Grave Story: Spencer Harris (1900-1982)

Here lies Spencer Harris, who had a brief, 4-year career in the majors. That short description doesn’t even begin to do justice to his professional career, as Harris played in professional baseball for almost 30 years and retired as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the minor leagues. Harris was an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox (1925-26), Washington Senators (1929) and Philadelphia Athletics (1930).

Anthony Spencer Harris was born in Duluth, Minn., on August 12, 1900. According to his obituary, his family income came from the railroad, so they moved around quite a bit. Harris grew up in Minnesota and attended grade school in Milwaukee before moving to the West Coast. He finished grammar school at Summit in Seattle and became an All-City forward for the Broadway High School basketball team and a first baseman for the baseball team.

Source: Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1925.

Three days after graduating from high school, Harris signed with the Tacoma Tigers of the Pacific Coast International League in 1921, and manager Charlie Mullen moved Harris to the outfield and made him the team’s leadoff hitter. He’d spend the rest of his career in the outfield. “Harris likes to play ball and is one of the most natural hitters ever developed in the local prep league,” reported The Seattle Star in 1921.

Harris homered in his first professional at-bat and though he only homered once more in 71 games, he managed a solid .271 average for Tacoma. Harris was acquired by the Philadelphia Athletics in August after being noticed by A’s scout Tom “Tink” Turner. For more of the next three seasons, he played for the Bay City Wolves of the Michigan-Ontario League and blossomed into a very capable hitter. He topped the .300 mark twice with the Wolves, including .340 in 1922. The Athletics’ Connie Mack called him to the majors at the end of that season, but he never appeared in a game. After three very good seasons with Bay City, Harris’ contract was purchased by the Chicago White Sox on October 4, 1924.

White Sox manager Eddie Collins became a fan of his young outfielder during the 1925 Spring Training, and Harris was announced as a part of the Opening Day lineup, relegating veteran Harry Hooper to the bench. While that didn’t actually happen, Harris was the starting right fielder for most of the first month of the season. He hit reasonably well, hitting .270 through May 1. After that, Bill Barrett took over right field, and Harris was relegated to pinch hitting. He did well in that role as well; on July 28 in game one of a doubleheader against the Senators, he hit a 6th-inning, pinch-hit RBI single off Walter Johnson to break a 3-3 tie. He stayed in the game as a center fielder and walked in the 8th inning. He batted again in the top of the 9th and crushed an inside-the-park grand slam off Curly Ogden to blow the game open. It was Harris’ first MLB home run. For the season, he played in 56 games and hit .283 with 13 RBIs.

The 1926 Sox featured three outfielders – Johnny Mostil, Bibb Falk and Barrett – who hit over .300. Still, Harris got into 80 games as the fourth outfielder. Sixteen of his 56 hits were for extra bases, with 11 doubles, 3 triples and 2 homers. He hit .252 and was a below-average fielder, which may have contributed to his release on November 11. He was sent to the Shreveport Sports of the Texas League.

Source: Hennepin County Library

Harris had played briefly with the Sports while he was property of the Philadelphia Athletics, but he struggled in a 12-game audition. In 1927 though, Harris had his first of many great minor-league seasons. He had a .354 batting average and .548 slugging percentage and hit an incredible 60 doubles. In one 19-game stretch, he had 34 hits in 77 at-bats for a .442 average, while scoring 23 runs. His only weakness, reported The Times of Shreveport, was that he played the outfield like a “frisky colt” and sometimes misplayed grounders, but even that improved as the season wore on. At the end of the season, his contract was acquired by Mike Kelley, owner/manager of the Minneapolis Millers.

The Millers would be Harris’ team for the next decade, aside from a couple of cups of coffee in the big leagues. From 1928-1937, Harris never hit under .300 and racked up more than 200 hits in a season four times. He slugged a career high 32 home runs in 1928, hit 41 doubles and stole 25 bases as well. He had a slash line of .327/.410/.544, led the league with 133 runs scored and 87 walks and finished second in the AA with 127 RBIs.

With that kind of a season, it was no surprise that the majors would call him back. Sure enough, Kelley sold his contract to the Washington Senators. Spencer said he would have preferred to stay with the Millers than join any major-league team. “I have never been so well satisfied in my eight years of playing as I have been with the Millers this year. I really hate to leave the club,” he told The Minneapolis Star.

He didn’t leave it long. Harris got into a total of 6 games and had 3 hits in 14 at-bats, all in April 1929. The agreement Kelley had worked out with Clark Griffith, Senators owner, is that Griffith would pay the Millers owner $2,000 upfront and an additional $18,000 if Harris was kept on the roster after May 1. The Senators released Harris on April 30, and he was back in a Millers uniform the very next day. Home again in Minneapolis, he hit .340 with 42 doubles and 14 home runs for the Millers.

The Detroit Tigers claimed Harris in the Rule V draft, held in October 1929. He impressed Tigers manager Bucky Harris in the spring, but the Tigers ended up putting him on waivers. He was claimed by his original team, the Athletics, who kept him for the first half of the 1930 season. The A’s primarily used him as a pinch hitter and replacement for outfielder Al Simmons, who was briefly injured in June. However, Harris struggled to fill Simmons’ big shoes, and he was returned to the Millers when his average dipped to .184. He proceeded to hit .363 for the Millers in 93 games.

Harris never returned to the majors again. In his 4 MLB seasons, he had a slash line of .249/.323/.329, with 94 hits that included 15 doubles, 3 triples and 3 home runs. He walked 39 times against 33 strikeouts and scored 53 runs. There is certainly a big disparity between his MLB and MiLB numbers, but it could be that he was just never comfortable in the majors. Once in the mid-‘30s, Clark Griffith was talking with reporters at Nicollet Park when Harris’ name was announced over the loudspeaker.

“Is that the Harris I once had?” Griffith asked. When told it was, the Senators owner said, “Funny thing, that boy should have been in the majors for the same spell he had been with Minneapolis. He always appealed to me as a boy who was happy only in the minors.”

Source: Hennepin County Library.

For his time with the Millers, Harris was always among the best hitters in the entire league. His .347 batting average in 1931 was topped by just five other outfielders in the league, and his 104 walks led the AA. His .355 average in 1933 was good for third in the AA, and he was one of the league’s top fielding outfielders. Harris hit 22 homers that season, which was only the second time in his career that he topped 20 homers. Even if he wasn’t a true slugger, he had teammates who did the job just fine. Joe Hauser hit a minor-league record 69 homers in 1933, and minor-league home-run king Buzz Arlett joined the Millers in 1934 and hit 41 bombs.

Harris’ tenure with the Millers ended after the 1937 season. He played in just 88 games, and while he hit .326 with 9 homers, he was moved to a reserve/pinch-hitting role. At the end of the season, he was traded to San Diego, and he played out the remainder of his career on the West Coast. His career had another decade to go, and he proceeded to impress the Pacific Coast League in the same way he had wowed the American Association.

Oh, and the trade that sent him from Minnesota to San Diego? Harris was the player to be named later in a deal that brought a kid named Ted Williams to the Millers. Williams only stuck around for a season before the major leagues beckoned. He made out alright, though. Donie Bush, who managed both players with the Millers, said they were very similar hitters. The only difference was that Harris lacked Williams’ cockiness, which led to a lack of confidence during his brief stays in the major leagues.

Harris spent the next 8 seasons playing for four different teams in the PCL: Padres, Hollywood Stars, Seattle Rainiers and Portland Beavers. He played in 163 games for the Padres in 1938 (PCL seasons were longer than MLB) and hit .301 with 39 doubles and 7 home runs. After that, he started becoming less of a regular player, though he was still a good hitter. He hit .339 for the Stars in 1939 and .301 for the Rainiers in 1941, but he hit mostly in the .270s. To be fair, he was 45 years old by the time his stint in the PCL ended in 1945.

Harris tried his hand as a player/manager for the Yakima Stars of the Western International League in 1946. He batted .322 in 95 games in the Class B league, but he resigned on June 18, shortly after being hit with a 3-game suspension after an altercation with an umpire. Years later, he said that the team was made up of a bunch of players returning from World War II, and they were more interested in focusing on their nightlife activities than actually playing the game. Harris stayed with the team as a player, coach and assistant general manager through 1948, and he hit .330 in 34 games – when he was 47 years old! Harris finished his playing career by serving as the player/manager for the Marysville Braves of the Far West League in August 1948.

Spencer Harris and a few of his teammates ran a restaurant called the Wind Up in downtown Minneapolis. Source: Star Tribune, October 18, 1933.

In 26 minor-league seasons, Harris had a lifetime .320 batting average, with 3,538 hits that included 726 doubles, 148 triples and 255 home runs. Those numbers from Baseball Reference are a little different from this article from milb.com about all-time statistics, which states that Harris holds the MiLB record for hits (3,617), runs (2,287) and doubles (743). Whatever the exact numbers are, Harris will probably always be the record holder for those categories, because the minor leagues of his era don’t work in the same way that today’s leagues operate. Chances are pretty slim that a player today could get a chance to remain a starter well into his 40s and accumulate the kinds of numbers Harris did. Harris played with the Minneapolis Millers for a decade. I can’t think of another player who stayed with one minor-league team for as long as that.

Harris worked briefly at a defense plant in Yakima before returning to Minneapolis, where he sold suits until his retirement. In 1976, he suffered a heart attack and had an extended hospital stay that saw his weight drop to 107 pounds. He came back from that and was able to resume his usual golf game.

Harris was interviewed in the Star Tribune in 1978 and talked about his life in baseball.

“I remember mosquitoes in Beaumont, Texas, that were big enough to carry you away. And I remember trying to get cool by a ceiling fan in Shreveport,” he recalled. “The worst heat I ever played in was right here in Minneapolis when it was about 105 for five straight days. People were sleeping on roofs or in the parks.”

He also mentioned a restaurant that he and a few Millers teammates ran in downtown Minneapolis, called The Wind Up. “Wind up at the Wind Up,” he said. “We turned people away, but we still lost money. We were just ballplayers. Playin’ ball was what I was good at.”

Spencer Harris died on July 3, 1982 at University Hospitals in Minneapolis. He was 81 years old and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery.

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