Fame at Last
Last week’s announcement that the Baseball Hall of Fame would welcome 17 new members was a big story even though none will step to the podium to accept a plaque at the July 30 ceremony in Cooperstown. All are dead, some for more than half a century. This largest induction class in the institution’s history was composed entirely of African American players and executives who made their mark in segregated ball, before Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier in 1947.
National coverage tended to focus on two individuals: Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles, who became the first woman among the now 278 baseball immortals; and Buck O’Neil, at 94 years old the living symbol of Negro League baseball, for whom nine votes inexplicably could not be found on the twelve-person electoral committee. Thrust back into the shadows where they had long languished were the other 16 new Hall of Famers, including Frank Grant, by all accounts the best African American player of the nineteenth century yet one whose life story is barely known.
I can see now, in the wake of last week’s news, that I have been circling around Frank Grant for nearly 25 years, since Jerry Malloy of Mundelein, Illinois, sent me a manuscript that I would publish in 1983 in The National Pastime as “Out at Home,” which detailed baseball’s drawing of the color line. Before Jim Crow, blacks and whites had been playing on integrated teams, even at the highest level (Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldy played with Toledo of the American Association, then a major league, in 1884). It was in 1887 that race relations came to a boil in the International League, whose star player was Frank Grant of Buffalo, and Malloy told the tale brilliantly.
The light-skinned Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express, had batted .325 for Meriden, Connecticut, in the Eastern League in 1886. When that team folded in midseason he joined Buffalo and continued his fine play. The following year he would lead the International League in home runs with 11 while batting .340 and stealing 40 bases and playing second base so skillfully that he was called “The Black Dunlap,” evoking comparison to Fred Dunlap, the big leagues’ paragon at the position. Grant was joined in the International League by other standout black players, including catcher Moses “Fleet” Walker, second baseman Bud Fowler, and pitchers George Stovey and Bob Higgins. This prompted Sporting Life to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?”
“It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient,” wrote James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. The 1887 campaign was damned inconvenient for Grant. According to a Toronto World account of the game that Buffalo played there on July 27, “the crowd confined itself to blowing their horns and shouting ‘Kill the nigger!’”
Treatment from opposing players and teammates was scarcely better. Ned Williamson, second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, told Sporting Life:
The Buffalos had a Negro for second base. He was a few shades blacker than a raven, but was one of the best players in the Eastern League [original name of the International League]. The players of the opposing team made it a point to spike this brunette Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might easily make third just to toy with the sensitive shins of the second baseman. To give the frequent spiking of the darky an appearance of accident the “feet-first” slide was practised. The poor man played only two games out of five, the rest of the time he was on crutches.
Grant and Fowler had taken to wearing wooden shin-guards at second base and thus, ironically, may take credit for inventing what we think of today as catchers’ gear. Although the International League ruled that no blacks could be signed for the 1888 campaign, Buffalo retained Grant’s services. He continued to star, hitting .346 — but he moved to the outfield. By 1889 the league had effectively banished black players and Grant began his long journey into segregated ball and, ultimately, invisibility.
Born as Ulysses F. Grant on August 1, 1865, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home of baseball’s earliest documented play (1791), Frank Grant was the youngest of seven then surviving children born to Frances and Franklin Grant. The family had moved to Pittsfield from Dalton, where Franklin had been employed as a farm laborer, presumably because he had died. By 1870 he was not with the family as it relocated to Williamstown. Just above the Grants’ listing on the census sheet is one for the Perry family, consisting of Williams College professor Arthur L. Perry, his wife Mary, and their five children: daughter Grace and sons Bliss, Arthur Jr., Walter, and Carroll.
Frank Grant would go on to fame, and so would Bliss Perry, as editor of The Atlantic from 1899 to 1909; as a beloved professor of English at Williams, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Paris; and as a prolific writer of novels, short fiction, essays, studies in poetry, and an autobiography titled And Gladly Teach. In this work he reminisced:
In the woods and fields I was perfectly happy, and also when I was playing ball. Somehow I had been chosen captain of a nine, at twelve. Two of the players, Clarence and Frank Grant, were colored boys, sons of our ‘hired girl.’ Clarence became, in time, catcher and captain of the Cuban Giants, and Frank (whose portrait I drew later in a novel called The Plated City) was a famous second baseman for Buffalo before the color line was drawn. Rob Pettit, our left fielder, afterward played for Chicago and went around the world with Pop Anson’s team. We called ourselves the “Rough and Readys.”
The Plated City has to do with the people of a Connecticut manufacturing town, given the name of Bartonvale, chiefly concerned in the production of plated ware. “The central motive of the story, however,” wrote a reviewer in The Atlantic in 1895, the year of the book’s publication by Scribner, “is the racial instinct which in the Anglo-American mind precludes any social equality with a person having a taint of the negro in him or her.”
Unpromising as that potboiler theme may appear, the chapter on baseball is eerily compelling. It depicts an African-American second baseman, Tom Beaulieu, trying to pass as a “Spaniard” named Mendoza while playing for a major-league team, the “Buccaneers,” against the Giants at the Polo Grounds. Alas, a group of excursionists from Bartonvale recognize Mendoza as their hometown player, who had starred in the Connecticut State League the previous year before heading out to play in California. The press reports the odd stirrings among the spectators, and Mendoza’s true identity, with explicit reference to the professional-baseball color line. Mendoza/Beaulieu is released days later.
Clearly the model for the second baseman is Frank Grant. Yet the story, published in 1895, is nearly identical in its outline to the celebrated Chief Tokohama story of 1902 in which Baltimore Orioles manager John McGraw tried to pass off Charlie Grant, another fine African American second baseman who had played with Chicago’s Columbia Giants, as a full-blooded Cherokee. However, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey — also with spring-training facilities in Hot Springs, Arkansas — outed “Tokie,” who sheepishly returned to the Columbia Giants.
The Washington Post of March 31, 1901 had stated, “There is a report in circulation that Manager McGraw’s Indian player is not a Cherokee at all, but is the old-time colored player, Grant.” The Post writer surely was confusing the two Grants, as Charlie was at most 25 years old in 1901, and had commenced professional play in 1896, while Frank was 36 and had begun his career a decade earlier.
W.E.B. DuBois had the notion that being a black man in America means that one is inherently two people at once: a black man and an American. The mixup with Charlie Grant can only have added to Frank’s sense of expropriated identity. After leaving the Buffalo club in 1889, Frank played for many teams, though mostly for the Cuban Giants. On September 1, 1892, Frederick Douglass came to Washington’s National Park to watch Grant and his Cuban Giants play against the colored All-Washingtons. Grant also appeared with top black teams like the Cuban X-Giants (1898-99), the Genuine Cuban Giants (1900-01), and the Philadelphia Giants (1902-03), and barnstormed in towns along the Hudson and Housatonic. After 1905 the trail of his playing record goes cold, though he was invited to play in a 1909 benefit game for the ailing Bud Fowler, who had written, “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind.... My skin is against me.”
For 1910 I locate the 44-year-old Frank Grant on Minetta Street in Greenwich Village, living with his wife of five years, Celia, and her son Frank Moore. In that year’s census he offered his occupation as “Baseball Player.”
In later years he worked as a waiter, as he and his brothers had in the Perry household way back in Williamstown. He died on May 27, 1937, with no one in baseball knowing that he still lived.
And yet ... when Jackie Robinson made his spectacular International League debut on April 18, 1946, getting four hits in Montreal’s 14-1 rout of Jersey City, the New York Times story concluded thus: “There have been other Negro players in the International League. Ernie Lanigan supplied the information that a Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”