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Feature: The Tale of Chief Tokohama

Feature: The Tale of Chief Tokohama
March 09
10:12 2022

By John Christian Hopkins

Charlie Grant. Photo courtesy of Society for American Baseball Research.

The 2022 baseball season is at risk as team owners have locked out the players. Opening Day has already been cancelled.

The next big calendar date in Major League Baseball is April 15, Jackie Robinson Day. It honors the first appearance of Robinson in the Major Leagues.

Robinson was the first black player to break baseball’s color barrier.

Though Charlie Grant came pretty close.

Here’s the story of “Chief Tokohama.”

One rite of spring is baseball’s annual Spring Training, where teams sojourn to their respective Grapefruit of Cactus league teams to prepare for another long, grueling season.

Usually there is little news from baseball’s spring training – maybe an older star decides he’s had enough or a young phenom looks like he’ll be the next Willie Mays or Roger Clemens.

But one year – in 1901 – spring training almost became historic.

One key component of this story was John J. McGraw, a feisty Irishman who always wanted to win. He would go into the Hall of Fame for his exploits over three decades as manager of the old New York Giants (though his own playing career likely would have gotten him enshrined, as well).

In 1901 the American League was about to begin its first season and McGraw was managing the Baltimore Orioles, where his eagerness to win at all costs nearly broke baseball’s infamous color barrier.

Baseball owners – and players – were beginning to see the benefits of spring training, of gradually working yourself back into playing shape. To that end McGraw gathered his team in Hot Springs, Ark., where he believed the curative powers of the town’s famous springs would help his players.

Playing spring training games was also a part of getting into shape and McGraw’s Orioles would play local teams. One team consisted of some local black ballplayers and one – Charlie Grant – caught McGraw’s eye.

Grant was born in 1874, the son of a Cincinnati horse trainer. He was a slick fielding second baseman and by 1901 was a star player for the Columbia Giants, a Chicago Negro League team.

McGraw needed a second baseman and decided he wanted Grant.

The trouble was that ever since 1884 baseball owners had entered into an unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” that no team would sign a black player.

Fortunately, baseball had no such qualms about Native American players, and early stars included Louis Sockalexis, Ben Tincup and Hall of Famer Charles “Chief” Bender.

With Grant’s light complexion, McGraw decided to turn the black ballplayer into a Cherokee chief. Legend says McGraw picked the name “Tokohama” off a map in the hotel. It was the name of a creek.

Grant’s play was impressive and he looked to be a lock to make the team. As spring training wound down, teams would play exhibition games on their way back to their home states.

The Orioles arrived in Chicago to play the White Sox, and that’s when McGraw’s scheme began to unravel. Grant had played in Chicago for the past few years and black fans were anxious to welcome their old star home. They threw a parade in Grant’s honor and gave him a bouquet of flowers.

White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey became suspicious and soon discovered that Chief Tokohama was Negro League star Charlie Grant.

At first McGraw stubbornly insisted that Grant was a Native American; Grant played along claiming his father was white and his mother Cherokee.

But finally enough pressure was put on McGraw and “The Little Napoleon” met his Waterloo. He cut Grant from the team.

Grant would return to the Negro Leagues where he won several championships and played for a variety of teams, including the Lincoln Giants, New York Black Sox and Cincinnati Stars.

His career ended in 1916.

In 1932 he was sitting in front of a building where he worked as a janitor when a passing car blew a tire – the driver lost control and ran into Grant, killing the man who was almost a part of baseball history.

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