Buffalo in the 1880s: Bisons’ 2B is baseball’s earliest black star

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Bisons-1887FrankGrant
Buffalo Stories archives

He is often heralded as the best player the Bisons had in the 1800s, which is no small feat, as he was being matched against four Hall of Fame players. But even after his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2006, 120 years after he first joined the Bisons, few know the name Frank Grant.

A 1915 story in the Buffalo Courier reads, “He played for years for The Buffalos, gained the sobriquet ‘The colored Dunlap,’ and was regarded the equal of any second baseman in the country.” The Dunlap referenced was Fred Dunlap, baseball’s highest paid player of the 1880s, and the game’s best (white) second baseman of his time.

Many believed it was Grant’s prowess on the field that effectively barred African-Americans from major league baseball for the first half of the twentieth century.

When Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball was making headlines in the late ’40s, one man wrote a letter to the editor with his memories of the sport’s first crack at integration.

“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.”

The Bisons’ manager, John Chapman, always referred to Grant as “a Spaniard,” fearful of fan and player reaction to the truth.

His style was described by The News as “full of vim and abandon.” Grant played second base without a glove — only his bare hands — but he had to create his own special wooden shin pads from the numbers of opposing base runners who seemed to find a way to run into second (and the second baseman) spikes first. In 1888, his last year with the Bisons, his teammates refused to sit for a team portrait with him. The next season, he was playing with barnstorming teams and was an early star in the Negro Leagues.

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons' 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons’ 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Grant visited area ball diamonds at least twice after his Bisons days. In 1894, Grant and the Cuban Giants — a barnstorming black team — played Buffalo’s amateur Oakdales at the Bisons’ home field, Olympic Park. Two years later, Grant and the Giants took on the Niagara University varsity squad.

There are historians and baseball enthusiasts who take up the case for Grant as the “greatest ever Bison,” and there is a case to be made, but the man who gets more of those than Grant is the Bisons’ second African-American player: Luke Easter. Easter broke the modern-era color barrier for the Herd after a long career in the Negro Leagues, the big leagues with Cleveland starting in 1949, and then with Rochester and Buffalo in the International League.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor, produced PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.