1942 Watertown graduate and Golden Gophers all-time great Harry Elliott had some prodigious minor league seasons, but missed his window of opportunity for a significant major league career, not signing his first professional contract until he was almost 27—after a brief stint as a touring jazz pianist, service in the Navy Air Corps, and attending the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill. The stocky 5-foot-7, 175-pound Elliott possessed a quick bat, deceptive power to all fields, and a fiery competitive disposition. After getting a cup of coffee in 1953, he spent the entire 1955 season in the major leagues, but his best years were already behind him.
Harry Lewis Elliott was born in San Francisco on December 30, 1923. His parents divorced when he was about two. His mother, Stella, married George Metcalf, and the couple moved to Winsted, MN sometime after 1935, when Harry was about 11 or 12. Harry attended 9th and 10th grades at Lester Prairie, and 11th and 12th at Watertown.1
He began playing piano professionally at the age of 15—the height of the “Big Band” era—and continued playing that style of music into his 70s. While in high school, he formed a band called the “Royal Windjammers” with two other students and a teacher.
Elliott lettered in football, basketball, and baseball both of his years at Watertown High School. He played on the local townball team in 1941. He played just five games the summer after graduation (1942) before answering an ad in Downbeat magazine and joining up with a travelling jazz band in North Carolina.
After the band dissolved, Elliott hitchhiked across the country and lived for awhile with his grandmother in San Francisco. It was there that he joined the Navy Air Corps. He piloted F-6 Hellcats but was not deployed overseas during World War II. After receiving his discharge from Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago, Elliott moved back to Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill from 1945 to 1949. He earned a degree in education, and three varsity letters in both baseball and football (he was a backup fullback and regular punter under legendary coach Bernie Bierman). In 1949 he became the first Gophers baseball player to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors.
Who else played football and baseball at the University of Minnesota from 1946 to 1949? Bud Grant, who was also a star basketball player.
Elliott played townball during his college years. He played for multiple teams in 1947, often hired to pitch or catch in exhibition games. While playing for Anoka in the summer of 1947, he had a two-home run game against Gophers football and wrestling star Verne Gagne (the Chicago Bears selected Gagne in the 1947 draft, but owner George Halas insisted that Gagne choose either football or wrestling. He chose wrestling, and the rest is history).
Elliott played for his hometown Watertown team in 1948, hitting around .500, and doing some pitching. According to Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek’s great book, Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball, Elliott hit two home runs and was the winning pitcher in a 10-8 win over Crow River Valley League powerhouse Lester Prairie, ending their 11-game winning streak.
Atwater decided to move up to Class AA—the state’s highest amateur classification—for the 1949 season. To support that effort, local businessmen and baseball boosters began raising money, even setting coffee cans around town for donations. One of their first major moves was to hire Elliott, who graduated from the U of M that Spring.
Atwater didn’t thrive in the higher division, but Elliott brought a lot of excitement to town with his “power and fiery competitive disposition.” “He was a good guy who gave it his all every game,” former teammate and baseball board member Gordy Johnson is quoted as saying in Peterson and Tomashek’s Town Ball. “Everyone in town knew who he was. They talked about him for years . . . they called the season ‘The Elliott Year.’ It was like having Babe Ruth in Atwater.”2
“I guess you could say he had a pretty good opinion of himself, and he could be bull-headed,” 1949 Atwater teammate Jim Hansan is quoted as saying in Town Ball. “But he never gave less than one hundred percent, and I admired him for that,”3 a sentiment echoed in Bill Swank’s book Echoes from Lane Field: A History of the San Diego Padres, 1936–1957.
One of the highlights of the season came versus local rival Willmar, when Elliott hit two home runs and a triple in a 9-5 Atwater win. Elliott was drafted by league champion Benson to catch in the State Tournament, where he hit a tournament-record three home runs in an 11-3 win over New Ulm (Benson lost their next two games to Cannon Falls and Fergus Falls. Austin won the championship. Benson did win the state tournament in 1954).4
Elliott took a teaching job at Austin High School that fall, where he also served as an assistant football coach. He played for the Austin Packers in the Southern Minny the following summer, hitting .390—second in the league behind teammate Red Lindgren.5 That Austin team—which featured pro pitcher Roman Bartkowski and Purdue slugger Bill “Moose” Skowron, who signed a $30,000 contract with the Yankees toward the end of the season—rolled into the 1950 State Tournament as prohibitive favorites. According to Peterson and Tomashek, some consider that team the best in tournament history. Unfortunately, they were upset by Litchfield 3-2 in the second round (reminiscent of the Elk River hockey team in the 2000 state high school tournament). Austin roared back through the losers bracket, playing FIVE games in the final two days, but ultimately took runner-up to Fergus Falls.
Austin, who were the state champions in 1949, took runners-up again in 1951, and regained the championship in 1953.
Inspired by the lucrative contract given to his teammate Skowron—who he felt he had outperformed—Elliott sought his own professional opportunity. He signed his first contract a month shy of his 27th birthday, and played for Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone winter league.
In 1951 he played for the Alexandria (Louisiana) Aces of the Class C Evangeline League, and was named rookie of the year after hitting a league-leading .391 with 23 home runs and 150 RBI.
He hit .321 with Shreveport in 1952, leading the Class AA Texas League with 204 hits over a robust 164-game season.
He shined with the Class AA Houston Buffs in 1953, where one fan remembers him as an “animated and spirited figure, moving productively in the foreground of the otherwise mostly gray and hapless 1953 Buffs.”6 He was called up to the St. Louis Cardinals to spell a weary Enos Slaughter, making his major league debut on August 1 at age 29, becoming just the third Golden Gopher to play in the majors, and the first since 1913.
He faced St. Paul Humboldt High School graduate Fred Baczewski, pitching for the Reds, on August 22, going 0-for-2 with a hit-by-pitch and two groundouts (including a double play). 1946 Sauk Rapids-Rice graduate Rip Repulski, batting leadoff, went 1-for-3 with a walk (Repulski went 5-for-17 (.294) with three doubles overall in major league meetings with Baczewski). Hall of Famer Stan Musial went 2-for-2 with two walks, a home run, three RBI, and two runs scored in the game.
Following the season Elliott and Skowron rejoined the Austin Packers to beat a troupe of barnstorming major leaguers in Rochester on October 11. 7
He had perhaps his best professional season in 1954 with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres, hitting a league-leading .351 with 15 home runs and 115 RBI.
He made the Cardinals out of spring training in 1955, getting into 68 games over the course of the season (only 22 starts). Like many young men who served during World War II, Elliott missed his window of opportunity for a significant major league career. As Cardinals farm director Walter Shannon told Minneapolis Tribune columnist Sid Hartman in August 1955, “Elliott is a great Triple-A player, but he’s getting old and we’re building with youth.”8
Elliott and fellow Minnesota prep and collegiate star Rip Repulski appeared together on the March 5, 1956 cover of Sports Illustrated. Elliott did not make the team, however, but was instead back in San Diego, where his average slipped to .291. The bounced around for the next two years, and retired following the 1958 season.
Elliott settled down in El Cajon, CA with his wife and seven children. He taught physical education and coached baseball, football, basketball, and soccer over a 27-year career at El Cajon Valley High School.
He spent 30 years of retirement based in Yuma, AZ, and travelling in his motorhome to see family and friends. He spent his final days near family in Kansas, and passed away at Sandstone Heights Nursing Home in Little River, KS on August 9, 2013 at age 89.9
Further Reading: Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball (2006), by Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek (particularly pages 253–256).
- Some of the information in this article was shared with me by Armand Peterson via email in November 2018. Peterson had interviewed Elliott by phone in 2008
- Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek, Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 254.
- Town Ball, p. 254
- Town Ball, p. 254
- Town Ball, p. 255
- Town Ball, pp. 85-86
- Town Ball, p. 255
- Obituary: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.obituaries/62RvjdR5CtA