As I was doing research for another piece, I stumbled upon the name Halley Harding. My curiosity eventually convinced me to ask: Who is he and why should we know more about him?
William Claire (Halley) Harding was born in Kansas City, Missouri and reportedly was an “athlete vagabond” as a young adult during the 1920s. He played college football for at least four Black colleges; played Negro Leagues baseball with the likes of Satchel Paige; was a member of an all-Black basketball team, a forerunner to the Harlem Globetrotters, and also played semi-pro football on two all-Black teams when Blacks were “color-banned” from the NFL. He also played bit roles in two Black movies in 1939 and 1940.
“He was all over the place,” reports San Francisco-based author and historian Gretchen Atwood on Harding, who made his greatest mark in sports writing. He regularly challenged the then-status quo in pro sports — along with other Black writers of his era — for Black newspapers, which consistently put the need of full integration in all aspects of U.S. society on their front pages.
Atwood first discussed Harding in a 2008 LA Weekly article titled “Unsung Heroes of Rams Football Integration” about the NFL team’s first relocation to Los Angeles in 1946. She detailed the efforts of Harding and others in pushing for the integration of the Rams that year, a year before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.
“There’s more written about pushing for Jackie Robinson and other Black [baseball] players to get tryouts and spots in pro baseball,” explains Atwood in a MSR phone interview. She chronicles the entire sequence of events in her book Lost Champions (2016), which is featured in this week’s Sports Odds and Ends.
His vagabond travels brought Harding to California, where he wrote for one of Los Angeles’ Black newspapers, and according to Atwood, led the Black sports press contingent in pressuring the Rams — who were seeking to lease the Los Angeles Coliseum — to use Black players if they wanted to use the publicly-owned stadium. Harding himself forced the Rams officials to put their pledge in writing.
“He definitely was kind of the ringleader and spokesperson for the group” of Black sportswriters, notes Atwood. Under not-so-subtle pressure from the scribes, Kenny Washington and Woody Strobe were later signed by the Rams — they were among the first four Black players that broke NFL’s color line.
But Harding, who later left and moved to Chicago to continue his journalist crusading ways, died in 1967 after a stroke, He never really got his full credit for his efforts.
“He was very involved in getting the NFL [to] integrate — more involved I’d say than any other individual,” states Atwood on Harding. “There was a small obituary on him in Jet Magazine.”
Forcing pro football to sign Black players, finally erasing a color ban, was one more thing the Black Press did in advocating societal change in this country, says Atwood. “The integration of the military was another thing the Black Press had a huge role in pushing for,” she points out.
“I hope both Harding and other folk who were writing at the time get more recognition for what they did. “The people who did the most work often don’t get the credit,” concludes Atwood.
Thank God for the internet.
Read more about Halley Harding and Atwood’s book in this week’s Sports Odds and Ends.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.