Vernon Harrison

This article was written by Margaret A. Gripshover

The story of Vernon Randolph Harrison and the 1946 Newark Eagles is a case of “did he or didn’t he?” Did Lefty Harrison pitch for Newark during the 1946 season, or was the Harrison whose name appeared in at least one box score Vernon Harrison or someone else? Negro League baseball research on teams and individuals is fraught with two major problems – the lack of records of persons and/or events makes it difficult to find reliable information, or errors in the records of persons and/or events may lead to questionable conclusions. In the case of Vernon Harrison, he did indeed play for the Newark Eagles. He signed a contract with the team in 1939.1 That can be verified through newspaper accounts and baseball statistics. The question is, was the Harrison who was credited with playing in at least one game with the Newark Eagles in 1946 really Vernon R. Harrison, another player named Harrison, or not a Harrison at all? This is one of many baseball mysteries that may never be solved, but Vernon Harrison’s story before and after his baseball career is worth telling, and, with any luck, the answer to the real identity of the Harrison who played for the Newark Eagles in 1946 may eventually be resolved.

Vernon Randolph Harrison was born on July 13, 1919, in Norfolk, Virginia. His parents, Henry J. Harrison Sr. and Anna (Milteer) Harrison, were both born in Nansemond County, Virginia (today the independent city of Suffolk), situated in the Hampton Roads region of southeastern Virginia. Vernon had seven siblings, one of whom died as an infant from measles. Six of the seven were born in Virginia and spent their early childhoods in Portsmouth, where their father, Henry J. Harrison Sr., was a carpenter and contractor. In the early 1920s, Henry’s business was successful enough that it warranted paying to have his name appear in boldface as an advertisement in the Portsmouth City Directory.2

In 1923 Henry and Anna moved their family to Pleasantville, New Jersey, a town about eight miles west of Atlantic City. That same year, Vernon’s youngest sibling, Emmett H. Harrison, was born in Pleasantville. Coincidentally, one of the Harrisons’ neighbors in Pleasantville was Maxwell C. “Max” Manning, who played for the Newark Eagles. Vernon and his family lived just one block away from the Mannings, on McKinley Street. Manning, who signed with Newark in 1939, was with the team in 1946 and pitched two games in the Negro League World Series.3

The lives of Vernon Harrison and his family were shattered on September 10, 1933, when Vernon’s father was killed in an automobile accident that also seriously injured Vernon’s two youngest brothers, Henry and Emmett Harrison.4 Harrison’s car collided head-on with another vehicle, then “bounded into a ditch and overturned” near the town of Port Republic, about 10 miles north of Pleasantville.5 Henry Sr., 45 years old, died shortly after being taken to the Atlantic City Hospital. Henry Jr. and Emmett suffered lacerations and head injuries.6

Shortly before the accident the family had moved to Atlantic City, where Vernon started his high-school education. Four years later, in 1937, Vernon’s mother moved the family to Jersey City and Vernon began attending Lincoln High School, where he was the only African-American on the varsity baseball team.7 His coach, J. Warren “Warnie” Young, told a reporter that he was “especially enthusiastic over the fine pegging turned in by Vernon Harrison, a colored southpaw … [who] has a fine fastball and in addition to his hurling ability is also a dangerous man with the willow.”8 Young’s assessment was prescient. Harrison was named to the first team Hudson County all-star high-school team at the end of his first year at Lincoln High, an honor he repeated the following year in both baseball and basketball,9 when he was described as “the slickest and most brilliant passer to appear in our midst in some time [and] is a star baseball pitcher with a trick knee.”10 Harrison chose baseball over basketball and football for his senior year, however, perhaps to protect himself (and his knee) for what he foresaw as a possible professional career.

While attending Lincoln High, Harrison also pitched for various local nines including Selmod Athletic Club of the Fifth Ward Twilight League, and the Jersey City Colored Athletics.11 He took the mound in the summer of 1937 as a member of the Loew’s Jersey theater team for a charity event at the Polo Grounds against a team representing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.12

Quitting the basketball team to concentrate on baseball paid off when Harrison was signed by the Newark Eagles shortly after graduating from Lincoln in 1939.13 He was described as “one of the best looking prospects to enter the [Negro National League] in a number of years.”14 (A week earlier, Max Manning, Vernon’s former neighbor in in Pleasantville, had been added to the Eagles’ roster.15

Harrison made his Eagles debut on July 4, 1939, in a 7-0 loss to the New York Black Yankees at Dexter Park in Queens, New York.16 He pitched two innings in relief after the Black Yankees knocked out Newark’s starter, Jim Brown, and his reliever, Big Train Cozart.17 Harrison gave up three runs but struck out two Black Yankees. The outcome did not bode well for his future with Newark. Harrison’s next start came the following day, but not for the Eagles. He was back in his old uniform for the Jersey City Frank Association of the semipro Twilight League, and pitched a no-hitter, against the McDermott Association, missing a perfect game by one walk.18 Harrison was with the Franks the rest of the summer. He did not pitch for the Eagles for the rest of the 1939 season.

In the spring of 1940, Harrison was working as a baggage porter at the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal, not far from the home he shared with his mother, sister, and two brothers in Jersey City.19 His pitching was limited to a handful of appearances on the mound for the semipro Jersey City Negro Athletics. By August, cracks in Harrison’s game were beginning to show. In a 7-1 loss to the West Haverstraw Dunnigans, Harrison’s pitching was so unsteady that it earned him the headline “Jersey Pitcher’s Wildness Ruins Game He Tried Hard to Win.”20 In October Harrison married Althea Van Croft in Jersey City. Their expected betrothal must have been the talk of the town. Earlier that year, a cheeky gossip column in the New York Age speculated about their impending engagement by popping a question of its own:“Say, do you know when Lefty Harrison and Althea Van Croft will say I do?”21

In 1941 the couple became parents with the birth of son Vernon J. Harrison. Also, he joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a team that had seen better days. It had been 10 years since the Royal Giants were a member of the Negro Leagues Eastern division.22 In the intervening years, they had devolved into a semipro organization without a league and played against increasingly less prestigious opponents. In 1941 Harrison spent much of the season in the bullpen along with a teammate, Marlon “Sugar” Cain. Brooklyn played mostly local nines, regional semipro clubs, and the barnstorming House of David. At least once Harrison went on the road with the Royal Giants for a June 27 game against the Lloyd Athletic Club of Chester, Pennsylvania.23 He was the starting pitcher and was removed after giving up four runs in the first three innings.24 (His replacement, Sugar Cain, pitched six shutout innings; the Royal Giants fell, 4-2.25) After the foray to Chester, Harrison’s name did not appear in Brooklyn’s game results for the rest of the season.

Harrison resurfaced in August 1942, starting a game for his old team, the Jersey City Colored Athletics.26 The game, a World War II fundraiser for the USO, pitted the Athletics, against Local 16, a group of shipyard workers.27 Harrison started out strong but flagged by the fifth inning when he gave up five earned runs as the Colored Athletics lost, 12-5.28

Sometime later Harrison served in the US Navy, sailing mainly on patrol vessels along the Pacific Coast, searching for enemy submarines.”29 After his discharge in August 1945, he returned to Jersey City. He remained active in veterans affairs, and in 1946 he helped establish the United Negro Veterans of World War II, serving as the organization’s first treasurer.30 In 1946, he also went back to playing baseball.

Harrison joined the newly constituted Jersey City Minor Leaguers in the spring of 1946, and stayed with the team through 1947. The Minor Leaguers were mostly World War II veterans, some of whom, like Harrison, had played in organized ball.31 Harrison was the only African-American on the team.32 He started a game against the Puerto Rican Stars in May and was described in the Jersey Journal as a “Negro southpaw who hurled for Lincoln High School and served in the armed forces during World War II.”33 It was not unusual for sportswriters to mention his high-school pitching accomplishments, even though he had graduated from Lincoln High School nearly a decade earlier. There was no mention, however, of Harrison’s stint with the Newark Eagles in 1939, or of any contract offers in the offing for him for the 1946 season.

Did Vernon Harrison pitch for the Newark Eagles in 1946? An account of an Eagles game played on July 28, 1946, suggested that he did.34 The Pittsburgh Courier reported that “Harrison” (no first name given) played in the first game of a doubleheader against the Homestead Grays in Washington. But this particular Harrison turned out not to be Vernon Harrison: He played third base and batted second in the lineup. Vernon Harrison was a left-handed pitcher with no history of being used as a position player, even going back to his high-school days. Why would the league-leading Eagles call upon Vernon Harrison to play third base when he had not appeared in an Eagles uniform since 1939? In a game being played in Washington, 225 miles from Jersey City. The answer is that they wouldn’t have. If Newark’s starting third baseman, Andrew “Pat” Patterson wasn’t available, Clarence “Pint” Isreal could have stepped in to take his place. In fact, Isreal was in the dugout that night and came in as a pinch-runner in the first game and then played third base in place of “Harrison” in the nightcap. So it is highly improbable that the Harrison who played third base for Newark was Vernon Harrison. In all likelihood, there was an error in the reporting of the game and Harrison was actually Newark’s regular third baseman, Pat Patterson; the misidentification was simply a typo in the box score, something that was not at all unusual in that time.

The closest that Vernon Harrison came to having an actual association with the Newark Eagles in 1946 was when he pitched for the Jersey City Minor Leaguers against the Newark Buffaloes. The Buffaloes’ manager was Mule Suttles, Harrison’s former teammate from the 1939 Eagles. The two teams faced each other multiple times during the summer of 1946. Harrison was mostly relegated to the role of a reliever, although he did enjoy occasional success as a starter.35

Harrison resumed his pitching duties for the Jersey City Colored Athletics in the spring of 1947. Newspaper coverage of semipro baseball leagues was in 1947 spotty at best and the results of just a handful of Colored Athletics games were reported in which Harrison played, none with box scores. The 1947 season became Harrison’s baseball swan song. He had some memorable highlights to savor such as a one-hitter he tossed against the East Orange Red Sox, but after the 1947 Colored Athletics’ season was over, Vernon Harrison’s name vanished from the sports pages.36 Although it is not out of the question that Harrison continued to play on some local or amateur teams, for all intents and purposes, he pitched his last professional game in 1947. After leaving baseball, Harrison pursued careers as a firefighter and police officer in Jersey City.37 By the time he started training as a fireman, his family had expanded to four with the birth of a daughter, Christine.

When Vernon Randolph Harrison died in Jersey City on March 18, 1978, at the age of 58, he was survived by his wife, Althea, his two children, three grandchildren, and three of his seven siblings.38 He is buried in the Bay View Cemetery in Jersey City. Although he was not a member of the Newark Eagles during their memorable 1946 season, he made his own contributions to baseball history, as well as serving his country, fellow veterans, and his community.

Notes

1 “Rookie Looks Good,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 8, 1938: 17.

2 Norfolk and Portsmouth City Directory (Norfolk, Virginia: Hill Directory Company, 1922), 1197.

3 “Newark, Black Yanks Go on Barnstorming Trip,” New Amsterdam News, July 1, 1939: 19.

4 “The Dead,” Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), September 11, 1933: 10.

5 “2 Die, Scores Hurt in South Jersey Weekend Crashes, Camden (New Jersey) Courier-Post, September 11, 1933: 10.

6 The Dead.”

7 The Quill, Lincoln High School Yearbook, 1937), 89.

8 “Scholastic News,” Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), April 2, 1937: 16.

9 “Three All-County Players of 1936 Retain Berths,” Jersey Journal, June 17, 1937: 12; James H. Haygood Jr., “All-Star Basketball Team chosen by Staff Writer of the New York Age for 3rd Time,” New York Age, April 9, 1938: 11.

10 Haygood.

11 “Monmouths Clash with Selmod A.C,” Jersey Journal, July 10, 1938: 11; “Cakeaters to Play Sunday,” Jersey Journal, June 23, 1937: 17.

12 “Loew Nine Plays in Polo Grounds,” Jersey Journal, September 17, 1937: 15.

13 “Newark, Black Yanks.”

14 “Rookie Looks Good,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 8, 1938: 17.

15 “Newark, Black Yanks.”

16 “Black Yankees, Eagles Divide,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 5, 1939: 17.

17 Ibid.

18 “Harrison Hurls Near Perfect Game in Tioga Twilight Loop,” Jersey Journal, July 6, 1939: 15.

19 US Census Bureau, 1940 Census.

20 “Jersey Pitcher’s Wildness Ruins Game He Tried Hard to Win,” Rockland County (New York) Times, August 24, 1940: 7.

21 Andy Goldman and Harold Baker, “Soil Tiller,” New York Age, March 16, 1940: 11.

22 John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of the History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001), 276-279.

23 “Lloyd Scores Impressive Win Over Brooklyn,” Delaware County Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), June 28, 1941: 14.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 “Local 16 Conquer Athletics,” Jersey Journal, August 17, 1946: 11.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 US Navy, USS PC-800, Muster Roll of Crews, April 1, 1946.

30 “Jersey Negro Vets Form Local Group,” New Amsterdam News, March 9, 1946: 5.

31 “Minor Leaguers Make Debut Against Puerto Rican Stars,” Jersey Journal, May 4, 1946: 7.

32 “Mule Suttles’ New’k Buffaloes Coming Here Sunday Afternoon,” Jersey Journal, June 6, 1946: 17.

33 “Minor Leaguers, Puerto Rican Stars in Twin Bill Tomorrow,” Jersey Journal, May 19, 1946: 9.

34 Ric Roberts, “Fields Blanks Newark,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 3, 1946: 17.

35 “Minors Face Nutley Team in Twin Bill,” Jersey Journal, June 29, 1946: 7; “Local Club Takes Pair of Clashes,” Jersey Journal, June 10, 1946: 11; “JC Minor Leaguers in Twin Bill,” Jersey Journal, July 3, 1946: 14; “Minor Leaguers Defeated,” Jersey Journal, August 13, 1946: 11.

36 “Harrison’s Hurling Is Big Feature,” Jersey Journal, April 28, 1947: 11.

37 “Funds Tight, City May Name Only 25 Cops, Less Firemen,” Jersey Journal. February 11, 1954: 6.; “Death Notices,” Jersey Journal, March 20, 1978: 3.

38 “Death Notices.”

Full Name

Vernon Randolph Harrison

Born

July 13, 1919 at Norfolk, VA (US)

Died

March 18, 1978 at Jersey City, NJ (US)

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