WARNING: very long article...but very interesting
Breaking a Barrier 60 Years Before Robinson
By BILL PENNINGTON
Published: July 27, 2006
In 1886, the Buffalo Bisons, a top minor league baseball team, signed a versatile infielder from Massachusetts named Frank Grant. The next day, a local newspaper announced Grant’s arrival by describing him as “a Spaniard.”
Grant was in fact one of five African-Americans playing in the otherwise all-white minor leagues that year, on teams from Kansas to Connecticut. Their presence was accepted if not widely acknowledged in the 1880’s, passed off with a wink and a nod, a dodge that labeled players like Grant as Spaniards, Portuguese or Arabs.
The ruse did not hide what historians now concede, that some 60 years before Jackie Robinson famously broke organized baseball’s color barrier, integrated teams of white and black athletes played hundreds of professional games. African-Americans even played in the major leagues.
To most Americans, the history of black baseball means the Negro leagues, an enterprising, culturally rich response to the Jim Crow-era segregation in professional baseball. But blacks played professional baseball for decades after the Civil War, long before the Negro National League began in 1920.
On Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will induct by special election 17 stars and team owners who predate modern professional baseball’s integration in the mid-1940’s.
Two of the special inductees, Grant and a onetime teammate, Sol White, trace their baseball lives to the most obscure period of black baseball — the 1880’s, the last decade before the game imposed its color barrier.
The recently documented life stories of Grant and White, 19th-century pioneers who dared not be recognized as such, have helped complete the chronicle of the African-American baseball experience. Theirs are the forgotten tales of men rushing to play at the highest professional tier, aware that their immediate offspring would probably be prohibited such an opportunity.
“They are the players who just vanished from baseball’s narrative, like a secret no one talks about,” said the baseball historian Jim Overmyer, who specializes in black baseball. “But it is important to know that they are the beginning of baseball desegregation. Somebody had to do the early heavy lifting, and even if few people know it, these guys were there first.”
Overmyer and another historian of black baseball, Greg Bond, were among 12 members of a committee that voted for the Hall of Fame’s special election.
“It complicates our understanding of race relations in sports to realize that the color barrier was not a natural outcome of mixing races after the Civil War,” Bond said. “The fact is there were a lot of blacks on mostly white teams. The color barrier became a choice people made at the expense of people like Grant and White, who then disappeared.”
The first black professional baseball player is believed to be John Fowler, who used the nickname Bud and played for minor league teams in Lynn and Worcester, Mass., in 1878. Through recommendations from fans, historians and Hall of Fame members, Fowler was among 94 candidates for the special election, but he was not among the final 17.
Through meticulous work, representatives for the Society for American Baseball Research discovered that Fowler was born John Jackson 20 years earlier in central New York, and that he learned to play baseball, in of all places, the village of Cooperstown during the 1860’s.
Fowler played for 18 years in 13 professional leagues, from New England to New Mexico. He was a speedy base stealer who played every position, including pitcher.
It is not clear why he changed his name, but he clearly had a sense of drama and mystery. A barber by trade, Fowler would regale newspaper reporters with claims that his travels had allowed him to play baseball with cowboys and Indians, with fur traders and for bags of gold dust in mining camps.
“He was a tireless self-promoter,” said Overmyer, who wrote the early chapters of “Shades of Glory,” a new book about African-American baseball. “He was a star player, too, usually batting .300 wherever he went. But no one has ever been able to say why he changed his name. He didn’t need it to be remembered. He drew attention wherever he went.”
Not all the attention brought comfort to Fowler. While there are pictures of him posing at ease with white teammates, by the time he had advanced to the highest level of the minors, he was a victim of racial bias on and off the field. Some teams simply released him after white teammates complained about playing with a black man.
A piece of equipment that Fowler began carrying from city to city revealed much about his predicament as a black player. He wore handmade wooden shin protectors at second base, his best position, to guard against the violent charges and spikes of base runners.
In 1884, six years after Fowler made his pro debut, the American Association, which was one of three accepted major leagues in the country, expanded to include the Toledo, Ohio, Blue Stockings. On the roster was a 27-year-old black catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Educated at Oberlin College, Walker was valued for his defense. But he, too, had problems with white teammates.
“Some of the pitchers wouldn’t let Fleet Walker call pitches for them,” Overmyer said. “They would throw whatever they wanted, even purposely trying to cross up Walker. What’s interesting is that those players later admitted that Walker caught all the pitches anyway.”
Walker played 110 games for Toledo that season and batted .263. His younger brother Welday joined the team in midseason and played five games in the outfield.
“These are the recognized first black major leaguers,” Bond said.
Their major league careers ended when Toledo was left out of the American Association the next season. Fleet Walker was also among the 94 candidates for the Hall of Fame but was not selected.
By 1886, several black players had ascended to teams in the International League, the highest level of minor league baseball. Among those one step from the majors was Grant, an acrobatic, sure-handed infielder and power hitter.
Many black players had friendly relationships with their white teammates, especially in the lower minors and on semipro clubs. But the atmosphere around teams in the competitive International League was more charged. Grant, primarily a second baseman whom many baseball experts call the best player in 19th-century black baseball, had also fashioned wooden shin guards.
“This was about jobs and the opportunity to get to the major leagues,” Overmyer said. “The stakes had been raised. Baseball had created something that was unheard of in America at the time: black men were taking white men’s jobs.”
Soon, it appeared that some white players were intentionally making errors in the field behind black pitchers. Some white players refused to pose in the team picture, saying they did not want to be photographed with black teammates. Exhibition games between major league and minor league teams were abruptly canceled when the minor league team signed a black player.
In 1887, the directors of the International League voted to prohibit the signing of additional black players, although blacks under contract, like Grant and Fleet Walker, who was playing in Syracuse, could remain with their teams. They stayed through the 1888 season.
“Then Grant just gave up,” Overmyer said. “I think he got tired of getting leveled every time he went to turn a double play.”
By 1890, the International League was all white, something that would remain true until 1946, when Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals.
At lower levels of professional baseball, some integrated teams remained into the mid-1890’s. Sol White played in some of those leagues, though his greatest fame came as a player for and a founder of top independent all-black teams at the turn of the century.
It was White who helped recruit Grant to the Philadelphia Giants, a celebrated all-black team. These teams, many of which played exhibition games against all-white teams, became the forerunners of the organized Negro leagues.
White, whose full name was King Solomon White, contributed the only known written history of early African-American baseball. His 1907 archive, “Sol White’s Official Baseball Guide,” is a 128-page almanac rich with details, rosters, records, photographs and an insider’s straight talk on the hardships faced and triumphs achieved by the players and personalities of the day.
White went on to become a noted journalist, and manager and team executive in the Negro leagues. He died on Long Island in 1955 at the age of 87 and was buried on Staten Island. According to officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame, White has no surviving relatives.
Grant, who retired from baseball in 1903, died in New York City in 1937 at age 71.
“We don’t know a lot about Frank Grant after baseball,” said Overmyer, who has devoted hundreds of hours to studying Grant’s life. “He was in New York City, and for the census of the 1920’s and 1930’s, he’s always working — as a porter or a hotel worker. His death is acknowledged in newspaper obituaries in 1937. The great pitcher Smokey Joe Williams is a pallbearer at his funeral.”
There is no record that Grant ever married or had children. He had nephews and nieces in western Massachusetts, but he rarely communicated with them after the turn of the century.
“All the family knew was that Frank Grant had been a great baseball player,” Marion Grant Royston said in a telephone interview from her home in Williamstown, Mass. Her father, William, was Frank’s nephew.
“There was no contact with him after a long while. No one knew about it when he died. There were just memories. As a child, I remember my father and aunts talking about some of the things he went through. They mentioned that he would make believe he was Spanish.”
Royston, 70, and her sister, Emily Grant Foote, will attend the induction in Cooperstown along with some of their children.
“It’s a little sad,” Royston said. “I wish some of the people who knew him or watched him play were still around. Frank Grant must have loved the game to put up with everything he had to put up with. It’s a great honor. It must have been a difficult time for all of them.”
Grant is buried in Clifton, N.J.
“He went there as a charity case,” Overmyer said. “Apparently, Frank personally had little money at the time of his death.”
Overmyer went to the Clifton cemetery recently, hoping to put a commemorative plaque or stone recognizing Grant’s new status as a Hall of Famer.
“The superintendent said that as a charity case from the 1930’s, all he could tell me is the area in the cemetery where Frank was buried,” Overmyer said. “Unfortunately, he couldn’t tell me exactly where. It’s an unmarked grave that’s going to stay unmarked.”
"Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork." - Willie Stargell on Sandy Koufax