Paul F. "Knobby" Harris Sr., lawyer who wrote book about Babe Ruth, dies

His efforts resulted in headstone finally being placed on the unmarked grave of famed slugger's mother

  • Paul Francis Harris Sr.
Paul Francis Harris Sr.
March 22, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Paul Francis "Knobby" Harris Sr., a retired lawyer, former professional baseball player and author who wrote about the life of Babe Ruth, died Friday of cancer and heart disease at his Catonsville home. He was 85.

Born and raised in West Baltimore, Mr. Harris graduated from St. Edward Parochial School and from Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington in 1943.

He had picked up the nickname of "Knobby" from his father, after arriving home one day with a bump on his head from a fall.

His father, Owen Harris, who had been a Mount St. Joe student and champion athlete in his own right, was first baseman on the famed 1915 baseball team when it had earned the title of College Champion of the East.

During his years at the Irvington school, the younger Mr. Harris played baseball, football and ice hockey, and played on the championship baseball and ice hockey teams in 1943.

He returned to Mount St. Joe in 1951 when he coached the team to an MSA championship and was named Sunpapers MSA Coach of the Year. He also was assistant baseball coach for four years at the school.

Mr. Harris was inducted into the Mount St. Joseph High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

After graduating from Mount St. Joe, he earned a bachelor's degree from Loyola College in 1947, where he played baseball. The catcher was also a noted hitter and team captain.

He was signed by the Orioles as a $300-a-month pitcher, leaving after a month to attend law school at the University of Baltimore, where he earned his law degree in 1948.

After passing the Maryland Bar, he began the practice of law with State Farm Insurance and later became a partner in the Glen Burnie law firm of Klima, May and Harris.

In 1975, he later established Harris & Harris, a general law practice in Glen Burnie, with his son, Paul Francis Harris Jr. of Pasadena, who has been a Circuit Court judge for Anne Arundel County since 2004.

Mr. Harris, who was a member of the Maryland and Anne Arundel County Bar Associations, continued performing some estate work from his Edmondson Avenue home until retiring two years ago.

Mr. Harris never lost his enthusiasm for baseball. After law school, he played semi-professional baseball with area teams and served as president of the Edmondson Little League and Westview Swim Club.

His father had played sandlot baseball with and against Babe Ruth, and they also shared the same baseball coach, Father Gilbert, who had coached Babe Ruth at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys.

During the 1980s, Mr. Harris began researching the life of George Herman "Babe" Ruth, and his book, "Babe Ruth: The Dark Side," was finally published in 1995.

"I've known Paul over the years, and I thought it was a very good project and I admired his advocacy of the Babe Ruth story," said Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

"Paul's research focused on Ruth's time in Baltimore and the full breadth and scope of who he was. He uncovered many documents which were brought to light for the first time relating to Ruth and his parents," he said. "And we intend to continue making Paul's book available at the museum to the public."

In his book, Mr. Harris traces Babe Ruth's ancestry, his birth in 1895 and the death of his mother, Catherine Schamberger "Katie" Ruth, in 1912.

Ruth was a disruptive child whose father showed little interest in his son, wrote Mr. Harris.

"His father, tired of his antics, dropped the Babe off at St. Mary's Industrial School on June 13, 1902. While at St. Mary's, Babe would attend Mass and do all the things a good Catholic boy should do. He had no choice, for he was now being directed and trained by the Xaverian Brothers," he wrote.

Mr. Harris included in his book previously unseen documents such as two baptismal documents that corrected the long-held notion that he had converted to Catholicism. Ruth was 3 weeks old when he was baptized at St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church at Poppleton and Hollins streets, and was baptized a second time in 1906 at St. Mary's.

He chronicled Babe's first marriage to Helen Woodford, a young Texas waitress, at St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City in 1914. They separated in 1923, and she died in a 1929 house fire in Watertown, Mass., a suburb of Boston.

Mr. Harris discovered in the course of his research that Babe Ruth's mother's grave, Lot No. 126, Section G, in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery on Belair Road, had never been marked with a tombstone.

"It preyed on me. Every time I thought about her being buried over there, it just hurt me. I woke up one night, and it just hit me: No one has visited her grave since 1912. Not a single soul. No one even knows she's there," Mr. Harris told The Baltimore Sun in 2008. "It's the saddest thing I can imagine."

In 2008, Mr. Harris contacted Mr. Gibbons, whose museum contributed $1,200 toward the headstone that was installed later that year.

"We thought it was a wonderful thing," Mr. Gibbons said.

A devout Roman Catholic, Mr. Harris was a member of the Knights of Columbus, Patapsco Council, and traveled to Rome, where he shook hands with Pope John Paul II in 1979.

His wife of 60 years, the former Doris Frances Colson, died in 2005.

He was a communicant of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, Route 40 at St. Agnes Lane, where a memorial Mass will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

In addition to his son, survivors include another son, Martin C. Harris of Catonsville; a daughter, Carol Harris Byroade of Catonsville; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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