This story has been told in a few books, but those books generally get the facts wrong. The authors relied on the 50 and 60-year-old memories of participants, the same participants from whom I first heard the story from, but never checked the stories against contemporaneous accounts.
On October 23, 1934 the Pittsburgh Crawfords (the team was made up of many members of the Crawfords lineup, but also included Negro League stars from other teams) played the Dizzy Dean All-Stars (made up of the Dean brothers, a few current and former Major Leaguers and minor leaguers from the Pittsburgh area) at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. It was the final game of the Dean Brothers’ 1934 barnstorming tour. As with most of the games, Dizzy Dean, and Satchel Paige pitched the first two innings. After Dean was relieved by minor league pitcher Joe Semler, he went to left field.
In the bottom of the 5th, with the Crawfords trailing 4-3, Elander “Vic” Harris either bunted or “tapped the ball” in front of the plate and former and future major league catcher George Susce threw wide to first base. Harris advanced to second on the throw.
Dizzy Dean came in from left field and told home plate umpire James Ahearn that Harris had interfered with the throw. Ahearn called Harris out.
Harris ran from 2nd base to argue the call with Ahearn, a local Pittsburgh umpire with whom Harris had a contentious history.
Accounts vary at this point. Some newspapers said Harris picked up Ahearn’s mask and hit him with it. Other accounts said Harris grabbed the umpire’s mask (this is what Harris also maintained until his death).
Susce then went after Harris and a melee broke out. Josh Gibson came to Harris’ aid and wrestled Susce away from him. Soon a group of fans attempted to join the fray, but all accounts agree that police, security and cooler heads on both teams quickly controlled the situation and the game resumed.
Versions of the story that came much later included an account of Josh Gibson taking on Susce and throwing “Dizzy” Dean off of him “some ten feet away,” when Dean and Ted Page attempted to pull Gibson away from Susce. This version did not come out until the 1970s, and it strains credibility that the greatest star of the Negro Leagues “threw” one of the most popular white players in America ten feet during a fight and that the account failed to appear in any newspaper story.
Gibson did hit a home run in the 8th to lead the Crawfords to a 4-3 victory.
Harris was removed from the field and arrested for assault. Other erroneous accounts credit Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney with interceding Harris’ behalf and ensuring he wasn’t charged with a crime. The problem with that story is that Harris was charged, and convicted of assault and battery in March 1935. Harris was fined and given six months probation.
This incident, other run-ins with umpires and his aggressive style of play earned Harris the nickname “Vicious Vic.”
Harris died in California in 1978. He was one of the Negro League players considered for enshrinement in Cooperstown but was passed over in 2006.