By Marty Appel
Back in the 1990s when I was doing PR for Topps, we had a young woman in the marketing department who happened to mention one day that she was part of the Bucky Harris family – a grand niece as I recall.
“No kidding,” I said, as I began to rattle off the credentials of this Hall of Famer who was best known for being the “Boy Wonder” player/manager of the 1924 Washington Senators.
Harris is a somewhat forgotten figure in baseball history, but half a century ago, he was one of the best-known in the game, and at the time, fourth among all managers in career victories.
I was a lot more excited about it than she was, and I knew a lot more about him than she did. I thought it was pretty cool to be related to a Hall of Famer; she seldom mentioned it and found few people who were interested among her circle of friends. But hey, this was Topps. This was like royal blood in our offices. I always called her Bucky, and she got a kick out of it.
It turned out I even owned a book written by Harris, and opportunistically published in 1925, the year after his great triumph. It is called “Playing the Game: From Mine Boy to Manager,” written by Stanley Harris, manager of the Washington Baseball Club, World’s Champions 1924 with an introduction by his boss, Clark Griffith. It was published by Frederick A. Stokes of New York. If there was a ghostwriter, there is no such acknowledgment.
Books following pennants were by no means automatic in the 1920s, and it was Harris being the talk of the sports world that led to this one. To win a world championship at 27 was a remarkable feat.
Bucky managed to get 38 chapters into this book. But think of what he accomplished. In his first year as manager, he not only led the Senators to their first pennant, but he stopped a three-year run of pennants by the Yankees, who battled him with their Babe Ruth-led lineup and were heavy favorites to repeat. Bucky’s main attraction was Walter Johnson, who won 23 games, but that was hardly new territory for him. Johnson had long been the best pitcher in the game, and it hadn’t led to any previous pennants.
The Senators met John McGraw’s New York Giants in the World Series and defeated them in seven games for Washington’s only world championship. Fans of the Senators, including President Coolidge, could hardly imagine that this would be their only World Series victory, but indeed they would go another 36 years before moving to Minnesota – still winless except for ’24. Their successor Senators added another 11 seasons to the long drought before moving to Texas in 1972. So yes, the 1924 team deserved recognition then, and even more so now. Who would have thought!?
Harris’s best remembered move in the ’24 Series was bringing in Johnson in relief in the ninth inning of the deciding seventh game. Johnson, 36, had already lost twice as a starter.
“This was the time to call upon Johnson,” he wrote. “He had warmed up well. He told me he was fit. I knew he would pitch his arm off, if necessary, to win the game.”
Johnson hurled four shutout innings, with the Senators finally pulling out victory on a bad hop grounder over Freddie Lindstrom’s head in the 12th inning, winning in front of their home fans. If Harris put a pebble there, good for him. (Bucky played second and hit .333 with 11 hits in the Series).
Harris reveals in the book how he got his nickname. As a child playing basketball, he tossed off a couple of players from his back during a particularly rough contest, and “bucked like a tough little bronco.” A nickname was born.
Bucky had a tryout with the Giants while playing for Buffalo in 1919. He didn’t get signed by McGraw, but he shook his hand. They next handshake they shared came five years later as they met at home plate for Game 1 of the Series.
“Hope the best team wins, Bucky,” the Giant leader said. “You deserve credit for landing your club on top.”
“Thanks, Mr. McGraw,” he answered. “I hope I’ll be half as successful in baseball as you’ve been.”
Harris managed for 29 seasons and won another world championship with the 1947 Yankees. But after finishing second in ’48, he was replaced by Casey Stengel, who would win five in a row out of the box. A little more benevolence toward Harris, who won 94 games in ’48, might have made him the winner of all those early Stengel pennants. Impossible to say. But there he is with Casey and McGraw in Cooperstown, and he still sixth all-time in victories among big league managers.
Marty Appel ( AppelPR@gmail.com) is the author of 17 books with a history of the Yankees coming next spring. The former Yankees PR director and TV producer won an Emmy Award in 1992 and was a coordinating producer of ESPN’s The Bronx is Burning.