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.
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