His first professional baseball contract was signed in a quintessentially Canadian setting.
New Brunswick native Billy Harris was competing in a hockey tournament in Buchans, Nfld., when Brooklyn Dodgers scout Bill O’Connor secured the stocky 19-year-old’s signature on a piece of paper.
Although the five-foot-seven Harris was a standout stickhandler, it was his right arm – and not his slap shot – that would serve as his ticket to a professional sports career.
During his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in St. Marys, Ont., in June 2008, Harris recounted hopping on a train in Dorchester, N.B., to head to the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., in 1951.
When the train stopped in New York, a big husky, athletic looking guy (who Harris declined to name in his speech) boarded and sat close to Harris. The two eventually struck up a conversation and discovered that they were both destined for the Dodgers’ camp.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going to make it,’” recalled Harris. “And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘You’re way too small.’ Well, it just so happened that we got on the same team in spring training, and after four months he got released and I was there (in professional baseball) for 16 years.”
Born in Duguayville, N.B., on December 3, 1931, the diminutive right-hander made a career out of defying the odds.
Harris first caught the eye of big league scouts when he led the Dieppe Junior Cardinals to a Maritime championship in 1949 and the Moncton Legionnaires to a senior title the following year.
After signing with the Dodgers, the Canuck hurler notched 18 wins and recorded a 2.19 ERA for Class-D Valdosta in 1951. He would top that the next season, when he won 25 games, tossed 12 shutouts and registered a miniscule 0.83 ERA for the Class-B Miami Sun Sox. More than 60 years later, that ERA remains the lowest in organized baseball for a pitcher who has hurled at least 200 innings in a season. His success continued in 1953 when he authored a perfect game for the Double-A Mobile Bears on June 14.
After registering 12 more victories with the Bears in 1954, Harris was promoted to the Triple-A Montreal Royals for three games near the end of the season, just enough time for him to appear in the team photo next to Roberto Clemente.
“I signed that contract with the Dodgers because Montreal was the farm club and that’s where I wanted to play,” said Harris in 2008. “Being a Canadian, Montreal was the place to play.”
Unfortunately, trapped in the pitching-rich Dodgers system behind legends like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe, Harris had little opportunity to shine at the major league level. The determined Maritimer was called up and made his first – and only – big league start on September 27, 1957. Throwing to the legendary Roy Campanella, Harris held the Phillies to three runs in seven innings but still recorded the loss. Harris made his second – and final – big league appearance in 1959.
The stocky right-hander spent the bulk of the 1950s in Montreal, pitching for parts of seven seasons (1954 to 1960) with the Royals. His most successful stretch with the Royals was from 1956 to 1959, when he recorded 53 wins as a starting pitcher, playing alongside teammates like Tommy Lasorda and Sparky Anderson.
“We were teammates, and I must say with all sincerity that he (Billy) was one of the finest competitors to ever take the mound,” Lasorda said prior to Harris’s Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2008.
Anderson, a lifelong friend of Harris’s, also thought highly of the New Brunswick native.
“Billy came along at a tough time,” Anderson said in 2008. “If he’d pitched for another organization, or if he took the mound today, he would be a regular and a big winner.”
The highlight of Harris’s tenure in Montreal was tossing a shutout over the Columbus Jets in the deciding game of the Royals’ first-round International League playoff series in 1958. That same year, he also started the game in which the Royals clinched the league championship against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After toeing the rubber for Montreal in 1959 and for part of 1960, Harris was assigned to the Triple-A Spokane Indians and would later remain on the West Coast to serve as a player coach with the Class-A Tri-City Angels.
He retired following the 1965 campaign, after accumulating 174 wins, 1,373 strikeouts and 45 shutouts in 15 minor-pro seasons in which his annual salary never exceeded $17,500.
Harris settled in Kennewick, Wash., and in the early 80s, he opened a sports bar called Billy’s Bull Pen. Beloved in his home province of New Brunswick on Canada’s East Coast, Harris became equally adored in this West Coast community.
“When I first met him in 2008 upon his arrival in St. Marys for his induction ceremony, he was just radiant, full of passion, a mover and a shaker, a guy that anybody would naturally want to gravitate toward,” recalled Tom Valcke, former president of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, in 2011. “Yet, the sizzle didn’t overplay what a genuine and warm person he was. It immediately became a goal of mine to visit him at his pub in Kennewick and talk baseball into the night.”
On top of being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008, Harris was inducted into five other Halls of Fame, including the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, the Sackville, New Brunswick Hall of Fame, the Dieppe Canada Hall of Fame, the Central Washington Sports Hall of Fame and the New Brunswick Baseball Hall of Fame.
Though he lived on the U.S. West Coast in retirement, he returned to New Brunswick regularly and kept in touch with many of his childhood friends.
Longtime pal Eddie St. Pierre, the former sports editor with The New Brunswick Times & Transcript, said that Harris never forgot his roots and had been planning another trip back to the Maritimes when he fainted at his bar in Kennewick in April 2011.
The 79-year-old Harris was taken to hospital and treated for a series of bleeding ulcers and kidney problems. Two weeks after his discharge, he died in his sleep on May 28, 2011, leaving behind his wife Alice, three children, Gail, Billy Jr., and Rick, and seven grandchildren.
“Billy defined Canadiana. Small town boy makes good,” said Valcke. “His accomplishments throughout his professional career were phenomenal for anybody, never mind a Canadian.”
St. Pierre expressed similar sentiments in a column shortly after Harris’s death.
“His athletic achievements are legendary, but his sense of compassion, warmth and humility should be remembered equally with his powerful right arm and resilient attitude,” wrote St. Pierre.