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Book Review: Frank Grant

Review by Budd Bailey

Frank Grant has one of the most interesting stories in Buffalo's long athletic history. It's too bad more people don't know it. 

Grant grew up in Western Massachusetts, and quickly displayed the ability to be a top-flight baseball player by the 1880s. You might remember that the National League started in 1876, and so for most people of that description at the time, Grant might have been given a chance to turn a pastime into a profession. But Grant was an African American, and ballplayers of that particular race were few and far between in the majors. 

Still he did darn well under the circumstances. Grant played some semi-pro ball, and joined the professional ranks in 1886. That led him to a contract with Buffalo's team for the second half of the season, and he stayed through 1888. The International League featured some good baseball in that era, but even so Grant became a star. What would you call a 5-foot-7, 155-pound second baseman who was one of the top batters (he even led the league in homers), and was considered the best fielder at his position in the entire sport - white or black? Today you'd probably say he was the spiritual ancestor of Joe Morgan or Jose Altuve - smallish players who excelled. 

Alas, by the end of 1888, white players were becoming more and more militant about the idea of playing against or with black players. That left Grant's days with the Bisons numbered, even if several teammates went public with their admiration of his skills. Grant was forced to drop to a lower level of play, and eventually had to resort to playing with all-Black barnstorming teams. The infielder, who also played other positions at time in his career, spent 20 years as a pro ballplayer. Even at the end of that run, people still talked about his skills - past and present. Several contemporaries described him as the finest African American baseball player of the 19th century.

The problem, of course, was that few people were paying attention. Coverage of baseball games didn't exactly offer a ton of feature stories back then, and the Black teams were at the end of the line for such stories. Therefore, we don't know that much about the players. But thanks to the efforts of Richard Bogovich, we  know a lot more than we used to know about Grant. 

Bogovich is the author of a book called "Frank Grant - The Life of a Black Baseball Pioneer," and he obviously put in an absolute ton of research into the book - to the point where he probably needed an eye exam when he was finished. Bogovich looked through miles of newspaper clippings and census data, among other records, to try to put together at least an outline of Grant's story.  

Is it successful? It's fair to say that Bogovich did as good a job as could be done. If Grant's name popped up in a box score or a story, it is represented here. The author did an exceptional job figuring out some information about the quality of the opposition. Grant had the chance to play against major league players at times, and he almost always showed that he belongs in that company. Grant's family situation is a bit more sketchy, but Bogovich makes some good guesses as to how events played out in his life. 

The biggest drawback to the book is that the story almost has to be very choppy. It mostly consists of descriptions of games and events without many themes running through it. That is unfortunate, since it might drive most potential readers away. Perhaps skimming would work best for them. Still, it's part of the package. I can't imagine the story being any more thorough, and thus gives baseball fans of that era an idea what the fuss was about. Therefore, "Frank Grant" works on that level quite nicely.

What's more, the work of baseball historians has not been in vain when it comes to Grant. He was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 - 100 years after his last game in Buffalo. Even more impressive was his induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006. His grave in Clifton, New Jersey, was unmarked until 2011, when he finally received his own gravestone with a brief inscription outlining his baseball accomplishments.  

Now we'll have to work on getting him into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. 

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB) 

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