This post is an update and reworking of one that ran in April 2018, on the 68th anniversary of Chuck Harmon’s major league debut.
One of the real pleasures of working on The Big 50 was learning the story of Chuck Harmon. I was vaguely aware that Harmon was the first African-American to play for the Reds, and that he played for a few years in the mid-50s, but I didn’t know much more than that. And there is a lot more to know. Harmon, who died yesterday at 94, was a remarkable man. I learned his story, and helped tell part of it. I only wish I had the chance to meet him.
One author referred to Harmon as “a poor man’s Jackie Robinson.” While the line may sound unkind, it’s one that any ballplayer — or person, for that matter — would accept as high praise.
Harmon was born in Washington, Indiana in 1924, to one of the few black families in that southern Indiana railroad town. A schoolboy star in both basketball and baseball, Harmon often faced teams from nearby Princeton, Indiana, led by future Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges — the two were born only 19 days apart, and competed against each other in both sports. (Hodges’ biographer, Mort Zachter, later credited that youthful friendship with Hodges’ particularly sensitive support for Jackie Robinson, when Robinson broke the color line for the 1947 Dodgers.)
Along with his older brother Bill, Chuck Harmon led the Washington High School Hatchets to back-to-back Indiana state high school basketball championships in 1941-42. Although the nearby Indiana University Hoosiers weren’t interested,* Harmon was recruited to play both baseball and basketball at the University of Toledo, but his focus was on the court.
* If Harmon had attended IU, he may have been a Red even sooner. Due to wartime travel restrictions, the Reds held spring training on the IU campus in 1943 and ’44. While there, team brass happened across a very large, very athletic college football/baseball player, and made a note to sign him after the next football season. That tight end/centerfielder, Ted Kluszewski became a Reds legend. Who knows how things might’ve worked out if Chuck Harmon had been his teammate that afternoon?
At Toledo, Harmon joined an all-freshman starting five, which improbably reached the finals of the 1943 NIT (then as significant a tournament as the NCAA). Harmon scored six points in the finals loss to St. John’s, and didn’t find the 18,000 person crowd at Madison Square Garden intimidating. “I had played before crowds almost that size in high school back in Indiana,” he said in Marty Ford Pieratt’s excellent biography First Black Red. “That wasn’t a problem.”
WWII soon intervened, though, putting Harmon’s collegiate career on hold. Only a month after that 1943 NIT, Harmon was drafted into the United States Navy. He spent the war years stateside; black soldiers were generally restricted from combat units in the segregated armed forces. At Great Lakes naval base, segregation extended even to the sports field — Harmon joined an all-black team, alongside future Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and played against white sailors like Mickey Cochrane, Frank Baumholtz, and Virgil Trucks.
After the war, Harmon returned to Toledo to resume his baseball and basketball careers for the Rockets, eventually earning six varsity letters and a career average of 13 points per game.
Harmon was also a veteran of the Negro Leagues, but only for a weekend. And you actually won’t find Chuck Harmon’s name in any record books. It was early summer of 1947, and Harmon was waiting to hear back about a summer job with the Toledo parks department. Instead, he got a call from a scout for the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns, and decided to play professional baseball instead of running summer camps. But to preserve his eligibility at Toledo, he joined the Clowns under the name “Charley Fine.” (The fake name was suggested by Goose Tatum, the Clowns’ first baseman, but a man more famous as the original “Clown Prince of Basketball,” a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, and a 2011 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)
Harmon/Fine joined the Clowns in Indianapolis on a Wednesday. Four days, four cities, four games (and two rainouts) later, Harmon had a clear-eyed view of life in the Negro Leagues, and it was nothing like the first class travel of a big-time college basketball program.
“I decided that wasn’t for me,” he said later. Rather than just quit, Harmon faked a phone call from his sister, and told Clowns management that the parks & rec job had come through, after all. As it happened, by the time he arrived home, his sister had called, and the parks job really was waiting.
About a month later, the same scout came calling, but this time, on behalf of the St. Louis Browns. The big leagues — this was a different story entirely. Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball a few weeks earlier, and now the Browns were making their move. Harmon jumped at the chance, thinking he would go directly to the majors. He signed with the Browns on July 19, 1947.
Unfortunately for him, the Browns had a different plan. They’d signed Hank Thompson and Willard Brown a couple days earlier — those were the men who’d go directly to the major leagues and integrate the Browns. Harmon was sent to Gloversville, NY, in the not-so-glamorous Canadian-American League, where he hit a respectable .270 for the summer.
Under 1947 NCAA rules, Harmon’s pro baseball career wouldn’t have affected his collegiate basketball eligibility, but a rule change the following year meant that he’d have to choose between the 1948 pro baseball season and his senior basketball season at Toledo. He chose basketball, and spent the summer of ’48 playing semi-pro baseball for a factory team (where he made more money than he had with Gloversville).*
*Harmon was invited to the Boston Celtics training camp in 1950, where he narrowly missed becoming the NBA’s first black player.
Graduating in 1949, Harmon returned to the Browns organization and spent time with the Olean and Gloversville teams in New York. After the 1949 season, the financially-strapped Browns cut ties with several of their minor league affiliates, which made Harmon a free agent. He stuck with Olean (now an independent club) for 1950 and ’51, and simply demolished the PONY League. Over two seasons, he hit .374 with 141 extra-base hits and an estimated 280 RBI.*
*At Olean, Harmon was the very rare black player who had a white roommate. Generally, black players were kept together, and if there was only one of them, he lived alone. Harmon roomed with a 27 year-old rookie named Paul Owens, who went on to serve as manager and general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s and 80s — the man who lured Pete Rose away from Cincinnati.
This performance is what drew the Reds attention. The Reds signed him to the Class B Burlington (Iowa) Flints for 1952, where he hit .319 with 49 extra base hits and 25 steals. The following year, he was promoted to Tulsa, along with a black Puerto Rican player named Nino Escalera. Harmon’s bat, legs, and versatility were drawing attention. (Harmon’s nickname was “the Glove,” not so much for his defensive prowess, but because he literally carried a lot of them – he had a different mitt specific to each position he played — a rarity for the early ’50s.)
He made the club in 1954, and (along with Escalera) broke the Reds color line in April. However, Harmon struggled in spotty playing time. Like most bench players, black or white, Harmon felt that he never really got a fair shot with the Reds. He thought that with a little bit of regular playing time, he’d have put up better numbers. “That’s the only regret I have,” he told author Brent Kelly years later. “I didn’t think I really got a chance to really say, ‘this is your job.'”
Harmon sometimes wondered if his race played a role, but the 1954 Reds were a tough lineup to crack. Kluszewski, Gus Bell, Wally Post, and Jim Greengrass were all slugging, and all were significantly younger than Harmon.
The next year was more of the same — uneven playing time and disappointing numbers. By 1956, Frank Robinson had arrived and the Reds were turning the corner toward contention. Harmon was no longer a fit (from an on-field perspective — he was still well-liked by teammates), and was traded to the Cardinals. He spent a couple years in their system, before ending his major league career with the Phillies in 1957. Harmon wasn’t done with the game, though. He played another three-plus seasons in AAA, finally retiring at age 37.
The two-sport star later served as a scout not only for several MLB teams, but also for the Indiana Pacers. Harmon also worked as an equipment rep for MacGregor sporting goods, and for many years as an administrator with the Hamilton (Ohio) County Courts. (Cincinnati lawyer and baseball writer Doug Dennis told a great story about working at the courthouse with Harmon.)
In his later years, Harmon became a regular fixture at Great American Ball Park, RedsFest, and the Reds Hall of Fame, serving as an informal ambassador and a conduit to seven decades of Reds history, and a link to teammates and opponents like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente.
He is remembered by a bronze plaque near the entrance to Great American Ball Park, a statue at the Reds Urban Youth Academy, and in the hearts of anyone who knew him.