Obituary: Jim “Mudcat” Grant (1935-2021)


RIP to All-Star pitcher Mudcat Grant, the first African-American to win 20 games in the American League. According to the Cleveland Indians, Grant died peacefully in Los Angeles on June 11. He was 85 years old. Over his long life, Grant involved himself in a number of off-the-field activities, including announcing, charity work, writing and singing. Especially singing. There is a video below of Grant singing “What a Wonderful World” at a memorial service for Harmon Killebrew in 2011, and it’s gorgeous. He played for the Cleveland Indians (1958-64), Minnesota Twins (1964-67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1970-71).

“The Cleveland Indians family is deeply saddened by the loss of Jim “Mudcat” Grant, a true fan favorite on both the playing field and in the broadcast booth,” said Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland senior vice president, public affairs. “To this day, Mudcat was a cherished member of the Indians Alumni Ambassador Program. We send our condolences to the entire Grant family, as well as to his many teammates and other organizations impacted by his 60-plus years in our game.”

James Timothy Grant was born in Lacoochee, Fla., on August 13, 1935. He attended Moore Academy in Dade City, Fla., where he played baseball, football and basketball. He then went to Florida A&M College for a year and a half before economic hardships forced him to drop out. When Grant came to professional baseball in 1954, he came with a recommendation from none other than Fred Merkle — yes, that Merkle. The unfairly maligned Merkle lived in Daytona Beach and officiated at a baseball tournament. He was so impressed by Grant that he brought Grant to the Indians’ training facility in Daytona for a tryout. Reportedly, Merkle wasn’t sure if Grant would make it as a pitcher or a hitter, but he knew that the youngster was enough of an athlete that he belonged somewhere on the field. It was one of the last things that Merkle did, as he died in 1956.

Grant got off to a pretty sensational start in pro ball, as he won 21 games for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Class-C Northern League as a 19-year-old in 1954. He won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, finishing first on 12 of the 15 ballots. He had a total of 67 points, the third-highest total ever recorded for a rookie, behind Hank Aaron with 75 in 1952 and Roger Maras with 70 in 1953.

Willie Kirkland and Woodie Held towel off Grant after an 11-0 shutout of the Washington Senators. Both players homered to back up Grant in his shutout. Source: The Parsons Sun, June 8, 1961.

Fargo-Moorhead won the Northern League championship, but the team had to do it without the services of Grant, who had a sore arm from all his pitching that year. This being the 1950s, the Cleveland made no attempt to ease Grant along, as he pitched close to or over 200 innings in all four of his minor-league seasons. He was successful in spite of the questionable usage. He won 70 games over those four seasons while losing just 29, moving from Fargo to Keokuk to Reading to San Diego. Grant saved his best season for the Pacific Coast League’s Padres in 1957. He went 18-7 with a 2.31 ERA, more than a full lower than he’d managed elsewhere in the minors. By the end of that season, the 22-year-old right-handed had made himself one of Cleveland’s top pitching prospects.

Grant, from the moment he started playing professional ball, was known as “Mudcat.” The New York Times quoted Grant’s explanation, and unsurprisingly, there was prejudice involved. “In those days, they thought all Black folk was from Mississippi. They started calling me ‘Mississippi Mudcat,'” Grant related. “I said, ‘I’m not from Mississippi,’ and they said, ‘You’re still a Mississippi Mudcat.’ And it’s been very good to me.” He wasn’t the only Mudcat in the Cleveland organization, either. In 1956, the team signed Julius Grant, a left-handed pitcher and Jim’s younger brother. He was initially dubbed “Little Mudcat,” though general manager Frank Lane eventually gave him the nickname of “Swampfire.” Julius Grant never reached the majors, but he pitched professionally until 1969 and was a 20-game winner in Mexico.

Grant made the Indians’ starting rotation in 1959, thanks to spring training injuries to some veteran pitchers, and he made his MLB debut on April 17 against the Kansas City A’s. He gave up a run in his first inning of work but settled down after that, allowing just 2 runs on 8 hits while striking out 5. Cleveland scored 2 runs in the bottom of the ninth on a Mickey Vernon double to give him a 3-2 complete game win. Grant’s first 4 wins were complete games, in fact. Grant was very much a feast-or-famine pitcher. He went 10-11 on the year, and 9 of those 10 wins were complete games (the other was a 4-1/3 inning relief win). In four of his losses, though, he was knocked out of the game before the fifth inning. Grant threw 204 innings, second on the team to Cal McLish, and he ended the year with a 3.84 ERA in 44 games, including 28 starts. He was effective though a little wild, with 111 strikeouts and 104 walks allowed. The fans took to him right away, and he was a regular part of the Cleveland pitching staff for the next seven seasons.

Grant’s managers in his first few seasons — Bobby Bragan, Joe Gordon, Jimmy Dykes — never gave him a full-time role as a starter. It seemed like he was always a poor performance away from getting sent back to the pen. At one point in Grant’s sophomore season of 1959, Gordon even threatened to ship him back to the minors if he didn’t start pitching better. Then Grant threw a 14-inning win over the Yankees on June 21, and the manager suddenly lost his memory. “It’s possible I may have said something about Grant and the minors when he lost a game to Baltimore at the start of our road trip. But I’d rather forget about it, he’s got nothing to worry about now,” Gordon said, backtracking as quickly as he could.

Jimmy Dykes was the first manager to leave Grant as a starter, and Grant went 15-9 with a 3.86 ERA in 1961 in 35 starts, with 11 complete games and 3 shutouts. Of course, Dykes was also responsible for ending the pitcher’s 1960 season in early September, when Grant was the subject of racist encounter with bullpen coach Ted Wilks. Grant’s version of the September 16 incident is as follows:

“I was standing in the bullpen and singing along with the national anthem as I always do. “When it got to that part ‘home of the brave and land of the free,’ I sang something like ‘this land is not so free, I can’t even go to Mississippi.’ It was something like that and I sang it in fun.

“Wilks heard me and called me a black so-and-so [it’s unclear if Wilks actually said those words or if Grant cleaned it up for the papers]. I got so mad I couldn’t hold myself back. I told him that Texas is worse than Russia. Then I walked straight into the clubhouse [and went home]. Maybe I should have told Dykes what Wilks said, but in a situation like that you can’t think straight.”

Again, this happened in September of 1960, and white America was not used to hearing Black athletes speak out about racial issues. Dykes suspended him for the rest of the season for walking off the team without consulting him first. Wilks admitted to the manager that he made a remark “relating to Grant’s race,” but Dykes spun it with Grant as the unreasonable one. “It seems that Grant made some remark about what a lousy country this is while the national anthem was being played,” Dykes told reporters afterward. “Ted told me he tried to apologize for the remark, but Grant wouldn’t even listen to him. He just walked out.”

Mudcat Grant and his band play at a women’s reformatory. Source: The Boston Globe, February 11, 1966.

The Associated Press, in covering the suspension, stated, “There was no elaboration from Grant what was meant by his references to Texas or Mississippi, both Southern states.” Yes, the largest press organization in the country was just baffled about why an African American man might have an issue with the South in 1960.

At any rate, Dykes and Grant coexisted well enough that the pitcher became a full-time starter for the first time in his career the following season. Winning his first 7 decisions probably didn’t hurt, either. Dykes was gone by the end of the season, which was not a surprise. Counting interim managers, Grant played for eight managers in his seven seasons with Cleveland, typically finishing in the lower half of the AL standings. He had a 67-63 record with Cleveland, and finishing over .500 as a starting pitcher was quite an accomplishment, considering the talent around him. Grant was selected to the AL All-Star team in 1963, when he had a 13-14 record and a 3.69 ERA. He fanned 157 batters in 229-1/3 innings.

Grant got off to a poor start with Cleveland in 1964. He was traded to Minnesota on June 15, when his ERA was near 6 and his record 3-4. Minnesota gave up pitcher Lee Stange and utility man George Banks in the trade, and Grant turned his season around quickly. He win 11 games for the Twins with a fine 2.82 ERA to finish 1964, and then he pitched the greatest season of his career in 1965.

Grant became the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games in the American League, finishing with a 21-7 record. (Don Newcombe became the 1st in Major League Baseball with 20 wins in 1951.) He had 142 strikeouts and just 61 walks, showing the best control of his career to date. Not only did he lead the AL in wins, but he was also tops in winning percentage (.750) and shutouts (6) — and home runs allowed (34). He was named to the All-Star team and, unlike his 1963 nomination, he got into the game and pitched 2 innings. While he gave up a 2-run homer to Willie Stargell, he also struck out Dick Allen, Pete Rose and Ernie Banks.

After pitching for a bunch of middling teams in Cleveland, Grant was part of one of the best teams in baseball, as the 1965 Twins won 102 games and the American League pennant. He and 18-game winner Jim Kaat were the team’s aces. Manager Sam Mele leaned hard on them in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it almost worked. Grant started Game One on October 6, opposed by Don Drysdale, and cruised to an easy 8-2 complete game win. He scattered 10 hits and struck out 5. He went back to the mound in Game Four on October 10, and this time he only went 5 innings in a 7-2 loss. He gave up 5 runs, but 2 came when he put the first two runners on in the sixth inning, and reliever Al Worthington allowed them both to score on back-to-back hits by Ron Fairly and Lou Johnson. Three days later, Grant threw another complete game and added a 3-run homer in a 5-1 win to tie the Series at 3 games apiece. Unfortunately for the Twins, Sandy tossed a 3-hit, 2-0 shutout against Kaat in Game Seven to win the Series for the Dodgers.

Grant’s World Series home run was so dramatic that it stopped Congress. Rep. Arch Moore (R-WV) was giving a speech attacking U.S. international trade when a roar from the cloakroom in the rear of the chamber caused him to stop and look around. A group of representatives was watching the game on television inside the cloakroom and couldn’t help but cheer when Grant homered.

The success he experienced in 1965 put Grant’s celebrity on an entirely different level. It was beneficial for his other pastime, as he put together a band called Mudcat and His Kittens, and they toured the country. “I’ve got four playing instruments, two dancers, and three girl singers,” he explained. “One of the dancers is a male. The girl singers can sing — and they’re pretty. And of course, I sing and dance.”

Grant also gave plenty of interviews, reliving some of the more unpleasant memories of his past. The time he and a group of Black ballplayers had to spent the night in a dumpy theater in Harligen, Texas, because there was no hotel for them. He had to shoot a rat to death with a .22 he carried with him. He also had to use that .22 to protect himself from a group of rednecks who ran his car off the road while driving back to Lacoochee, with his pregnant wife lying on the floor in the back seat. Amazingly, he didn’t tell those stories with bitterness.

“The thing about me is I don’t hate. I love everybody,” he said. The fact that the newspapers from his playing days are stuffed with photos of him hugging and horsing around with his mostly white teammates indicates that the feeling was mutual.

Grant never had another season like that 1965 campaign. He won 13 games for the Twins in 1966 with a 3.25 ERA, but he also lost 13. He won 8 of his last 9 decisions to reach the .500 mark, and that included back-to-back shutouts against the Kansas City Athletics and California Angels. He still had some productive seasons ahead of him, but he would never break double-digits in wins in another season. In 1967, he won just 5 games and fell into new manager Cal Ermer’s doghouse when he turned up missing during a bedcheck in July. Grant maintained that he switched rooms because roommate Earl Battey wanted the air conditioning kept on all night. Grant even had the receipt for the other room, but he still got a $250 fine. Disagreements with Ermer and team owner Calvin Griffith built up until Grant stated that he wanted off the team. The Twins accommodated him by trading him to the Dodgers in November of 1967, along with shortstop Zoilo Versalles, for pitchers Bob Miller and Ron Perranoski and catcher John Roseboro. Grant was so happy to be away from Ermer that when a reporter brought up the possibility of him going back to the Twins, he said he’d rather buy some weights. “Then old Mudcat here’s gonna put ’em in my shoes and go tap dance in some quicksand.”

Country star Jimmy Dean welcomes Grant, center, and Maury Wills, right, to his variety show. Source: The Ithaca Journal, March 18, 1966.

Grant spent the remainder of his career changing teams pretty rapidly. The Dodgers put him in the bullpen for 1968, and he was very effective, with 6 wins, 3 saves and a 2.08 ERA in 37 games. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the October 1968 expansion draft and penciled in as a part of the starting rotation. In fact, Grant was the Expos’ first-ever Opening Day pitcher on April 8, 1969. He lasted only 1-1/3 innings in that game, though. Grant won just 1 game in 10 starts to start 1969 and missed time with strained muscles in his chest. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 3 — about a week after he had announced plans to build a discotheque in Montreal called Mudcat’s. The Cardinals moved Grant back to the bullpen, and he saved 7 games and won 7 more in 30 appearances.

By the time 1970 rolled around, Grant was 34 years old, dealing with arthritis in his legs that left him sore all the time, and he was working harder that he ever had as a closer for the Oakland A’s — who had purchased his contract from St. Louis. He made 72 appearances with a 6-2 record, a 1.86 ERA and 24 saves, working 123-1/3 innings in the process. He was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 14 for a player to be named later, who ended up being Angel Mangual. He got into 8 more games with Pittsburgh and won two of them, helping to push the Bucs into the postseason. Grant’s 80 total appearances led all of baseball, but he finished second in the AL to Chicago’s Wilbur Wood and his 77 games.

Grant’s 1970 and ’71 seasons were mirror opposites. In 1970, he started with Oakland and was sent to Pittsburgh for its postseason push. In 1971, he started with Pittsburgh and was sent to Oakland to help the A’s reach the playoffs. He was a fair pitcher for the Pirates in 1971 — 5-3 record, 3.60 ERA, 7 saves in 42 games. Once he was purchased by the A’s, he returned to a sub-2.00 ERA in 15 games, with 3 saves and a win. He was a part of the postseason roster as the A’s lost the 1971 AL Championship Series to Baltimore. Grant pitched the final 2 scoreless innings of a Game Three loss, as the A’s were swept out of the postseason. It was also his final game for a major-league club.

Grant spent 1972 as a player/pitching coach for the Iowa Oaks, the AAA affiliate for Oakland. He appeared in 49 games in relief. He was good in his role, but he couldn’t get signed to a major-league team, and he ended his career at the age of 37. Did every major-league team decide independently that he was too old to be useful? Or was he being punished because he was seen taking a white woman to a postseason game? He maintained it was the latter reason. Nobody in baseball would ever admit to it, of course, but he demonstrated that he still had gas left in the tank.

Over 14 seasons, Grant had a 145-119 record and 54 saves in 571 games — including 293 starts. He had 89 complete games and 18 shutouts to go with a 3.63 ERA and 1.286 WHIP. He struck out 1,267 batters. While his lifetime .178 batting average isn’t great, Grant had some pop in his bat, hitting 6 home runs and driving in 65 runs.

Grant stayed close to baseball by working as a broadcaster for the Cleveland Indians and later the Oakland A’s. He also worked to promote softball and baseball among Black youth and was the director of community relations for Cleveland for seven years. Grant helped coin the term “Black Aces,” in reference to the group of African-American pitchers who had won 20 games in a season. He literally wrote the book on the subject in 2007, chronicling the 13 Black pitchers who were members of that elite club. That number has since grown to 15, as David Price and C.C. Sabathia both reached 20 wins after the book was published.

Grant’s 20-win season has earned him a bit of immortality, but his advocacy and activism need to be remembered as much as his pitching exploits. As part of the second generation of African-American ballplayers, he took up the fight for civil rights, regardless of the impact it had on his career. Back in Grant’s heyday, it was all too easy to be labeled as an “angry Black man” if you dared to speak out. But as Grant pointed out time and time again, it wasn’t a matter of demanding special rights or saying that Black lives matter more than white lives. It was about getting the same rights as everyone else and being treated with respect as a human being.

The following quotes are from a syndicated column that Ira Berkow wrote in July, 1968. Grant and Bill White were interviewed on the subject of Black players in baseball, and many of their quotes are as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago.

“When Negroes first came into baseball, we were treated separately from whites — particularly in the South. There was always a Negro cab waiting to take us to a Negro hotel. We could only mix with whites on the field. This has changed to a great degree. But the spiritual harm it did Blacks was very deep. Because you couldn’t speak out — being a ‘house ******’ so to speak — made you feel less than you were.

“Now we’re getting Black pride. We are discovering that Black is beautiful. We do have flat noses, thick lips and kinky hair. We should be ourselves. We shouldn’t slick back our hair. We weren’t made to be that way.

“The idea of athletics is important to Black Americans. Blacks can look at a Willie Mays or Jim Grant and see that it is possible to move up, economically at least. The same can be true in fields like engineering and medicine.”

For more information: New York Times
Reuters

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4 thoughts on “Obituary: Jim “Mudcat” Grant (1935-2021)

  1. Thank you for this, Sam. I didn’t know about the Merkle/Mudcat connection, but in a way, it’s perfectly poetic that a man who was unfairly saddled with a reputation for boneheadedness when in fact he was no such thing should be the one to recognize the outstanding talent in a young kid from Lacoochee who went on to become the first Black 20-game winner in the American League.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Perry. I was shocked at the relationship myself, but it was a testament to Mudcat that his talent shone through, even at a young age. It says a lot about Merkle, too, I think.

      Like

  2. Dear Sam, I am Tom Sabellico, Mud’s dear friend and biographer. Just wanted you to know I think you did a real nice job with this. Mud was a very special man who taught me an awful lot and I was blessed to tell the story of The Black Aces.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Tom! That means a lot coming from someone who knew him so well. The Black Aces is a great legacy that he leaves behind, and I hope the club keeps growing!

      Like

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