RIP to Buddy Harris, a celebrated athlete in his home state of Pennsylvania and a relief pitcher for the Astros for parts of two seasons. It was reported that Harris died on November 5 at the age of 73. According to the Times Herald, Harris had been in declining health for several years. He pitched for the Houston Astros in 1970-71.
Walter Francis Harris was born in Philadelphia on December 5, 1948. He was the son of Walter “Bucky” Harris Sr. — not the ballplayer, but the well-regarded basketball coach at the College of Textiles and Science (now Thomas Jefferson University) in Philadelphia. Buddy Harris would grow up to be an imposing 6’7″ in height, and as a student at Roxborough High School, he starred on the basketball team. He averaged 34 points a game in his senior season and won numerous awards in his high school career, including the William Markward Award, which went to the best high school basketball player in the city of Philadelphia. However, Harris also talented pitcher with a good fastball, and he threw four no-hitters for his Legion team in 1967. The Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 13th Round of the 1966 June Amateur Draft. However, Harris chose to go to Textile instead, where he could play basketball under his father’s coaching.
Harris did well in his one year at Textile as a two-sport athlete, but he elected to transfer to the University of Miami in his sophomore season after his father retired from his coaching role. Before he could continue his college career, he was drafted by Houston in the First Round of the 1968 June Draft – Secondary Phase, which was designated for players who had previously been drafted. Harris decided to sign with the Astros and start his professional baseball career. He never threw a pitch for Miami.
Harris demonstrated his strikeout stuff early and often on a few different teams in the Houston organization in 1968. He did most of his pitching for the Covington Astros of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League, with a 5-2 record and 2.25 ERA in 64 innings of work. In his second professional win, he struck out 16 Johnson City Yankees before tiring in the ninth inning of an 8-4 win. His brief trials at the higher minor-league levels weren’t as successful, but the 19-year-old had established himself as a player to watch.
Harris spent the entire 1969 season pitching for the Peninsula Astros in the Class-A Carolina League. He turned in a 12-5 record with a sparkling 1.84 ERA, and he fanned 129 batters in 132 innings. He was named to the League All-Star Team and threw 3 scoreless innings. He was also one of the most imposing pitchers in the league, with his 6’7″, 240-pound frame. Harris, though, knew that to succeed, he needed a little more technique and a little less brute force. So rather than just throwing the ball by every batter, he worked on his control and his offspeed pitches.
“First, I need to get confidence in my changeup,” Harris said after a win. “Secondly, I’m working to hit the corners better and the spots, too; and finally, I need to slow down. I work far too fast.”
Harris was an All-Star again in 1970, while pitching for Columbus (Ga.) of the Double-A Southern League. The League All-Stars played an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves in August; Harris threw 2 scoreless innings, allowing only a single to Henry Aaron. Atlanta won 3-1, backed by a 2-run double by Aaron off Harris’ teammate, Larry Yount. Harris, who demonstrated that he could retire major-leaguers in that game, got his chance in the big leagues in September. After winning 11 games for Columbus with a 2.02 ERA, the Astros promoted him to the majors.
Harris made 2 relief appearances for the Astros in September. His debut came on September 10, 1970, against San Francisco. Gaylord Perry was in the process of throwing a 4-hit shutout, and Astros starter Wade Blasingame had been knocked from the game after allowing 4 runs in 4 innings. Harris entered into the bottom of the fifth and retired Bobby Bonds on a fly ball to left. He then gave up a single to Tito Fuentes, and Willie Mays belted a 2-run homer, the 627th of his career. Harris got past that inning and threw a scoreless sixth, striking out Jim Ray Hart for his first major-league K. San Francisco won 11-0. His next outing came on September 23 against Houston. This time, he worked 4-1/3 innings after starter Jack Billingham was knocked out of the game in the second inning by the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed 2 runs on solo homers by Tony Perez and opposing pitcher Tony Cloninger. All total, he had a 5.68 ERA, with 4 runs allowed in 6-1/3 innings and 2 strikeouts.
Harris was part of a promising crop of rookie Astros pitchers in 1971, along with Ken Forsch, Scipio Spinks, Bill Greif, Yount and J.R. Richard. All of them appeared with the Astros during the season; Harris made the team out of spring training. He only made one appearance, a scoreless 2 inning stint against the Cubs on April 9, before he was returned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. He rejoined the Astros at the end of May and pitched off and on for Houston for the rest of the season.
Harris earned his only major-league win on July 19 against Philadelphia. He entered the game in the 11th inning of a 2-2 tie and gave up singles to Byron Browne and Larry Bowa. However, he struck out Mike Ryan to get out of the inning. The Astros quickly loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning against reliever Bill Wilson, and Cesar Cedeno singled in the winning run. Unfortunately, Harris took the loss the very next day, July 20, against Montreal. He put two runners on base in the top of the tenth inning, and reliever George Culver gave up a single to the first batter he faced, John Bocabella. The game ended with a 4-3 Expos victory.
Harris struggled with the Astros at first but turned things around with a solid August. He threw 3-1/3 scoreless innings against Los Angeles on September 1, with 6 strikeouts, to lower his ERA to 4.80 on the season. Unfortunately, Harris allowed 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning in his final appearance of the season on September 3. That outing left him with a 6.46 ERA in 20 games; he struck out 21 and walked 16 in 30-2/3 innings.
Harris did not return to the major leagues. Several of the young rookie pitcherss had established themselves in the majors, and Harris spent the 1972 season in Oklahoma City. He had his moments, such as the start in August against Columbus where he fanned the first 11 batters. However, bad luck, poor fielding and problems with his pitching arm left him with a 6-14 record. He was traded to the Mets in the offseason, with outfielder Rich Chiles for outfielder Tommie Agee and spent 1973 with their Triple-A team in Tidewater. His record improved to 8-11 with a 3.11 ERA, but Harris recorded just 68 strikeouts in 133 innings. He was released by the Mets in the offseason and joined the Mexico City Tigers of the Mexican League. However, he won just 1 of his 7 starts and had a high 5.45 ERA. Those were his final appearances in professional baseball.
In parts of 2 major-league seasons, Harris had a 1-1 record in 22 games, all in relief. He allowed 39 hits and 26 earned runs for a 6.32 ERA, and he struck out 23 while walking 16. He also had a 44-40 record and 2.52 ERA in 6 minor-league seasons.
Harris was part of the Jefferson Athletics Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1984. He was the first Jefferson student to reach the majors and has since been joined by Curtis King (1997-99) and Bob File (2001-2004). He was also inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and he once met President Richard Nixon for his contributions to Nixon’s programs for fighting drug abuse. After his playing career, Harris invested into Apollo Parking Corp. and served as Executive Vice President. He married the former Cathy Capone in 1978 and soon moved back to Pennsylvania, where he bought and operated Cannon’s Cold Cuts & Deli on Manayunk Avenue in Roxborough. Along with two children from his first marriage, Walter “Buddy” III and Brent, Buddy and Cathy had three children, Ashley, Bradley and Jonathan. He is survived by his wife and five children.
For more information: The Times Herald