Obituary: Chuck Harmon (1924-2019)

R.I.P. to Chuck Harmon, a third baseman and outfielder who integrated the Cincinnati Reds when he stepped onto the field on April 17, 1954. He died on March 19 at the age of 94. Harmon played for the Reds (1954-56), St. Louis Cardinals (1956-57) and Philadelphia Phillies (1957).

“The entire Reds family is saddened to lose one of its great ambassadors. The first African American to play for the Reds, Chuck Harmon was much more than a ballplayer,” said Reds CEO Bob Castellini in a statement. “He represents a pivot point in Reds history. Chuck’s positive attitude and disposition helped diffuse the adversity he faced, and set the tone for those following in his footsteps. He was beloved by his teammates during his career and remained a treasure to this franchise and its fans throughout his life. He will be missed.”

A statue of Chuck Harmon was unveiled in 2015 in front of the P&G Cincinnati Urban Youth Academy. Source: MLB

Harmon was born on April 23, 1924 in Washington, Ind. He first gained recognition in basketball, leading his Washington High School team to two consecutive state championships in 1941-41, according to his SABR bio. He was just as good on the University of Toledo basketball team. Military service interrupted his education, and he spent three years in the Navy. When he got out in 1947, he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues under the name “Charlie Fine” in order to protect his college eligibility. I can’t find any stats for his time there, but it couldn’t have been a long stay. He played basketball for Toledo part of the time in 1947 and also played 54 games in a Class-C team with the St. Louis Browns, batting .270.

Harmon played amateur ball while continuing with college basketball in 1948. He got back to the minors in 1949 and spent most of the next three seasons for the Olean Oilers of the PONY League. At some point, he signed with the Reds organization and hit over .300 in their minor leagues in 1952 and 1953, stealing plenty of bases and hitting a few home runs along the way.

By 1954, baseball’s color barrier had been shattered, first with the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson in 1947 and then with an ever-increasing number of teams. The 1954 season started with 37 black ballplayers, more than had ever been in the major leagues. Only four teams — the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Phillies didn’t have at least one African-American on the roster. The Reds broke camp with Harmon and outfielder Nino Escalera. Escalera, a dark-skinned native of Puerto Rico, actually got into a game one batter ahead of Harmon on April 17, 1954. He pinch-hit for catcher Andy Seminick and singled, and then Harmon pinch-hit for pitcher Corky Valentine and popped to first base. To be technically accurate, Escalera was the Reds first black player, and Harmon was its first African-American player. Either way, one more barrier in MLB was left in the dust that day.

(Bill Powell, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, was listed as a pitcher on the Reds roster, but he never appeared in a game. I can’t tell if he was a late Spring Training cut or a “ghost player” — someone on a major-league roster but who never appeared in a game. If anyone has details of him, let me know!)

Source: Palladium-Item, May 6, 1955

Harmon appeared in 94 games for the Reds in 1954, ending with a .238 batting average. His first MLB home run came on July 10 off of the Braves’ Warren Spahn. He became a valuable utility player in 1955, playing both corner infield spots and left and center field. He played in a career-high 96 games and hit .253. He also stole 9 bases, which was good enough for 10th in the NL.

He struggled early in 1956, getting just 4 plate appearances in 13 games as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement. He was traded to St. Louis in May for Alex Grammas and went hitless in 15 at-bats, leaving him at 0-for-19 for the season. His greater contribution to baseball came behind the scenes. He took Reds rookie Frank Robinson under his wing, according to a 2017 article on Harmon’s legacy..

“Frank was a young African-American kid from Oakland coming to Cincinnati — it was a little different back then. Mr. Harmon went through a lot and talked to Frank,” said former Reds manager Dusty Baker.

Harmon appeared in 9 games for the 1957 Cardinals, getting a triple in three at-bats. Almost a year to the day of the trade that brought him to St. Louis, he was dealt to the Phillies, where he hit .256 to finish out the season. That was his last year in the majors. Harmon played in the minors until 1961, retiring with a .320 batting average in 11 minor-league seasons.

In his four MLB seasons, Harmon appeared in 289 games and slashed .238/.294/.326. He had 141 hits and 7 home runs, stealing 25 bases and knocking in 59 runs. Thanks to the military service and the slow desegregation of baseball, he didn’t get to appear in a major-league game until he was nearly 30 years old.

After his playing days, Harmon and his family moved back to Cincinnati, and he scouted for the Braves, Indians and the Indiana Pacers of the NBA. He spent 24 years as an administrative assistant at Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals

It seemed like the Reds did right by Harmon by honoring his place in the team’s history. He attended many games at Great American Ballpark, and a plaque was put up to honor his accomplishments. In 2014, he received the Powell Crosley Jr. Award from the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum for his dedication and devotion to the team. A statue of Harmon was unveiled outside the P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy in 2015.


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