02/17/12 11:18 AM EST
He (Chuck Harmon) thinks it (baseball) is still a beautiful game, played in special, park-like places by brilliant athletes at a pace that is refreshing. There is no clock to watch. There is no rush to finish. Everybody is just trying to find home.
-Marty Ford Pieratt, author of "First Black Red: The Story of Chuck Harmon the First African American to Play for the Cincinnati Reds.
As part of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum's celebration of Black History Month, Chuck Harmon, the first African-American to play for the Reds, will sign autographs and visit with fans at the museum on Saturday, February 25 from 12:00 - 2:00.
A familiar face around Great American Ball Park, Chuck enjoys watching Reds games from his usual seat down the first base line. While many may know Chuck's significant place in Reds history, they may not know it was just one of his many notable achievements. Chuck is far more than just "the first black Red." He traveled through life on more than just worn down base paths and old team buses. He is a remarkable man who has led an exceptional life.
One of twelve children, Charles Byron Harmon was born in Washington, Indiana on April 23, 1924. A natural athlete, Chuck succeeded at a young age in sports, leading his high school to state basketball championships in 1941 and 1942. After high school, Chuck enrolled at the University of Toledo where he played both basketball and baseball. As a freshman, Chuck won al-American honors and led Toledo to the NIT finals. From 1943 - 1945, he served in the U. S. Navy during World War II.
It was upon his return to the University of Toledo when Chuck's future baseball career began to take shape. After earning three varsity letters in baseball, Chuck was noticed by a scout with the Indianapolis Clowns, a team in the Negro Leagues. Chuck, needing extra money, signed with Indianapolis, but under the alias of "Charlie Fine" to maintain his collegiate eligibility. Though he only played five games with the Clowns, Chuck's professional baseball career was well on its way.
In 1947, Chuck signed with the St. Louis Browns and was assigned to the Browns' Gloversville-Johnstown club where he became the first African-American player in the Canadian-American League. As Chuck was breaking a color barrier at the minor league level, Jackie Robinson was breaking the same barrier in the Major Leagues during his debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was during this time that Chuck met his wife Pearl. "Marrying her," he said, "was my greatest accomplishment." Pearl became Chuck's biggest fan and advocate, accompanying him to all his games and enduring some of the same racial prejudice to which Chuck was subjected.
Chuck continued working his way through the Browns system for the next three seasons before being acquired by the Reds prior to the 1952 campaign. Two years later, Chuck made the Reds' roster out of spring training and, on April 17, four days into the 1954 season, he received the call that would cement his place in Reds history. The Reds were trailing the Braves, 5-1, in the top of the 7th inning. With relief pitcher Corky Valentine due up with one out, Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts looked down his bench for a pinch-hitter. He called Harmon's name. When Chuck's name was announced and he settled into the County Stadium batter's box to face Milwaukee ace Lew Burdette, scant attention was paid to his achievement. Chuck Harmon had just broken the Reds' color barrier. That his at-bat ended in a pop-out to first was inconsequential. Harmon's appearance in the game had righted for the Reds an injustice that had been shared by all Major League clubs since the late-19th century.
Harmon appeared in 66 more games for the Reds that season, primarily at third base. For the year, he hit .238 in 314 plate appearances. Chuck played for the Reds for parts of the 1955 and 1956 seasons before being dealt to the Cardinals. He moved on to Philadelphia in 1957 in what was his final Major League season.
Chuck, like many other great black players, harbors no animosity toward the resistance he experienced as one of the first African-Americans in Major League Baseball. He feels he was blessed with a meaningful playing career, a wonderful marriage, and beautiful children. Of his life, Harmon once said, "It has been an experience beyond my wildest dreams. Only in America, thank God!"
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.