Visual Traces of a Wartime Service Career
The year 2020 was one of considerable growth for the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection as many artifacts with historical significance were sourced and added. While we apply very specific guidelines that ensure that each piece has a direct military correlation, not every piece that found its way into our archives last year adhered to our stringent criteria.
When we discovered an online listing that featured a team-signed Reach (Spalding) Official American League baseball, intrigue set in as many of the autographs were from ballplayers who served in the armed forces during World War II. Due diligence soon confirmed that the ball, listed as a Washington Senators team baseball, was as advertised.
In our quest to secure vintage photos of service baseball, wartime or otherwise, we find that some players received better coverage than others, resulting in more market-available photographs. With the (then) recent arrival of a beautiful press photo depicting Boston Red Sox pitcher Mickey Harris with his parents and his wartime flannel jersey, inspiration led me to see if any other artifacts related to the player were available. Searches in online auctions yielded nothing more than a handful of autograph cuts, early 1950s baseball cards (issued by Bowman, Leaf and Topps) and photographs from his professional career (vintage and reproduction). However, on a popular social media platform, the Washington Senators baseball surfaced as a recommendation, obviously due to the Mickey Harris-related search we had been performing.
Upon opening the link, we discovered that the ball was not only signed by Harris but also by a number of players who, just a few years before placing their autographs on the ball, were serving domestically and around the world in the armed forces. The manufacturer’s stamping with the official league marks indicated that the ball was made for use during the 1948-49 seasons. Mickey Harris was traded by Boston (along with Sam Mele) to the Senators following his third loss of the 1949 season on June 7. The presence of Enrique Gonzalez’ signature narrowed the date range of the signing between August 9 and September 25.
Harris’ career was all downhill following the 1946 season when he was part of a decent pitching staff that was headlined by Dave “Boo” Ferriss’ 25-6 record. Tex Hughson, another 20-game winner on the ’46 club, led the team in earned run average, leaving Harris’ 17-9 record and 3.64 ERA overshadowed. He was clearly one of the reasons for the Red Sox’ ascension to the 1946 World Series and despite his losses in games 2 (3-0) and 6 (4-1), he pitched well. Harris was not the only pitcher to suffer from a lack of run support in the Series, which was shocking, considering the Sox’ top ranking in average, runs, hits on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Red Sox batters ranked second for home runs, fourth for triples and led the American League in doubles. Their Series opponent, the Saint Louis Cardinals, were similar in their offensive statistical categories. The difference was a combination of Cardinal pitching holding Boston at bay combined with the Red Sox’ lackluster defense (10 total errors to St. Louis’ four).
Following the ’46 season, Harris’ pitching was in decline as he struggled with injuries and more than likely his confidence, which led to his trade to Washington. At the end of Harris’ 1941 campaign, his career situation was much different. Mickey was in his first full season on an above average second-place team that saw the last season in which a player hit for an average of .400 or better. The young Red Sox team had a bright future ahead of it until Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into a global war. Coming off an 8-14, 3.25 ERA season, Harris found himself answering his draft board’s call and was inducted on October 14, 1941, just 17 days after pitching Boston to a 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. Following in-processing at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Harris was assigned to Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia, for additional training.
In a published letter (The Boston Globe, January 30, 1942: Pitching for the Balboa Nine, by Harold Kaese) that Harris wrote to Joe Cronin, his former manager in Boston, Harris detailed his pitching exploits as he played for his Army command’s team. Pitching for the 83rd Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) at Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone, Harris described his team’s lack of talent. “The current club I play with hasn’t any hitting power and no defense whatsoever,” Harris decried. In his first game, he dropped a 1-0 decision that was followed with a 4-2 loss in which the team’s third baseman allowed the go-ahead run to score. Perhaps he was attempting to downplay the two losses in his communication to Cronin, hoping to restart his Red Sox career with the club after the war ended. Harris continued, “I was hoping I would be sent down here, if any place, so I could try to stay in shape.” While not playing baseball for his command’s team. Harris worked as a mail clerk at headquarters. “I sort all incoming and outgoing mail,” he wrote to Cronin.
Duty in the Canal Zone was not relaxed despite how Harris described it in his letter to Cronin. The canal was of vital strategic importance, providing expedited transits of shipping between the two major oceans. American military personnel stationed in the region peaked at 65,000, with civilian support staff numbering in the tens of thousands. it was clear to Harris that his duties, including playing baseball to boost morale, were important. Both the Germans and Japanese developed plans to destroy or seize control of the canal, though neither nation’s forces made any attempt to carry them out.
Harris worked on his control and attempted to develop his change-up pitch. “I throw quite a few changes,” he told Cronin, “and I get them over.” Harris was committed to being prepared to return to the big league club. “I will keep working on things that need correcting and will profit by mistakes I make while playing down here,” Harris continued, “so that I won’t let it happen to me when I am back playing with the Sox again.”
Every pitcher has ambitions for wins, inducing batters to make outs in high stress situations as they employ their skills and experience to dominate opponents’ offenses. However, not allowing a single batter to reach base in a game is in another realm of accomplishments that so few pitchers allow themselves to dream about. Harris took his outing to such a level as he not only retired all 27 batters he faced on April 12, 1942 but used only 67 pitches to achieve the feat. Facing an all-star roster from the Canal Zone league in the first game of the Isthmus “Little World Series”, Private Harris commented on the opposition. “It was a good team of pros, with (Leo) Eastham and (Otto) Huber, who played for Hartford, on it, but I would have beaten any team with the stuff I had that day.” More than 2,000 spectators, including several hundred servicemen, watched as Harris struck out five and even made a spectacular defensive play on a slow roller to preserve the perfecto. It was not until later in the game that Harris was clued into what he was doing on the mound. “I didn’t realize I was pitching a no-reach game until the seventh inning, when a morale officer started to speak to me and the manager put his finger to his lips,” Harris told the Boston Globe. “Then I figured it out. Well, I just poured it to ’em the rest of the way. I struck out a pinch hitter on three pitched balls.” Harris’ club won the game, 9-0.
In the Canal Zone’s winter league play, Harris finished with a win-loss record of 11-4. In addition to his perfect game, Mickey fanned 17 in a contest and tossed two one-hit games. Aside from his correspondence with his Red Sox manager, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane, the former Detroit Tigers catcher and manager who was leading the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets club, was taking notice of Harris’ success on the Army club in Panama. Cochrane was charged with assembling a roster of ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces to take on the winner of the 1942 major league baseball All-Star game. With a significant push to raise funds in support of the Army and Navy Relief organizations, the game was scheduled for July 7 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
Cochrane’s Service All-Star roster featured a nucleus of 10 Great Lakes NTS Bluejacket players that were augmented by three from Norfolk NTS and seven Army ballplayers. Seeking to bolster his pitching staff, Cochrane pulled the strings to have Private Mickey Harris recalled from Panama to join Bob Feller, Johnny Rigney and John Grodzicki. As part of his travel from the Panamanian Isthmus, Harris was granted 30-days of leave in conjunction with the event and the practices leading up to the game.
One of the first photos of Harris that we acquired was captured at one of the Service All-Stars’ practices on July 3 at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Harris is pictured with 12 All-Star teammates. The image was acquired with a large group of military baseball images that centered on Sam Chapman’s career in the Navy.
The talented American League roster tallied three runs in the top of the first and never looked back as they secured the right to travel to Cleveland on the evening of July 6 to face Cochrane’s squad of service ballplayers. Harris told a Boston Globe reporter, “I’m in good shape and I hope that I get to pitch in a part of the All-Star game. When Mickey told me I would be on the squad he said he couldn’t promise me that I would get into the game, but I don’t guess they would bring me all the way up from Panama for nothing.”
Harris was correct. Cochrane started Bob Feller, who struggled with control out of the gate. Feller, who could not retire a batter in the second inning, left the game after having surrendered three runs on four hits and walking five. Trailing 3-0, Cochrane sent Harris to spell Johnny Rigney in the seventh and was immediately tagged by Yankee Phil Rizzuto for a double. Rizzuto followed his hit by stealing third. Harris coaxed Senators’ right fielder Stan Spence to tap a slow roller back to the pitcher for an easy play. But then his former Red Sox teammate, Ted Williams, powered a deep fly to left center, resulting in an RBI triple. With a run in and one out, Harris induced a Joe DiMaggio pop fly for the second out, but Browns’ first baseman George McQuinn stroked a two-out triple to right center that scored Williams. Harris finished the seventh by retiring another former Red Sox teammate, second baseman Bobby Doerr. Aside from the American League, the winners of the game were the Army and Navy Relief organizations, which split the $75,000 pot raised in the game.
Despite originally being slated to return to Panama (by way of Texas) on July 14, the September 4, 1942 edition of The Berkshire Eagle reported that Harris had been reassigned. “Private Mickey Harris, former Boston Red Sox pitcher, flew from his Army station in the Panama Canal Zone to join the service all-star squad that met the AL All-Stars in Cleveland on July 7 but didn’t return to that assignment. He is now stationed at Pine Camp, NY, where he pitches for the camp team, which has won 23 games in a Tri-State service league.” Though further research has not yet confirmed his reassignment, it was temporary.
Once again pitching in the Canal Zone winter league, Harris’ Balboa Brewers struggled out of the gate, dropping eight of their first 10 games. The ship was righted with the arrival of former Holy Cross pitcher Al Jarlett as the cub posted a seven-game win streak. The Brewers, facing the Cuban All-Stars, were bolstered with a 1942 World Series hero, Terry Moore, (2-4 in the game) as Balboa captured a 6-1 victory on September 12. A month later, Moore was present in St. Louis to see the Yankees defeat his Cardinals in the 1943 World Series as Harris continued with his Panama assignment.
Harris spent nearly four years in the Army, serving almost the entire time in Panama. In the 1945 Pacific Championship, Harris struck out twenty Canal Zone All-Star batters in leading Balboa to a 1-0 victory on July 21. On the opposing roster was his former Brewers teammate, Private Terry Moore, whom Harris had previously never fanned. However, three of Harris’ strikeouts came at the expense of Moore as the season wound to a close.
With the surrender of Japan in the Pacific, Harris wrote home that he was hopeful of being able to join the Red Sox during their final series of the 1945 season, four games against New York at Yankee Stadium; however, he didn’t leave the Panamanian isthmus until October.
As he wrote to Cronin in 1942, Harris dedicated himself to maturing and perfecting his pitching, making Joe Cronin’s 1946 spring training decision to keep him easy. Harris opened the season winning eight decisions before losing his first game on May 26 to the Yankees. In his two World Series losses to the Cardinals, Harris failed to strike out his former Canal Zone league teammate and later opponent, Terry Moore, until the bottom of the first inning in Game Six.
Our most recent Harris addition shows the Balboa Brewer in mid-windup as he appears to be warming up prior to entering a game in May, 1945. It can be a challenge to source a single image of a professional ballplayer during his wartime service let alone five. It is rather unique to be able to visually chronicle Harris’ four years in the Army.
Posted on March 18, 2021, in Autographs, Baseballs, Ephemera and Other Items, Individual/Personal History, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos and tagged 1949 Washington Senators Autographed Baseball, Boston Red Sox, Coast Artillery, Mickey Cochrane, Mickey Harris, Military Baseball Perfect Game, Panama Canal Zone, Perfect Game, Service All-Star Game, Washington Senators. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.