Excerpted from my upcoming book The Little Red Wagon: The Amazing Story of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds.
John Harrison was a member of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds, a Cincinnati Reds minor-league team that won the Northwest League Championship in dominant fashion. The team was extraordinary on and off the field; they remain “a band of brothers,” as John calls them, despite the fact they only played one 70-game season together.
John’s time in Organized Baseball parallels that of many professional ballplayers: injuries and unfortunate circumstances derailed a promising career. In Part I we’ll see how that career unfolded; in Part II we’ll look at his second career as an educator and youth counselor, and note some individuals who have influenced him, in and out of baseball.
John Harrison I grew up in Los Angeles, idolizing the Koufax-Drysdale-Wills-Frank Howard era of the Dodgers. That’s the epitome of it, from my experience. And then I moved, when I was about eight years old, up to the Bay Area until I was about 12. Got to see Willie Mays in his prime. Juan Marichal in his prime.
I was an outfielder, kind of by accident, starting in Babe Ruth baseball. The first game, my manager sort of stuck me in the outfield so I could get my inning of playing time. I made a diving catch and threw somebody out at home, and he said, Hmmm. Maybe this kid can play. So the next thing you knew I was a featured player, rather than just another 13-year-old on a Babe Ruth team.
I was very fast, I had a plus arm, [and] even though I was teeny-tiny, I could throw a football 75 yards in the air. And played high-school quarterback, only because I was fast enough to run away from everybody who was trying to tackle me.
Jim Haught Fear is a pretty good thing.
John Agility and speed and quickness are wonderful tools when big people are trying to hit you.
A good friend of mine wrote in my junior-high-school yearbook:
To John, my best friend and a great ballplayer. Here’s the funny part. The Giants want him.
And then to get drafted by the Giants after the second year of community college – [laughs]
I sorta became a centerfielder. Played high-school baseball as a centerfielder at Grant High School in Van Nuys, California, which is across the street from Los Angeles Valley College. The people at Valley assumed I was going there, but I went to Pierce College in Los Angeles — the opposite side of the San Fernando Valley from where I lived. I went to Pierce because they recruited me.
I started my freshman year at Pierce as a left-fielder and leadoff hitter. We had a returning centerfielder named Ed “Rocky” Jordan, who played minor-league ball with the Orioles and was a catcher, I think, professionally.
I sort of patterned myself offensively after Maury Wills; he was my hero. I’m still upset to this day that he’s not in the Hall of Fame.
JH Well, you’re fairly small and you’re a speed guy, and it’s that era, then that’s a pretty good guy to try to emulate.
John In retrospect, I think I limited myself offensively because I was trying to be Maury Wills, but it seemed to fit for my size and skill set. I was a right-handed batter at the time, but I was the leadoff hitter and base-stealing defensive-whiz outfielder. Once in a while, somebody would stick me in at shortstop — the JV game or second game of a doubleheader or defensive. But for the vast majority of that, I was a centerfielder.
Unbeknownst to me, I was being watched very carefully. My Dad had written a bunch of letters when I was coming out of high school, and I had tried out for the Washington Senators, for a scout whose name escapes me.
But I had played a kind of winter ball for the Senators rookies — a traveling team of prospects in a league around Southern California. Oftentimes during the winter, right before spring training, the major-leaguers would come out and work out — kind of pre-spring-training.
Didn’t get much interest from the Senators. Met some good guys. Jeff Burroughs was on the team that I played on. Mark Cresse, who was later the Dodgers’ bullpen coach, was on that team.
I think I was dismissed because I was so tiny. I weighed less than 140 pounds when I went to college, and I was 5’10”.
JH So you were built like Wills, too, kind of.
John Yeah. And I was a late-developer, so I didn’t add weight or muscle up. I mean, I ate six meals a day and would lose weight, my metabolism was just so high.
So I went to Pierce and played for two years.
But John lost more than weight. He lost his starting job – one of many challenges he faced as a player.
John Second year, I was hitting .410 on the season. I was hitting .750 in conference. Just having a tremendous year, and we had won the conference title the year before and lost to LA City College — Roy Smalley and a couple of other guys who played major-league ball [were on] LA City College’s team.
My second year, we weren’t winning; we didn’t have any pitching. And abruptly I started sitting, and guys were getting to play, and I wasn’t getting to play.
And I sat there patiently figuring, okay, he’s going to give some people a shot or something. But when we weren’t hitting and we weren’t winning, and I was sitting on the bench with a .410 batting average, I had a long talk with my Dad about how I wasn’t gonna put up with that. So I got all of my uniform and gear cleaned and folded and sitting in front of my locker, and went to my coach and said, why am I sitting? And he said, you’re not hitting. My coach was a real stats guy.
I said, I’m what? He says, you’re not hitting. And I said, can I have your keys? And he said, what the hell do you want my keys for? I said, I want to go down to the bulletin board. The display case where you have the stats. I’m the second-leading hitter on the team. I’m the leading hitter on the team in conference. What do you mean I’m not hitting?
And he hemmed and hawed and basically said that we weren’t winning. I was a sophomore in a junior college; I wasn’t going to be returning. He had to try to keep the remnants of what was going to be left around. Somebody had to be the sacrificial lamb — and it was me.
And I said, well, then I have a decision to make, because I don’t want this to be the last year I’m going to — I’m playing ball, and I’m not going to get anybody to scout me, colleges or otherwise, if I’m sitting on the bench. Especially for a team that’s losing.
So I went and sat in my locker and was fuming mad, and probably swearing a blue streak, and basically said, fuck this, I’m going to quit. And Barry Moss, who was a high-school rival — he went to North Hollywood High School — he played left field. I played centerfield at Pierce my second year. Barry came over and we — I wouldn’t say we were buddies at the time, but we were teammates and we respected each other — he came over and sat down next to me and he said, don’t quit. The Giants are watching you. And he had been drafted, I think the year before, by the Giants.
So I went, oookay, tell me more. And he said, they’re thinking about drafting you. I know George Genovese, the Giants scout, is really high on you. And I said, okay.
After the season, John got a phone call from a man who became his biggest booster:
John So I stuck it out. I played off-and-on. Season ended, got a call from George Genovese, who I had not talked to before. George was persona non grata on my college campus, because he had drafted one of the star players from Pierce a couple of years previously. And my coach never forgave him for that.
I spent a lot of time with George. George was my champion. He stayed behind me. Even after I’d been released a couple of times, he was still pushing me. George told me that if he had been a major-league manager, at the very least I would be his utility infielder. He says, I don’t understand why people don’t what I see.
During the winter, I played in a game in Long Beach; the Long Beach Rockets were a winter-league team that had eight major-league everyday players playing on it, including Bobby Grich.
And I played a game at Blair Field in Long Beach, which is often the background for a lot of movies and television shows about pro baseball. I was playing and I robbed Grich twice, and I think I had two or three hits and a bunch of stolen bases.
The Pirates scout came over and said, who the hell are you? Started filling out a field report on me. And he said, where did you play last year? I said, Idaho Falls. He goes, what, high school? Junior college? I said, No, Idaho Falls Angels in the Pioneer League. And he ripped the card up and right in front of me says, Pirates don’t sign released ballplayers. And I said, so I’m a prospect one minute, and I’m a suspect the next minute?
George said that he felt he could field an expansion team just on guys that had been released in the Los Angeles area alone.
So I’m playing in this game, and I’m just – threw Bobby Grich out in the hole. Made another play where — I can’t remember who it was — chopper over the pitcher’s head that I one-handed and threw in the same motion.
I get a hit and I steal second base, and Bobby Grich comes over and puts his arm around me. He goes, who the fuck are you?
JH [laughter] That seems to happen to you a lot!
John I said, my name is John Harrison. He says, give me your information, John. I’m going to recommend you to our personnel department. And I said, well, that would be great, except the Angels just released me. And he literally stopped and had this dumbfounded look. He said, you’re better than our utility infielder right now. If you were on the Angels right now, I’d be looking over my shoulder. He says, you can play; don’t quit. And I said, well, that’s what I’m doing here. But after the game, he came up to me and just said, I can’t believe that you’re being released from the low minors.
George drafted me, Genovese drafted me, in I think the 16th round.
JH Yes. 16th round in 1972. Is that right?
John June 1972, right. So basically you drafted a 138-pound, 5’10” centerfielder. I was a whippet. And he wasn’t going to sign me; he was going to work me out for the winter, and develop me. I had never played infield before, and he wanted me to be an infielder. He says, you’re a shortstop, you’re not a centerfielder. Centerfielders have to hit home runs, and you don’t have power. He’d signed Garry Maddox, so I figured he knew what he was talking about.
JH Well, yeah. That’s a pretty good player there. Whew!
John Well, he found Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews, George Foster — all these guys that nobody else was paying any attention to. George would find them sometimes sitting on the bench.
I heard myself getting released through the door when I was in Giants spring training. And when they came to my name and released me, the reason I that I was released was, Genovese has got too many guys around anyway. Because that year he had half the Giants’ major-league roster.
JH Man, that’s a little — the thinking in several directions there is pretty amazing.
John I told George I was thinking about becoming a switch-hitter, and he encouraged me to do that. But he was going to work me out over the winter and then redraft me in the — what’s it called? The secondary draft?
JH The one they used to have in January?
John In the January draft. So I started working out with them, and I guess a couple of guys got hurt on the low-minors rosters. So George came up and said, I’m gonna sign you; I’m gonna send you to Great Falls, Montana. You’ll get a chance to play. Just focus on your fielding. Learn to play, dah, dah, dah, dah.
So I went up to Great Falls, Montana. Played for a guy named Dick Wilson, who was also a scout in the Northwest. Played shortstop, and played pretty well. Didn’t hit; I was batting only right-handed at the time, but I saw the need to become a switch-hitter because it was the first time I saw sliders that looked like that [laughs].
He was batting me low in the order. So I was hitting after a catcher, and I’d hit a ball that I’d beat out, [but] they’d get a force play. So I recognized that I was going to have to change something.
I was very encouraged by my first year of play. I recognized in some ways, especially offensively, I was in over my head. But I went home and worked my tail off and started switch-hitting. Really saw a big difference, because it put me a step-and-a-half closer to first base.
Went to spring training and had a really good spring. I think I was four-for-14 in the spring-training games that I played in. Got hits off of Montefusco, Dressler, Knepper. I got my hits off all the big guys at that level at the time.
And then like I said, heard myself getting released through the door. They met in the room adjacent to mine. Went home crestfallen, and I think it was the day before George [Genovese] arrived at camp, but he came home and he was pissed.
So he had me come back and play for his San Francisco Giants rookie team, similar to the Washington Senators rookie team – basically a scouts’ team, playing weekend ball around LA. And he was sort of showcasing me, and I got contacted by Larry Barton with the Reds. And I got contacted by the Angels as well, and the Angels scout, Larry Himes I think was his name, later was the player-development guy for them. I was his first signee.
So Larry Himes came and contacted me, and I told him I knew the Reds were also interested in me, and the Texas Rangers were also interested in me. So I knew I had some interest. But there was some waiting.
Larry Himes showed me an organizational chart and showed my path to the major leagues. And he really presented a nice case why I should sign with the Angels. And I had liked Bob Clear, who was the Pioneer League manager for the Angels at the time. And I knew he liked me as a player, so it sounded like a good recipe. And so I signed with the Angels, and the Reds called me almost immediately after I signed, and were going to send me to Tampa for the remainder of the season, but I had already signed.
So went to Idaho Falls back in the Pioneer League. And there were two infielders in our kind of preseason camp, and I was introduced to the writer from the Idaho Falls paper as “the utility infielder.” And I looked around and went, how can I be — there’s only two infielders here. How can I be the utility infielder?
The scuttlebutt was that the Angels’ draft choices were all playing in the College World Series. So inevitably what happened was, I played off-and-on until Arizona State got knocked out, and they sent in an All-American second-baseman whose name I can’t remember; Bill something [Berger]. And Tom Summers was the minor-league director or player-personnel guy; he came in and then I got the skip wants to see you and walked into Bob Clear’s office, and he had tears in his eyes.
Tom Summers walked me down into the tunnel under the stands, between the dugout and the clubhouse, and said they were letting me go. And I said, this is not what Larry Himes promised me. It seems like you just signed me to fill a slot, a placeholder. I said, you know, I turned down other teams for this opportunity, and this isn’t even an opportunity! And he gave me some bullshit. I didn’t have much respect for that man.
And on my way back to my locker, to pack up my stuff, Bob Clear corralled me, again with tears in his eyes. And if you know Bob Clear, that’s not who Bob Clear is. And he said, I’ve seen you play. This is not my call. Don’t give up. He says, I’m going to call George Genovese. Don’t quit. So I thanked him, and went home.
JH So that explains why there’s only 18 games for Idaho Falls [in the record].
John Yeah. So I’m a centerfielder trying to learn to play infield, and I’m getting drips and drabs.
JH You did hit better, though. From .163 to .209, so there was some improvement, even in that limited amount of time.
John Again, but I was batting eighth or ninth, and I was a leadoff hitter. Or a one, two. Those are my spots.
The other thing that was frustrating: the Angels timed you every at-bat. They expected you to “Pete Rose it” to first base. And I had the fourth-fastest times in the Angels organization. Mickey Rivers was first, Morris Nettles was second. Jerry Remy was third, and I was fourth. And I think my average time to first base was 3.8 or 3.9. So I could motor.
JH Whoo! And they couldn’t see a use for that, huh?
John Apparently not. I mean the guys, their draft choices, were all middle infielders, so money talks. I was just somebody who signed for $500 a month. And that was something that I saw over and over and over again: the bonus was the only guarantee you had that you would play.
When George signed me with the Giants, had I known better, I would’ve asked for more money. But I signed for $2,500 cash and $7,500 conditional, which you would get as you advanced up in the minor leagues.
JH I assume you got money every time you went up a level?
JH If there weren’t other money or political reasons that kept you from it.
John Exactly. So I went home and worked my tail off and really worked on switch-hitting, and that was the year that I ran into Bobby Grich. I had more interested scouts that turned and walked away when they found out had been released. That just seemed to be the culture.
JH Wow! It’s like you had a disease.
John Yeah, exactly. And I can’t describe what it was like to be taking infield practice or be playing in a game, and just playing out of my mind, and seeing people looking at me like, wow, who is this guy?” And I couldn’t get arrested.
But it’s what I wanted to do, and it’s what I believed I could do. And I had my hero, George Genovese, telling me, you can play; don’t give up. You can play. Somebody is going to come to their senses.
And “somebody” did: the Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League. But not right away …
JH When Eugene was an independent team?
John They were becoming an independent team. I drove to spring training in Arizona. My buddy teammate, Doug Meyer, drove to Florida and we tried to walk on.
The highlight of the trip was talking to Ernie Banks in Mesa at Hi Corbett Field — asking him who do I see to get a tryout? But basically I got, you need to go home and talk to the area scout. We don’t sign released ballplayers. You need to go try out for an area scout.
And I said, the area scouts all told me I should come here! Get your story straight.
Anyway, it was fruitless, other than meeting Ernie Banks.
So I went home, and George shook his head once again. Then a few weeks later, he said, Barry Moss is gonna go up and try out for a — there’s a tryout up in Eugene, Oregon, for an independent team. You should talk to Barry. I called Barry, he got the information, found the ad in the back of The Sporting News, contacted the Ems, and Barry and I drove up.
I came to Oregon in 1960 when my grandfather died; my grandmother moved up here. And the minute I saw Oregon, I said, that’s where I want to live. So Barry and I drove up to Eugene; we decided to stay in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon, which is about 50 miles east and where my grandmother had a motel. So we basically commuted from Eugene during the tryout period.
And the tryout was about what you would imagine; they had people that came from all over the United States. There were high-school stars and guys who were just baseball fans, dreaming about being players. There were guys who had played before, like Barry and myself, who were looking for another chance. And Barry was one of the first guys Hugh Luby signed.
Again, I was playing really, really well, but I wasn’t getting signed. And then they signed the shortstop from the University of Oregon. He was this little squat guy; didn’t have speed, didn’t have an arm. He hit for power with an aluminum bat. But he was a college player at best. Nice guy, but they signed him to kind of create a familiarity with some of our roster with the people of Eugene.
And when they signed him, it was on the front page of the sports section in Eugene. Barry and I just looked at each other and went, what in the world? What do you have to do? And I said, I guess I gotta go talk to Hugh. So I went to Hugh Luby after the workout that day, and I think I had two hits. I think I had a triple to left-centerfield or something, and still wasn’t getting signed.
So I went into his office and I said, Hugh, what do I have to do to get signed? If you’re not going to sign me, there’s a couple of other independent teams, but the clock is ticking. I can’t wait any longer. I need to know, are you going to sign me now?
He said, we’re going to sign you. I signed [the shortstop for Oregon] as a favor. He’s really not a prospect. I just signed him because politically it’s the thing to do. I’m going to sign you. You’re going to be our shortstop.” I said, okay, thanks.
But then I walked out of his office going, why am I always the one that has to ask?
We were an independent team that was supplemented by working agreements. So the Phillies sent in half-a-dozen players, I think the Astros sent in one player, and I think Pittsburgh sent in one player. We were this ragtag team.
JH You were almost sort of a co-op team, then, in a way.
John We had some affiliated players, but we were kind of a ragtag bunch. We called ourselves The Derelicts.
One of the best experiences I had that season:
In Eugene, you stood at shortstop during the National Anthem, and just pristine blue skies, maybe a puffy cloud out there beyond Skinner’s Butte that was behind center field. Just greens like you can’t imagine. I mean, it rains in Oregon, but that’s why everything’s so darn green.
I’m swelling up with all this emotion going, I’m getting paid to play baseball, and I need to pinch myself just standing there.
And the next thing I smell is marijuana.
JH [laughs] Springtime!
John Springtime, University of Oregon. We had the basketball crowd. They had a little section behind third base where they’d sit. And I’m sitting there, and pot smoke is wafting across the field. [more laughter]
And I went, oh my God. I mean, they had a Grateful Dead tribute band on the 4th of July playing a concert. Okay, only in Eugene.
The underdog Emeralds eventually won the Pioneer League title in 1974, and John had high hopes going into the 1975 season. But things didn’t work out the way he planned.
John Started at shortstop for most of spring training. Played really well defensively. Hit a smidge. Got my first hitting lessons ever as a professional baseball player, from a guy familiar to you: Hal King. They sent me over to hit in the cages, and Hal King was in the next cage, and he started working with me, hitting. First time I’d ever had any hitting instruction.
Hal King is famous in Reds lore for a dramatic two-out walkoff pinch-hit home run he hit against the Dodgers in July 1973 when the Reds were far behind LA in the standings. It ignited the team and they stormed back to win the NL West.
John I’m a self-taught switch-hitter.
JH Boy, I’ll say!
John Stuck around with the AAA team in spring training, just about until the major-leaguers sent their final cuts down, and they sent Junior Kennedy and Doug Flynn down. Played one last spring-training game with the AAA team, went down to AA. Started the season in AA.
JH Three Rivers?
John Our infield during spring training was Tony Franklin at second, Ray Knight at third, me at short.
John And I knew I was in tall company, but I was holding my own. And in some ways there was — there was a lot of talk in the camp about me. So I kind of felt like I finally arrived.
Broke camp and flew up to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I think it was 95 in Florida, but got up to PIttsfield, it was snowing. I was wearing flip-flops, corduroys, and an Ocean Pacific collared T-shirt. No jacket, no nothing. And our bags were delayed.
We were snowed out or rained out for the first two weeks we were there, seems like. Then we finally started to play.
There were snowbanks on the side of the field. The sod that had been laid in the infield was still in strips. I played four games as the starting shortstop.
In one game, I was credited with four errors — two of which I made, one of which the first-baseman stretched the wrong way.
I got another one where the leadoff hitter for the West Haven Yankees was a guy named Dell Alston. Speed-burner; left-handed hitter. He hits a high chopper over the pitcher’s head. I go burning in, and it was one of those where I would have to catch it in my right hand and fire across my body to get him out. The last hop, just as I’m reaching for the ball, it bounces and goes six feet the other way into left field.
I couldn’t even change my momentum to reach for the ball. And my only guess is that Jim
Snyder saw that as lack of hustle or something, from his angle. This is just my impression. I turn around, and there’s an E flashing on the left-field scoreboard. I look at Dell Alston and he’s shaking his head like, how the hell? That’s a hit. I’m shaking my head going, I never had a chance on that ball. It bounced away from me. I never even got skin or leather on it. And something changed with Jim Snyder in that moment. Don’t know why, but I just got an eerie feeling.
We went back to Three Rivers, north of Montreal. Stayed in the dormitories for the upcoming 1976 Olympics until George McPherson and I finally found an apartment and roomed together.
I played two more games. One of them, I broke up a no-hitter. The other one, I drove in either the winning run or the tying run with a squeeze play.
Played okay. I think I was two-for-10.
JH Ah, 2-for-11, so they say here [Baseball-Reference].
John I wasn’t playing as well as I wanted to play, but I definitely didn’t feel like I was in over my head. I mean, nobody was knocking the bat out of my hands. I had a couple hits, I was putting the ball in play. And then I sit, and he starts playing Lynn Jones at shortstop; Lynn had never played shortstop before. And I think I sat four games or so; didn’t even get in as a defensive replacement, pinch runner, anything.
I was standing out in the outfield one day in the stadium in Three Rivers, and the new guy comes to the top of the stairs, and I see our player-coach Jim Driscoll kind of doing the long, slow walk in my direction. It’s like the scene in Bull Durham.
JH You’ve got the feeling they’re coming for you?
When I saw Bull Durham the first time, when the guy says, Skip needs to see you in the office, I said out loud, without thinking, don’t go!
I go in and Jim Snyder is sitting behind his desk in his office, and he said, we don’t think you’re a prospect.
And I said,
So spring training counts for nothing? Why are you giving up on me? Because of three games in the snow? I usually start slow, but when I come on, I’m gangbusters. I can contribute to this team. Don’t give up on me, Jim. What’s wrong? What happened? I was one of the stars of spring training, and now I’m getting sent down?
He goes, they’re expecting you tomorrow in Tampa — in St. Petersburg. And that’s all he would say to me. He wouldn’t give me any information.
I know that Greg holds Jim Snyder in high regard. I wish I did. But he gave up on me for some reason, and that, unfortunately, is my relationship with him.
JH You didn’t have any other inkling or indication, other than maybe that one play, that there was something that changed their minds?
John That’s what I went back to. That’s the eerie feeling I had. Like he thought I didn’t — I mean, if you ever saw me play, I busted it. I had to bust it; I was a little guy. I didn’t sprint to first base like Pete Rose, but I was at 75% going to first base. Not 100%. I busted it everywhere, cause I had to outwork people to be able to play. That’s how I got signed in the first place.
And I was tough, and I was rough. If I was on first base and there was a ground ball on the infield, somebody was going down. Wasn’t dirty, but that’s how I was taught to play.
And I was one of the guys that, the things that I would do wouldn’t show up necessarily in the scorebook.
The nightmare continued for John as he made his way to Florida.
John I had to do an O.J. Simpson thing [sprint through the terminal] to get on the airplane in Montreal. I arrived at the ballpark at four o’clock in the morning; was driven in a pickup truck by the groundskeeper for Three Rivers, who didn’t speak a word of English. He gets me to the Montreal airport minutes before my flight is taking off from Montreal to New York.
Got into Tampa-St. Pete about one in the morning. My luggage was destroyed. I had a trunk that had a lot of my stuff, and it was just torn open. So I had to file a claim. I got into the hotel/motel in Tampa at about two or three in the morning. Phone rings at six o’clock, 6:30 in the morning. And it was Mark Lucich and Barry Moss calling, telling me that they were coming to get me. We had a doubleheader, and I was starting at short.
I went in and met Ron Plaza at the complex in St. Petersburg: Ron, I am running on fumes right now. Can you let me wake up? I’ll play the second game.” He says, no, you’re playing both. Kind of, so shut up.
JH That sounds like Ron Plaza!
John So I sucked it up and played. We were in last place when I got there. We won the extended-spring-training league after I got there, and I was a key to it, because I played just lights-out defense. Rich Colzie — his brother, Neil Colzie, was a defensive back for the Raiders — was our right-fielder, and when a ground ball was hit to shortstop, Rich had this booming voice, and he would just yell automatic! cause he knew I was gonna make the play.
Tommy Watkins, who played with the Eugene Emeralds, was an outfielder. I taught him to play second base during extended spring training. He and I were the were the double- play combination. And then right before we broke, they signed a kid from Tampa named George Sucarici, who was a junior-college or high school – I think he was a high-school player, shortstop. And so Jim Lett or Jim Hoff moved me over to second base — and I bring that up for a reason.
I’m rooming with Barry Moss and Mark Lucich, who I knew from the year before. Kinda got my engines, my fuel cells refueled being in St. Petersburg. Was all gung-ho to go back up to Eugene and kick ass and take names. If you have to go down the wrong direction in the minor leagues, going back to a place like Eugene — what a nice place to land!
JH At least it wasn’t Three Rivers!
John So I basically toured the Reds organization, between spring training and June.
JH You covered a lot of ground.
John I did. And again, it was a mixed blessing at the time, because the way I was playing in extended spring training was like, this is how I played in spring training. I can play here; I can make a difference. I can win games with my skill set. I can contribute to a team. So I got my confidence back, and basically got my head out of my butt.
Brimming with confidence, John headed for Eugene to play for the now-Reds-affiliated Emeralds. But it wasn’t long before fate had another cruel twist in store for him.
John Went to Eugene and we started slowly; I think we were playing roughly .500 ball the first 20 or so games. I was hitting; I was crushing the ball. I was hitting the ball at people a lot, but I was crushing. And I was also playing second base, picking. Billy Bird and I were a really good double-play combination. It really felt good. Greg seemed to know where to put me in the batting order.
I batted as high — and I mean by high, I mean in an RBI power position — he batted me sixth at one point, in the best offensive game I ever had in my career. I got four hits and drove in four runs. I was batting sixth. I actually tried to hit a home run with the bases loaded, and hit it off the top of the fence in center field in Boise, Idaho.
So it was like, bring it! Anybody who ever doubted that I can hit, this is me now. And I had a series with Boise where I was four-for-six, two-for-three, one-for-two, and something else.
And then I got taken out on a double play, where it was a ground ball to the shortstop; Bill Bird flipped the ball to me and I took it and stepped toward left field, so I threw the ball from behind the bag. And the first-baseman for Boise came in, spikes high, came over the bag, and got me in the right knee with his heel spike going full speed.
Got carried off the field, taken to the emergency room. The bus had to wait for me, because I was in the emergency room for so long. I had a severe knee bruise, just missed cutting the knee ligament with that spike wound — real deep spike wound. So I was out for six weeks.
So the whole time — and this will be a character thing about Greg that I guess I’m leading to — the whole time, every Friday would seem to be the day that people got let go or brought up or whatever. Every Friday, I was looking over my shoulder, looking to see who was coming out of the dugout. I worked with the trainer as quickly and as often as I could to rehab my knee, and my knee just was not responding. So I was out for six weeks — half the season.
I would have to guess that Greg protected me. I don’t know that; I feel like he did. So for that, I’m forever in his debt.
When I came back, I played intermittently. I didn’t get my job handed back to me when I came back. I was Wally Pipp. Because while I was out, Tommy Watkins went crazy, and was the All-Star second-baseman in the league.
I love Tommy, but I think if Tommy — if I hadn’t gotten hurt, Tommy would’ve been the All-Star left-fielder or All-Star third-baseman in the league. I think I would’ve been the All-Star second-baseman in the league.
Came back, contributed. We went nuts and just smoked the league for the rest of the year. We went and played a series back in Boise, and in a rundown down the third-base line, Barry got tagged and popped something in his knee; blew out his knee. I was just about ready to come back and play at that point. And so Greg inserted me at third base, replacing Barry.
The Emeralds won the Pioneer League championship again, and John played a crucial role in the championship series.
John So when we went and played Portland with Jim Bouton in the playoffs, I was the third baseman and — remember the World Series that Brooks Robinson had for the Orioles [1970, against the Reds]?
JH That was you against Portland?
John I had a series like that, at third base against Portland. Portland had a guy named Reggie Thomas, who I think stole 78 bases in a 72-game season. I mean, he was a criminal basically, but he was — he had major-league talent and a minor-league head.
I studied my opponents. I studied the game. I knew that Reggie Thomas wore rubber spikes, and when he didn’t slide feet-first, slid headfirst. So twice during that season or during the playoff series, I laid my leg down in front of the bag and tagged him out trying to steal. Those were like the only times he was caught stealing.
The second time, he went nuts on the umpire. I blocked the bag, so he was never even close to the bag. He went nuts. Then he said something to the umpire, which should’ve gotten him kicked; the umpire didn’t throw him out.
And I said something to Reggie Thomas, which I can’t remember. It was something basic like, you are out, meat! or something like that. And he turned and dropped the F-bomb on me, and they threw him out of the game.
So I think not only did I get him with my leg, I also got him with my mind.
We won the championship. We swept them, two games to nothing. People in Eugene went nuts again. The brass was all out there. I’m sitting in front of my locker, somebody comes up, taps me on the shoulder, says, they want to see you in Greg’s office. And there’s – I couldn’t be — !
JH Not now!
John [laughs] Not now! I go in and Bob Howsam, Chief Bender, Ron Plaza, Greg, and Joe Verbanic are in there. And I think Bob Howsam said to me — maybe it was Chief Bender, I can’t remember which — said, Greg says that you’re worried about your future.
And I said, well, I’m 22. This is half-season single-A. I’ve been injured, and you have no investment in me. Given my experience, I’m concerned.
And he said, John, we are very, very pleased with your play. We’re also very pleased that you worked really hard to come back. You have a future in our organization.
Well, I wanted to manage; I wanted to coach; I wanted to do all that stuff. I walked out of that office — I think I floated out of the office — going, Okay. Finally.
I think this is a play that characterizes who I was as a player. It took place before I got hurt with the Emeralds:
I was playing second base. We were playing Seattle, which was now an independent team. Greg had managed Seattle the year before. That’s where the Reds had been the year before. Seattle had a good team.
They were threatening; it was a close game. Their third hitter was up. I can’t remember his name, but he was a left-handed hitter, real fast runner. Runners on first and second, one out.
And he hits a high chopper to Bill Bird at short. So I go tearing over to second. The Reds schooled you: make sure of one, make sure of one. So I knew at the very least, we’re going to get a force. In my mind, the way my mind works, I’m going, there’s no way we’re going to get him — on the pace of that ball he hit, there’s no way we’re going to get him at first. Barry Moss was playing third base, so I just shouted, Barry! Barry takes two steps toward third base. I just came across second base and threw the ball to third.
The runner rounded third to look at first base to see what the play was at first. Barry tagged him out: 6-4-5. Double play.
That’s who I was as a player.
John Again, Howsam was there; it was earlier in the season. Got called into Greg’s office and he said, I’ll be goddamned, I’ve never seen anything on that before. Where in the world did you come up with that? And I explained to him:
Fast runner, slow ground ball, no way we’re going to get — my best shot was if that guy at third base rounded third base aggressively. So I hollered at Barry, knowing he was paying attention. He took a step over there. I gave him the ball that way. That’s history.
He says, I’ll be damned. Keep it up.
John was rightfully motivated for a good offseason program. But from the get-go, spring training in 1976 was a downer for him:
John Went home, worked out, Gained weight for the first time in my life. Reported to spring training, just shy of 160 pounds. The biggest I’d ever been in my life. Felt like a golden god. Larry Barton and Larry Barton Sr. had come out to see me just before I went down to Tampa for spring training. And George Genovese later told me that Larry Barton told George that he’d written the best scouting report he’d ever written on me, based on what he’d seen me doing in that game.
So I go down to Tampa, fly in, go over to the complex, and they had a bulletin board in kind of the center patio area, with a typewritten list of rosters — where to report.
So I started [looking] at Indianapolis, cause I’d been there last year, and I didn’t see my name. I saw some familiar names, but not my own. Maybe I’m back with Three Rivers; I’m not there. I see that they’ve taken some of the guys from Rookie League: Ron Oester and Dean Grauman and another guy, and they’re bumped up, and a lot of the Ems guys are with them. I go, so probably Tampa, then. Go to Tampa, I’m not there, although I see that the manager for Tampa is Ron Brand. Okay. Well, he’s seen me play, he’s seen me back up Robin Yount.
I’m not on a roster.
So I trot over to Sal Artiaga’s office and I go, Sal, there’s some kind of mistake. I’m not on any roster. Where, who do I report to? And he looks at his list, and he goes, Oh. Hmm. Just go to Tampa. That’ll be okay.
JH Oh, geez!
John And I kind of went, whaaaat?
So I go to Tampa, and Ron Brand is the new manager. He’s just come in from the Pirates, I think, maybe Astros, and he’s brought two infielders — two middle infielders — into camp with him.
All my teammates with the Ems are up with the AA team, and I’m just having this kind of surreal experience, where the Reds are about uniform: everybody does everything the same way. Everybody — you practice the same cutoffs, you run the same plays. Everything is the same except for the signs, with the idea being that we can plug you into any team at any time during the season, and you fit right in — kind of the Ford Motor, Henry Ford idea, which I thought was brilliant. An actual organization.
Whereas when I was with the Giants, single-A guys weren’t supposed to talk to the AA guys, who weren’t supposed to the AAA guys. And the major-league team wasn’t even in Casa Grande; they were in Phoenix.
So I had a two-week vacation during spring training. I played well, but I played for a manager who didn’t do things the Reds way, told us to do things — right in front of Ron Plaza — that we knew we weren’t supposed to do. Inserted himself into games, and then calls me over after one spring-training game and says, you’re not a prospect. We’re releasing you.
And I went off on him. Not proud of it, but –
JH Well, I can understand, though.
John I don’t like eating shit sandwiches.
JH And it’s not because you don’t like bread.
John Exactly. The timing of it was unfortunate, because I think my teammates were all playing. I was rooming with Mark Lucich in spring training. I think they were all in Clearwater or something, playing a game. So I came back to my room, packed up my stuff. Mark came home and he says, what’s going on? I said, I got released, and I was gone. I was on an airplane the next morning.
So until I went back to the first reunion, that was the last time I saw these guys — that you saw how we are; we are literally a band of brothers. So I was sort of excised during the Ron Brand time from that; I was sort of cut out.
I went back and played one more year after that. That’s the one that they don’t have in the Baseball Reference. It’s almost like that John Harrison is a different person.
JH So you did play in 1976?
JH [sarcastically] I can’t understand that! Wow! [laughs]
John I’m not going to play on a high-school field, with a high-school coach, and call it pro baseball. Nothing in this league is what was promised. I’m going home and get married and start a real life.
So I requested my release, and flew back home and kind of said, well, I guess it was fun while it lasted. Although I did have one other tryout. Harley Anderson from Texas called me, and he had been watching me for a few years, and they had an opening. Somebody got hurt, and he had remembered me, and had continued to watch me.
He called me up, and it was just supposed to be a cursory workout. And so I went to play with George Genovese’s team down in Long Beach. And during warmups, I threw a ball and my shoulder popped, and my shoulder went dead. It’s the only time my Dad ever filmed me playing. And I had an arm where I could almost knock somebody over, and I could barely throw the ball from second base to first base. That’s the only film I have with myself is this wounded-duck throw from second base to first base during infield practice.
Anyway, they kind of went, well, uh, ahem, there’s some other guy in some other place that, ahem, I think we’re going to sign instead. And I kind of said maybe that’s just a sign.
JH So was that a rotator cuff?
John No, I just pinched something. I went to the doctor, he said, get a couple big cans of Campbell’s soup and do arm circles. My arm was fine. A week later I called Harold Anderson and said, hey, don’t know what happened. My arm just went dead. I’m fine now. He says, we filled the position. Sorry. So I said, well, I guess that’s a sign.
So I went to work, and basically lost interest in baseball for about three years. Watched a few games, and watched guys that I’d played with during the winter. The guy I always point out is Derrel Thomas, cause people tend to know who he was. He was a Dodger super-utility player at the time.
JH One of the skinniest people who ever played baseball.
John A fine player, no qualms about that. But I played against him for three or four years, and I could play circles around him.
And he was a millionaire and a star and blah, blah, blah. And I was, I couldn’t get arrested, so …
I was bitter when my career ended. Because I felt all I lacked, you can look at my stats: I played five years, I played over five years, and I have cumulatively one full season’s worth of statistics. I was a centerfielder who learned how to play infield — second base, third base, shortstop — at the pro level.
And the one major complaint that I have is other than the Reds, I received virtually no instruction on how to do anything in baseball — other than when I was with the Reds.
JH Was that typical for guys in the low minors, or was that another function of “they don’t have an investment in you, so they’re not really gonna do much for you?”
John I think it was more that low minors — although I certainly didn’t see in spring training, either – there was a manager and maybe a coach or a trainer. And then the roving instructors. But — I take that back. I just had a flash. I did get one batting lesson from Hank Sauer when I was with the Giants and he tried to teach me to hit like Hank Sauer.
I couldn’t have been a home-run hitter if I started at second base.
I was a line-drive hitter. I was not a — all the stuff about launch angle, now? My response is, launch this!
JH [laughs] You know, that’s the best line I’ve heard about launch angle.
John I hit a ball over the fence at Walla Walla. They were the Padres. They had the best pitching in the league. The first year, when I was with the independent Ems, I hit a ball off one of the best left-handed pitchers in the league. I hit it over left field and went over a tree that was beyond the left-field fence. It went foul in the last 10 feet before the foul pole. I was rounding second base when I watched it go foul. [laughs]
But I had big smile on my face all the way back to the batter’s box. Cause it was like, okay, I hit it over the fence. And what did I get for it? Strike two.
JH That bunt hit would look pretty good, compared to that foul ball.
John Just saying.
Anyway, so my last year was Victoria Cowboys, and it was a bust. And so that was kinda all she wrote. It was professional baseball in name only. I’m just like, I’ve stood next to Pete Rose in spring training; I’m not going to go to Beeville, Texas to play on a high-school field.
Next: A second career as an educator.