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Houston Astros History: That Day Chuck Harrison was a Hero

A long time ago, in a place not too far from Minute Maid Park, Chuck Harrison walked off the Cincinnati Reds.

Portrait of Chuck Harrison
Chuck Harrison

Way back in 1965, the then-recently renamed Houston Astros sat at 62-92, well outside of any postseason consideration.

The Astros, actually already in their fourth season, would remain clear of any sort of postseason action for another 15 years. In the meantime, any glory enjoyed by the team was on a game-by-game basis, with opportunities for individuals to make their mark.

One such hopeful was Chuck Harrison, who turns 82-years-old today. He made his professional debut between the single-A Durham Bulls and the double-A San Antonio Bullets in 1963, then spent 1964 between the Bullets and the triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers. In 1965, he played in 143 games for the 89ers before getting the call on September 15.

Harrison’s ninth appearance, on September 26, would see him start at first base opposite the 88-66 Cincinnati Reds. Despite their solid W-L record, Cincinnati finished the season fourth in the 10-team National League. Believe it or not, there was a time not so very long ago when only the top team from each circuit received a ticket to the dance. There was the regular season, then the World Series. Can you imagine? It was only in 1969 when an additional round was added, the respective League Championship Series.

Harrison had gone just three-for-19 through his first eight major league games, with a double, an RBI, four walks, and six strikeouts. Batting cleanup on this late-September day, he came up in the first inning. With runners on first and second with only one out, he struck out looking. With two outs in the third and still no score, he drew a walk, only to be stranded by a Bob Aspromonte pop fly out.

The fifth inning would see the Astros leading 1-0. Harrison led off the frame by grounding out to Reds third baseman Deron Johnson, a grinder who eventually appeared in 1,765 games over 16 major league seasons between eight major league teams.

In the seventh, with two outs and nobody on and trailing 2-1, Harrison was caught looking for the second time in the game by Reds starter Joe Nuxhall. Nuxhall eventually played 16 seasons as well, going 135-117 with a 3.90 ERA, but he’s perhaps more famous for being the youngest-ever major leaguer. He made his debut on June 10, 1944 with the Reds aged 15 years and 316 days old. Academically, Nuxhall did get totally rocked in that debut game, walking five and allowing five runs on two hits over 23 of an inning. The Reds lost, 18-0. It would be eight years before he appeared in his second game.

Back to the story at hand, Cincinnati managed to take that 2-1 lead into the ninth inning. Billy McCool came in to relieve and maybe earn a save. Saves had been recognized as a statistic since 1959, but MLB didn’t actually adopt and track it until 1969. Still, you have to think that McCool thought it was money in the bank.

Joe Morgan opened the frame by singling, but was erased on a fielders choice one batter later when Lee Maye grounded to defensive replacement first baseman Tony Pérez. Pérez elected to get the lead runner, wiping Morgan out with a flip to Reds shortstop Leo Cardenas. With one out and one on, Jim Wynn drew a walk, setting the table for an unlikely hero.

During the course of the game, Harrison’s slashline had dropped from .158/.304/.211 to .136/.296/.181. You have to think that his extended audition was maybe coming to a premature end. Instead of striking out for the third time in the game, He hit a walkoff game-winning home run, the first jack of his major league career. Houston walked the Reds right out of the Astrodome with a 4-2 win in the final plate appearance of the day.

Houston finished the season 65-97, but more importantly, at least for Harrison, is that he had bought more time in the majors. In 1966 and 1967, he appeared in 189 games for the Astros, slashing .248/.310/.370 with 12 home runs and 87 RBI. He later played in 124 games for the Kansas City Royals in 1969 and 1971. Thanks for reading.