Joe Harris was born in Coulter, Pennsylvania, in the southwest part of the state about 10 miles up the Youghiogheny River from McKeesport, on May 20, 1891. He was the 10th of 11 children of Joseph and Annie Harris. The Harris family was living in South Versailles township, in Allegheny County, in 1900 and Joe the elder worked as a coal miner. 

The New York Yankees signed Harris for a trial and gave him a look in 1914. He got his first taste of the majors, debuting for manager Frank Chance and the Yankees in two June games in 1914.

Harris was sent down to the Bay City Beavers and played out the season, mostly at first base but with 24 games in the outfield. He collected 197 base hits, batting .386, leading the Class C league in both categories and helping Bay City place first in the 10-team league standings. He stole 42 bases, showing he had some real speed, also evidenced by his league-leading 22 triples.

Harris was drafted by the Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League, Class A) and played first base exclusively in 1915, batting a disappointing .258 in 155 games. He repeated with the Lookouts in 1916, upping his average to .309. This secured him a job with the Cleveland Indians for 1917. Harris earned his keep, batting .305 and, despite getting into only three-quarters of the games, finished second on the team with 65 RBIs, 

Then came the World War. On August 15th Harris was examined by the draft board in Cleveland and accepted for service in the Army. He played out the season but in February 1918 reported to Camp Lee in Virginia and by June he was in France as a private with the 320th Infantry of the 80th Division. By November he had earned a promotion to sergeant. He’d seen combat. 

With the war over, Harris was eager to get back to baseball, but it took a while to get mustered out. He was still in Europe when an auto ambulance overturned as it took him and seven other soldiers to board a train for an embarkation camp so they could head back home. Harris was the most seriously injured, knocked unconscious with a laceration near his eye. He was confined to a military hospital in Tonnere, France, for a full month. He had suffered a skull fracture, three broken ribs, and severe bruises on his legs. Harris returned to the United States on May 24, to a military hospital in New York.

For the Indians, Harris played exceptionally well for someone who had been out of the game for well over a year and a half. He played in 62 games and hit for a .375 average, with 46 runs batted in, a pace of 115 for a full season.  

Harris seemed perhaps poised for greatness, but come wintertime he was dissatisfied with the $5,000 contract he was offered and decided to hold out for a better one. Shortly after the 1919 American League season, Harris had played a few games with the Franklin, Pennsylvania independent team. The Franklin ball club matched the Indians offer and set him up in business, too.

Harris wanted to re-join Cleveland in 1921,but the team still wasn’t offering to go above $5,000, and Joe’s application for reinstatement was either denied or not acted upon, so he played for Franklin again, batting for a .407 average but the team folded in July and Harris finished the season with other teams outside Organized Baseball, at Clearfield and Hornell. 

That autumn, Harris again applied to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for reinstatement. As he awaited the commissioner’s ruling, Harris was traded on December 20th to the last-place Boston Red Sox. The trade was conditional on Harris’ reinstatement. At first it seemed that his petition would be denied, but it ultimately came to pass, on February 4th. Landis cited Harris’s war service as something that earned him special consideration. Noting that Harris had been gassed and shot at in the war, he more or less said that his experiences might have caused him to do things which he otherwise might not have done.

Harris play the outfield led the team in batting, hitting .316, and led as well as in on-base percentage and slugging, despite being shifted around here and there. He also suffered a very bad spiking in midseason. The Red Sox finished last again.

Leading the team in hitting had been Harris’s goal. When Boston owner Harry Frazee sent Harris his contract over the winter, Harris asked for $1,000 more than what he’d been offered. He told Frazee that if he didn’t bat better than everyone else on the team, he wouldn’t feel he had earned it. It wasn’t truly a wager, but it impressed Frazee, who ponied up the extra grand. Had Harris intended to return the extra thousand if he fell short became a moot question.

Harris did say that, despite batting right-handed, he preferred to bat against right-handed pitchers. He was unorthodox as a fielder, too, using a five-fingered glove while playing first base.

Harris hit even better in 1923 than he had in 1922, this time reunited with manager Frank Chance. He hit .335, again leading the Red Sox in average, on-base percentage, and slugging. George Burns came in second in all three categories, but he and Harris flip-flopped with RBIs: Burns drove in 82 and Harris was second with 76.

Lee Fohl was Red Sox manager in 1924, prompting another reunion. Harris had played for Fohl in 1917 and 1919. Harris was very optimistic heading into the season, believing the Red Sox had a chance to contend, and happy to be back at first base himself. He had to fight neuritis in the springtime and was limited in the early action. By season’s end, he had driven in one more run than the year before and batted .301, third on the team in average, but again first in on-base percentage. This time he placed second in slugging and third in RBIs. The Red Sox finished seventh.

Harris began the 1925 season with the Red Sox, but with Phil Todt set for first base, he wasn’t expected to get quite as much work. On April 29th the Sox traded him to the Washington Senators for Roy Carlyle and Paul Zahniser. He’d assembled only 26 plate appearances for Boston and was batting .158. Sox fans were nonetheless disappointed to lose him, and the Boston Globe wrote that Harris always had been a player who has given his club all he had, and, in these days, that is something unique.