Harmon a trailblazer in long history of Reds

Harmon a trailblazer in long history of Reds

CINCINNATI -- Chuck Harmon just wanted to play baseball and leave the history to the historians.

A utility player who made the club out of Spring Training, Harmon became the first African-American to play for the Reds when he pinch-hit against the Milwaukee Braves in the seventh inning at County Stadium on April 17, 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Dodgers.

When asked about that game or what he did with his first at-bat, Harmon says little. Then a 29-year-old, he popped out to the first baseman.

"It was another day at the beach, I guess. I don't recall a lot of that stuff," said Harmon, 86, a day after he'd undergone cataract surgery. "People ask me the same old thing, 'Did you think you would make history?' I tell them, 'When you're born, you're history.' You don't realize when you're actually making history."

Just before Harmon batted that day, another pinch-hitter hit ahead of him -- Nino Escalera, who was Puerto Rican of African descent. Often asked who deserved credit for being the Reds' first player of color, Harmon told the Reds Hall of Fame this for his section in the team museum:

"I was the first African-American; Nino was the first black," Harmon said. "I don't know what difference it makes, but for history's sake, they might as well get it right."

Harmon, who played only four seasons in the Major Leagues, was traded from the Reds to the Cardinals in May 1956 and was dealt again the following year to the Phillies. In 289 games, he batted .238 with seven home runs and 59 RBIs.

The 10th of 12 siblings, Harmon was born in 1924 and already had an interesting life before he ever set foot on a Major League field. The native of Washington, Ind., was part of two Indiana high school basketball state championships and was an All-American basketball player with the University of Toledo in 1943. After a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Toledo and was discovered by the Indianapolis Clowns Negro League team.

Harmon played just five games with the Clowns and eventually signed his first professional Minor League contract with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. His basketball career was not dormant, however, as he unsuccessfully tried out for the Boston Celtics in 1951 shortly after the integration of the NBA. After being cut, he was a player-coach for a team in Utica in the Eastern Basketball League. The Reds acquired him in 1952.

Just because baseball had been integrated didn't mean that racism was over, but Harmon was never concerned about his treatment from fans or other players.

"If you worried about how you were being treated or going to be treated, you don't need to be there," he said. "You have to play the game and do all the little extra things. You don't have time to wonder if someone will look at you cross-eyed or say something to you. It was enough to worry about that baseball coming at you or someone sliding into you. There were too many other things to worry about."

After retiring as a player, Harmon remained in Cincinnati and scouted for the Braves, Indians and the NBA's Indiana Pacers. He also worked in sales for the MacGregor Sporting Goods Company. For 24 years he worked as an administrative assistant at Ohio's First District Court of Appeals, and he was married for 62 years to Daurel, who passed away from cancer in November. They had three children.

Harmon would not say whether or not he helped make the lives of future minority players in the game any easier.

"You do the best you can. Your actions show whether you can cut the mustard or not," he said. "Every little bit along the way -- how good you do -- is what sets up the history part of how you make out."

But even if he won't say it, Harmon does have a reputation of going out of his way to help others. His Golf Manor home has always been open to visitors, often a young Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey's father, Big Red Machine member Ken Sr., wanted his children to see and learn from Harmon.

"To guys like me who know him, he's like a great-grandfather," said Junior, who played for the Reds from 2000 to 2008 and is now with the Mariners. "Everything he says -- the message is to be a better person and a better baseball player. We didn't talk about baseball a whole lot, other than when he had to barnstorm and things like that, so I got that aspect of it, but for the most part, he was there to raise his kids and raise us. That's the beauty of Chuck Sr. No matter what was going on his life, he would always make sure you were OK."

Manager Dusty Baker has known Harmon since he was a young player, and recalled being taken to Louisville by Harmon and Pee Wee Reese to pick out wood for his bats.

"Mr. Harmon, he was always pulling for the Reds," Baker said. "I remember when Frank Robinson came in, he took him under his wing. 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.

"Back in the day, to be the first African-American anywhere was different. I went through being the first African-American in my school district -- me and my brother -- in high school. I know how hard it was for me in 1966, so I imagine what it was like for him in 1954."

Harmon, a frequent visitor at Great American Ball Park and the Reds Hall of Fame, will attend the Gillette Civil Rights Game on Saturday. It's already a big week, since a book about his life, "The First Black Red" by Marty Pieratt, will be released on Friday.

The first 20,000 fans attending the Civil Rights Game will receive a replica Chuck Harmon 1954 Reds jersey. It is something the humble Harmon was pleased to hear.

"In your heart, you're proud that they're doing that and think that much of you," he said. "It was always a pleasure to give someone an autograph or have a picture taken with them. That's why they come out there. It makes you feel good. Naturally, in your heart, you say to yourself, 'I must be doing something right.' "

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.