Ahead of his Time

Charlie Grant nearly broke the color barrier in the big leagues in 1901

February 15, 2013
Charlie Grant (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Amanda Rodriguez

Long before Jackie Robinson was born, Charlie Grant had the opportunity to be a pioneer in 1901, when he attempted to secretly cross the unwritten color line of the major leagues. 

Born in August of 1874, Grant was the son of an African-American horse trainer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up he was either working in hotels or playing baseball for various Negro League teams. By the end of his career, he played for nine teams for a total of 20 years. Most famously was his short stint with the American League’s Baltimore Orioles prior to Opening Day of the 1901 season. 

While working as a bellhop in the hotel which the Orioles were staying in during their spring training in Hot Springs, Ark., Grant was seen playing second base during a pick-up baseball game by John McGraw. McGraw strongly believed that his performance was equal to that of major leaguers, and began to figure out a way to bring him onboard. The story has been passed through generations that McGraw supposedly 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.” 

From this point on, during his time with the Orioles, Grant posed as a Native American from Lawrence, Kan., whose mother was a full-blood Cherokee and father was white. 

This plan fell apart when Grant, McGraw, and the Orioles traveled to Chicago for a game against the White Sox. Grant had spent three seasons with the Columbia Giants of Chicago, making him recognizable to the White Sox president, Charlie Comiskey. At the beginning of the game, his old friends were so eager and excited to see him play in the major leagues that their applause alone gave away the fact that he was not a Cherokee from Kansas, but instead an African American. Grant was unable to break into the big leagues due to this, and eventually went back to other Negro League clubs before finishing his playing days in 1916. 

In July of 1932, Grant was killed outside of the apartment he was working at as a janitor, when a passing car’s tire exploded and he was hit. Grant is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery near Hall of Famer Miller Huggins.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’NeilElston HowardRachel Robinsonthe Evolution of Night BaseballWelday WalkerHerb WashingtonConnie MorganBill White, Sam LacyOctavius CattoWillie HortonBob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Amanda Rodriguez was a 2012 membership intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. For information on how to apply for the Class of 2014 Steele Internship Program, click here