History remembers Jackie Robinson for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. But before he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers on that famous day, he was assigned to the organization’s Triple-A affiliate, the Montreal Royals of the International League, for the ‘46 season.
With that, Robinson became the first Black player in the International League since the 1880s. History has mostly forgotten about the fateful day on the other side of that divide.
On July 14, 1887, the directors of the International League (the highest level of the Minors at the time) met in Buffalo, N.Y., and voted 6 to 4 to prohibit the future signing of African American players, with the decision led by the six teams that did not have Black players on their rosters. Unofficial though it might have been, the “gentlemen’s agreement” sent a powerful signal, and only Black players who were already under contract could remain with their teams.
There were only two: One was Syracuse’s Moses Fleetwood Walker, whom historians have later credited as the first African American player to compete at the game’s highest level. The other was the star of the Buffalo Bisons, the only Black player to last three consecutive seasons with one club in organized baseball before the 1940s and the man historians now widely regard as the best Black baseball player of the 19th century: Frank Grant.
“In those days, Frank Grant was the baseball marvel,”
Ulysses F. Grant — “Frank” — was born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Aug. 1, 1865, mere months after Union general Ulysses S. Grant (no relation) and Confederate general Robert E. Lee met at Appomattox Court House in Virginia to discuss the terms of surrender and declare an end to the Civil War.
So Grant’s rise to greatness coincided with a time when organized baseball was integrated. The presence of Black players was accepted, if not widely acknowledged, and the handful who grew to prominence had to pass themselves off as darker-skinned Europeans or Hispanics. Grant was called a Spaniard.
At age 20, Grant started his career with the Bisons in 1886, leading the team in hitting each year from ‘86-88. In ’87, he led the league with 11 home runs and 40 stolen bases. Grant was known as a consistent .300 hitter with surprising power for his slight 5-foot-7 frame, a fast baserunner, an outstanding fielder and a popular player — at least among the Buffalo fans and the growing Black following that supported him on the road.
In fact, Grant played second base so skillfully that he garnered the nickname “The Colored Dunlap,” evoking comparison to Fred Dunlap, the big leagues’ exemplar at the position and the highest-paid player of that decade.
Amid his success, Grant faced hostility from opponents. He wore improvised wooden shin guards to protect himself against opponents’ high spikes when sliding into second — the sinister origin story of the feet-first slide — and he eventually moved to the outfield altogether. He also had to be alert against pitchers who made plain their attempts to hit him in the batter’s box.
As cited by the Society for American Baseball Research, longtime Major League outfielder Tom Brown told the Washington Post of this known practice in 1900, adding that Grant was “one of the best second basemen the game has ever seen.
“He was a natural batsman, as many a twirler found to his sorrow,” Brown said. “Grant played no favorites at the bat. High curves, low out-shoots, or slow teasers served at a shot-putting gait all looked the same to Grant. The pitchers seemed to take a [fiendish] delight in deliberately firing the ball at his head with the intention of driving him from the plate, but they never succeeded in taking his nerve.”
Grant’s teammates offered him no remedy, making their disdain clear to Buffalo’s management. They once refused to take the annual team portrait, and when traveling to games, he often had to room and eat with the colored help at local accommodations.
As MLB historian John Thorn noted in 2014, a Toronto World report from 1886 wrote, “The recent trouble among the Buffalo players originated from their dislike to [sic] Grant, the colored player. It is said that the latter’s effective use of a club alone saved him from a drubbing at the hands of other members of the team.”
When Grant’s contract expired after the 1888 season, Buffalo’s management caved to the pressure and the implicit color line, releasing who a 2016 Buffalo News headline referred to as “baseball’s earliest black star.” As it turned out, without Grant, the team collapsed and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., the next year. (It should be noted that the present-day Buffalo Bisons of the International League, the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, were founded in 1979, but they assumed the history of the previous franchises — 1886-1970 in the Minors and 1879-1885 in the Majors.)
In that digital newspaper article, a man wrote a letter to the editor with an anecdote drawing a direct connection between Grant and Robinson when the latter’s desegregation of baseball was making headlines in the late 1940s.
“As a boy, I attended games at the original park at Richmond and Summer,” wrote Ed Rother. “This was in 1886-88. Our Colored second baseman, Frank Grant, had everything our present-day Jackie Robinson had, and was the idol of Buffalo fandom.”
But Grant had mostly faded into obscurity by then. He had joined premier all-Black teams for the next decade of his career, including the Cuban Giants, New York Gorhams and Philadelphia Giants, as they barnstormed the country. But without access to the same resources and exposure of the now-segregated leagues, very few statistics and stories about his stints there have been registered in the annals of history. He retired in 1903 at age 38.
Over a century later, in 2006, a National Baseball Hall of Fame Special Committee on the Negro Leagues — backed by a $250,000 grant from MLB to conduct an extensive study on African Americans in baseball from 1860-1960 — inducted 17 Negro League and pre-Negro League players and executives into Cooperstown. Grant was one of them.
Grant’s Hall of Fame plaque reads, in part, “One of baseball’s early stars who became an inspiration for future generations of African American ballplayers. … Segregation eventually forced him to play for top touring Black teams, notably the Cuban Giants, where he served as team captain and often mentored younger players.”
As baseball historian Jim Overmyer, a member of that special committee whose area of expertise includes eastern teams and the 19th century, told the New York Times that year, it matters greatly that these pioneers finally received a degree of the recognition they deserve for their impact on the sport.
“They are the players who just vanished from baseball’s narrative, like a secret no one talks about,” Overmyer said. “But it is important to know that they are the beginning of baseball desegregation. Somebody had to do the early heavy lifting, and even if few people know it, these guys were there first.”
After Grant’s death in 1937 at age 71, he was one of many early Black baseball players to be buried in an unmarked grave, with their mark on history practically unknown. Nearly 75 years later, the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, whose mission is to honor the contributions to the game of these overlooked yet influential players, changed that. In 2011 (five years after his HOF induction), the group provided a headstone to accompany Grant’s resting place in a pauper’s grave in Section 14, Block B, Row E, Number 6 of the East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, N.J.
It reads, “Legendary International League player and Negro League pioneer.”
History is left to wonder how much Grant could have accomplished in the Major Leagues if he had the chance.