The Legend of Chief Tokohama

John McGraw’s (mgr. Baltimore Orioles) attempt to break baseball’s color line by disguising Charlie Grant, a Native American nicknamed Chief Tokohama, is frequently included in baseball histories, especially those that chronicle racial discrimination.

On March 11, 1901, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports the signing of an extraordinary player named “Chief Tokohama” to the Baltimore Orioles by manager John McGraw. 

Tokohama was later revealed to be Charlie Grant, a player from the Negro Leagues. McGraw at the time attempted to draw upon the bounteous resource of African-American talent in the face of baseball’s unspoken “Gentlemen’s Rule” that prevented black players from playing in the major leagues.

McGraw, manager of the Orioles from 1899 to 1902 and New York’s Giants from 1902 to 1932, had great respect for the abilities of African-American ballplayers, and was at the forefront of the effort to integrate professional baseball.

Reporters often spotted McGraw in the stands at Negro League games, carefully watching and taking notes, and later copying the strategies used by black teams — base stealing, sacrifice bunting, techniques since termed, “scientific baseball.” Legend has long held that McGraw had pitcher and Negro National League founder Rube Foster teach Giants star Christy Matthewson how to throw his devastating “fadeaway” pitch. McGraw also held exhibition games between his team and NL teams, providing them with excellent paydays and good publicity.

In October 1917, Negro Leaguer “Smokey” Joe Williams pitched against the National League champion Giants, striking out 20 batters before losing 1-0 on an error in the 10th inning. Had records been kept in those exhibitions, the mark of 20 strikeouts would have stood for 69 full seasons!

McGraw was not the only major leaguer who favored integration, or even the first Anglo to take up the cause. Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Dizzy Dean, Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner and Jimmie Foxx were among the players who barnstormed with all-star Negro League teams in the off-season long before being allowed to play with them in the regular season.

In 1901, however, keeping blacks and whites segregated ruled baseball’s hegemony.

Washington Post, March 1901

After Grant signed with the Orioles under the pseudo-name Chief Tokohama, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey uncovered his real identity and led the charge to ban him from the league — officially. Grant ended up spending the 1901 season playing second base for the Columbia Giants before signing with Philadelphia’s Giants in 1902.

John McGraw went on to win eight National League pennants while managing the New York Giants, as well as three World Series titles, and often spoke of how wrong it was to exclude African-American ballplayers from America’s great pasttime.

He passed in 1934, more than a decade before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, and finally killing Major League Baseball’s archaic “Gentlemen’s Rule.”

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