In 1886, the Buffalo Bisons, a top minor league baseball team, signed a versatile infielder from Massachusetts named Frank Grant. The next day, a local newspaper announced Grant’s arrival by describing him as “a Spaniard.”
Grant was in fact one of five African-Americans playing in the otherwise all-white minor leagues that year, on teams from Kansas to Connecticut. Their presence was accepted if not widely acknowledged in the 1880’s, passed off with a wink and a nod, a dodge that labeled players like Grant as Spaniards, Portuguese or Arabs.
The ruse did not hide what historians now concede, that some 60 years before Jackie Robinson famously broke organized baseball’s color barrier, integrated teams of white and black athletes played hundreds of professional games. African-Americans even played in the major leagues.
To most Americans, the history of black baseball means the Negro leagues, an enterprising, culturally rich response to the Jim Crow-era segregation in professional baseball. But blacks played professional baseball for decades after the Civil War, long before the Negro National League began in 1920.
On Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will induct by special election 17 stars and team owners who predate modern professional baseball’s integration in the mid-1940’s.
Two of the special inductees, Grant and a onetime teammate, Sol White, trace their baseball lives to the most obscure period of black baseball — the 1880’s, the last decade before the game imposed its color barrier.
The recently documented life stories of Grant and White, 19th-century pioneers who dared not be recognized as such, have helped complete the chronicle of the African-American baseball experience. Theirs are the forgotten tales of men rushing to play at the highest professional tier, aware that their immediate offspring would probably be prohibited such an opportunity.
“They are the players who just vanished from baseball’s narrative, like a secret no one talks about,” said the baseball historian Jim Overmyer, who specializes in black baseball. “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.”
Overmyer and another historian of black baseball, Greg Bond, were among 12 members of a committee that voted for the Hall of Fame’s special election.
“It complicates our understanding of race relations in sports to realize that the color barrier was not a natural outcome of mixing races after the Civil War,” Bond said. “The fact is there were a lot of blacks on mostly white teams. The color barrier became a choice people made at the expense of people like Grant and White, who then disappeared.”
The first black professional baseball player is believed to be John Fowler, who used the nickname Bud and played for minor league teams in Lynn and Worcester, Mass., in 1878. Through recommendations from fans, historians and Hall of Fame members, Fowler was among 94 candidates for the special election, but he was not among the final 17.
Through meticulous work, representatives for the Society for American Baseball Research discovered that Fowler was born John Jackson 20 years earlier in central New York, and that he learned to play baseball, in of all places, the village of Cooperstown during the 1860’s.
Fowler played for 18 years in 13 professional leagues, from New England to New Mexico. He was a speedy base stealer who played every position, including pitcher..
Saturday, February 5, 2011
an excerpt from a 2006 nytimes article by Bill Pennington