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On This Date in Sports March 11, 1901: Charlie Grant's At Bat

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John McGraw attempts to integrate baseball, by passing off Charlie Grant, a light-skinned black player as Native American. Grant, who played for teams in Chicago, was invited to workout for McGraw, who was managing the Baltimore Orioles in the newly formed American League. McGraw tries to pass Grant off as a Cherokee named Charlie Tokohama before Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey derailed the plan. 


Baseball was a white man’s game, thanks to segregation in the 19th Century. William Edward White, an African American who could pass as white, appeared in one game with the Providence Grays in 1879. Five years later, Moses and Welday Walker both played with the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association. However, with Cap Anson of Chicago White Stockings, the top player of his era refused to play with or against black men, which led owners to create the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which barred the signing of black players in 1887. This act would also purge the high minors, creating a six-decade color barrier that fostered a significant period of injustice. 


The American League was founded in 1901 as a rival of the National League, taking advantage of the 1899 contract, which saw the NL reduce from 12 teams to 8. The new league founded by Ban Johnson hoped to lure star players from the National League but did not consider integration, as such a move would have been risky as such movements had yet to get enough popular support. 


John McGraw had been a scrappy middle infielder for the Baltimore Orioles, a powerhouse in the middle 1890s. The Orioles, despite winning three straight National League Championships from 1894-1896, were one of three teams eliminated. In 1901, the Orioles were reborn in the new American League with McGraw as the manager. 


John McGraw’s priority was winning, and while his team was working out in Spring Training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he came across Charlie Grant. Like McGraw, Grant was a scrappy middle infielder. Originally from Cincinnati, Charlie Grant had been playing organized baseball since 1896 with a variety of all-black teams in the Midwest. This included the Columbia Giants from Chicago in 1900. McGraw recognized Grant’s talent and wanted to sign him to play on the Orioles. The 26-year-old Grant had light skin and straight hair and could pass off as Native American, so thought the Orioles’ skipper. John McGraw gave Charlie Grant a workout, and a new name Charlie Tokohama, claiming he was from the Cherokee Nation. The name Tokohma, coming from a creak near the team’s hotel in Hot Springs. 


The ruse worked for a few weeks, but as the season approached, the Orioles had a workout with the White Sox in Chicago. It was there that several of Charlie Grant’s friends came to see him play. This alerted Charlie Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox and friend of American League founder Ban Johnson, both of whom lived in Chicago and knew of the black baseball team’s in the area. Comiskey objected to Grant being on Baltimore’s roster. A writer in the Washington Post went as far as to comment, “McGraw will have to exhibit Tokohama in all his war paint before the Chicago fans will believe that he has signed a genuine red-man.”


Charlie Grant fully exposed returned to the Columbia Giants and continued to play for black teams in the pre-Negro League era until 1916. Of course, it would take until Jackie Robinson in 1947 before the color barrier was broken. John McGraw quickly became soured with the American League and left the Orioles in 1902 to manager the New York Giants, a job he would hold for the next 30 years. The Orioles, meanwhile, followed McGraw to New York, becoming the Highlanders in 1903 and eventually the New York Yankees.