In 1887, after a season of white baseball players increasingly refusing to play with or against black players, the “gentleman’s agreement” to implement a color line in professional baseball was approved. Cap Anson, one of the greatest players—and most outspoken bigots—of the era, receives much of blame for using his influence to force the issue. Truth be told, though, American professional baseball rosters were stacked with bigots who came from Southern and Northern upbringings. The ills of a society were again reflected in its sports.
In 1901, John McGraw of the newly formed Baltimore Orioles club of the brand new American League attempted to bring in a black player named Charlie Grant into the whites-only league in what has been coined, The Tokohama Ruse. The Tokohama Ruse has so much wrong with it. Blatant racist actions by all parties.
Fueled by a desire to win and compete in the fledgling league, John McGraw’s new Baltimore Orioles team was desperate to bring in talent. This original version of the O’s was short-lived as they went bankrupt after the 1902 season and the modern version of the O’s would not be established until 1954 when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore. During their training camp in Hot Spring, Arkansas, McGraw ran across an extremely talented infielder who he wanted to sign.
The problem was the player McGraw had set his sights on was a light-complexioned black baseball player named, Charlie Grant. Grant was a talented infielder with the Negro League Columbia Giants playing out of Chicago. In order to make financial ends meet during the offseason, he was working at a resort in Hot Springs. Grant and some of the other player/employees of the resort formed a baseball squad whose main purpose was to provide a sports entertainment option for the guests.
McGraw saw Grant play and wanted to sign him. He knew none of the other owners would allow him to bring in a black player, so he came up with one of the more blatant racist moves in sports history. Light skinned Charlie Grant was now Chief Charlie Tokohama, a Cherokee who was the son of a white father and a Cherokee mother from Lawrence, Kansas. McGraw developed the elaborate backstory and chose the name from a map of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in the hotel which had a creek named Tokohoma Creek.
To make matters worse, McGraw painted Grant with warpaint and had him wear a feathered headdress on the field. Chief Tokohama played right along with the deception, probably for the chance at making some decent money playing at the highest level of his sport. It was reported he performed well in practice and on the road for the exhibition season, where fans lined up to see the spectacle of the “Chief”.
Before the Orioles made it back to Baltimore to open the season, though, cracks developed in the Chief Tokohoma scam. Charlie Cominsky, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, was the first to speak out as he revealed Charlie Grant as the true identity of Tokohama. John McGraw and Grant continued to publicly deny the allegations and stuck with their original story.
“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.”
Nice political correctness, fellas.
Well, anyway, the truth breaks and McGraw quietly let go of Grant before the season started, saying the young Indian player was too inexperienced, especially on defense. Grant returned to Chicago where he continued to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. After 15 seasons, he returned to his hometown of Cincinnati and worked as a janitor. In 1932, Charlie Grant was killed when a car lost control after blowing a tire, jumped the curb, and hit him as he sat in a chair on the sidewalk.
With all the wrongs of the Chief Tokohama ruse, one does wonder what would have happened if it would have worked long enough for Charlie Grant, not Chief Tokohama, to show he could play alongside white professional baseball players. I doubt nothing.
The institutional bigotry was too ingrained for it to succeed until Jackie Robinson received his chance from Branch Rickey to become the first black player to break the color line. Or was he? In a future post, we’ll look into the Washington Senators, who in the pre-Jackie Robinson era employed several Cuban players, who may have actually been the first black players to break the barrier.