John Henry Griner Sr., an entrepreneur who rose from poverty by throwing himself into fields as diverse as cabinet-making and home financing, died Tuesday of complications from prostate cancer at Frederick Villa Nursing Center in Catonsville.
The longtime Halethorpe resident was believed to be about 100.
Born in Georgia, where he picked cotton as a child, Mr. Griner came to Baltimore in 1923 after marrying Josephine Mahoney. The man known as "Big John" for his 6-foot-2 height attended only a few years of school, but he was smart and had an extraordinary work ethic, his children said.
"He'd been very, very poor, and he saw opportunities - and just followed the trails," said a son, Everett Griner of Baltimore.
From the 1920s through the '40s, Mr. Griner worked at E.B. Read and Sons Co., driving trucks, fixing equipment and doing other tasks for the printing business. During that time, he branched out into cabinetmaking - Read officials bought and sold the results - and opened a sandwich shop in the building.
From the early 1930s until World War II, Mr. Griner also owned and managed baseball teams in the Negro Leagues, including the Baltimore Black Sox, his family said. Also in the 1930s and '40s, he ran a restaurant a half-block from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School downtown.
During World War II, he began purchasing homes in Baltimore and selling to black families moving from the South. If their finances were shaky, he would work out very low payments, said a son.
"He insisted they buy ... so they would have stakes in the neighborhood," said Dr. Winston Griner of Nashville, Tenn. "I consider him a kind of social engineer."
To complement his real estate ventures, Mr. Griner launched an insurance agency in the 1950s and did a brisk business over the telephone with many companies in the region, his sons said. When a few representatives visited for the first time - and word got around the industry that he was black - most of the companies dropped him.
That was the only time Winston Griner saw his father cry. "But it didn't stop him," his son said. Mr. Griner kept the agency for more than a decade afterward and then sold it.
From the late 1940s until the early '60s, according to the family, Mr. Griner was an elected member of the Republican central committee in Baltimore County, an achievement he attributed to his economic independence.
He spent his retirement gardening - he had cotton growing in his front yard - and financing mortgages.
Explaining to his children why he continually diversified in life, he quipped: "If you have a stool, you'd better have more than one leg on it, because otherwise it won't stand."
Mr. Griner was an early supporter of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, insisting that his son Winston attend because he wanted the young institution to succeed.
In his father's honor, Dr. Griner recently endowed the Griner Professorship in the school's Biology Department.
A man who believed in saving money and living modestly, Mr. Griner bought a house in Halethorpe in 1955 and remained there until moving to Frederick Villa less than a month ago.
His first wife died in 1949. He married Alethea Anderson in 1950.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. today at Unity Baptist Church, 7204 Montgomery Road, Elkridge.
Donations can be made to UMBC.
In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Griner is survived by three other sons, William, Calvin, and Howard Griner of Baltimore; two daughters, Nelita Parris of Tampa, Fla., and Lessie B. Johnson of Washington; 29 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Sun staff writer Jim Haner contributed to this article.