RIP to infielder Billy Harris, a star high school and college athlete in his native North Carolina and a part of the original Kansas City Royals team. He died suddenly on December 20 at the age of 77 in his home at Hampstead, N.C. Harris played for the Cleveland Indians (1968) and Kansas City Royals (1969).
James William Harris was born in Hamlet, N.C., on November 24, 1943. A four-sport athlete in Hamlet High School, Harris went to Wilmington Junior College, now known as the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Wilmington had a tremendous baseball program in the early 1960s, and Harris was a big part of it. He joined the team in 1963 and hit .378, good for second on the team. The Seahawks won their second National Junior College Championship in three years in ’63, and Harris reached base in 18 of his 21 plate appearances in the World Series against Manatee Junior College. He was selected to the All-Tournament Team as the utility infielder. Harris was also part of the Seahawks team that played in the JC Basketball Tournament that same year. That team lost in overtime to a team from Moberly, Mo., which was led by Larry Mantle — Mickey’s brother.
Harris’ baseball career almost ended before it had a chance to start. He suffered severe burns on his legs in an accident at home and missed the spring semester — I believe this was in 1965. Not only did he come back from the accident, but his legs became one of his biggest weapons, as he was a good base-stealing threat in his career.
When Harris wasn’t playing in Wilmington during the school year, he was spending his summers playing amateur ball in places like Rapid City, S.D. He was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 62nd Round of the 1965 June Amateur Draft but did not sign. The following year, the Cleveland Indians picked him in the 27th Round, and he joined the Reno Silver Sox of the Class-A California League. Harris, a 6-foot, 175-pound infielder, got off to a hot start, cooled a little but finished strong with a .297 batting average, 10 doubles, 5 home runs and 12 stolen bases in 75 games.
Harris advanced through the Cleveland system pretty quickly. The 23-year-old moved up to AA Pawtucket in 1967. He continued to hit well and expanded his fielding abilities, playing both at second base and shortstop. In 1968, Harris started the season with the AAA Portland Beavers. He was given notice on June 15 that he was being promoted to the majors — in the eighth inning of a game. That game went 12 innings, so Harris had just enough time to get dressed, catch a 12:30am plane and get to Cleveland on the 16th. He was pressed into service that evening as the starting second baseman against Boston and picked up two hits against Jim Lonborg in his first two major-league at-bats.
Harris, who figured he would need four years to make to the majors, reached his goal in a little over two. He credited Cleveland manager Alvin Dark with helping him adjust to big-league pitching. “This is a high ball league. I was crouching a lot and fouling off the high pitches. Dark suggested that I stand straight up,” he explained. The strategy worked. Of Harris’ first 13 hits, 4 were doubles and 1 was a triple. He also played second base, third base and shortstop and acquitted himself pretty well at each position.
The AL pitchers seemed to adjust to Harris over the course of the season. In 38 games, he slashed .213/.275/.287, playing mostly as a second baseman. He was left unprotected in the October expansion draft and was claimed by the Kansas City Royals. Harris started the season in AAA Omaha but was brought back to the majors in June. He doubled in his first Royals at-bat on June 7 in Boston. He picked up another hit the next day but also tripped over first base while trying to beat out a game-ending grounder and severely sprained his ankle. He was put on the disabled list and remained out of action until September. He was hitless in three pinch-hit at-bats to end the year at 2-for-7 with Kansas City.
Harris was returned to Omaha in 1970 and hit .201 in a reserve role. His final season of pro ball was in 1971 with the Indianapolis Indians, the Cincinnati Reds AAA affiliate. He again hit poorly in a reserve role and retired at the end of the season. In two seasons in the major leagues, Harris played in 43 games and had a slash line of .218/.275/.297. He stole 2 bases, drove in 3 runs and scored 11 times. His 22 hits included 6 doubles and 1 triple.
Harris worked at Thomas Bait and Tackle in Topsail, N.C., for many years after his playing days were over. He remained a devoted fan of University of North Carolina Wilmington baseball and athletics and was inducted into the UNCW Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Thoughts and prayers are with the family of James Williams Harris,” wrote Randy Hood coach of the UNCW baseball team. “Bill was the 1st Seahawk alum to make it to the Big Leagues (1968). He help[ed] lead Wilmington College to the JC World Series title in ’63. UNCW HOF and Hamlet Wall of Fame. Will certainly miss seeing him at our games.”