LOCAL LEGENDS IN THE PROS:
Harris' Big League Career Was A Hit
During his time with the Detroit Tigers in the late-1950s, Gail Harris was standing at first base in a game against the rival New York Yankees. Manning his position in the infield of hallowed Yankee Stadium, the Abingdon native was overcome with the magnitude of the moment.
"Standing there at first base, I said to myself, 'Lord, oh mercy, Lou Gehrig stood in this same spot. And I'm just an old boy from Abingdon standing here,' " Harris said.
Harris had many moments similar to that one during a major league career that occurred during the true golden era of professional baseball.
In six seasons with the New York Giants and Detroit Tigers, Harris compiled a .240 batting average with 51 home runs in a career that spanned 437 games. Among his famous teammates were Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Willie Mays. He played in the famed Polo Grounds. As a rookie he received orders from legendary manager Leo Durocher.
"I wouldn't trade anything for the experience," Harris said. "It was a great run."
Making It to the Majors
Harris was an athletic standout at now-defunct William King High School in Abingdon. His exploits are legendary and he was good enough to get scouted by big league teams.
"I favored the Giants so I signed with them," Harris said. "I had four teams that scouted me and there was one scout from Greeneville, Tenn., named Dale Alexander that watched me a lot. I went to a tryout camp and there were 400 men in the tryout camp and six of us made it. I then went to a Class D club and had to beat out 10 guys just to make it there."
Life in the minor leagues was far from glamorous. Air conditioners were few and far between in hotels and on road trips. Harris made about $150 per month and meal money was a dollar per day.
In the offseason, he went to work.
"If it wasn't for [a job with] Burlington Mills in Bristol in the winter, I would have starved to death," Harris said.
But in every stop in the bush leagues, Harris blasted opposing pitchers. After continuing his hitting heroics at Class AAA Minneapolis, Harris got called up to the majors in the summer of 1955.
"My first game I faced a guy named Bob Rush that threw about 100 miles per hour," Harris said, "It was a thrill being there."
Harris hit .232 in 79 games as a rookie, connecting for 12 home runs and driving in 36 runs. His manager was the ferocious Durocher.
"He would sell his mother into slavery to win a game," Harris said. "He was a fiery manager. He was a good manager."
Harris also made his living in the mecca of pro baseball. The Bronx had the Yankees. Brooklyn had the Dodgers. The rest of New York had the Giants. Harris was involved in the heated rivalries between the clubs.
"It was blood, boy," Harris said. "It didn't matter if you were in first place or not. … You had three distinct group of fans. Those people never went to the other parks. I know when we played the Dodgers, we had the [visiting] clubhouse in center field. People would stand there and throw cabbages and stuff. We'd go over to Ebbets Field and it would be the same way."
Harris also got a daily look at one of the game's greatest players — a href="player.php?p=mayswi01" title="Willie Mays">Mays.
"The greatest thrill I had was watching a href="player.php?p=mayswi01" title="Willie Mays">Mays play," Harris said. "He was the greatest ballplayer that ever lived in my opinion. He was also one of the finest men I met while playing. All he wanted to be was a href="player.php?p=mayswi01" title="Willie Mays">Willie Mays, the ballplayer. The players loved him."
Harris struggled in 1956, but rebounded with a solid season in 1957. It was during the waning days of the '57 season that Harris had his best day as a pro and became a footnote in history.
Farewell, New York
Harris can vividly recall the events that unfolded on the afternoon of September 21, 1957.
He had been playing sparingly for the Giants in the final weeks of the season and didn't expect to play in that evening's doubleheader at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.
So, in the afternoon he headed out to watch Pittsburgh's college football clash with Oklahoma. He ate a few hot dogs and enjoyed watching the gridiron fight.
When he arrived at the ballpark, he sat out the first game as he expected. However, in the clubhouse before the second game, New York manager Bill Rigney told Harris he would be starting in the second game.
All Harris did was go 4-for-5 with three runs scored, two home runs and seven RBIs. He blasted a three-run homer in the second inning off Pittsburgh starter Red Witt and added a solo shot in the fourth off Eddie O'Brien.
"They happened to throw it where I was swinging," Harris said jokingly.
The homer off O'Brien would have historical implications. The smash was the last home run by a New York Giant player.
The team relocated to San Francisco the following year. Meanwhile, Harris also had a new destination as he was traded to the Detroit Tigers in the offseason.
The Motown Man
Harris enjoyed some success in the Motor City. Getting the chance to play on a regular basis, Harris flourished in the summer of 1958 for the Tigers. He smashed 20 home runs, collected 83 RBIs and finished with a .273 batting average.
Like he had the year before with the Giants, Harris put on a power display. In a game against Baltimore on September 13, 1958, Harris blasted two home runs and finished with four RBIs.
Two months before that, Harris started at first base when Detroit's Jim Bunning tossed a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Harris' batting average dipped in 1959, as he hit .221 with nine home runs and 39 RBIs.
"In 1958 and 1959 on 2-0 and 3-1 [counts] they would give me a good fastball," Harris said. "In 1959 on 2-0 and 3-1, they would throw me that funny looking thing. I would kill every worm in the infield. You have to be a good hitter to stick around."
Harris played his last game in the majors on May 3, 1960.
"When you're a mediocre player, you don't unpack your suitcase," Harris said. "Back then, it was a little tougher to stay in the majors. We only had eight clubs and a lot of teams had established stars at every position."
Then & Now
Harris currently lives in Manassas, Va., and still follows baseball religiously. He spends most of the summer laid back in his favorite chair, watching MLB games on his large-screen television. UPDATE: This article originally appeared in print on June 28, 2008. Gail has passed away since the original publish date.
His son, Mark, played in the minors briefly and is currently a minor league instructor for the Kansas City Royals organization.
Harris still enjoys looking back on his playing days.
"It was some exciting stuff," Harris said.
Reprinted With Express Written Permission from Tim Hayes.
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