in 1902.) The Braves went on to win the pennant and the World Series, and Schoendienst placed 3rd in one of the closest 3-way MVP races ever, nabbing 8 of the 24 1st-place votes.

Harris was traded to Detroit the following January, and after a hot start as a bench player, he took over the starting 1B job in May and finished with a team-high 20 HRs along with 83 RBI. But he slumped badly in ’59 and needed a strong second half to finish with a .221 batting average. In 1960, he was shipped to the Dodgers, who sent him to AAA; despite a strong year, ranking 5th in OPS in the American Association, Harris never made it back to the majors.

In the searchable database, there are 10 other games by a Giant with 2+ HRs and at least one triple, most lately by Pablo Sandoval on 2011-09-18. Mays did it three times, including one of four known games with 2 HRs and 2 triples, on May 13, 1958. (In that same game, SS Daryl Spencer had 2 HRs, a triple and a double. Spencer also struck the first HR in SF Giants history.) The trick was turned twice last year in the majors, including the elusive 3-HRs-and-a-triple game by Ryan Braun on 2012-04-30, the first such game since 1975.

If you have a copy of the Boyd/Harris book, you’ll find Gail Harris on pp. 40-41, Ruben Gomez on p. 67, Whammy Douglas on p. 133, and the O’Brien twins on p. 143.


Comments

Gail Harris, 1931-2012 — 14 Comments

  1. Three of the eleven guys who had 100+ RBIs in their first two seasons, Jablonski, Joyner and Dale Alexander, never did it again.

    • Good find, Richard!

      On the other hand … the other 8 guys averaged 5.5 more 100-RBI seasons from year 3 to end of career, with a minimum of 2 such years.

  2. This post mentions two players who did something relatively rare in baseball until the rules were changed, I’m not sure when. Both Gail Harris and Luis Arroyo played in both leagues, going from one to the other in mid career. I don’t ever recall seeing this mentioned at HHS, but before whatever year it was, all the other teams in a league had to waive the right to to a player’s contract before he could be traded or sold to a team in the opposite league. I’m not sure what the rule was on players released outright, but inter-league trades were almost nonexistent, and the sale of a player out of the league who had some life in him was something that very often had to be managed with behind the scenes maneuvering. Basically, if you came up and succeeded in one league, you were likely to play in that league your whole career or until your value declined to the point that no general manager would claim you for the waiver price.

    Maybe someone else has more details on this pretty much forgotten feature of the business element of baseball?

    • nsb, great point to bring up. I don’t know the exact history of those restrictions, but I found a SABR piece with this:

      “The next change in trading rules came in 1934, when a year-round requirement was established for intraleague waivers before any interleague trade. In 1953, this rule was amended to additionally require interleague waivers between June 15 and the end of the season before a player could be traded or sold from one major league to the other.

      “For the 1959 post-season, a period from November 21 to December 15 known as the interleague trading period was created. During this time, interleague trades and sales could be made without waivers. This held until 1970, when the interleague trading period ran from 5 days after the end of the World Series until December 15 (later it ran until the next-to-last day of the winter meetings.) Another such period was added in 1977, from February 15 to March 15, which in 1981 was extended to April 1. In 1986, the distinction between intraleague and interleague trades was eliminated, and the waivers were required for trades only from August 1 to the end of the season.”

      http://members.dslextreme.com/users/brak2.0/trades.htm

  3. Nice writeup John. Especially the use of words and phrases like “fanned”, “keystone” and “toed the slab”. That’s why I enjoy reading this blog so much.

  4. Not surprisingly, that Giants-Dodgers game of May 13, 1958 is the only one in the game-searchable era with two players having two HRs and a triple, whether on the same team or both teams.

    There have been 155 games where a team has recorded 4+ HRs and 2+ triples. The more unusual include:
    6 HRs, 3 3Bs – Red Sox vs. As (1940-09-24), Yankees vs. As (1936-05-24)
    4 HRs, 4 3Bs – Yankees vs. Rangers (1998-05-06), White Sox vs. As (1959-09-07), As vs. Indians (1922-05-09)

    Both teams have had 4 HRs and 2 3Bs only once: As vs. Yankees (1962-08-19).

  5. Other last HRs:
    – Boston Brave: Eddie Mathews, 1952-09-27 (3-HR game by Mathews)
    – St. Louis Brown: Billy Hunter, 1953-09-26 (Hunter’s first career HR)
    – Philadelphia Athletic: Lou Limmer, 1954-09-25 (Limmer’s last career HR)
    – Brooklyn Dodger: Randy Jackson, 1957-09-28
    – Washington Senator: Bob Allison, 1960-09-28
    – Milwaukee Brave: Gene Oliver, 1965-10-02
    – Kansas City Athletic: Dave Duncan, 1967-10-01
    – Seattle Pilot: Steve Whitaker, 1969-10-02
    – Washington Senator: Frank Howard, 1971-09-30
    – Montreal Expo: Brad Wilkerson, 2004-10-02

  6. “The O’Brien twins are two of just 18 modern pitchers with at least 5 games at both SS and P.”

    Who are the other three man?!?!? You’re killing me here!

  7. Something I noticed about Gail Harris (who shares a name with a glamour model, a shock for those of us absent mindedly googling these things at work) is that he was fantastic in the minors. In his 814 plate appearances at AAA, spread over a season and a bit before his call up to the Giants, he hit .308 with 51 HRs (the same as he hit in his big league career but in about double the ABs), 156 RBI, 140 Runs and an OBP of 0.947. Not bad at all.

    • Good point RJ. It’s also interesting that when Harris came up in ’55, he basically took the place of Monte Irvin, who (after some fine years) was sent down to AAA at the age of 36, and proceeded to hit the crap out of the ball the rest of the way, .352/1.069 in 75 games — 2nd in the American Association, and better than Harris had done.

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