Had Tokohoma ruse worked, O's would have set racial first

April 20, 1997|By John Steadman

It remains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of baseball history -- when the Orioles, behind a cloak of secrecy, attempted to identify a black second baseman as an American Indian. Charlie Grant became Chief Tokohoma. Had the deception succeeded, the Orioles would have been the first modern club to integrate, going back to almost a century ago.

It was a scheme crafted by John McGraw, regarded as one of the game's most successful managers and included in the first class elected to the Hall of Fame. McGraw was leading the Orioles through their first American League spring training in 1901. The squad was in camp in Hot Springs, Ark., when Grant came to McGraw's attention while playing with a group of bellhops at the Hotel Eastland, where the Orioles were housed.

Grant had performed the previous year in Chicago with an all-black team known as the Columbia Giants. An off-season job opportunity led him to the Hot Springs resort to work and also to play for an informal team organized for the purpose of entertaining the hotel guests. McGraw liked the infielder's actions and wanted to sign him. but not as Charlie Grant.

If McGraw dared announce that Grant, a black man born in Cincinnati, was on the Baltimore roster, there would be resentment and serious problems caused by the other owners of American League franchises. Forfeits and even boycotts were possibilities. Still, he made an intriguing attempt to put over a ruse that, upon discovery, rocked the all-white major-league establishment. McGraw wouldn't refer to him as Grant, so, instead, insisted he was Chief Tokohoma of the Cherokee nation.

McGraw, in this strange bit of subterfuge, had scanned a map of the southwest United States and examined the Indian territory, which later (1907) entered the union as Oklahoma. He noticed Tokohoma Creek and decided Grant should be given the same name. Just like that, Grant became an Indian chief for purposes of giving him an acceptable baseball identity. McGraw believed he had achieved a master stroke.

Tokohoma was impressive in practices and exhibitions. Maybe he looked too good. Word spread that the Orioles had a bright 23-year-old prospect who was claiming to be an Indian. No doubt, he would be fitted with a headdress, which, in turn, would create enormous curiosity on the part of the public. Wherever the Orioles played, crowds figured to increase and popularity of the American League, struggling to get under way in its initial year, would increase.

Before the pseudo-Indian could come to Baltimore to open with the Orioles, the cover-up was exposed. McGraw wasn't about to surrender, but Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, disclosed the deception, and Chief Tokohoma went back to being Charlie Grant. Had McGraw gotten away with the covert plan to use Grant/Tokohoma, baseball wouldn't have had to wait almost 50 additional years before the color line was officially broken by Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It would have been Charlie Grant, alias Tokohoma, and the Orioles who were responsible for integrating the game, in the early years of this century. Tokohoma dealt with the dispute by continuing to insist he was an Indian. He specified his father was a white man and his mother a Cherokee. "He is a real Indian," said McGraw, "and not the Negro Grant as alleged." But on flamed the controversy.

Comiskey, president of the White Sox, wouldn't accept McGraw's explanation. "I'm not going to stand for McGraw bringing in an Indian on the Baltimore team," he said. "If 'Muggsy' [McGraw's nickname] really keeps this Indian, I will get a Chinaman of my acquaintance and put him on third. Somebody told me that the Cherokee of McGraw's is really Grant, the crack Negro second baseman from Cincinnati, fixed up with war paint and a bunch of feathers."

Grant, unfortunately, never got another chance to qualify for the major leagues after Comiskey's revelations. McGraw, caught in a losing battle, gave up on the idea and Tokohoma became a footnote in history.

Grant returned for 15 more seasons of play with black teams and died tragically in 1932. While sitting outside a building in Cincinnati where he worked as a janitor, a car blew a tire and

went over the curb, striking and killing him.

After the Grant experiment, the Orioles didn't have a black player until Jehosie Heard in 1954. When Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he officially became the first black player in the majors since the Walker brothers, Fleetwood and Welday, had been with Toledo of the American Association in 1884.

So, until the arrival of Robinson, there were no black players in the American or National leagues. However, there was a whispered suspicion that the Washington Senators had signed several Cuban blacks and played them in the 1930s and 1940s.

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