John McGraw and “Chief Tokahoma”

This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Giant & the Tiger, written by Denver-based writer Kerry Gleason about the improbable lifelong friendship between John McGraw and Hughie Jennings. Despite his friendships with priests and Catholic college education, McGraw was regarded as one of the biggest cheaters professional baseball ever knew. In 1901, as manager of the Baltimore squad in the newly-minted American League, McGraw tried his best to gain an advantage for the Orioles.


Hot Springs, Arkansas. The destination for the Baltimore Orioles’ spring training in 1901. John McGraw invited a handful of familiar faces to join the Orioles there with the remainder of the team comprised of former opponents and rookies, called yannigans. Mac and Robby (Wilbert Robinson) were veteran stars on the team that also included former teammates Brodie, Keister, McGinnity and Nops, backup catcher Roger Bresnahan, second baseman Jimmy Williams and outfielders Cy Seymour and Mike “Turkey” Donlin.

After one of the first practices, McGraw went to the bathhouse for a steambath and returned to the Eastman Hotel. Guests saw him intently staring at a framed map in the lobby. Dave Wyatt approached McGraw and told him that some of the boys were heading out to play and that maybe McGraw should go take a look. Wyatt was a former player in the Negro Leagues who was forging his way as a respected baseball writer. He was a strong advocate for advancing the cause of the Negro players and the possibility they might play alongside the white batsmen.

As dusk approached, Mac left on a walk. The Negro bellhops, bus boys and other hotel personnel were choosing teams on a lot next to the hotel that they had groomed into a baseball diamond. Always up for a good baseball game, McGraw sat on the ground and watched. They tossed the ball around, and one of the players laughed, calling, “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. If Charlie don’t catch it, nobody can.” It didn’t take long for Mac to discern which player was Charlie.

At the core, Negro baseball was the same game played by the white players. It just appeared they played effortlessly. The pitchers used a deceptive windup, then launched the ball from their fingertips. Batters swung with a fluid motion and ran swiftly with little excess movement, like raindrops running down a windowpane. The second baseman caught Mac’s eye. He was exceptional. He was flawless. He was Charlie, Charlie Grant.

McGraw nearly forgot he was watching an employee pick-up game and not a professional affair in a packed stadium. Playing second base, Charlie glided gracefully to his right, braced his feet then fired a bullet to the first baseman. Again, his teammates chanted his name. At bat, he stepped to the plate, confident that he was the best player on the diamond.  His mere approach to the batter’s box served notice that no pitcher was going to get the best of him without a fight. Grant slashed the ball safely into the outfield, and sprinted, stretching a single into a double, then clapping for his teammate to drive him in. Mac watched several innings before making his way closer to the field.

Dark-skinned players were prohibited from playing with the professional teams by invisible ink. No written rule prevented black players from playing on the teams, but there was an unwritten rule, a gentleman’s agreement, against Negro players. In this regard, the new American League would be like all the others. Still, McGraw was impressed with what he saw. As raw and unpolished prospects, a handful of the bellhops could have started for any of the teams in the National League.

“Charlie?” Mac called to him. “What’s your last name?”

Charlie was surprised by the pale spectator with a shock of gray through his hair.

“Grant. My name is Charlie Grant.”

“Charlie, how would you like to play professional ball for the Baltimore Orioles?”

Playing professional baseball was a dream of Charlie’s when he was growing up near Chicago, but the young black player knew that crossing of the color barrier was not allowed. He  was curious to know how it could happen. Grant’s skin was light for an African American and his hair was straight, which caused the wheels in McGraw’s head to spin. He asked questions of his recruit, learning that the young man starred for the Columbia Giants in a Negro league and came down from Chicago with some of the other players to earn some money before their baseball season started. Charlie asked McGraw how he, as a black man, would be able to play for a professional team.

“I don’t know,” McGraw said. “I’m thinking about it. Meet me in the hotel lobby tomorrow morning. I’ll pay you $200 to practice with the team and when we head up to Baltimore for the season, we’ll work out the details of your contract.”

They shook hands, and McGraw walked back to the Eastman. He found Wyatt and had a long talk with him about what to do with Charlie. McGraw concocted a deliciously deceptive plot to get Charlie on the field. Wyatt approved of his plan.

The next morning, March 11, after meeting with Grant, McGraw introduced him to the rest of the team.

“Boys, this is Chief Tokohoma. He’ll be playing second base for us this season,” McGraw said.

“What’s your first name, Chief?” one of the players asked.

McGraw answered for the rookie. “Grant-o-muskegee. He’s a Cherokee from Oklahoma.”

The crafty manager used a name he read on the hotel lobby map, Tuskahoma Creek, but misrepresented it as Tokohoma. The team bought into the Indian fable. But not unanimously. Mike Donlin, Jimmy Burke and Roger Bresnahan knew Charlie Grant personally, while George Rohe grew up with him in Cincinnati. These players approached McGraw in private, and agreed to go along with the ruse. Likewise, Dave Wyatt promised to keep quiet about McGraw’s scheme.

With Grant, Mac thought the team at Hot Springs was one he could mold into a winner. Other than Wilbert Robinson, who was 37, and a few of his pitchers, every man was under the age of 30 and most of them could run. Mike Donlin and Bill Keister were teammates of Mac and Robby in St. Louis, while Joe McGinnity, Steve Brodie, Harry Howell and Jerry Nops were teammates in Baltimore the season before last. The day they were set to board the train, McGraw outfitted Grant with a headdress, beaded vest and tomahawk purchased from a gift shop near the hotel. He told Grant that this would be his uniform when he was not on the baseball diamond, and Grant agreed. His arrival in Baltimore was certain to be memorable.

Back in Chicago, Charles Comiskey read that McGraw had signed a Cherokee Indian to play second base, and asked one of the reporters to provide him with intel. Once he was assured of the facts, Comiskey called McGraw.

“Do you honestly think that if Charlie Grant was going to play pro ball that I would let him get away to you?” Comiskey asked him. He told McGraw that he, and many other managers and scouts, were well aware of Grant’s talent. If Grant played in one game, Comiskey warned, the odds were good that Ban Johnson would suspend Grant – and McGraw – for life. Comiskey did Mac a favor by contacting him directly to squelch the stunt. The two of them would become friends and years down the line, partners in a worldwide baseball exhibition. Comiskey alerted Ban Johnson, who sent a warning to McGraw that “Chief Tokohoma” better not be on the field once the season began.

McGraw realized the Chief Tokohoma scheme was not going to work. He sat down with Charlie to tell him the bad news. He could tell the young man was heartbroken. McGraw had cut players before but never because of the color of their skin. He gave encouraging words to Grant and allowed him to keep the spring training money. After Grant left, McGraw wept.

McGraw implored Johnson to allow Negroes to play in the American League, but the commissioner refused to entertain the idea. From that point on, McGraw kept a notebook with the names of all the black players he would hire to play for his team if the “gentleman’s agreement” was ever lifted. Charlie Grant returned to the Columbia Giants and never played in the major leagues.

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