CINCINNATI -- By the time Chuck Harmon became the first African-American to play for the Reds in 1954, baseball's color barrier had already been broken by Jackie Robinson for seven years.While there is no valid excuse to explain what took so long for Cincinnati's Major League roster to become integrated, the moment of Harmon's debut, in a game on April 17, 1954, came without much fanfare or recognition. "I didn't even know it was historical," outfielder Bob Borkowski, a former Reds teammate of Harmon's, said this week. "We treated him like he was any other ballplayer or any teammate." A utility player that made the team out of Spring Training, Harmon appeared as a pinch-hitter vs. the Milwaukee Braves in the seventh inning at County Stadium in his first game. He popped out to the first baseman.
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In an interview with MLB.com in 2010, weeks before the second Civil Rights Game held in Cincinnati, Harmon did not recall anything special about his first time in a big league game."It was another day at the beach, I guess. I don't recall a lot of that stuff," Harmon said. "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 batted ahead of him named Nino Escalera, who was Puerto Rican of African descent. Often asked who deserved credit for being the 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," said Harmon, who will turn 88 on April 23. "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. "Chuck was a good guy," Borkowski said. "He was a good third baseman and infielder. I thought he was a pretty nice guy and an all-around player." Born in 1924 as the 10th of 12 siblings, success in sports seemed to come naturally for Harmon. The native of Washington, Ind., was part of two Indiana high school basketball state championship teams 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 integration of the NBA. After being cut, he was a player-coach for a team in Utica, N.Y., in the Eastern Basketball League. The Reds acquired Harmon in 1952. Just because baseball had already been integrated, it did not mean that racism was over as Harmon traveled the country. However, he said he 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," 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." 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 for Ohio's First District Court of Appeals, and he was married for 62 years to Daurel, who passed away from cancer in November 2009. Together, they had three children. "You do the best you can. Your actions show whether you can cut the mustard or not," Harmon said. "Every little bit along the way -- how good you do -- is what sets up the history part of how you make out."