When Jackie Robinson made his debut in Major League Baseball in 1947, there was a fourteen-year-old girl in Arizona who had recently begun her own athletic career. While Robinson paved the way for black athletes in baseball, this young woman quietly did the same for any number of athletes in the sport of softball.
Chances are, you may not have heard of Billie Harris. You’ve never seen her play on television, and you won’t find her name in the NCAA record books. Her contribution to the game of softball and to the cause of black female athletes, however, is indelibly marked forever.
Born in 1933, Billie Harris grew up in Texas, spending thirteen years in the Lone Star State before moving to Tucson, Arizona. Since that time, she has lived almost exclusively in the state of Arizona, with a few years in Washington state as the lone exception.
One of five children, Billie was the only girl in the Harris family and the second-youngest in birth order. Describing herself as “very much” a tomboyish youngster, Harris chuckled as she recalled hours that she and her brothers would spend climbing willow trees near their home. “The boys would always go out on the end of the limbs and hang on and bounce up and down. But when I tried it, I got stuck up there,” she said. “I wasn’t heavy enough and my weight couldn’t get the limb far enough down. One of my brothers would have to come out and push on the limb to get it close enough so I could just drop down. But I still did it.”
After moving to Tucson, Ms. Harris saw a magazine that promoted and advertised the Arizona Ramblers and the A-1 Queens, well-known women’s softball teams of that day. “I’ve been throwing the ball around a bit, and I kinda like that,” Harris recalls thinking at the time. Playing and practicing ball became a part of her daily schedule, as often as she could recruit a friend to be her catcher.
Later, “somebody saw me practicing on the side of the road and asked if I wanted to try out for a team called the Sunshine Girls,” Harris remembers. “I said ‘yes’ and I did and I got a spot on the ball team.”
Good left-handed pitchers are hard to come by, and that’s exactly the pedigree that Harris brought to the table as a young teenager. In fact, she was not even allowed to play for her high school team; the reason given as to why? She threw the ball too hard.
After joining the Sunshine Girls, Harris played continuously with the club until she was seen at a state tournament by the very Arizona Ramblers club that had sparked her initial interest in playing the game of softball competitively. When she joined the Ramblers in 1950, she worked her way up on the club’s farm team and ultimately spent fifteen years in a Ramblers uniform.
After her tenure with the Ramblers – and already nearing the end of the second decade of her softball-playing career – Harris moved to Washington State to join the Yakima Washington Webbcats. She spent four years in the Pacific Northwest, working 10-hour days and playing ball just as often.
“I worked on a logging crew,” Harris said. “They asked if we wanted to work inside or outside, and I said outside. So every morning, I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning, get to work, work ten hours, then we’d come back and practice until 10:00 that night. We’d go home, fix some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, take a shower, go to bed, then get up and do it again.”
Female athletes in the ’50s and ’60s were at a significant disadvantage in their own right, but a black female athlete was nearly unheard of. As her playing career continued, Harris was met with more than her share of prejudices. As she looked back in that light, however, there was a different aspect that stood out.
“”Things were actually really fun to me, because I was fairly well-protected as far as a team was concerned,” Harris said. “I remember once that some fans were calling me names and such, and some of the players like Carol Spanks chased them out of the ballpark! My teammates all got used to me, and most of the time, I was well-taken care of and if we went to a restaurant that wouldn’t serve me, the whole team would leave.”
During a period of time when race relations were at an all-time pinnacle, Harris kept right on doing what she was doing, with a learned approach to the prejudice that she knew she would face at times. “My mother had always taught me to just try not to worry about things like that, but inside, it kind of bothered me that that would happen,” Harris said, speaking of similar instances when she was the only member not to be served a meal simply because of her race. “As I grew older, there are probably times where I wished that I could whip somebody, but I wasn’t that big, so I couldn’t do that either. It made me proud to see my teammates and others stand up to that kind of thing, though.”
Even now, at age eighty-seven – a number that she speaks with pride – Ms. Harris can recall a number of her career highlights. The 27-inning game where she threw every pitch for her team in a 1-0 victory is a favorite. As she began to recall the game itself, she even described certain situations from the hard-fought matchup.
Monikering herself as a ‘spot pitcher,’ Harris’ repertoire of pitches was a simple, yet effective one. “I threw speed, a change-up, and a natural left-handed breaking ball,” she noted. “That was it. Being a spot pitcher, I could hit almost any target. Don’t get me wrong, they hit the ball sometimes, but I could still hit the target.”
For an incredible woman who paved the way for so many players that would follow in her footsteps, Harris also marked another achievement with her 74th birthday in 2007: Retirement.
No, not from her ‘day job’; this was her retirement as a softball player. Indeed, Billie Harris’ remarkable playing career spanned six decades, an achievement virtually unheard of at any level of sports at any time. Even at age 74, she retired only because her team at the time said they didn’t have a place for her. “They told me I wasn’t good enough anymore,” she recounts. “But I’m going to tell you, I could still run and bend just as good as anybody.”
Since her retirement as a player, Ms. Harris still catches up on the game of softball when she can. She watches Arizona and Arizona State sometimes, and for several years, was an annual attendee at the Women’s College World Series. Enshrined in the ASA Hall of Fame in 1982, visiting the Hall was always part of her routine while in Oklahoma City.
In 2016, the Arizona Diamondbacks honored Ms. Harris and her longtime teammate and friend Dot Wilkinson by inviting the pair to throw out ceremonial first pitches before a game against the San Francisco Giants. As the two women walked onto the field, side-by-side, the team’s public address announcer aptly summed up the moment.
“They are softball royalty, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. And indeed they are.