Today we take up the case of another overlooked All-Time great…Vic Harris:
1. Vicious Vic
2. Negro League Managers Underrepresented
3. Greatest Manager in Negro League History
4. Nine Consecutive League Championships
5. Last Negro League Champion
6. 269 Games over .500
7. .682 Winning Percentage
8. Early Baseball Era Ballot
9. Seven-Time All-Star
10. 113 OPS+
11. 10.6 WAR
12. Average Hall of Famer
1. Vicious Vic – When Homestead Grays Owner Cum Posey managed his franchise, they were mostly a run-of-the-mill team. But Posey was a fiery personality and apparently wanted another fiery personality to take over – queue Vicious Vic Harris. Harris was a standout player with the Grays ever since he joined them at the age of 20. However, in 1934 he jumped over to the crosstown rival Crawfords for the 1934 season. Posey wanting his long-time player back, and feeling Harris was just the fiery guy he wanted to lead his team, recruited Harris back with the offer to manage the team. There are several stories of the origin of Vic’s nickname but mostly they center around his reckless and aggressive playing style. There is one story of him being offended by another player on a road trip and Vic pulling him out of the car and beating him for saying something offensive. Based on available writing, it would seem Vicious Vic was an aggressive player both on and off the field. But as Harris himself said, Posey was looking for someone fiery and Vicious Vic was definitely that.
2. Negro League Managers Underrepresented – There have been seven people inducted into the Hall of Fame for their contributions to the Negro Leagues: Buck O’Neil, Effa Manley, Alex Pompez, Cum Posey, Sol White, J.L. Wilkinson, and Rube Foster. Six of the seven were owners. Some of those seven did also play, but their Hall of Fame recognition really wasn’t for their playing abilities. Among the seven only one was inducted, in part, for their record as a Manager – Rube Foster. (Technically, Buck O’Neil does also get credit for managing, but his contributions to baseball were deeper than any one thing and he only has one season of managing a Negro League team before integration watered down the Negro Leagues.) Rube Foster’s plaque starts with “Rated foremost manager and executive in history of Negro Leagues.” Rube was also a great pitcher, but his Hall of Fame induction was clearly for his creation of the Negro National League, his ownership of the Giants, and his Managerial record. That means, in all of Negro League history, only one manager gets recognized. Only one guy in the Negro Leagues, apparently, had the skills to merit inclusion with the greatest strategists of all-time. The Major Negro Leagues are recognized by the MLB as occurring between 1920 and 1948 encompassing about 49 seasons of baseball. In 49 seasons, there has been just one manager who merits inclusion? Including Foster, there are currently 23 Managers enshrined in Cooperstown. 11 of the 23 Managed some or all of their career during those same seasons. Vic Harris led teams won seven pennants, good for fourth among the 11 just ahead of Miller Huggins. He won just one World Championship, making him tied for 9th with Leo the Lip and just ahead of Wilbert Robinson. And his .663 Winning Percentage would be the highest of the eleven.
3. Greatest Manager in NL History – One of the reasons it is perhaps easy to discount Harris’ managerial record is to point out he had some legendary rosters. In fact, he had the greatest Negro League player of all time on his roster – Josh Gibson. He also had Buck Leonard and Ray Brown on those teams (not to mention himself). But Miller Huggins often had 5 Hall of Famers including Babe and Lou and even his Yankees didn’t make the World Series every year. Casey’s mighty Yankees seemed to win every year, but even he missed the 1954 World Series. Vic Harris led his Homestead Grays to 7 Championships in a row. Part of a 9-year run that Harris had to miss two years of while helping with the war effort in 1943 & 1944. No manager in Negro League history is as decorated and no manager in Negro League history won more games.
4. Nine Consecutive League Championships – From 1937 – 1945, the Homestead Grays finished 1st in the Negro National League every season. With Harris missing two of the nine seasons while he was working at the defense plant, perhaps he doesn’t get enough credit for the accomplishment. When researching the prevailing opinion of Harris as a strategist, there is very little written on his managerial tactics. In fact, the only thing available comes from one of the most renown authorities on Black Baseball History, James Riley, who authored The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. In it, he writes, “Although (Harris) was not noted as a brilliant strategist, the players responded to the fiery manager by giving good performances on the baseball diamond.” He’s essentially demonstrating the absence of recognition. We could take this and infer Riley is suggesting Harris wasn’t a great strategist or we could take the words at face value that he simply wasn’t noted as one. Which perhaps isn’t surprising since newspapers of the time were reticent to bestow compliments on blacks in leadership positions; particularly when it came to sports. Oh, they might heap recognition of a man’s athletic ability, but the idea the results of a team’s play could have anything to do with the brilliant mind of the black manager, well, that was unheard of in the 1930s and 40s. All we really have is the record and this record stands up to any manager in the history of baseball. His seven in a row is two more than Casey’s MLB record five.
5. Last Negro League Champion – In 1948, Harris’ Homestead Grays won the final Negro League World Series 4 games to 1 over the Birmingham Black Barons. It was 40-year old Buck Leonard’s final games and 17-year old Willie Mays’ beginning to his career. It was also Harris’ only World Series victory. This Championship makes Vic Harris the defending Negro League Champion for all-time.
6. 269 Games over .500 – Based on available records, Vic Harris teams finished 269 Games over .500. There are 22 Managers in history who are more than 269 Games over .500. Three are still active. The rest are all in the Hall of Fame except Davey Johnson. As for the Managers just below him, they include non-HOFers like Billy Martin (2 losing seasons), Jim Mutrie (1 losing season), Mike Scioscia (7 losing seasons), Charlie Grimm (2 losing seasons), and Steve O’Neill (0 losing seasons); they also include HOFers like Hughie Jennings, Bill McKechnie, Tommy Lasorda, Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, etc. Martin, Scioscia, Grimm, and O’Neill have good resumes and each has their own HOF argument. 269 games over .500 is a pretty good indication that he managed some great teams and was clearly a great manager considering the company he’s keeping on this list.
7. .682 Winning Percentage – Best of all-time. Among managers who managed 10+ seasons, 11 of the top 12 are in the Hall of Fame. Of the 11, only McGraw and McCarthy won more pennants. There really is no precedence for keeping Harris out as it relates to his Winning Percentage.
8. Early Baseball Era Ballot – Harris’ case is predicated on his record as a Manager. However, when he was most recently considered on the Early Baseball Era Ballot, he was listed as a Player. While Harris was a fine player (and we will take a look at his playing career), he really should have been considered as a Manager as his managerial record is a much stronger case. As it was, he finished with 10 votes on the Ballot, just 2 shy of the 75% needed for election.
9. Seven-Time All-Star - Sometimes it’s worth reviewing a manager’s playing record to see if it should have any weight on his case; particularly when we are reviewing a Player/Manager. Did he keep himself in the lineup despite poor play? In Harris’ case, his playing record was pretty good. So, let’s review and see if there’s anything that might strengthen his potential Hall of Fame resume. 187 Players have made seven or more All-Star teams. Every eligible player with 15 or more is in the Hall of Fame. Every eligible player with 12 or more appearances is in excluding the players implicated in the PED scandal. In fact, there is a strong correlation between All-Stars and Hall of Famers with anyone making nine or more All-Star teams. But there is a noticeable drop-off at eight. 63% of the eligible players with eight All-Star selections are in the Hall of Fame as are 48% of the eligible players with seven. There is one PED implicated player with seven who would otherwise be in the Hall of Fame (Sammy Sosa) so we can surmise players who make seven All-Star team get in to the Hall of Fame about half the time. Ultimately, while seven is an impressive total, it doesn’t necessarily help Vic’s case. But it does suggest, as a player, he was likely pretty good.
10. 113 OPS+ - Ok, using OPS+ as an indicator of anything related to a player who has an incomplete record probably doesn’t tell us much. It probably matters even less on a managerial candidate. However, for what it’s worth, Harris’ OPS+ of 113 is respectable. It’s not Hall of Fame level by any stretch. The only Left Fielder with a lower OPS+ is Lou Brock whose career was spectacular for other reasons. However, Harris put himself in the lineup a lot and with the OPS+ we can extrapolate from available data, it was for good reason. He clearly helped his teams when he was in the lineup.
11. 10.6 WAR – This also may not be the best metric for measuring a Negro Leaguer’s Hall of Fame worthiness. Though it is worth noting, the Negro League players with the 10 highest WAR total have been enshrined in the Hall. But it certainly isn’t material to the case of a potential Hall of Fame Manager. However, among all Negro League players in history, 10.6 WAR is respectable. Most of the Hall of Fame Negro Leaguers with fewer WAR are in because they also played in the Major Leagues (Willie Mays and Larry Doby, for example), or they are in for other reasons (Buck O’Neil, for example). Excluding Pitchers, 10.6 would rank 52nd All-Time. While Harris’ WAR total doesn’t help his case, it really isn’t material to his case.
12. Average Hall of Famer – The average Hall of Fame Manager won 1,894 Games while Vic Harris is only credited with 547. We also know the Negro League records are incomplete. There are only 825 games worth of data for Harris and despite this he is still credited with winning 269 more games than he lost. The average HOF Manager is 290 over .500, but the average HOF manager had nearly 3,500 games to get to 290 games over. If we project Harris’ wins over .500 across the same number of games as the average HOF manager, he’d project to 1,140 games over .500. John McGraw is the all-time record holder with 815 games over .500. Of course, we can’t just give Harris credit for 2,600 games and say he was better than John McGraw. But we don’t need to. John McGraw isn’t the bar for a Manager to make the Hall of Fame. As it is, even with 2,672 fewer games on record, Harris’ 269 games over .500 still compares favorably to the average HOF Manager. The average place of finish for teams managed by Harris is 1.7 vs the average HOF manager of 3.2. Harris made the post season 8 times vs the average HOF manager who made it 6.3 times. Harris won one World Series vs the average Hall of Fame Manager winning 2.3. Harris also won 7 Pennants vs the average Hall of Fame Manager who won 5.3. And Harris managed all of this in just 11 seasons. The average Hall of Fame Manager has 24.2 seasons to attain their numbers. One the other hand, this means Harris is only credited with 547 Wins which is 1,346 fewer than the average Hall of Fame Manager. But his All-Time record .663 Winning Percentage is a lot higher than the .547 an Average Hall of Fame Manager posted. When compared to the Average Hall of Fame Manager, Harris comes up short only in opportunity. In every other way, his record resembles a Hall of Fame Manager.