This annotated week in baseball history: March 9-March 15, 1901

On March 11, 1901 John McGraw announced the signing of Tokohama, a Native American he hoped to deploy at second base for his Baltimore Orioles. That was just one of the transactional shenanigans that took place during this week of March.

Branch Rickey receives—and deserves—significant credit for his role in bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. Rickey not only recognized the value inherent in having the Dodgers lead the way with integration, but also uts social ramifications.

Not all those who made early moves toward integration were necessarily that altruistic. In his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, Bill Veeck claims he “tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock it with Negro players.”

Veeck later would sign Larry Doby to be the first black player in the American League, so he was obviously no bigot. Nevertheless, Veeck admits his idea was based at least in part on his desire for “quick and easy publicity and … the quick and easy way to rebuild a hopeless team.” In any case, more recent analysis has suggested that Veeck was probably exaggerating his idea.

Sliding down the scale from a mix of societal altruism and baseball acumen to the latter holding a substantial majority, we arrive at John McGraw. On March 11, 1901, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a story announcing McGraw had acquired for his Baltimore Orioles a Cherokee named Tokohama to play second base.

That was all well and good, and quite the coup for McGraw, except for one problem. Tokohama didn’t really exist. Actually, that’s not quite it. He wasn’t some Glided Age Sydd Finch, but rather a bellhop at the hotel where McGraw was staying during spring training. His real name was Charlie Grant, and unfortunately for McGraw—and even more so for Grant—he wasn’t Cherokee, he was black.

Whatever else you can say about McGraw (and there’s a lot—he basically helped to invent modern baseball), when he found what he thought was a good idea, he stuck with it. After announcing Grant as Tokohama—sometimes styled “Charlie Tokohama” and sometimes “Chief Tokohama,” which was really pushing things—McGraw made it clear to anyone who asked that Tokohama was his new second baseman.

The scheme quickly went to pieces, however. Grant’s prior Negro League club was the Columbia Giants. The Columbia Giants played their games near Chicago and Charles Comiskey recognized Grant as a member of the team. McGraw, however, was not the type to let a little thing like the truth get in the way of his goal. As late as May, he was still telling people that Tokohama was a Cherokee being denied the chance to play.

The odd part of the story is that once it became clear the Grant/Tokohama was not able to play, McGraw deployed Jimmy Williams at second base and Williams proved to be an offensive bright spot for the Orioles, leading the league in triples while finishing in the top 10 in a host of other categories.

Of course, such tomfoolery is not always a player and team working together to hoodwink the rest of the league. Sometimes the party trying to pull a fast one is the player.

Such was the case of Cuban defector Andy Morales. On March 12, 2001, Morales signed a four-year, $4.4 million contract with the Yankees. At his signing, Morales announced that reporters could “only imagine how proud (he) was to walk in and feel (himself] part of the Yankees.”

Morales’ agent reported that he saw himself competing with Scott Brosius for the Yankees’ job at third base. His agent also claimed that a short, pre-signing workout was more than enough “to realize he was the same player who had helped crush the Orioles” during a series between the Cuban National team and the Baltimore club in 1999.

The move was an almost instant disaster. Within a fortnight of signing Morales, the Yankees traded for Drew Henson, signing him to a $17 million contract to keep him off the football field for good. In the course of two weeks, the Yankees had spent more than $20 million on third basemen, none of which was going to the man actually playing third base at Yankee Stadium. (For his part, Brosius received $5.25 million in 2001.)

By early July, it was clear that the Morales signing was a disaster. The Cuban was hitting just .231 at Double-A with only five extra base hits. However, the Yankees soon discovered a way out: Morales had told the team he was born in 1974, making him 26 at the time of his signing.

However, the Yankees researched Morales’ age as the season went on, and produced evidence that he was actually born in 1971. On the one hand, this was somewhat hypocritical on the Yankees’ part, since at the time they employed Orlando Hernandez. El Duque claims a birthday of October 1969, but given that his birth certificate for that date is apparently signed by Clifford Irving, most think October 1965 is the real year.

Nevertheless, assuming the Yankees had their facts correct, they were within their rights to void Morales’ contract. The Yankees eventually had the last laugh, as the arch-rival Red Sox signed Morales for the 2002 season—albeit with significantly lower expectations—and he failed to hit at the Double-A level for them, too.

Finally, there is the story of the team based in Buffalo in 1894. Apparently seeking to expand its talent base, Buffalo signed a pair of Canadian players, which drew the attention of INS agent DeBarry. On March 14, he then sought advice from the Treasury Department (the parent organization of the INS until 1940) about whether the club had violated labor laws relating to the employment of foreigners by signing the Canadians.

The Buffalo team, suitably chastised, decided to cut its losses and use only American citizens for the 1894 season. (This was all a little silly, given that the NL’s saves leader that year was the Irish-born Tony Mullane, but there you are.)

This is hardly the only week to feature an assortment of dubious transactions. However, with would-be Indian chiefs, mis-aged Cubans and possibly illegal Canadians, it certainly provided an eclectic mix.

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