The “Flash” is gone.
Billy Harrell, one of the greatest basketball players in Siena College history and the first one to have his jersey retired, died Tuesday morning after a long illness at age 86.
The multi-talented Harrell, who also played four seasons of major league baseball, led Siena to an impressive 70-19 record from 1949 to 1952, and he averaged 12.1 rebounds per game in 1949-50, when the Saints, then called the Indians, posted a 27-5 record and won the National Catholic Invitational.
“Billy was a good man,” said fellow Siena graduate Jack Mulvey, one of the program’s all-time leading rebounders and a good friend of Harrell in his later years.
“Billy was a multi-sport athlete who was probably a better baseball player than basketball player, and he was a great basketball player. I never saw him play, except for once. He graduated 15 years before I did, but I’ve known Billy a long time.”
Mulvey, who brought Harrell to Siena games in his wheelchair many times in the last several years, including this year’s CBI tournament, said Harrell was the greatest player of his era.
“Billy, to a large part, was the first real hero of the program,” Mulvey said. “He was a significant talent.”
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Harrell, one of 20 inductees into the MAAC Basketball Hall of Fame and the third person inducted into Siena’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1966, was nicknamed “Flash.” He averaged 14.6 points per game for the 1951-52 team that went 24-6, and he is still tied for the program’s best single-season rebounding average. He earned UPI honorable mention All-America honors as a senior in 1952. His No. 10 jersey was retired on Jan. 13, 2006. He was also a member of the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Billy was a great ballplayer,” said Siena graduate Dick Bogdan, 91, the former head coach at the defunct Albany Business College. “He could jump. He wasn’t that tall, but he was a jumper, and he could steal a lot of balls. I saw him play a lot, but he was a few years behind me at Siena. The one thing I remember about him was that he was very good at stealing the ball. He had very quick hands.”
Mulvey said that Harrell was an outstanding baseball player for more than a decade, even though he played just three years for the Cleveland Indians (1955, 1957-58) and another with the Boston Red Sox (1961).
“Billy spent 10-12 years in both AAA baseball and the majors in the Cleveland system,” he said. “He got in just after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He was a significant talent, but they didn’t pay a lot in those days. It was a different world. Billy went through that world, and never soured on any of it. He accepted it for what it was. He was a stand-up guy.”
In the major leagues, Harrell was a .231 hitter (79-for-342) with eight home runs and 26 RBI in 173 games, including 54 runs, seven doubles, one triple, and 17 stolen bases. In 151 games as an infielder, he appeared at shortstop (77), third base (62), second (eight) and first (three), and also played right field in one game, posting a collective fielding percentage of .952.
“The thoughts and prayers of the Siena community are with Miriam and the Harrell family,” said Siena athletic director John D’Argenio. “Billy brought much joy to many as an outstanding basketball player, but more importantly, he had a positive impact on so many people throughout his life, both as a professional and a person. He was humble, a gentleman, and had a fun spirit that lifted those in his company.”
Mulvey said losing Harrell was a blow to the Siena family.
“I always felt that Siena had the same type of continuity and sense of family and tradition as the old TV show about West Point, ‘The Long Gray Line,’ ” Mulvey said of the popular 1950s program. “I always thought of Siena as the Long Green and Gold Line. Siena basketball tied this area together athletically for a long time, and Billy Harrell had a great deal to do with that in the early days.”