2022 Early Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Vic Harris

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Early Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to the ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Vic Harris

2022 Early Baseball Candidate: Vic Harris
Baseball Reference (Major Negro Leagues) 733 30 .305/.372/.427 113 11.1
Seamheads (All Black baseball) 930 39 .306/.376/.431 114 15.1
As Manager G W-L W-L% G > .500 Pennants
Baseball Ref (Major Negro Leagues) 845 547-278 .663 269 7
Baseball Reference data covers only play with teams within leagues recognized as majors during 1920-48 period. Seamheads data includes play with independent teams, but not within Latin leagues or exhibitions against white major leagues.

Vic Harris was a feisty and feared player, a high-average, left-handed spray-hitting left fielder with only moderate power who nonetheless stood out during his playing career, mainly from 1923 to ’43, and primarily with the powerhouse Homestead Grays. He made an even bigger mark as a manager. With his max-effort style setting an example for his players, he piloted the Grays to seven pennants (some sources count an eighth) in a 12-season span (1937-48) in the second Negro National League, a mark unparalleled in the major Negro Leagues.

In The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues, James A. Riley described the contrast between Harris the player and Harris the manager:

Harris had good speed and was a capable base stealer and feared base runner who thought the basepaths belonged to him. A slashing scrapper, he played to win, and his zealous hustle and aggressiveness often went beyond the bounds of reckless abandon, earning him the sobriquet “Vicious Vic” and the reputation as one of the “four big, bad men of black baseball.” He was good with his fists and quick to use them. Once when the team was traveling by automobile and a player in the car that he was driving engaged in verbal comments that Harris found offensive, he stopped the car, pulled the player from the car, and physically whipped him on the spot. Considered by many to be a dirty ballplayer, on another occasion, while engaged in an argument with an umpire, he spit in the arbiter’s face.

In many ways his behavior toward umpires was in contrast to the generally quiet approach he used with his players, never saying too much and preferring to inspire them by example to give their maximum effort. Although he was not noted as a brilliant strategist, the players responded to the fiery manger by giving good performances on the baseball diamond.

Elander Victor Harris was born on June 10, 1905 in Pensacola, Florida, the son of a farmer and the oldest of three siblings who played in the Negro Leagues, along with Neal (b. 1905) and Bill (b. 1908). The Harris family moved to Pittsburgh in 1914, where Vic played on the sandlots and with the local YMCA team. Though he drew interest from Homestead Grays manager/owner Cumberland Posey, he began his professional career with the NNL’s Pittsburgh Keystones in 1922, then moved to the Cleveland Tate Stars (an NNL associate team) in ’23, hitting .288/.367/.300 as an 18-year-old according to the data at Seamheads, which has been painstakingly reconstructed using box scores only of games against major Black competition — not barnstorming against semipros or local teams — and additionally audited and balanced. He split the 1924 season between the NNL’s Cleveland Browns (managed by pioneer Sol White) and Chicago American Giants, leaping at the opportunity to play under Rube Foster on the latter squad.

Though he started the 1925 season with the Chicago American Giants, Harris was soon signed by Posey, beginning an affiliation with the Grays that would cover the next 24 years save for a couple of brief interruptions. Box scores for his first two years with the Grays are scarce; the team was independent at that point, playing a schedule that included league teams as well as independent, semiprofessional, or local teams. During this time, the Grays often billed themselves as “World’s Colored Champions,” and they steamrolled opponents; in 1926, they won 43 straight games while barnstorming and finished the year 143-13-10 (.917) according to his 2011 biography by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz for the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research. In 1927, Posey named him the captain of the team. In 1928, according to Seamheads, Harris hit .333/.415/.542 in 82 PA.

The Grays joined the new American Negro League in 1929, a six-team circuit that also included three other teams managed by Hall of Famers, namely the New York Lincoln Giants (shortstop John Henry Lloyd), the Philadelphia Hilldale Club (center fielder Oscar Charleston, who joined the Grays later that season), and Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (first baseman Ben Taylor). The Grays went only 32-29 in league play, with Harris hitting .296/.354/.419 in 295 PA (Seamheads). The Baltimore Black Sox, featuring Rap Dixon, Dick Lundy, and Oliver Marcell, won the pennant. With no Negro World Series against the NNL winner (such events took place only from 1924-27 and ’42-48), the Grays played the Chicago American Giants in a “Colored Championship Series,” but even with the addition of Charleston, they were swept in five games and shut out in four.

The American Negro League didn’t last, and so the Grays went on the road as an independent team again. By this time featuring Charleston as well as 18-year-old catcher Josh Gibson, Hall of Famers Judy Johnson at third base and Smokey Joe Williams on the mound, and this ballot’s George “Tubby” Scales at second base, the team went 45-15-1 in play against other major Black teams, with Harris hitting a robust .359/.424/.576 (139 OPS+) in 259 PA in those games. The Grays beat the Lincoln Giants six games to four in a series for the title of “Colored Champions of the East.”

Though Harris’ offensive performance dipped the next year, the 1931 Grays – who additionally added Hall of Famers Jud Wilson at third base (replacing Johnson) and Willie Foster on the mound — are considered one of the all-time juggernauts despite being strictly a barnstorming team. They went 143-29-2 against all levels of competition and beat the Kansas City Monarchs six games to three in what was billed as the “Colored Championship Series.”

The Grays joined the new East-West League in 1932, but their roster was raided by Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee, with Charleston, Gibson, Ted Page, Ted Radcliffe and others defecting from the Grays; Satchel Paige, who had pitched for the Baltimore Black Sox and Birmingham Black Barons the year before, joined as well. Harris, for his part, left to join another Posey-owned team in the same league, the Detroit Wolves, managed by Dizzy Dismukes and featuring Hall of Famers Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, and Willie Wells as well as Dixon and Quincy Trouppe. Though the team went 26-5 in league play, it folded midseason and Harris returned to the Grays; he hit .333/.426/.484 for the season in 226 PA, though the league itself folded in June.

The Grays joined the second version of the Negro National League for the 1933 season but were expelled in June for using a player under contract to another team, and finished the year playing an independent schedule. Harris hit .309/.330/.479 (118 OPS+) in league play and was selected to play in the first East-West All-Star Game, a brainchild of Greenlee. In balloting conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, Harris in fact got more votes than any player besides Turkey Stearnes.

The following year, in the next round of an ongoing battle between the two Pittsburgh-area owners, Greenlee poached Harris from Posey and the Grays and he was again an All-Star on a star-laden squad (Bell, Charleston, Gibson, Johnson, Paige — and that’s just the Hall of Famers), hitting .335/.389/.428 (129 OPS+). After the regular season, the Crawfords barnstormed against Dizzy Dean’s All-Stars. The high-intensity Harris started a brawl when he was called out for interference while beating out a bunt by pulling the mask off an umpire. Though police got control of the situation, Harris was detained, charged, and eventually convicted of assault and battery. He was fined and given six months probation.

Posey convinced the NNL to readmit the Grays and lured Harris back by agreeing to let him take over as manager (though he’s not credited as such until 1936) as well as playing. “He was fiery, and he knew I was fiery, so he made me manager,” he later said. Boasting a strong lineup — featuring Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard, Scales, Harris, and more — but a woeful pitching besides staff ace Ray Brown, the Grays finished below .500 in league play in 1935 (26-36-2) but improved to 27-24-1 the next year, Harris’ first at the helm.

In 1937, Gibson returned to the Grays; by the numbers at Seamheads, the 25-year-old slugger hit an ungodly .417/.500/.974 (273 OPS+) with 20 homers in 39 games; Leonard added another 13 homers, and the 32-year-old Harris had one of his best years with the bat (.327/.398/.545, 142 OPS+). Thanks to improved pitching as well, the team won the NNL title with a 45-18-1 record, beginning what Riley termed the “long Gray line”” of nine straight pennants.

With the righty-swinging Gibson and the lefty-swinging Leonard both topping a 200 OPS+, and with pitchers Brown, Edsall Walker, and Roy Partlow anchoring the staff, the Grays went 41-13 in 1938, winning both halves of the NNL season to repeat as champions (something they would do in every year of this run except 1941). Harris made the East team for the East-West All-Star team again. He did so as well in 1939, with Gibson (.402/.492/.824, 251 OPS+) and Leonard (.385/.485/.780, 238) each hitting 11 homers while annihilating opposing pitching. In a four-team playoff series after the season, the Grays beat the Philadelphia Stars, three games to two, but lost to the Baltimore Elite Giants, three games to one (with one tie). Incidentally, for some reason Seamheads (and Baseball Reference) do not count this as a pennant won for Harris. Other resources such as Riley and the CNLBR bio do, but as Seamheads Scott Simkus explained to me, on team letterhead from 1943, the Grays listed themselves as “Negro National League Champions 1937-38-40-41-42,” skipping over ’39.

Beginning in 1940, the Grays began splitting time between Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, home of the Pirates, and Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, home of the Senators. Even while losing Gibson to a two-year stint in Mexico, the team continued to roll, with league play records of 34-19 (1940) and 51-22-2 (1941). In the latter season, the Grays won the league’s first half and the New York Cubans the second half. The two teams met in a playoff, with the Grays taking three out of four games, the first two by scores of 20-0 and 5-0. This one is counted among the Grays’ (and Harris’) pennants by Seamheads and B-Ref.

Also in 1941, Harris managed the East team in the East-West Game for the first of six seasons in an eight-year span (in a couple of years there were two games played). He did double duty as a player in 1942 and ’43, that while hitting .358/.421/.401 (122 OPS+) in the latter season, his first with an OPS+ above 100 in league play since ’39.

With Gibson back in the fold and hitting for a 200 OPS+, the Grays went 47-19-3 in league play in 1942. They then faced Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs, winners of the Negro American League, in the first Negro World Series since 1927. Long story short, the Grays were swept in the four games that officially counted; banged up due to numerous injuries, they recruited players from the Philadelphia Stars and Newark Eagles, including Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day, and won a game that was played under protest and ended up not counting. Harris wasn’t much help, going 2-for-17.

In 1943, Harris began a leave of absence as manager, taking a job in a defense plant. Legendary manager Candy Jim Taylor took over, and Bell returned, 40 years old but still paying at an All-Star level. Harris, by now in his late 30s, was occasionally available to play during home games, and effective when he did. The Grays beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro World Series in both of those years; Harris went just 4-for-28 in the first of those series and didn’t play in the second.

Back in command in 1945, Harris led the Grays to one more NNL pennant via a 37-19-2 record, though the team was swept four games to none by the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro World Series, scoring just three runs as Gibson, Leonard, and Bell combined to go just 8-for-43.

With their pitching in decline, the Grays slipped to third in the NNL in 1946 and fourth in ’47, both with records barely over .500. They — and the entire baseball world — lost Gibson, who collapsed and died due to a stroke on January 20, 1947, just a month after his 35th birthday. The team did regroup to win the second half flag in 1948 and finish with the NNL’s best overall record (44-23-1,), then beat the Baltimore Elite Giants 2-1-1 in a playoff and took four out of five from the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro World Series.

With the Negro Leagues losing top-tier talent to the National and American Leagues once Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color line, the NNL disbanded after 1948. Harris was among those who had seen the handwriting on the wall early. In 1942, after Dodgers manager Leo Durocher had caused an uproar by expressing a willingness to use Black players if the owners permitted them to sign, Harris had said, “If they take our best boys, we will be but a hollow shell of what we are today.” He signed on to coach the Baltimore Elite Giants in the NAL for 1949, managed the Birmingham Black Barons in ’50, then retired to California. He retired and became the head custodian for the Castaic Union Schools in Castaic, California. He died of cancer on February 23, 1978.

Per the research of Graham Womack, it appears that prior to 2006, the only serious consideration Harris received for the Hall of Fame came in 1982. A March 10, 1982 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Bob Broeg listed dozens of players and other candidates from the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, including Negro Leagues players, as part of “a lengthy list to be reviewed” by the VC, which apparently included himself, as records show he was on the committee from 1972-2000. Former New York Giants shortstop Travis Jackson and commissioner Happy Chandler were elected that year, and many others from that list have since been elected, but not Harris; this ballot’s Dick Redding was also among those considered. Harris may have been on similar lists after that, but not every report of the VC’s activity was quite so exhaustive.

Harris was included among the 94 preliminary candidates for the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues vote, but he didn’t make the cut for the 39-candidate final ballot, from which 17 were ultimately elected but not Redding, Scales, John Donaldson, or Buck O’Neil, all of whom are on this ballot as well.

That fact alone might suggest Harris is a long-shot in this election, mainly due to the Early Baseball ballot’s depth rather than his own credentials. If he were simply considered on his merits as a player, they might not be enough, though the list of historians who believe he’s worthy on that basis alone (Phil S. Dixon, John Holway, Larry Lester) — well, that’s a heavy-hitting lineup to start with. To these eyes, Harris’ 114 OPS+ (.306/.376/.431) against high-level Black competition (including his play with independent teams, such as the Grays for much of the 1925-31 period) is very good but not elite, and likewise his 15.1 WAR in 3,434 PA against such competition. The same is true if one looks only at his time in the major Negro Leagues (2,707 PA, 113 OPS+, 11.1 WAR). To pull from a readily available example, fellow Early Baseball candidate Scales, in similar playing time during the period (3,301 PA vs high-level Black competition) posted a 141 OPS+ and 24.9 WAR, and did even better (147 OPS+) in the major Negro Leagues. For all of Harris’ baserunning prowess, what I don’t see in the statistics is a big stolen base total (40 via Seamheads, 28 via Baseball Reference) that might signify a level of skill and entertainment value not fully captured by the available numbers, as is the case for the likes of Lou Brock and Maury Wills.

Putting that aside, it’s Harris’ unparalleled success as a manager in the major Negro Leagues that’s his real selling point; as noted, he won more pennants than any other such manager, and even without counting 1939 as one of them, it’s not close. Charleston, Taylor, Andy Cooper, Rube Foster, Dave Malarcher, Jose Mendéz, and Frank Warfield are tied with the next-highest total of three. Harris’ 269 games above .500 lead the pack as well; the next-closest is Bullet Rogan’s 146 above, compiled in just five seasons; Rogan (.698) is the only manager with a higher winning percentage than Harris (.663), and he’s already been elected to the Hall, primarily for his career excelling as both a pitcher and outfielder. If anyone were going to elect a manager based upon what he did during the 1920-48 period in the major Negro Leagues, I don’t see how the line starts with anybody but Harris. Leading historians, including Riley and Holway, designated him as a manager on their all-time teams.

Certainly, Harris was helped by having have inner circle guys like Gibson, Leonard, and Bell in the Grays’ lineup, with other Hall of Famers such as Brown and Wilson playing key roles as well. But the last I checked, Yankees managers such as Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Joe Torre have all been enshrined despite being able to rely upon the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter and too many other Hall of Famers to list while winning multiple championships. Whether or not those skippers were particularly strong tactically, they also had to navigate the complexities of dealing with superstars and their egos, not to mention the other aspects of leading a ballclub. For Harris, doing so under the adverse conditions of the Negro Leagues, the job was probably no picnic.

I think Harris is worthy of election to the Hall and would include him on my ballot — if space weren’t an issue. I have a harder time moving him into one of the four available spots to which voters are limited; my dance card already has Bill Dahlen, Bud Fowler, and probably Grant “Home Run” Johnson, with Redding and O’Neil (whom guest contributor Shakeia Taylor covered well here) strong candidates for the final four, Scales clearly worthy, and Donaldson still to come. Oy vey.

I’m not sure how I can put Harris into my final four given that competition, and that bothers me. In digging through these candidates, it’s clear that there are too many strong one on this ballot to merit waiting another 10 years for their next chance for election.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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SD baseball fan
1 year ago

It would have been a treat to be a student in the Castaic Union school district and hear Harris’ stories.