There are a lot of days in Cincinnati Reds history, but April 17th is one that is very important in the history of the franchise. On this date in 1954 the Cincinnati Reds joined many teams around the league in integrating non-white players onto the team. More than seven years after Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and made his Major League debut, Chuck Harmon put on a Cincinnati jersey and walked onto the field against the Milwaukee Braves – in Milwaukee – as a pinch hitter.
Chuck Harmon popped up to first base while pinch hitting for pitcher Corky Valentine in the 7th inning that day. He would go 0-5 for the next week entering games off of the bench before getting three starts between April 25th and April 28th. He picked up his first career hit on the 25th against the Chicago Cubs, leading off the bottom of the 1st inning with a single off of Howie Pollet. Later in the game he’s also pick up his first career walk and double off of Pollet.
Beginning his career in the Major Leagues a week before his 30th birthday, Harmon only spent four seasons in the big leagues from 1954-1957. He would finish out his career playing in the minors from 1958-1961 for the Phillies, Dodgers, Pirates, Tigers, and Royals organizations.
Harmon passed away last year on March 19th at the age of 94. Doug Dennis got to know Harmon later in life and wrote about the man he knew. Go give it a read.
Frank Robinson debuts in 1956
Chuck Harmon was the first African American to put on a Cincinnati Reds uniform (though at the time they were the Cincinnati Redlegs) and take the field with the organization. But Frank Robinson would come along two years later, to the day, and perhaps become the best to ever put on the uniform.
On April 17, 1956 Frank Robinson took the field at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. The 20-year-old would quickly make his presence felt within the National League. In his first at-bat he crushed a ground-rule double during the bottom of the 2nd inning off of Vinegar Bend Mizell. Yes, that was the pitchers name. Two innings later he would come up with a single. After a ground out in the 6th inning, Robinson came back to the plate with two runners on and two outs in the 8th and good ole Vinegar Bend Mizell wanted no part of the rookie and intentionally walked him to load the bases in a 2-2 game to face Roy McMillan. It worked out as a popup in foul territory ended the inning. The Reds would cede the lead the next half-inning on a Stan Musial 2-run homer that also brought in Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst.
For Robinson, it was the start of a Hall of Famer career. He would lead the league in both runs scored and hit by pitches in 1956, taking home the Rookie of the Year award while hitting .290/.379/.558 and tying the league record at the time for home runs by a rookie with 38. Things just got better from there. From 1960-1962 Robinson led the league in OPS in each season, topping the 1.000 mark each time. In 1961 he’s take home his first MVP Award.
Unfortunately the second MVP Award came in 1966 – his first season with the Baltimore Orioles. That season he would win the Triple Crown, hitting .316/.410/.637 with 49 home runs and 122 RBI. He led the league in all five of those stats, as well as leading the league with 122 runs scored. After a 21-year career in the Major Leagues he would retire following the 1976 season – though in those final two years he barely played while also serving as the manager of Cleveland. Robinson was a pioneer there, too, where he became the first African American coach in Major League Baseball history when he got the job in 1975.
One of our older employees (age 89 at time)at one of our golf courses played baseball with a black navy unit in Guam in WW II and had a picture of their team. Chuck’s brother was on the team too.I took a copy of it to Redsfest and gave it to him. He got a little emotional and told me it would be the only photo he had of his brother. One of those things that makes you feel good.