Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore: Integration of Professional Baseball had roots in Fulton County

“GLOVERS WILL HAVE NEGRO IN OUTFIELD” was the headline on the sports page in the Gloversville/Johnstown Leader-Republic on July 19, 1947.

As jolting as such a headline sounds, the city of Gloversville was actually trend-setting in helping the efforts of the integration of modern day professional baseball.

Just three months earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s trek to the big leagues started when team owner Branch Rickey signed him to a professional contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1945. This signing blatantly broke the informal color line that baseball had lived under since 1899, which did not allow black players to play professional baseball at any level. Robinson spent the 1946 season with the Montreal Royals of the International League (Dodgers AAA affiliate in Quebec Ontario).

After spending one season with Montreal where he batted .349 and stole 40 bases, Robinson made his historic Major League debut on April 15, 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The event not only changed professional baseball, but all sports and widespread civil rights.

Less than three months later, the Cleveland Indians would follow the Dodgers lead when owner Bill Veeck also signed a black player named Lawrence “Larry” Doby to a contract on July 3rd. Doby would bypass the minor leagues and would play his first professional game for the Indians on July 5, 1947. In doing so, he became the second black in Major League Baseball and the first to play in the American League.

One week later, the St. Louis Browns (forerunner to the Baltimore Orioles) would become the third Major League organization to sign a black player when they penned contracts with Negro Leaguers Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Piper Davis. A fourth black signed that same day by the Browns was a college player from the University of Toledo named Charlie “Chuck” Harmon. Both Thompson and Brown would be assigned to the Brown’s Major League roster (making their MLB debuts on July 17th & 18th), and Davis would stay with the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons (team they signed him from), and kept as an ‘option’ to the Browns.

With no more spots on the roster available on the Major League team, the Browns were left with the arduous task of finding a minor league team/town willing to take Harmon.

Like Robinson, Harmon was college educated, an all-around gifted athlete (starred in both basketball & baseball at Toledo) and had military service. In fact, while stationed at the Great Lakes Illinois Naval Center during WWII (1943-45) he was a teammate of Larry Doby on the Navy baseball team. However, integration of Major League sports was less than 100 days old, and the task of finding a team for even an all-around quality person like Harmon was still near impossible.

From 1942-49, the Browns had a minor-league affiliation with the Class C Gloversville Glovers of the Canadian-American League.

The Browns sent a telegraphic wire to the Glovers management asking if the club would accept a Negro. Glovers President Harry F. Dunkel’s wire response back was that they would, provided that the ball player was good enough to really help the team.

It is no surprise to me that Gloversville would have no issue accepting a black playing for them as the area had welcomed Negro teams (aka Cuban Teams) to play numerous exhibition games at Parkhurst Field and Darling Field during the 1910’s through the 30’s.

The Glovers themselves had played in exhibition games against black teams in 1937 when they took on the Albany Black Sox and the Schenectady Mohawk Colored Giants. Such games between professional white teams and black teams were not very commonplace in the 1930’s.

Harmon remembers being warmly welcomed in Gloversville by both his teammates and the fans. In a 2003 interview with Leader-Herald sportswriter James Ellis, Harmon spoke of how Gloversville businessman Hal Sutliff (Gloversville Sport Shop) was at the train station in Fonda awaiting his arrival in July 1947 and drove him to Gloversville.

This gesture was the start of a life-long friendship, and Sutliff’s Sport Shop sporting goods store would end up providing Harmon with any baseball equipment he needed for his entire professional career. Harmon spent the rest of the 1947 season with the Glovers and met his future wife, Daurel Woodley.

The two were married a few months after the season ended and would enjoy 61 years of marriage and raise three children together. After taking the 1948 season off to complete his college studies at the University of Toledo, Harmon returned to the Glovers for most of the 1949 season, and resided in Gloversville for the next several years.

The Glovers would continue to sign black ballplayers in the last two years of their existence. In 1950, they enlisted the services of black outfielder Harry Wilson. They would sign two more blacks in 1951 when they brought in pitcher Walter James and shortstop Pedro Arroyo. At the time the Canadian-American League folded in 1951, fellow league members the Amsterdam Rugmakers (New York Yankees), the Schenectady Blue Jays (Philadelphia Phillies), and the Oneonta Red Sox (Boston Red Sox) never integrated, nor did their parent clubs.

The Red Sox would eventually become the last Major League team to integrate on July 21, 1959 when they brought in Pumpsie Green.

This was almost 12 years to the day after Gloversville had allowed Harmon to take the field at Glovers Park back on July 19, 1947.

After six seasons in the minor leagues, Harmon would eventually go onto become the first African American to play for the Cincinnati Reds on April 17, 1954. He would enjoy four seasons in the Major Leagues with the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, and several seasons after that as a scout for the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves.

Today, at age 93, Harmon resides in Golf Manor, Ohio, (suburb of Cincinnati), which has a street “Chuck Harmon Way” named in his honor.

Many other accolades have been bestowed upon this former Gloversville Glover and one time Gloversville resident for his role in helping integrate professional baseball. He threw out the very first pitch to Hall of Famer Barry Larkin in the first exhibition game at the Cincinnati Reds’ Great American Ballpark on March 28, 2003. In 2004, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Harmon becoming the first African American to play for the Reds, a plaque with Harmon’s image and accomplishments was mounted near the entrance to Great American Ball Park. At the 2009 Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati, Harmon was honored by former President Bill Clinton in his speech. At the 2010 Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati, the day was also called “Chuck Harmon Day” and the Reds gave away 30,000 number “10” Harmon jerseys.

One of those jerseys (signed by Harmon) is on display at the Fulton County Museum’s “History of baseball in Fulton County Timeline Display.”

Harmon was inducted into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame at the August 2014 Vintage Baseball Game at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville. And in July 2015, a lifesize statue of Harmon was unveiled at the entrance to the P&G Cincinnati Major League Baseball Youth Academy Complex in Cincinnati as part of the 2015 MLB All-Star Game.

Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Bill Veeck and Larry Doby have also been recognized by Major League Baseball for their roles in integrating professional baseball with enshrinement into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. Cities like Montreal and Gloversville should also be lauded for being open minded enough to care more about the talent of an individual, rather than the color of their skin in a time when hatred and bigotry was not only tolerated, but was the norm.

To look back now 70 years later, it is amazing to think that the city of Gloversville supported such a monumental integration effort that has had a lasting impact on professional sports, as well as a profound impact on making the world a more equitable place. I am proud to say I am from Gloversville!

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organization’s website at www.fchof.com, email mhauser@frontiernet.net or at (518) 725-5565.

COMMENTS