The first official game of baseball was played in 1846. Nearly 75 years later, the Negro Major League, comprising professional teams of African Americans, was established in 1920.
Some consider two Cubans the Reds signed in 1911, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, to be the first Blacks in the major leagues but were not rendered uniforms. Upon hearing of President Garry Herrmann’s plan to contract with the players, Reds manager Clark Griffith expressed a common concern when he said, “Many persons will think they are Negroes.”
The Tigers, Cincinnati’s Negro league professional baseball team, were founded in 1934 with many of the players from the city’s preeminent Black amateur team, Excelsior. Wearing Cincinnati Reds hand-me-down uniforms, the Tigers drew as many as 15,000 mostly Black fans to their games at Crosley Field.
The team was sold to the Memphis Red Sox in 1937, who, bolstered by the Cincinnatians, swept triumphantly through the league. Roy Partlow, a left-handed pitcher for the Tigers and the Red Sox, had the longest Negro league career of any Cincinnatian.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Cincinnati baseball historians Lonnie Wheeler and John Baskin estimated that, in the decades of baseball segregation, as many as a third of Cincinnati’s outstanding players were not permitted to pursue the major leagues because of their pigmentation.
Even after desegregation, opportunities for Black players were mostly a tease. The Reds, in fact, were one of the last teams to integrate. It was not until 1954 that the Reds signed a University of Toledo basketball player and Indiana native Chuck Harmon as a third baseman and outfielder.
Much like Jackie Robinson, Harmon had experience playing with and against white men in college. Although Harmon was signed to the Reds until 1957, he never played regularly. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and later to Philadelphia Phillies.
Brooks Lawrence was the first African American Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer, and Frank Robinson was the first African American Cincinnati Reds National League MVP. Jim Wynn, a graduate of Taft High School, was the first Black baseball player from Cincinnati to play in the major leagues, signing with Houston in 1964.
As of 1988, 236 Cincinnatians appeared in the majors – only nine are Black. Six of those nine were active players in 1987. Conservatively, it is presumed that there were at least 50 to 75 baseball players from Cincinnati who had major league ability without major league opportunity.
Chuck Harmon | African American Resources | Cincinnati History Library and Archives (cincymuseum.org)
Cincinnati Tigers – Wikipedia
Celebrating Black History Month | Cincinnati Reds (mlb.com)
Negro League Baseball – Wikipedia
The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.
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