Halley Harding was a three-sport star in college and the pros who played for both the Kansas City Monarchs and one of the early Globetrotters basketball teams, tried out for the Chicago Cardinals, and appeared with Fritz Pollard’s New York Brown Bombers. He played baseball in Japan, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and somehow managed to stretch out his varsity college football career over (at least) seven seasons and four different schools. An irrepressible character and mile-a-minute talker, Harding was a nervy know-it-all who once presumed to instruct Ernie Nevers in how to kick a football. He argued with managers and feuded with Buck O’Neil in the pages of The Sporting News. He boxed and acted and produced newsreels and movies. As a young man he tended to talk his way into trouble, but as he matured he parlayed his gift of gab into a career as a crusading journalist and civil rights activist who played a key role in breaking pro football’s color line. But until Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated called for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 (along with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the players Harding helped get signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 1946), he had been virtually forgotten.
William Claire Harding was born in Wichita, Kansas, on November 13, 1904. I don’t know anything about his parents or his upbringing, but indirect evidence suggests that the family probably moved to Chicago when he was relatively young. In the early 1920s he attended Knox College of Galesburg, Illinois, for at least a year; by fall 1924, he had transferred to Wilberforce University in Ohio, home of one of the best black college football teams in the country. He also played basketball and baseball in college, but he was best known as a quarterback and punter.
At the time there was evidently a problem with what you might call “revolvers” in black college football, players who used up their eligibility at one school, then simply moved on to another one. Elwood Barker blew the whistle on this sort of activity in a 1933 article in the Chicago Defender, noting for example that “a few years ago” a number of players at “a certain school in Georgia” popped up two years later, en masse, at “another school in Tennessee and being called young blood” (Chicago Defender, September 9, 1933). Often the college teams claimed that new players were freshmen recruited out of high school, touting recommendations from their former high school coaches, when in reality the school had simply recruited them from a rival. The insinuation here is that the players were being paid under the table, and that at least the major colleges were effectively running professional or semi-professional football teams.
Halley Harding, wrote Barker, departed from the usual pattern, first by essentially doing his own PR work, developing a network of contacts among the sportswriters of the black weeklies; and second by advertising the fact that he was moving from college to college rather than trying to conceal it. His openness apparently didn’t hurt his college career; aside from Knox and Wilberforce, Harding also played for Wiley College in Texas and Fisk University, running up a total of at least seven (and possibly more) college football seasons from 1924 through 1931.
Moreover, he also played all three of his sports—baseball, football, and basketball—professionally while school was not in session. Rules about amateur eligibility were apparently pretty lax at black colleges, although Harding did finally run afoul of them: at Wiley in 1929 Harding and Monarchs teammate “Goo Goo” Livingston, both mainstays of the Wildcats’ gridiron squad, were banned from the team for playing for pay during the term. (Wiley’s basketball and baseball coach, incidentally, was Fred T. Long, former Detroit Stars outfielder, who maintained extensive contacts within the Negro leagues, especially with the Monarchs, who employed many former Wiley players over the years.)
According to the Chicago Defender sportswriter Al Monroe, Harding had a tendency to “talk himself out” of schools, though he didn’t explain exactly what Harding would say. A story that circulated about his arrival at Fisk in 1930 might provide a clue. At his first practice with the football team, unbidden, he stepped up and announced that he would serve as captain and that he would be making “several changes in the line-up. All the rest of you have to do is follow my instructions and then watch those wooden soldiers fall.”
Harding’s professional resumé was amazingly packed—even without considering that his pro career, in three sports, unfolded almost entirely while he was still at college. He played for early versions of the team that became the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1920s, and in 1930 he joined the Savoy Big Five, managed by NFL and track and field star Sol Butler (a 1920 Olympian), which also featured George Fiall (formerly of the Renaissance Five), and NFL/Chicago American Giants star Joe Lillard. Eventually Harding played for and helped to manage a traveling basketball team called the Los Angeles Hottentots which featured Butler as well as Herman Hill, USC’s first black basketball player and later a crusading sportswriter and colleague of Harding in his efforts to desegregate West Coast sports.
Harding played for at least two black pro football teams run by Fritz Pollard, the Chicago Black Hawks and the New York Brown Bombers, and went to camp with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in the early 1930s. One story has it that Harding saw Ernie Nevers, the team captain and one of the greatest all-around players in the game at the time, practicing kicking. Halley approached Nevers and took the ball from him, saying, “Here, I’ll show you how to get your kick-off properly.” The astonished Nevers turned red, but stood aside and said nothing while Harding demonstrated the correct way to kick off to the five-time All-Pro and eventual Hall of Famer.
Whether due to his effrontery or (more likely) to the fact that the NFL was busily shedding its black players at the time, the Cards eventually decided they had no room for Harding, and so he never did appear for the team.
Even though it was probably not his best sport, it was baseball that gave Harding the most prominence as a professional. He joined the Indianapolis A.B.C.’s of the Negro National League in 1926, then spent most of his baseball career with the Detroit Stars and Kansas City Monarchs as a pugnacious, pepperpot shortstop, left fielder, and leadoff hitter. He played in the Negro leagues through the 1931 season, then in 1932 traveled with several of his Monarchs’ teammates on the Philadelphia Royal Giants to Japan and other Asian countries, following this up with a sojourn in Puerto Rico in 1933. Harding was fast and hit well, highlighted by a .371 average in his rookie season (1926) and .327 for the champion Kansas City Monarchs in 1929, and walked at an above-average rate for the Negro leagues (33 in 69 games in 1928). He was supposedly only a touch slower than Evar Swanson, who famously circled the bases in 13.2 seconds in 1930 (and who was born and went to Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois, also the location of one of Harding’s many alma maters, Knox College).
Halley Harding was often compared to Art Shires, because like the Braves first baseman Harding was known for loudly touting his own abilities. In 1930 he even reportedly considered challenging Shires, who had recently taken up boxing, to a bout, though it apparently never happened. When Harding was signed by the Detroit Stars, veteran player/manager Bingo DeMoss tried to correct some aspect of his fielding. No, no, replied Harding. “What you want to do is change your style to the one I am employing. That is the way to make this a great ball club.” The owner of the Chicago American Giants, Robert A. Cole, commented in 1933 that if he signed Harding, within a few months “the fellow would be president of my team and I would be his assistant.”
When Harding was in Japan with the Royal Giants in 1932, an account got back to the Chicago Defender about how Harding, observing some Japanese youth playing jai alai (of all things), took it upon himself to wade in and start instructing them on how to play the game. “None of Hallie’s other strange moves in sports,” the Defender concluded, “will begin to compare with his latest of attempting to teach the Japanese pointers in a sport he never saw played until two weeks ago.” The headline called him “Hallie (I’ll Show You) Harding.”
With his athletic career beginning to wane, Harding, like a number of other black athletes on the west coast before him (most notably Edgar “Blue” Washington, first baseman for the Monarchs in 1920), entered the movie business. But Harding started out, not as an actor, but as a producer for Million Dollar Productions, an historic, black-run company that made feature films starring black casts for black audiences. In 1939 he even struck out on his own, founding a newsreel company in Chicago. I wasn’t able to find out what happened with that effort, but it likely didn’t last, as by 1940 Harding was back in Los Angeles, this time dabbling in acting, with cameo appearances in a couple of all-black action films, Mystery in Swing and Gang War. A photo in Phil Dixon’s The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History reveal Halley’s taste for theatrics, showing him posing in a pretend holdup with his Monarchs teammate Carroll Mothell in the early 1930s.
In 1931 Harding briefly penned a “column of wise cracks about athletes, written by one of the finest and smartest of them all,” for the Chicago Defender (the first installment included an explanation of Turkey Stearnes’s nickname: “When he runs his bosom sticks out and his arms flop back in real turkey style”). By the mid-1930s Harding had become a west coast correspondent for the Defender, mostly reporting on sports, though he also produced some coverage of a sensational murder case in 1936. Within a few years he had became city editor and sports columnist for the African-American weekly Los Angeles Tribune, and quickly found his calling as a crusader for civil rights in sports. In 1940 he led a successful movement to open an American Legion-owned boxing venue in Hollywood to African-American fighters; and within a couple of years he was heavily involved in a campaign to desegregate the Pacific Coast League, advocating especially the cause of his friend and former Monarchs teammate Chet Brewer.
Harding’s former basketball teammate Herman Hill, now a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, contacted the owner of the PCL’s Oakland Oaks in 1942, and got an oral commitment from him to give a tryout to a few African-American players. When the Oaks came to Los Angeles for a series that spring, Harding put together a “committee” to call on Oakland manager Johnny Vergez. They called the Oakland owner in Vergez’s presence and put Vergez on the phone, whereupon the manager was told “to take a couple of colored players and see what they could do.” Vergez agreed, but hung up, turned around and announced to Harding and the rest that “he would quit baseball first before he would hire a colored player.” Harding responded that he hoped he’d be fired (which he eventually was), but still no black players ever got a chance with the Oaks until after Jackie Robinson.
Like other members of the black sporting press who pressed for integration, Harding developed a complicated and contentious relationship with the Negro leagues, which he came to view as obstacles to racial progress. The Negro leagues, he argued, were crass and exploitative. In 1943 he claimed in the Los Angeles Tribune that, “since the advent of night baseball…some teams have been known to play 14 games a week…On holidays, it is not unusual for a team to play FOUR games: one in the morning, two in the afternoon and one at night…in THREE different towns.” According to Harding, “no big league colored team plays less than 250 games a year, and the Monarchs, Grays, and the Elites play nearly 300 or more.” Later that same year he wrote that “the colored and white owners of baseball teams in the various colored leagues are not too hot for organized baseball to open up for us. The dopes don’t realize they could still have teams. Selling players to the major leagues has always made plenty of money. Progress always takes care of lumps just like gravy does flour. You assimilate or you get thrown in the garbage.”
Harding and others’ efforts to desegregate the PCL got nowhere in part because the league president, Clarence “Pants” Rowland, insisted that they couldn’t break the color line until the major leagues and the commissioner of baseball gave the go-ahead. They did not have the same problem with football, as the NFL moved its champion Cleveland Rams there for the 1946 season, giving Harding an opportunity to influence the sport at its highest professional level.
The Rams wanted to use the city-owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and had to seek permission at a public meeting of the Coliseum Commission on January 15, 1946. After his presentation, Rams general manager Charles “Chili” Walsh agreed to take questions from the public—whereupon Halley Harding seized the floor and delivered an impassioned, impromptu speech about the history of black players such as Fritz Pollard and Sol Butler in the early NFL, the sacrifices of black soldiers during the war, and the contributions of black workers and tax dollars to the construction and upkeep of the Coliseum itself. He pointed out that no African-American players had graced an NFL roster since Joe Lillard with the Cardinals in 1933, and called it “singularly strange” that the likes of Kenny Washington, former UCLA star who was at the time toiling for the Hollywood Bears of the integrated Pacific Coast Professional Football League, had never piqued the interest of NFL scouts.
In response, Walsh said the Rams would “take any player of ability we can get,” singling out Buddy Young of the University of Illinois (who would end up with the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference), and adding that “Kenny Washington is welcome to try out for our team anytime he likes.”
It’s easy to hear a studied nonchalance in that last remark, and in fact one wonders if Harding’s dramatic speech were really as “unsuspected” by Walsh as Herman Hill claimed it was in the Pittsburgh Courier. In any event Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946, followed a couple of months later by his UCLA and Hollywood Bears teammate Woody Strode. At one fell swoop that spring the three backfield stars of the 1939 UCLA Bruins—Washington, Strode, and Jackie Robinson up in Montreal—demolished the color lines of both pro football and pro baseball.
The march to integration only strengthened Harding’s case against the Negro leagues, which was deepened by bitter memories of his own career as a player. On March 30, 1950, Harding, by then a columnist for the Los Angeles Sentinel, criticized an unnamed Negro league team for supposedly playing a regulation game on the way to training camp. “That’s tops for low,” he snickered. “Imagine. Laying off all season and then playing on the way to get ready to play.” He went on to condemn Negro league owners for callously exploiting players, remembering that he’d been forced to play with the flu, and alleging that “you have to keel over playing before you get a day off in the colored league…Brother, you play with a broken leg if you can walk.” He denounced the Negro leagues as “a joke,” and mocked “the owners of colored teams,” who “yell that Organized Ball is killing them. All I say is, if that statement is true, then – HALLELUJAH – a dozen times.”
A few weeks later this passage was reprinted in The Sporting News, eliciting a furious response from one John “Buck” O’Neil, then manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. After denying that the incident Harding had mentioned was typical, and then lobbing a couple of personal potshots at Harding and the older generation of players for alleged poor training habits and malingering, O’Neil argued that “Organized Ball is not killing the Negro game, and it never will.” He pointed out that 200 men earned decent wages in the Negro American League, which, while not matching the exorbitant pay collected by Williams or DiMaggio, “beats hell out of loafing on Central avenue or Beale street or Eighteenth and Vine.”
Harding didn’t bother to respond at first, but several months later, in his Sentinel column, he mentioned O’Neil’s letter and how “he really took us over the coals for our lack of respect for the colored leagues and their founders.” Harding, with some justice, thought that O’Neil was missing the point “about how much baseball a colored player on one of those teams has to play a week.” Harding then expanded his critique to highlight the leagues’ unbalanced, disorganized schedule and the poor training received by players due to the unwillingness to pay for coaching staffs, concluding that “our leagues are holding back our players from organized baseball because of the excessive demands on the part of the greedy owners for their chattels.” “It would be much better,” he argued as always, for the Negro leagues “to join organized baseball and use the teams for farms for the various big league groups and sell players.”
In the long run, of course, Harding would get his way, as the desegregation of Organized Baseball did indeed kill the Negro leagues, though they hung on with a bit more tenacity than some expected. When it was rumored in 1959 that Branch Rickey’s Continental League might hire black umpires, Harding was mentioned as a candidate by Dan Burley in the Chicago Defender—provided he was able to recover from some unspecified ill health that had landed him in the hospital.
By the 1960s Halley Harding had moved back to Chicago to write for a “militant” weekly, The New Crusader, and that’s where he passed away on April 1, 1967. Charles J. Livingston of the Associated Negro Press penned these words in tribute:
To quote one of his ardent fans, “Halley blasted the h—l out of ‘em,” meaning of course, his attacks on those who would tone done or restrict the Negro’s role in sports. I personally know of one sports brass who would have liked to kick Harding right where he sat at his sports bench on the basketball sidelines.
Thus, it was as a crusading writer that Harding made his most effective mark in sports. As a writer, he was more of a provocative interpreter of events and conditions than a technician. A man of strong conviction, he ripped into anything smelly, racially or otherwise, and was a strong opponent of jobbery.
He was quick to point out anything he considered “a hustle.” He also campaigned for better pay and conditions for athletes, and once even criticized the Negro American League on these accounts…Harding never let up in his campaign on behalf of Negro athletes.
A colorful individual with an intense love for sports, Harding would often bound off the sports bench at basketball games to denounce anything that smacked of bias, slackery, or bad strategy. He once criticized guard Sihugo Green of the then-pro Chicago Zephyrs for “bouncing the ball too much backcourt. Pass it off!” he yelled. “ Get it down court to the forwards!”
Which pretty much sums up Halley Harding, when you think about it.
(Originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, November 10, 2010.)