Few people realize just how cutting-edge Fulton County was when it came to breaking professional baseball's color barrier. In 1947 while Jackie Robinson was making racial history in Brooklyn, black outfielder Chuck Harmon was doing the same thing in Gloversville.
Harmon played portions of two seasons for the minor league Johnstown-Gloversville Glovers of the Can-Am league, before eventually making into the majors with the Cincinnati Reds and becoming the first African-American player in Reds' history.
One of twelve children in his large family, Chuck was born April 23, 1924 in Washington, Indiana, a small town in the southwest corner of the state. He was a terrific baseball player in high school, but even better at basketball. Twice during his high school hoops career, he led his team to the Indiana State Championship. It was Harmon’s basketball prowess which got him a scholarship at the University of Toledo, but he also excelled for Toledo baseball team.
Harmon's college sports career and education were interrupted by World War II. He served in the Navy, but didn't see combat. Instead, Chuck became a star for the service baseball team at the Great Lakes Naval Training Academy in Illinois. He returned to the University of Toledo after the war.
During the 1946-47 off-season, Harmon was one of four blacks signed by the American League's St. Louis Browns organization, the franchise which is today’s Baltimore Orioles. The Browns had a high level farm team in Toledo, and coaches for that squad had been scouting Harmon’s play on the University of Toledo’s varsity nine. The Browns wanted to send Harmon to their Gloversville farm team, but reportedly asked the Glovers' front office for permission to do so first, according to baseball historian David Pietrusza. The Browns were afraid of making racial waves by forcing a black player onto a city that didn't want him. Fortunately, both the Glovers' brass and the Fulton County fans embraced the idea and warmly welcomed Harmon into the community.
Ironically, when he signed with the St. Louis, getting shipped to Gloversville surprised Harmon. He told his biographer Marty Pieratt (author of the book “First Black Red: The Story of Chuck Harmon, the first African American to play for the Cincinnati Reds”) that he had expected to go directly from college to the majors
Harmon spent portions of the 1947 and 1949 seasons in Gloversville. (He took off the 1948 season to again return to college in Toledo. The Glovers' home field was located on Fifth Avenue Extension where the Hannaford Grocery complex is presently located. Harmon was an excellent and versatile defensive player: he played all three outfield positions and was skilled at the third and first base, as well. His nickname was “Glove,” not because he was a Glover, but because he carried a different baseball glove for every position, according to biographer Pieratt. Chuck hit a composite .259 during his Gloversville tenure and was highly regarded for his throwing arm. He also had a house in town, where he resided with his wife Pearl. Chuck and Pearl were wed in December 1947 and remained married for 63 years until her passing in 2010.
In a 1990 interview, Harmon told author Pietrusza that he never felt any prejudice from fans or other players during his stint in Fulton County. Nor did he view his time with the Glovers' as some symbol in the fight for equality. "I was out there to do a job," Harmon laughed. "If I was there to fight, I would have joined the boxing team."
While Harmon enjoyed the time he lived in Fulton County, his only regret was the meager salary he earned as a Glover. “When I was with Gloversville, I was making $175 or $200 a month,” he told biographer Pieratt. “I was making more playing semi-pro baseball.”
As he came up through the minor league baseball ranks, during the off-season Chuck played professional basketball. He was even player/head coach for a pro team in Utica in 1950, and is believed by many to have been the first black head coach in any integrated professional basketball league in America. Unfortunately, he was estopped from playing in the NBA because it didn’t integrate until 1950. (At age 26, Harmon finally did get a try-out with the 1950 Boston Celtics, but was the next to last player cut.)
During the 1951-52 off-season, the Cincinnati Reds' organization acquired Harmon's playing rights from the St. Louis Browns. On April 17, 1954 he made his MLB debut, the first-ever African-American to play for the Reds. Harmon spent four seasons in the big leagues, playing for the Reds, the Phillies, and the Cardinals, and an additional four seasons thereafter in Triple A ball. He retired from playing in 1961 and served for a couple of decades as a highly respected major league scout and a court attendant in the Cincinnati municipal court system.
The Fulton County Baseball and Sports Hall of Fame becomes the third Hall of Fame to have enshrined Chuck Harmon. He is already a member of the Indiana State Baseball Hall of Fame and the University of Toledo Athletics Hall of Fame. Chuck resides in the Cincinnati suburb of Golf Manor, which has a street---Chuck Harmon Way---named after him.
Harmon will be inducted during the annual Hall of Fame’s Vintage Game at Parkhurst Field on Harrison Street, Gloversville, the afternoon of Saturday August 30, 2014. Despite age and some health issues, Harmon vows that he’ll be on hand to accept the honor in person. And he’s told organizers that he’s eagerly looking forward to a return visit to the town he called home 67 years ago.