Cincinnati could have played a key role in the integration of Major League Baseball. It could have had a hometown hero who changed sports history – its own Jackie Robinson, perhaps – if only Charlie Grant had gotten into a game in the 1901 Major Leagues, as Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw wanted.
But the “color line” that barred blacks from baseball was just too strong, and McGraw’s plan to sneak the native-Cincinnatian, African-American Grant into baseball as an American Indian known as “Tokohama” fell apart before he could ever play. As it was, it still ranks as one of the baseball’s most audacious if least-known conspiracies.
Brian McKenna, writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, found that Charles Grant Jr., the son of Charles and Mary Grant, was born in Winton Place. McKenna found several possible birth dates in the 1870s, but a copy of Grant’s death certificate – provided by the Baseball Hall of Fame – lists Aug. 1, 1874.
Lee Allen’s book “The American League Story,” which was an early source for the Grant story because it was published in 1962, says he was raised in Cumminsville (now Northside and South Cumminsville) and, because it had a heavily German population, became fluent in German.
Allen also says Grant’s father worked at Cincinnati’s Chester Park and trained Maud S., a horse so famous for its speed that its death merited a New York Times obituary. (A 1905 Enquirer story shows that a “Charlie Grant,” presumably his father, died in a track accident at that park in Winton Place before 20,000 spectators.)
McKenna says that Grant grew to be 5-foot-8 and about 175 pounds. “He was speedy and solidly built, and naturally athletic. Being that baseball breeds nicknames, he had two: Speedy and Cincy.” He also was light-skinned with high cheekbones and straight hair and in the past had been compared to an American Indian.
He became second baseman for an early black baseball team, the Adrian, Michigan-based barnstorming Page Fence Giants, in 1896. They beat the Cuban X-Giants in a World Series-like championship series; in 1897 their record was 125-12. He moved to another strong team, Chicago’s Columbia Giants in 1899 and 1901.
The Major Leagues as we know them today began in 1901 with the start of the American League. The first World Series between it and the existing National League was in 1903. Professional baseball’s first team had started in Cincinnati in 1869 and the National League began in 1876.
McGraw, who also was a player, had in 1899 become the manager of a National League Baltimore franchise called the Orioles. After the National League eliminated that team, he helped create a new Orioles for the American League. It only lasted two years, before moving to New York. McGraw, himself, moved to the National League’s New York Giants in 1902 and became one of baseball’s most legendary and successful managers ever.
But in 1901, he was hungry for players for his new team and traveled pre-season to Hot Springs, Arkansas. McKenna says that was a town where ballplayers went to get in shape, and McGraw was maybe scouting them.
Allen’s book says Grant was “one of a group of Cincinnati Negroes working as bellboys” at the “Eastland Hotel” (apparently the Eastman, according to research done by the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia) and “to fill their idle time they formed a baseball team.”
Watching them play, Allen says, McGraw realized Grant’s talent. But he also knew about the historic “color line” in baseball. That unwritten ban had an Ohio connection – Moses Fleetwood Walker and Weldy Walker, African-American brothers from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, played in 1884 with the Toledo team in the short-lived professional American Association, which competed with the National League. But one of the era’s greatest players, Cap Anson, objected to their presence.
(Walker is featured in the upcoming book “Unforgettable Ohioans: Thirteen Mavericks Who Made History on Their Own Terms” by Randy McNutt and Cheryl Bauer McNutt.)
Allen says that McGraw looked at a map in the hotel lobby and then said, “’Charlie, I’ve been trying to think of some way to sign you for the Baltimore club, and I think I’ve got it. On this map there’s a creek called Tokohoma. That’s going to be your name from now on, Charlie Tokohoma, and you’re a full-blooded Cherokee.’” (A full-blooded Penobscot Indian, Louis Sockalexis, had played with the National League’s Cleveland Spiders – with some problems – from 1897-99.)
The signing of “Tokohama” received prominent press attention. But Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, recognized Grant – whose Columbia Giants team played in Chicago – and called McGraw on it. The baseball research society says that Comiskey probably learned from White Sox player-manager Clark Griffith, who had accompanied McGraw to Hot Springs.
A March 31 special dispatch to the Enquirer from Hot Springs quoted “Commy” as saying, “Somebody said this Cherokee of McGraw’s is really Grant, the crack Negro second baseman, fixed up with war paint and a bunch of feathers.”
The backlash was swift and severe. On April 4, a newspaper report was saying “Tokohama” was still in “Indian territory” while other Orioles had arrived in Baltimore. And by April 6, Grant had rejoined the Columbia Giants for another season.
Both the baseball research society and the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia website have found a 1910 article in the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper by Dave Wyatt, a player/manager for black ball teams who became that paper’s sportswriter, that challenges Allen’s account. Wyatt says he approached McGraw, whom he knew, in Hot Springs for Grant and McGraw said he could probably get Grant into the Major Leagues as an Indian. He asked for a new name.
We manufactured one – Grant-a-muscogee [of the Tuckahoma Tribe],” Wyatt is quoted as saying. “This made a hit with McGraw, but in the meantime some newspaper man had got ‘hep’ to us and sent the news broadcast that the Indian find’s name was Tokohoma.”
Wyatt also said the plan collapsed after news reports identifying Grant got out, because American League President Ban Johnson ordered McGraw to cease.
“In justice to Grant, I will say that at no time did he want to pass as anything but a colored player,” Wyatt wrote.
Grant continued his career with black teams for another 15 years, until he was past 40. They included the Cuban X-Giants, the Philadelphia Giants, New York Black Sox, New York Lincoln Giants, Quaker Giants and – from 1914-1916 – the Cincinnati Stars.
He had gotten married in 1907 but subsequently divorced. And after leaving baseball, he lived in an apartment building at the corner of Blair Avenue and Reading Road in Avondale. He also perhaps worked as its janitor. On July 9, 1932, he was outside it when a passing car’s tire blew and the driver lost control. The auto struck him. His death certificate lists the cause as shock and hemorrhaging from fractured skull and legs.
He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery, his small grave marker engraved with crossed bats and baseballs. It wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the Major League’s infamous “color line.”