Finally touching home
Pittsfield-born African-American Grant to be inducted into Hall of Fame today
Slick-fielding second baseman Frank Grant is considered by many to be among the best black ballplayers of the 19th century. (Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
Frank Grant, a proud son of the Berkshires, finally gets his day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Born in 1865, Grant never played big league baseball. In fact, the slick-fielding second baseman died in New York City some 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke the game's color line as a member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Grant also never played in the Negro Leagues (1920-60), his career wrapping up as he approached age 40 at the start of the 20th century, at a time when he and most of his fellow black ballplayers typically cobbled together their careers as barnstormers, dashing off to obscure corners of the United States as itinerant athletes -- in search of a game, a meal, and a couple of bucks.
In some sense, all the running around for Grant, now buried in an unmarked plot in a Clifton, N.J., cemetery, officially comes to an end today when he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Widely considered among the best black ballplayers of the 19th century, the diminutive Pittsfield-born Grant is one of 17 people affiliated with Negro baseball to be inducted on a day when Cooperstown, more than ever before, opens its doors to one and all.
The group of 17 also includes the first female, Effa Manley, to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Manley was co-owner and business manager of the famed Newark Eagles for a dozen years, pre- and post-World War II. Manley fought vigilantly, and successfully, for Negro League teams to be compensated when major league teams plucked players from their rosters in the wake of Robinson's success.
According to baseball historian Jim Overmyer, part of a 12-member Hall of Fame committee charged with reviewing the careers of the game's top black players and executives, and ultimately electing the 17 to be honored, Grant was an exceptional fielder and hitter.
``I can envision him playing right in front of my house," said Overmyer, 60, who lives in Lenox, not far from Williamstown, where the Grant family moved around 1870, when the future Hall of Famer was about 5 years old. ``Well, OK, maybe that's a bit of fantasy, but . . ."
Overmyer did much of the research and footwork that helped bring Grant's career back to life. The best Overmyer can tell, Grant never resided again in Williamstown after leaving the bucolic college town to begin his ballplaying career in the early 1880s. Beyond Grant's playing statistics, and what can be pieced together through New York census records, said Overmyer, it is virtually impossible to gain a sense of what he was like as a person or how he lived his life after baseball.
``He was quite a player, that much we know," said Overmyer, who is a budget analyst for the New York State Office of Court Administration in Albany. ``And in some ways, he had practically passed out of history, until this whole process of focusing on the Negro Leagues, and looking at blacks in baseball in the 19th century . . . it brought him out of the mist."
``Grant's father died very soon after he was born," said Overmyer. ``And when they came to Williamstown, they found work keeping a house, running a restaurant. Truth is, they did what a lot of people did then -- made money serving the college [Williams] -- as a lot of people still do today. They weren't considered wealthy, but they owned a house. And Frank, for reasons unknown, went off to seek a fortune as a ballplayer."
However, in his lifetime, fame and fortune eluded him.
``He died in relative poverty in 1937," said Overmyer. ``Few people would have known what he accomplished, and his death was certainly unheralded at the time."
Grant's best years, in terms of production and continuous service with one team, came in the mid-1880s with the Buffalo Bisons in the International League, one of the few leagues in which a black player or two could be found on the otherwise exclusively white rosters. Grant played three seasons with Buffalo, until, according to Overmyer, he was squeezed out of town, not by fans or reporters or the team owner, but by his teammates.
``Buffalo newspapers of the day said the fans loved him," said Overmyer. ``This was a time when there were two or three dailies, and they covered the team like a rug. You read through the reports, and Frank got his share of pats on the back from the fans.
``But it's pretty clear, the white players didn't want him. That was true of Frank and the few other black players in the league. They were a threat. They were good. They could play, but . . . they were a threat to take the white players' jobs."
Sporting Life, Oct. 24, 1891, quoting ex-player Ned Williamson on Frank Grant:
``Ballplayers do not burn with a desire to have colored men on the team. It is in fact the deep-seated objection to Afro-Americans that gave rise to the feet-first slide . . . They learned that trick in the East. 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 (sic) League. The haughty Caucasians of the Association were willing to permit darkies to carry water to them or guard the bat bag, but it made them sore to have one of them in the line-up. They made a cabal and introduced new features into the game. The players of the opposing team made it a point to spike this brunett Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might easily make third just to toy with the sensitive shins of the second baseman. The poor man played only two games out of five, the rest of the time he was on crutches. To give the frequent spiking an appearance [sic], he put wooden armor on his legs for protection, but the opposition proceeded to file their spike to a sharper point and split the cylinder. The colored man seldom lasted."
Sporting Life, April 11, 1891
``Probably in no other business in America is the color line so finely drawn as in baseball. An African who attempts to put on a uniform and go in among a lot of white players is taking his life in his hands." The report goes on to recount an incident in which Grant, while playing second base for Buffalo in a game against Toronto in 1887, applied an aggressive tag to the base-stealing Gus Alberts. The tag caught Alberts in the ``pit of the stomach" and left him doubled over for a while before leaving the field. The Toronto players then schemed to put Grant out of the game.
``This was agreed, and when [Ed] Crane went down to steal second, Grant got squarely in front of him. Crane was going like the wind. He ducked his head after measuring the distance and caught Grant squarely in the pit of the stomach with his shoulder. The son of Ham went up in the air as if he had been in a thrashing machine. They took him home on a stretcher, and he didn't recover for three weeks. ``The crowd came near mobbing us," said [the Toronto manager], ``but there were no more darkies in the league after that."
``For instance," said Overmyer, ``if one of them was pitching, the guys wouldn't make plays behind him on defense. It got to be impossible."
The International League, said Overmyer, in 1887, initially passed a ban on blacks playing in the league. When a few club owners complained -- no doubt, said Overmyer, the clubs such as Syracuse and Buffalo that had productive black players -- the bylaw was quickly amended, and the ban tailored exclusively to the future signing of black players.
Grant, and two players in Syracuse, Moses ``Fleetwood" Walker and Bob Higgins, were the last three blacks to play in the International League.
``But they all got sick of it and left," said Overmyer. ``Grant left [after the 1888 season] and played for other all-black teams, sometimes barnstorming. Higgins was a barber from Memphis and after 1887 he just said, `The hell with it,' went back to Memphis, cut hair, and played semipro. For most of these guys, baseball was just another way of making money. Walker ends up the last one, playing for Syracuse in 1889, and he stayed in town and worked in the post office for years. Later, he was arrested for murder. He got accosted by a white fan, either as he was entering or leaving a Syracuse bar, and they got in a fight, and Walker killed him. But he got off, claiming self-defense. When he was acquitted, the courtroom erupted in cheers."
Page 161 of White's guide provides a list of ``some of the best black players of the 19th century." Rated by batting average, Grant is listed fourth, playing in 458 games over six seasons, coming to bat 1,879 times and hitting .337, topping the home run list with 31. He is also second in stolen bases with 149. Given the nomadic nature of barnstorming teams, it is impossible to provide accurate figures of the nearly 20 seasons Grant played professionally. He hit over .300 in each of his three seasons with Buffalo.
If not for White's tome, said Overmyer, much of what we know today about 19th century black players such as Grant likely would have been lost forever. Beyond knowing that he seemed to be a fan favorite in Buffalo, said the historian, little could be learned of Grant's personality or his life away from the field.
``That's really too bad -- it's the big missing piece," said Overmyer, who contributed to a book, ``Shades of Glory," published by National Geographic Books in February, detailing the lives of the 17 black inductees. ``I'm afraid, all these years later, there's not much we can do about it."
Reports through the years, said Overmyer, often referred to Grant as the ``black Dunlap," a reference to Fred ``Sure Shot" Dunlap, an accomplished white second baseman who played 965 games with a handful of pro clubs through the 1880s. A touch under 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 150 pounds, Grant was an agile, acrobatic infielder, a strong hitter and accomplished base stealer.
New York City census records of 1910, 1920, and 1930, said Overmyer, all had Grant living in the city. In 1910, he listed his occupation as a baseball player. Ten years later, he was a waiter. In the '30 census, he was a porter (common laborer) in a woolen house.
According to the census taken in 1920 and 1930, he was married, but to different women. He died in 1937, a few months short of his 72d birthday.
According to the Hall of Fame, Grant will be represented today by a great-grandniece, Marion Grant Royston of Williamstown. Of the 17 inductees, all of them deceased, 11 will have family representatives at the ceremony.
Overmyer, who in 1993 wrote ``The Queen of the Negro Leagues," Effa Manley's life story, spoke not long ago to the superintendent of the Clifton, N.J., cemetery where Grant is buried.
``Unfortunately, there is no marker," said Overmyer. ``From what he told me, it was a charity, Potter's Field-type of burial. Now that Frank will be in the Hall of Fame, it would be nice to get a marker. If we do it, once we get there, we'll just try to get something close."
Today, some 118 years after playing his last game for Buffalo, former Bison second baseman Frank Grant will enter the Hall of Fame. None of his Buffalo teammates, said Overmyer, arrived in Cooperstown ahead of him.