Frank Grant led the Buffalo club in batting, but the other players refused to sit with him for the team photograph because of the color of his skin. In the spring of 1887, the Bisons played a series of exhibition games in Baltimore, Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh. Grant was a first-class player. Sportswriters described him as “quick as a cat in the field and throwing like a shot.”
Like other black ballplayers during this time, Grant was given a hard time by his white teammates. The pitchers deliberately tried to hit him. One pitcher told the Sporting News that he threw at Grant’s head every time he faced him on the field. This was a common practice of many of the pitchers toward the black players.
It was also dangerous for Grant when he played second base because the base runners went after him, trying to break his legs. So many runners slid into him with spikes aimed high that he had to use a set of wooden shinguards for protection. It was reported that when Grant started to wear the wooden armor on his legs, the white players filed their spikes and tried to split the shinguards. Grant had to be moved to the outfield in 1888 for his protection from such attacks.
In his book, “Only the Ball Was White,” Robert W. Peterson noted that “the haughty Caucasians of the association were willing to permit darkies to carry water for them or guard the bat bag, but it made them sore to have the name of one on the batting list.”
Despite the attacks, Grant was the most accomplished black baseball player of the 19th century. He played on the same team in organized baseball for three consecutive seasons.
Grant was born in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1865. His full name was Ulysses Franklin Grant. He became a pitcher for the Graylocks of Pittsfield. Grant was very light-skinned. When he was signed by the Bisons, he was described as a Spaniard to make his presence on the field more acceptable to the white crowds.
Peterson wrote that “Grant led his team to a second-place finish in the International League behind Toronto. Despite his small stature [Grant was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 155 pounds], he was the leading slugger in the league with 27 doubles, 10 triples and 11 home runs in 105 games. He also led the Bisons in base-stealing with 40 thefts.”
Peterson also noted that in 1887 the batter still received four strikes and that many more bases were stolen than in modern games. Grant’s speed and impressive plays were outstanding. But instead of receiving credit for his own skill and power as a ballplayer, he was referred to as the “black Dunlap” in comparison to Fred Dunlap, a white second baseman in the 1880s.
Prejudice was so widespread that a resolution was passed at the International League meeting held in Buffalo in July 1887 directing the league secretary not to draw up any more contracts with black players. It was also rumored that if Grant were rehired at the end of 1888, the Bisons would strike. The sentiment was that blacks should never play ball with white men. As a result, Grant never signed another Buffalo contract.
He later toured the South with the Cuban Giants – the first black professional baseball team in the United States. The team, founded in 1885 at a Long Island summer resort, was the first to pay the players a regular salary. Grant worked as a hotel waiter and bellhop when not playing for this team.
Grant died without the fanfare usually reserved for a champion. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton, N.J. Finally, more than 100 years later, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Solomon White, who wrote the official baseball guide of early black players and teams, stated that “Grant was the best of his age. He was a born ballplayer.”
Grant and the early black players in the 1800s laid the foundation for those who came after them. He had the courage to continue to play the game that he loved.
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for 35 years for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the first of four parts.