Nearly six decades after he broke the color barrier for the Cincinnati Reds in 1954, Charles B. “Chuck” Harmon, 87, cheered from the stands in Washington on Saturday, rooting for his great-granddaughter’s Little League team on Capitol Hill.
The old ballplayer laughed and played the curmudgeon when asked about the skills of his young relation, Mitchell Edmond, 7.
“Well, she’s not too bad, as the saying goes — for a girl,” Harmon joked, before turning serious. “I’ve always said, if you can play, you can play. Boy or girl, whatever, one-legged or two-legged, if you can do the job, you should get a chance to do it.”
On a benevolent June afternoon, the visitor from Cincinnati offered the perspective of his 87 years and reminisced about playing against the likes of the New York Giants’ Willie Mays, the Chicago Cubs’ Ernie Banks and Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals.
As he talked, a line of Little Leaguers and parents formed down the third baseline at the District’s Payne Recreation Center, seeking autographs and pictures.
“Name ’em and I played with the best of them,” Harmon said. “Willie Mays was the best, no question about it. . . . But all the things Jackie Robinson did, and not only for baseball but for humanity and for everyone else — Jackie did it all,” Harmon said of the Brooklyn Dodgers star who integrated major league baseball in 1947.
A third baseman and outfielder who hit .238 in a four-year major league career with the Reds, Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, Harmon became the first African American to play for Cincinnati when he pinch-hit in the seventh inning against Hank Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves on April 17, 1954. (Harmon batted after Nino Escarela, a black player from Puerto Rico, pinch-hit in his Reds’ debut.)
“You’re just grateful they passed your way,” Harmon said of the era’s stars. “You got a glimpse of them, you got to know them, and you remember them. They made your life a little richer.”
Harmon’s forbearance was key to his success, said his biographer, Marty Pieratt, a visiting professor at Indiana University and former sports journalist and radio station owner who grew up near Harmon’s hometown of Washington, Ind.
A college-educated Navy veteran, Harmon, like Robinson, was selected to break barriers and to withstand any racial provocation in what was then one of the southernmost major league cities, Pieratt said.
It was not easy for Harmon — he once received a death threat after breaking up a no-hitter against the Giants — or for his late wife, Daurel “Pearl” Harmon, who Pieratt said “had to hear the names her husband was called” and would leave the stands sometimes to finish listening to games in the car with the couple’s three children.
“You really don’t overlook it, but you let it pass you by. That’s the way it was,” said Harmon, who went on to work as a professional baseball and basketball scout, sporting goods representative and assistant courthouse administrator in Ohio.
Such memories were far away as Mitchell hit two singles and caught several throws for outs at first base between stints as middle infielder and catcher. Her Cincinnati Reds fell 17 to 12 to the New York Yankees, their first loss in seven games.
A tall first-grader, Mitch spoke with her play, not her mouth, shyly posing for photographs with Harmon, her parents, Danielle and Patrick Edmond, and brother, Mason, 5.
While girls are no longer unheard of on baseball diamonds, Mitch is one of three playing in the Capitol Hill Little League’s AA division for 7- and 8-year-olds.
Danielle Edmond, 40, a D.C. schools speech therapist, said Mitch loves the game. “She’s already said she doesn’t want to play softball. She asked, ‘Why can’t I play with the boys?’ ”
Harmon was teaching his own lessons, pulling the leg of Dominic Kittle, 9, by asking for money when Dominic asked for an autograph. After getting the joke, Kittle offered his hand.
“That I’ll take, and it doesn’t cost you anything,” Harmon said. “Shaking hands with someone and being a gentleman doesn’t cost you anything.”