Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Billy Harris, former Brooklyn Dodger passes away at 80

Billy Harris, former pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, passed away Friday night at the age of 80 at his home in Kennewick, Wash.

Billy Harris, 1957 Brooklyn Dodgers
Harris was hospitalized about a month ago for bleeding ulcers after he fainted in his restaurant, Billy’s Bullpen. Discharged from the hospital two weeks ago, Harris never fully recovered from his ailments.

Just a few short months ago in February, I interviewed Harris for a story I authored about his teammate, Clyde Parris. Harris was cheerful and spoke glowingly not only about his Montreal teammate, but his entire career in baseball. Harris drank from the smallest cups of coffee, pitching two games for the Dodgers, one in 1957 and the other in 1959, but for Harris, what a sweet cup it was!

“It was a great feeling to go up there," Harris said during our phone interview in February 2011. "Every time they called me up, I knew the guys from spring training so it was just like meeting old buddies again.”

Harris gained accolades for being one of the early Canadians in the majors. Hailing from Duguayville, N.B., Harris epitomized the pinnacle of achievement for a baseball player from such a small area.

“Billy defined Canadiana. Small town boy makes good,” said Tom Valcke, president & CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in an interview with Kevin Glew of the Canadian Baseball Network.

Harris signed with the Dodgers at the age of 19 in 1951 when he was offered a contract by Bill O’Connor while he was playing hockey. He found immediate success with Class-D Valdosta, posting an 18-9 record with a 2.19 ERA.

He quickly climbed the ladder, skipping two levels to Class-B Miami the following year. It was with the Sun Sox that Harris would set a record that stands almost 60 years later. During his magical season of 1952, Harris went 25-6 with a minuscule 0.83 ERA that is still the lowest season ERA for a pitcher in organized ball.

When asked about his breakout season, Harris remained humble about his achievement.

“I think the record still stands for ERA, 0.83," he said. "I won 25 games and three more in the playoffs which doesn’t count in the standings. I had good defense, but I had good stuff. My fastball was really moving.

“I don’t know it just one of those deals. It was kind of a pitcher’s league but we had a good team behind me. I had Chico Fernandez at short, Dick Gray at third and [Jimmy] Bragan at second base. We had a good outfield that could go get ‘em, so that helped the team. All I had to do was throw the ball over the plate.”

Harris ascended the ranks the following season, playing in AA Fort Worth and Mobile. He would spend the next three seasons shuttling between AA and AAA, making brief stops with Montreal in 1954 and 1955 before settling in for good with the Canadian club in 1956.

His previous stops in Montreal while brief proved to be rather memorable. In 1954, Harris only pitched three games for Montreal, but it gave him enough time to join one of baseball’s golden child’s Roberto Clemente on the bench for his only season in the Dodger organization. Clemente was being “hidden” by the Dodgers brass that season, being used sparingly with the hopes that another team would not claim him while he waited in AAA.

During one of their conversations on the bench, Clemente revealed to Harris where his next destination would be.

“I remember, we always sat and talked on the bench," he said. "They didn’t play him too much as they tried to hide him as he was up for grabs because he was sent down and made more than a $10,000 bonus. He was sitting there telling me, ‘Billy, next year I go to Pittsburgh.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Look up in the stands.’ It was Clyde Sukeforth up there.”

Harris marveled at the talent that was around him in Montreal. Looking back they had enough talent to make a major league team on their own.

“I think we had a team in Montreal that would beat most of the major league teams," he said. "Sparky Anderson was my second baseman. We also had Rocky Nelson, John Roseboro, Clyde Parris, George Shuba, Dick Williams and Chico Fernandez. Those were some great names.”

During the winters in between his forays with the Dodgers minor league clubs, Harris went to the Caribbean to bolster his income and polish his pitching skills. He played six years in winter ball, in both Panama and Venezuela.

“The pay was good," he recalled. "You didn’t want to take a real job. I played two years in Panama and four in Venezuela. For two of those years, I played in the Caribbean Series and then I went right to spring training.”

Finally in 1957, after eight years in the minors, Brooklyn reached down and called for Harris to join the major league club.  With the reserve clause, all he could do at the time was wait for the call to the show.

“You belonged to the team," he said. "There was no free agency and no union to protect you. I was called up to the Dodgers and they kept me back because Buffalo was fighting for the pennant. The league owner told me I had to stay to pitch against them. I beat Buffalo, I think it cost them the pennant and the next day I went with the Dodgers.

“I pitched the next to the last game of the season in 1957 against the Phillies in Philadelphia. The last game Roy Campanella caught; I pitched that game. I got to know him quite a lot in spring training. I used to hit grounders to the infielders and he would back me up and we had a ball. He was funnier than hell. He was a great guy. He had a nickname for me; he’d call me 'muscles.' I was built kind of strong in those days. Just think next year he would have played in the Coliseum and he would have popped a whole bunch off the porch there.”

Harris was called up again at the end of the 1959 season to relieve the Dodgers pitching staff as they made a run at the World Series. He hurt his arm the following season and wound up playing for Tri-City a few years later, luring him to his Kennewick residence.

“They had a team in Tri-City where I live now," he said. "I didn’t even know where this place was. They needed a coach, so I pitched and coached. My wife was from Montreal and I was from New Brunswick and we decided to live there. We bought a home and I decided to get into this business,” said Harris.

The business he referred to is his sports bar, Billy’s Bullpen in Kennewick.

“I’ve owned this for 25 years. It’s a sports bar, we have a lot of fun here.”

Harris is survived by his wife, Alice, daughter Gail and sons, Billy Jr. and Rick, as well as seven grand children.


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