In football stadiums and ballparks, he fought for the rights of Black athletes
On a spring morning almost 80 years ago, Halley Harding marched past the 12-story tower watching over Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in search of a confrontation.
He had been a slick-fielding infielder in the Negro Leagues, barnstormed with the forerunner of the Harlem Globetrotters, worked for a movie production company, and promoted Club Alabam, the “swankiest night spot” on bustling Central Avenue.
But the one thing Harding couldn’t do was remain silent. The fast-talking city editor and sports columnist for the L.A. Tribune, a weekly Black-owned newspaper, joked that he laced on boxing gloves each morning to battle anyone and anything unjust.
Mornings like April 17, 1943, the day before the Pacific Coast League season opened at Wrigley Field, can be easy to overlook in the decades-long struggle for civil rights. What happened wasn’t Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge or Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of a bus, but instead one of innumerable smaller struggles amid the larger movement. As the country works through another era of racial reckoning, these unheralded moments, these forgotten trailblazers matter too. They should be remembered.
Though Harding’s fights, small and large, have faded into history, his impact hasn’t. He led the effort to reintegrate the NFL and helped set the stage for Jackie Robinson to become the first Black player in the modern era of major league baseball. Harding had an unflinching, unrelenting, almost prophetic certainty that those barriers — and so many others — would be obliterated.
Few things rankled Harding more than professional baseball’s color line. A half-million Black Americans were serving in the armed forces and down the street from Wrigley Field the casualty collection station begged for volunteers to care for the wounded in case of an air raid. But baseball couldn’t find space for a single Black player in the midst of a second world war? He savaged this as un-American.
“I really wonder if the powers that be in baseball know that a speeding bullet does NOT veer when it gets to a colored person; nor does a bomb from a plane fail to explode simply because the target turns out to be colored soldiers,” Harding wrote in the Tribune. “It is high time that the same people who unhesitatingly ask them to sacrifice their lives in time of war fix it so that in time of peace, this liberty they are supposed to have bled and died for becomes reality.
“Last season’s baseball contributed many dollars to worthy causes, and rightly so, but baseball also provided America’s enemies with their greatest single piece of propaganda, by barring the colored American.”
After months of campaigning to integrate pro baseball, Harding and other Black journalists in L.A. had little to show beyond broken promises by Pacific Coast League power brokers. So on that April morning, Harding invited himself into Wrigley Field as the Oakland Oaks worked out. He brought Chet Brewer, a pitcher with a knee-buckling curveball who starred for the Kansas City Monarchs, and Oland “Lou” Dials, another Negro Leagues veteran.
Harding, standing 5 feet 9 if the measurement was generous and with a rotund figure thanks to an appetite that got regular mentions in gossip columns, asked manager Johnny Vergez to audition the men. The manager refused.
Harding, Brewer and Dials pooled their cash to place a long-distance call to team owner Vincent Devincenzi. The owner, by all accounts, ordered the manager to go through with the tryouts. Vergez turned red and refused.
“Perspiring profusely and pacing up and down, Vergez closed the conversation with these now historical words,” the California Eagle reported. “‘I won’t do it. I’ll quit my job first. I’ll be dammed if I’ll do it.’”
Decades later, Harding recalled the exchange differently to Chicago Tribune columnist David Condon: “[Vergez] just looked at me through those tears and said he was sorry but he didn’t have the guts to do it.”
Brewer and Dials left without tryouts — both eventually worked as scouts for major league teams after the sport integrated — and Vergez kept his job. Harding had lost this round. But he wasn’t done.
Harding was always in a hurry, whether for social progress or to arrive in time for kickoff, and, if you believe the story, once pulled a gun on a cabbie to encourage him to drive against traffic to the Memorial Coliseum. His columns seemed to grab you by the shirt and not let go until you saw things his way.
The columns are tinged with the weariness and frustration of a man who yearned to “wake up some morning and be a REAL AMERICAN and the only thing you had to fight for was an existence.” His athletic and linguistic gifts would have transformed him into a household name in this era. Instead, he doubted he would be remembered.
“Everywhere he went and tried to play until he got to Black colleges, or got around Black people, he was always treated very, very poorly.”
Geoff Harding, speaking of his uncle, Halley Harding
Buried in the Rock Island (Ill.) High School yearbook from 1920 is a photo of a slender, stern-faced young man. The piercing eyes and determined expression set William Claire Harding — he hadn’t yet adopted the nickname Halley — apart from the rest of the senior class.
“Claire went to school as he does everything — just as he happens to feel like doing,” the photo caption reads.
Born to Hydous and Anna Harding in Wichita, Kan., on Nov. 13, 1904, he was the oldest of five children (another died as a youngster). His father was a clerk and stenographer for the Illinois Oil Co., his mother an “agent/reporter” for the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers.
Harding, who made a point to never drink or smoke, worked as a porter after high school while playing semipro basketball for the local Rovers and “clean, fast football” for the Black Devils before embarking on a dizzying career.
“Everywhere he went and tried to play until he got to Black colleges, or got around Black people, he was always treated very, very poorly,” his nephew Geoff Harding said. “There was a bitterness about him. Without bragging, he knew that he had a lot to offer, and to have his brain, his integrity, his abilities, all of them ignored over and over and over and over again had to be so disheartening.”
At Wilberforce University in Ohio, he played quarterback and halfback, and a sportswriter likened tackling Harding to corralling a greased pig.
His brash personality attracted as much attention as the on-field exploits. After Harding led a player revolt over the starting lineup, an observer labeled him “hard to handle.” He joined Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1928, helped the Wildcats to an undefeated season and earned first-team All-America honors before tacking on a seventh season of college football with Fisk University in Nashville.
The Rock Island telephone directory listed “athletic baseball player” next to Harding’s name, and he would play for the Indianapolis ABCs, Detroit Stars and the Monarchs. By his own admission, he was “cocky as all get out.” During a game with the Stars, Bill “Steel Arm” Taylor hucked a pitch at Harding’s head. He blocked it with his hand. Taylor rushed forward, spewing apologies.
“When I thought he was near enough I swung that Spalding stick right at his noggin,” Harding wrote. “I missed, but the breeze scared him, then I jumped up and ran him out of the old Mack park down the street. I didn’t catch him, but the bosses had to threaten me with suspension if I didn’t let him come back in.”
He never forgot the first time at bat against famed pitcher Satchel Paige, displaying uncharacteristic humility: “All we got to see was a white string going by waist high like a bat out of hell.” He eventually became Paige’s business manager and publicity agent.
Decades later, Harding told unending stories about those days but still seethed over conditions Negro Leagues players faced: “Life in the Negro leagues is worse than anything Grapes of Wrath has to offer. We rode four days and nights without ever sleeping in a bed, and then with one day’s rest and one of practice they made us play a double-header. After that, because we complained we were stiff and tired they told us we weren’t the fellow for them and gave us the bounce.”
In 1931, Harding suited up for the Savoy Big Five basketball team (he was later called the “greatest basketball clown in the game,” a backhanded compliment to someone known for defense and an “inclination for roughness”), hit leadoff for the Chicago Columbia Giants, landed his first byline in the Defender.
A year later he toured Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines with the Philadelphia Royal Giants baseball team. His baseball career stalled, however, seemingly because of his outspoken ways.
Years later, Charles J. Livingston wrote for the Associated Negro Press that Harding’s “athletic career was an example of the cruel racism against which he crusaded so ardently” and that unfulfilled promise led to him taking up “the pen as a weapon.”
Having once toured Southern California with an all-star group of Black footballers from Chicago, he returned to L.A. and settled a few blocks from the Dunbar Hotel, the focal point of Central Avenue. By the mid-1930s, Harding had married (the first of several unions and ruptures), worked as an investigator, been mentioned by the Defender as a “rising young politician” and joined the L.A. Illustrated Reflector newspaper as an associate editor. His early clips included a breathless story about a murder-suicide on Central Avenue.
When producer Harry M. Popkin started Million Dollar Productions in 1937 with actor/choreographer Ralph Cooper, Harding came along to Hollywood as a casting location director, then production manager. The company aimed to make movies with all-Black casts that weren’t exploitative. Harding, who appeared in a handful of the company’s pictures, told the Indianapolis Recorder that he hoped people would see them “not because they are colored cast pictures, but because they are good pictures.”
In the midst of the movie business and starting a newsreel company, Harding went after one of L.A.’s most popular boxing venues. Speaking for several Black newspapers in 1939, he demanded the state athletic commission conduct a “full and complete” probe into Black boxers not being welcome at the Hollywood American Legion stadium. Under pressure from the state, the venue dropped the policy two months later. The Eagle splashed the news across its front page in type usually reserved for the beginning of a war.
He eventually landed at the Tribune writing a sports column called “So What?” The newspaper, along with the rest of the city’s collection of vibrant Black weeklies, told a vastly different story about L.A. than dailies like The Times.
“I am getting sick and tired of accounts of fights and events in which the colored American takes part and the writer saying, ‘Joe Blokes, the Negro’ did so-and-so,” Harding wrote. “It seems that some writers want their readers to feel that the participant was some kind of human being other than a white man.”
The fight to integrate baseball quickly became a focal point. In the spring of 1943, Herman Hill, the first Black basketball letterman at USC and the Pittsburgh Courier’s West Coast correspondent, and Harding successfully lobbied L.A. Councilman Carl C. Rasmussen and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gordon McDonough to oppose discrimination in the sport. The efforts went nowhere, but getting their backing was a victory and added to the pressure on professional baseball.
Harding assumed leadership of a committee urging integration and, making no headway with the Pacific Coast League, they picketed Wrigley Field before the Los Angeles Angels played the Hollywood Stars on May 23, 1943, a month after his confrontation with Vergez. The protesters, maybe two or three dozen, carried signs reading, “Let’s all be Americans — Stop Discrimination.” In a letter later that year, W.C. Tuttle, the league’s president, wrote that the “crowd was not friendly” to the picketers and warned the sport faced a “race situation.”
“With our boys on EVERY front helping as much or more than any group of people, in baseball it’s still ANYBODY BUT a NEGRO,” fumed Harding, who still played shortstop for rec league teams and had the sore arm to prove it.
In late October 1945, former UCLA multi-sport star Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top farm team, the beginning of the end of professional baseball’s color line.
“To us of the press who have fought and fought for this chance, this is something like the first day of the Millennium,” Harding wrote.
He suggested professional football, which hadn’t had a Black player since Joe Lillard suited up for the Chicago Cardinals in 1933, follow the example from baseball’s “sudden come-uppance of Democracy.” The opportunity came sooner than expected when the NFL’s Cleveland Rams announced they were moving to L.A.
When the public commission that governed the Coliseum met Jan. 15, 1946, Rams general manager Chile Walsh urged it to allow the team to play there. Harding asked if the Rams planned to use Black players. Walsh insisted no rule, written or otherwise, barred Blacks from the league.
“He turned pale and started to stutter,” Herman Hill wrote in a letter to Ebony decades later.
On a January afternoon 71 years ago, Halley Harding crowded into a conference room at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and posed a question that transformed the NFL.
Harding said he found it “singularly strange” that Kenny Washington, the West Coast’s top player, hadn’t received an NFL tryout. He accused the league of turning its back on Black players, like legends Fritz Pollard and Duke Slater, who helped build it.
At a meeting two weeks later, Coliseum Commission president Leonard J. Roach said, “legally we have no power” to make the Rams integrate — the lease had no language about discrimination. The Rams signed Washington on March 22, 1946, but issued a news release insisting “no precedent is being set” by the move. Two months later, the Rams added another Black player, Woody Strode, who had been Washington’s teammate at UCLA.
Harding didn’t relent, joining Hill and two other Black newspapermen that summer in suing to keep another professional football team, the Dons, from playing at the Coliseum because they didn’t have Black players.
As the battles for equality piled up, Harding felt overlooked. After moving to the L.A. Sentinel in 1949, he wrote that “not one word of appreciation has been given by message or word of mouth” by Black players in the NFL and Black professional baseball players “who had no part in breaking down the barrier” their predecessors once faced.
“We feel it’s a sin for one not to use any ability he or she might have to help,” Harding wrote, “and so we in our small way will keep on fighting the issue as we see it.”
“Halley was relentless in his fight for equality of his people.”
Halley Harding’s obituary
He relocated to Chicago in 1952 with uncharacteristic quiet, worked as an auto insurance investigator and in public relations and managed a traveling basketball team before joining the weekly Chicago New Crusader to write a column called “Just Breezing Along the Sports Front” that continued to punch back against discrimination.
“Halley was relentless in his fight for equality of his people,” the New Crusader wrote in his obituary.
Condon, the Tribune columnist, referred to Harding as the “writing artist in residence at the Southmoor Hotel,” his home in Chicago. He suffered a stroke in his car and died four days later on April 1, 1967, at age 62. When Geoff Harding, the nephew, visited his uncle’s hotel room, he found just a couple of suits and a radio.
A showcase for compelling storytelling
from the Los Angeles Times.
Harding couldn’t witness other sports milestones, such as Frank Robinson becoming the first Black manager in major league baseball in 1975 or Jason Wright becoming the first Black team president of an NFL team in 2020. Instead, Harding was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. More than a dozen Negro Leagues players are there too. So are civil rights martyr Emmett Till and heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles.
But Harding’s gravestone — the birthdate is wrong — is one marker among thousands. He seemed to sense that history would move on and leave his memory behind.
“I will make up my mind that although I do the work and someone else takes the credit, I will not care so long as the job gets done,” Harding wrote in 1949. “Anyway, the reward is in heaven, but I’ll never make it.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.