This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 6-Nov. 13, 1896

On November 8, 1896 Bucky Harris was born. Richard continues to fill in the gaps in his Hall of Fame education with a look back at the life and career of the “The Boy Wonder.”

As part of my continued efforts to learn more about the great figures in baseball history with my “Better Know a Hall of Famer” series, this week we come to Bucky Harris. Harris is in the Hall of Fame for his managing career, but he was also a solid player for many years—indeed, much of his managerial success came while managing himself.

Despite all of Harris’ glory, it is perhaps the start of his career that is the most notable part of his story. Harris got his nickname working as a “breaker boy” in a coal mine in Pittston, Pennsylvania as a young teen. (I’ve read that story in two different places and both of them seem to imply the link between the nickname and the job is obvious; if it is, I’m missing it.)

Harris left the mines and by age 19 was playing minor league ball. After one dreadful season during which he hit .166, and the start of another, Harris was six-for-51 when the league folded; he returned to Pittston and the mines. Shortly thereafter, after an unintentional bit of Shakespearean mixed-identity farce—Harris received a telegram with an offer to play that was actually meant for his brother—he showed up to play for a team in Reading.

As it turned out, the Reading manager knew he wanted the other Harris, but decided to make the best of a bad situation and see what Bucky had to offer. It worked out nicely, as Harris—a smart ballplayer and strong second baseman—hit .250 and by 1919 he was batting .282 in the International League. His implausible return to the professional game, one that would impress even Jim Morris, was complete when he made his debut for the Washington Senators in August of that year.

Harris was given a full-time job in 1920 and promptly put up the best year of his career. He batted an even .300 and was hit by 21 pitches, which helped propel him to a career high .377 on-base percentage. By 1924, despite being just 27, he was appointed manager of the Senators. Taking over for a team that went 75-78 under Donie Bush the year before, Harris managed a remarkable turnaround.

Grady Little, another manager who knows the perils of leaving a starter in too long (Icon/SMI)

The Senators won 92 games and, in a thrilling World Series, rallied to tie the seventh game in the bottom of the eighth inning before winning—thanks in no small part to four innings of scoreless relief on one day’s rest by Walter Johnson—in the bottom of the eleventh. Harris was dubbed “The Boy Wonder” for his managerial skills.

Harris’ greatest innovation his first season in Washington was the use of Firpo Marberry. The season prior, under Bush, Marberry pitched fewer than 50 innings, doing so very effectively. Harris figured, correctly, that if 50 innings of effective relief pitching was good, even a few more than that would be even better. In 1924 Marberry threw just shy of 200 innings, with only 14 starts.

Marberry recorded 15 saves, a total that was equal to the save total of the players who ranked second and third in saves that year. It set a new single-season record that would stand until 1926 when, still playing for Harris, Marberry record 22 saves.

Compared to modern totals, that sounds like almost nothing—it would have put Marberry twenty-fifth in saves in 2010—but that record would stand until 1949, when it was broken by the Yankees’ Joe Page. Page was playing for Casey Stengel, but it was Harris who had made Page a fireman.

From 1924 until 1961—when Luis Arroyo saved 29 games—a Bucky Harris-established reliever held the saves record. Although Harris inexplicably abandoned the concept for much of his time as a manager, he still deserves credit for the way he used Marberry and Page. In his own way, Harris was as influential on reliever usage as Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan would be decades later.

1924 marked the high point of Harris’ tenure; in 1925 the Senators repeated as pennant winners, but lost the World Series when Harris stuck with Johnson too long in the final game, despite a rested Marberry in the bullpen. Criticism of Harris went all the way to the office of American League President Ban Johnson, who sent Harris a message that he had failed to take Johnson out of the game only for “sentimental reasons.”

Harris managed the Senators for three more seasons but never won more than 85 or finished higher than third. His final year in charge of the Washingtonians also marked his last season seeing regular time as a player. Harris hit .204 in 99 games, and although he would have cameo appearances in 1929 and 1931, he was done as a full-time player.

Harris moved to the Tigers for the 1929 season and continued managing, though his time in Detroit was largely mediocre. After leaving the Tigers mid-season in 1933, Harris spent a year managing the Red Sox before returning to the Senators for seven years. Only finishing above .500 once in that period, he spent most of 1943 managing a dreadful Philadelphia “Blue Jays” team and was out of managing until 1947.

Harris was now 50, and a long way removed from Boy Wonder status in both age and performance. He hadn’t finished better than .500 since 1936, or better than fourth since 1927. But Harris was hired to manage the Yankees, which could turn around the career of almost any manager. In 1947 the Yankees won 97 games and the World Series. The next year, they won 94 games.

Despite averaging what would be, at the current schedule length, 100 wins, Harris was let go after the 1948 season. (This was, incredibly, the right decision, as Casey Stengel came in and promptly won the next five World Series.)

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Harris would return to the Senators a third time, but the back end of his managerial career was without distinction, as his teams never finished higher than fifth. Harris served as a front-office executive and scout for much of the rest of his life. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 as the third-winningest manager in baseball history; he is seventh all-time today.

Harris died on his eighty-first birthday, the end of a remarkable baseball life.

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I was hoping to find that a breaker boy broke up rocks with a hammer or pick, which would develop some baseball muscles and coordination.  However, according to Wikipedia:

“A breaker boy was a worker in the United States whose job was to separate impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker. Although breaker boys were primarily children, elderly coal miners who could no longer work in the mines because of age, disease, or accident were also sometimes employed as breaker boys.”

Steven Booth
Steven Booth

Great stuff!

Harris is deservedly a hall of famer, but is certainly one of those unsung (or no longer sung) heroes you love to read about.