with Washington Senators (‘25–‘26)        with Pittsburgh Pirates (‘27–‘28)

Joe Harris had a ten year major league career from 1914–1928. He had a career batting average of .317 and hit 47 home runs. You can see his career stats at the major league baseball site. In 1986, SABR members selected him as their 1917 American League rookie of the year [see Lyle Spatz' article in 1986 "The Baseball Research Journal"; rookie of the year was not a recognized award prior to 1946]. He appeared in the ‘25 and ‘27 world series, hitting three home runs in a losing cause for the ‘25 Senators.

The Senators picture above may show the eye injury that he suffered in a truck accident while serving in the infantry in Europe during World War I; though his left eye also appears to have been injured. He had some corrective surgery performed between the ‘25 and ‘26 seasons [see The Sporting News issue of April 15, 1926]. I need to confirm, via the TSN article, which eye had been injured.

For the rest of this article I will refer to Joe Harris as JH.

Probably the most interesting aspect of JH's career were the two seasons that he played "outlaw" ball in Franklin, Pennsylvania. An outlaw league or team is a professional team that is not part of the agreement between the major leagues and most of the minor leagues (these leagues are called "oragnaized baseball"). What makes this particularly interesting is why an up and coming major leaguer leave the majors for a small town team, and further, how did he manage to get back into the major leagues. Usually outlaw players were blackballed from returning to organized baseball. I was able to find some answers for why he went to Franklin, but have not yet uncovered how he was able to return.

In 1999 I found out from some of my SABR brethren that the Franklin team matched the $5,000 per year offer that JH had received from Cleveland for the 1920 season. I also learned that Franklin played in the "Two Team League" with the Oil City team. This raised my curiosity enough that I scheduled a two-day visit to Franklin and Oil City to see what I could dig up (this was before I knew about having microfilm shipped to my local library).

By today's standards, it is unthinkable that a team in a small town like Franklin could pay the same salaries as a major league team. But in 1920 there was a push by industrialists to form very competitive company teams. It was felt that having a winning baseball team representing a factory would create a team spirit among the workers, and they would forget all about forming labor unions. Remember that in the 20's labor unions were not well-established, and attempts to organize them were met with billy clubs. Company owners were willing to spend a good deal of money to prevent unions.

Another factor may have been that the two major leagues were not on the same solid footing they are now. In 1919 it was only a couple years since the Federal League had failed in its attempt to establish a third major league. The American League had been in existence less than twenty years. The history of major league baseball at that time did not have the air of constancy that it had in, say, the 1970's.

So around this time many good players were lured from organized baseball to outlaw teams. I'm not certain of the extent, but some of the people running baseball in those days were genuinely worried that they might not be able to compete in salary with the industrial teams. I found a few interesting side references to this in the Franklin paper, but I did not follow them.

One piece of information I had from a SABR member was that JH had left the Cleveland team in midseason 1919. I discovered that this was not true [side note: I'm not calling them the 'Indians', because they likely did not have that nickname at the time; I believe they were called the 'Naps']. He appeared as a pinch hitter in Cleveland's final game of the season, Sep/28/19. He then played four games for Franklin as they finished out their season.

This appears to have been a common practice for major leaguers in those days, as the papers mentioned several other players. One of the other players who also showed up in Franklin at the end of the '19 season was future Hall of Famer George Sisler.

JH then stayed with Franklin for the '20 and '21 seasons. The only reason that I know of, provided by one of the SABRites, is that the Franklin team 'set him up in business'. My father recalled that JH ran a bowling alley, and I did find one reference in an article in '21 that suggested he ran a billiard parlor. The other possible reason is that he met his future wife, Pearl Hepner. Pearl was from Franklin, and they married between the '20 and '21 seasons.

JH was, according to all acounts, a popular person in Franklin. There was a reference to him in a recent book about the history of Franklin. He was the team's leading hitter in both '20 and '21.

The Franklin team was one half of the Two Team League. The other half was Oil City. As one person told me before I visited Franklin, "The easiest job in the world must have been to be the schedule maker for the Two Team League". Turns out that wasn't an easy job after all. Franklin and Oil City played maybe 50 games a year against each other. The rest of the time they played against other western PA teams, such as the New Kensington Aluminums (no doubt the Alcoa team), the Elk County Elcos, and the Pittsburgh Collegians (which may have been college players playing during the summer under assumed names). So this 'league' really wasn't a league in the sense we would use the term today. In fact, the Oil City paper didn't only occasionally lists standings for this 'league', while the Franklin paper did. These teams were more like semi-pro teams, scheduling games ad hoc. For example, Franklin and Oil City seemed to schedule games in batches of a dozen or two, play them, then schedule some more.

I did find out why JH left the Franklin team. The 1921 team did not finish the season. In July whoever was backing the team asked the players to take 25% pay cuts, and that was the end of the team. They played one celebrated final game against Oil City, in which JH hit a home run. Officially this was a forfeit followed by an exhibition game; this seems to have been a way to allow the passing of a hat to collect money for the players.

At this point, JH joined the Clearfield Terriers. To the best of my knowledge this fact was not previously known. I was fortunate that Clearfield was along my return route. I was also fortunate that the newspaper that existed in 1921 was still in business. The public library did not have microfilm prior to about 1975. I was able to view the microfilm in a loft at the newspaper's offices.

I'm not certain what the status of the Clearfield team was— I'm not sure if they were a professional team, but it seems very likely that they were. They played a late season exhibition game against the American League Philadelphia team (called the Mackmen in those days; today they are the Oakland A's), which suggests that if they were professional, they were not an outlaw league.

JH disappeared from the Clearfield team a week or so before the end of the season (before the exhibition against the Mackmen). This is odd, because there was no mention in the paper of him leaving, or of him being injured. And you have to realize that the local baseball team got nearly full page coverage in the paper every day. One speculation I have is that the Clearfield team would have gotten in trouble if word got out they were using an outlaw player. A few other Franklin players also joined Clearfield, but I neglected to check whether they also disappeared around the same time.

The following year JH was back in the majors, playing for the American League Boston team. I don't know how he ended up being reinstated as an eligible player. At the time the Franklin team folded it was mentioned that he had tried to be reinstated prior to the '21 season. Several years ago I saw a note in Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract that JH was one of few players who had applied for and been granted reinstatement by (the fairly new) commisioner Landis. That book noted his war record may have played a part.

My thanks to SABR members Carlos Bauer, Clifford Blau, Jerry Jackson, Bill Deane, Richard J. Thompson, and Tom Zocco for their help, guidance, and information; to the librarian in the Franklin (PA) public library; and to the staff of the Clearfield (PA) Progress.

See my notes for this article.
Back to Bob's main Baseball page.