Reds embrace Harmon's legacy

In honor of Black History Month, Cincinnati celebrates its first African-American player

Reds embrace Harmon's legacy

CINCINNATI -- It's been nearly 63 years since Chuck Harmon made history for the Reds as their first African-American player. Time has not diminished what he has meant to Cincinnati, and the club continues to embrace and honor Harmon's legacy.

Harmon, then 29, appeared for the first time as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Braves on April 17, 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier with the Dodgers.

"He came through at a time when it was difficult for African-Americans to play pro baseball. Even though it was several years after Jackie Robinson, he was our first," said Rick Walls, the executive director of the Reds Hall of Fame.

Harmon is now 92 years old and remains a Cincinnati resident. In a sit-down interview with MLB.com ahead of the Civil Rights Game in 2010, he said he never let the issue of racism bother him while he was playing, even in a city like Cincinnati that was racially divided at the time.

"If you worried about how you were being treated or going to be treated, you don't need to be there," Harmon 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."

Harmon shakes hands with his son, Chuck Harmon Jr., during a 2004 plaque unveiling ceremony honoring him.(AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Harmon spent four seasons in the Major Leagues. He was traded from the Reds to the Cardinals in May 1956 and dealt again in '57 to the Phillies. Over his 289 career games in the big leagues, he batted .238 with seven home runs and 59 RBIs.

"Mr. Harmon, he was always pulling for the Reds," former Reds manager Dusty Baker said in 2010. "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."

In his post-playing career, Harmon 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 in 2009. The couple had three children.

For several years, Harmon was a fixture at Great American Ball Park to watch games. He also is a frequent guest at events like Redsfest and other special occasions for the club. In 2014, Harmon received the Powell Crosley Jr. Award from the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum for his dedication and devotion to the Reds.

"It was for his influence and ambassadorship with the fans and represents the club and carries himself," Walls said. "He's a humanitarian in many ways and a class act all of the time."

In 2015, during the week of the All-Star Game in Cincinnati, the Reds honored Harmon with a statue outside of the P&G Cincinnati MLB Youth Academy.

Harmon statue unveiled

"It was always a pleasure to give someone an autograph or have a picture taken with them," Harmon said. "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.'"

In March, he will be part of a new Reds Hall of Fame exhibit, "From Red to Bronze," which focuses on the nine Reds players that have had statues made in their honor.

"People ask me the same old thing: 'Did you think you would make history?'" Harmon said. "I tell them, 'When you're born, you're history.' You don't realize when you're actually making history."

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.