The topic was race and sports and whether the first African-American to play for the Cincinnati Reds carries any lingering scars from being a baseball pioneer.
A man who has committed most of his life to breaking down barriers, Chuck Harmon was positively upbeat over any role he may have played in blazing a trail for others to follow.
“I ve been asked that question many times: Describe how you feel being a first, ” said Harmon, who will be honored by the Reds on April 20 prior to their home game against the Atlanta Braves commemorating the 50th anniversary of his integrating the Reds.
“To me, it feels just like if I was white, green, or whatever,” said Harmon, 79. “I d like to think they re honoring me because I did something good.”
I was late to the party on Charles B. “Chuck” Harmon.
Never heard of him before last week. Not until I received a telephone call from Lenny Rhodes, a former University of Toledo basketball star from 1947-50 and a member of UT s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Rhodes informed me that Harmon, his UT basketball teammate in 1947 and 48 and fellow native of Indiana, was being honored by the Reds.
Rhodes had his phone number in Cincinnati. Did I want to call him?
Seeing Harmon s bio woke me up:
Member of “Friddle s Freshmen” (in honor of coach Burl Friddle) and starter on the Rockets 1942-43 basketball squad that finished runner-up in the National Invitation Tournament.
Two-sport standout (baseball and basketball) and member of the inaugural class inducted into UT s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977.
Assigned to a military base near Chicago where he played baseball and basketball and roomed with Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League. The base football team was coached by Paul Brown and quarterbacked by Otto Graham.
He was such a good basketball player he was one of the final cuts of the Boston Celtics in 1950, the team s first year under legendary coach Red Auerbach - the same year Boston s Chuck Cooper joined Earl Lloyd as the first African-Americans in pro basketball.
He became the first African-American to appear in a regular-season game with the Reds in 1954. During a four-year stint with the Reds and Cardinals, he batted .238 as a third baseman and outfielder. In 1958, he finished his major league career with Philadelphia.
Listening to Harmon is a free history lesson.
In the half-century since joining the Reds, Harmon has seen a lot of changes in this country.
The integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was hailed as a breakthrough in race relations in America.
In many ways, starting with the way blacks and whites interacted with each other on the playing field, it was.
In other ways, Robinson s groundbreaking entrance into the majors eventually carried over to regular society.
“Jackie had more to do with integration than anyone, as far as I m concerned,” said Harmon.
Harmon said he joined the Reds under less adverse circumstances seven years after Robinson s debut.
Robinson and Harmon were selected for their college backgrounds, their comfort level around whites and their ability to control their tempers as much as for their baseball ability.
“In the North, there was prejudice, but you did have some kind of social contact. In the South, black ballplayers who played in the Negro League didn t have any social contact with whites,” said Harmon.
“If you had put some of the other guys in there, blacks would have never made it to the majors.
“That s why they took Jackie. Jackie was an officer in the military. He was an All-American at UCLA.
“That s why I was picked that early. I served in the military. I went to college. Playing for Toledo in the NIT, which at the time was the biggest basketball tournament in the country, people knew my name.”
When Robinson became established, he challenged some of the players who targeted him because of his color.
Harmon, less accomplished as a player than Robinson, was just the opposite.
“You had people in the stands hollering things at you, but I didn t pay it any attention,” he said. “All I wanted to do was hit the ball further. I d take it out on the ball.”
His laid-back approach was calculated, Harmon said.
“I just wanted to play baseball. If the way I conducted myself on the field benefited others who came after me, then it was all worth it.”