Heritage Moments: Frank Grant, the Buffalo Bisons and the drawing of baseball’s color line
The chronicle of baseball’s color line usually focuses on the triumphant story of its breaking by Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. Rarely told is the bitter story of how the color line was established, way back in the 1880s — in places like Buffalo, at the expense of black men like Frank Grant, the star second baseman of the Buffalo Bisons.
Grant, 20, born and raised in western Massachusetts, came to the Herd midway through 1886, during a brief period when ball clubs in the high minor leagues were hiring a smattering of talented black players in defiance of the segregationist norms of the era. The practice caused a leading sports journal of the time, Sporting Life, to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” The Buffalo manager, John Chapman, tried to play down Grant’s race, referring to him as a “Spaniard” or an “Italian.” It was just too much to actually come out and acknowledge that black men could play alongside whites on the same team.
But it was hard to argue with the impact Grant made for the Bisons at Olympic Park on the northeast corner of Richmond and Summer, where he quickly became a fan favorite. Playing with what the Buffalo Evening News described as “vim and abandon,” he hit .344, tops among Bisons regulars, with a strong .516 slugging percentage. Several accounts noted his tremendous range and fielding ability on defense. Even Sporting Life was impressed: “The second-base play of Buffalo’s colored lad, Grant, is described as wonderful. Some of his stops and catches are said to be phenomenal.”
In future years, many who saw Grant would declare him the best second baseman of the late 19th century. “His fielding bordered on the impossible,” another black player, Sol White, wrote in 1907. (In 2006, Grant would belatedly be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
But no matter how good Grant was, there was still that race thing. He appeared in the 1887 team photo, but as Gregory Bond noted in “Jim Crow at Play: Race, Manliness, and the Color Line in American Sports”:
Although they consented to appear with Grant, several of his white teammates express their distaste for him. All of the white players -- except for one athlete in the back row (second from the right) -- touched one another in the picture, and two players in the second row on the left held hands. … None of the players around Frank Grant, however, placed their hands or arms on his body. The white player seated directly behind him rested his hands on his own knees, and Grant placed his arms, hands, and elbows on his own legs to avoid contact with his white teammates. Nineteenth-century observers, accustomed to the playful touching by men in formal portraits, would most likely have noticed the lack of contact and intimacy displayed by the white and black ball players.
Despite the distinct chill he felt from his teammates, Grant excelled in 1887. He led the International League with 11 home runs while ringing up a .353 batting average and 40 stolen bases, and he propelled the Bisons to a second-place finish. In the Herd’s exhibition games against major league clubs, he consistently stood out as the man of the match — all this despite a blood-curdling atmosphere of mounting racial hatred.
Opponents slid into him with sharpened spikes. One player told the Sporting News that Grant had “to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him and would, if possible, throw the spikes into him…[Also] about half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they’re] at the bat.”
When the Bisons went to Toronto, the crowd there broke into a chant: “Kill the n---.” Whites on the Binghamton and Syracuse rosters forced team management to release their black ballplayers, and umpires admitted to making calls against black players. The league’s club owners voted to prohibit the signing of any new African-Americans.
Even in this intimidating environment, Grant displayed a confident charisma that matched his flair on the diamond. He was popular with the Buffalo fans (after the 1887 season he spent the winter in the city and briefly operated a tavern), and on the road he had a following among black supporters. He was noted for his dapper dress and good looks, and, although remembered as quiet and modest, he was assertive enough to hold out for a $250 monthly salary, easily the highest on the Bisons payroll. Incredibly, management acceded.
Grant remained with the Bisons for 1888, making him the only black player before the 1940s to play for the same team in “organized baseball” for three straight seasons. But he still had to contend with the endemic racism of the era and of his teammates, who, a Louisville paper reported, “are said to feel keenly having to play with a colored man. In the east Grant goes with the other members of the club, stops at the same hotels, eats at the same table and possibly occupies the same room. While in [Louisville] he is registered at the Galt House, but is roomed with the colored help and takes his meals with them.”
By now the Bisons’ white players were in near revolt against Grant’s presence. They refused to sit for another team portrait — “on account of the n---,” said one. In July, Grant was docked his pay after being fined twice for drinking (along with some of his teammates) and getting injured in a game. Still he played on through the end of the season, once again leading the team in batting.
But the white Bisons made it clear they would walk out if Grant came back for 1889. “It is enough to make anyone weary,” wrote Cleveland’s black weekly, the Gazette, “to learn that the poor trash ball players of Buffalo threaten to strike if the club's acknowledged best player, Grant, an Afro-American, is retained.”
Grant, tired of the abuse, finally left the Bisons in February. He spent the rest of his baseball career playing for black teams, though occasionally he joined white clubs for brief stints under the guise of being a Spaniard.
As for the few remaining black players in the league, they were gone by the end of 1889. The color line was firmly in place across baseball. Blacks would not play alongside whites again until 1946, when Jackie Robinson joined Montreal of the International League, one year before he broke the major league color line with Brooklyn. The Bisons wouldn’t have another black ball player until Luke Easter joined the Herd in 1956.
For all those years in between, the baseball careers of hundreds of black men were consigned to second-class status, and they were denied the pay, fame and respect they deserved. Frank Grant of the Buffalo Bisons was one of the best of them.
(For more on Frank Grant and the Bisons, see Grant’s Society for American Baseball Research biography, this Buffalo News article, and this appreciation from Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn.)
Cast (in order of appearance):
Baseball fans: Karl-Eric Reif and Jeff Z. Klein
Bisons Player No. 1: Mike Devine
Frank Grant: Booker Brooks
Bisons Player No. 2: Kevin Dennis
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839), performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)