Thursday, August 24, 2023

Rod Carew’s Seven Batting Titles and the Players He Denied the Honor by Annually Capturing the Crown

During Rod Carew’s Hall of Fame baseball career, his name became synonymous with winning batting championships.  Carew made his major league debut with the Minnesota Twins in 1967 and earned his first AL batting crown in 1969.  He then proceeded to dominate the 1970s, leading the AL in batting average on six occasions during the decade—four times in a row from 1972 to 1975 and back-to-back in 1977 and 1978.  All told, Carew secured seven batting titles, each of which came over a ten-year stretch from 1969 to 1978.  For players who plied their trade in the AL during this era, winning the batting crown proved to be a particularly difficult feat as they essentially had to go through Carew to achieve the honor.  What’s more, only two of Carew’s seven batting titles were decided in a remotely close battle as he usually ran away from the pack and won by as much as forty or even fifty-plus points over his nearest rival, in effect creating a “best of the rest” scenario for the remainder of the AL.  With this in mind, I decided to research which players were denied the opportunity to win the batting crown by the presence of a perennial top dog such as Carew.

Carew burst onto the big league scene at age 21 in 1967 and immediately established himself as a skilled hitter, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award after posting a .292 batting average that ranked sixth-highest in the junior circuit.  In addition to claiming top rookie honors, he also represented the AL as the team’s starting second baseman in the All-Star Game.  Carew’s All-Star selection marked the first of what would be an incredible 18-straight trips to the Midsummer Classic for the future Hall of Famer.  During an era filled with “all-glove, no-bat” type players manning the middle infield, Carew’s superb hitting noticeably stood out as AL second basemen as a whole hit just .245 in 1967.  Carew took a step back during his sophomore campaign, batting .273.  However, he got off to a blistering start in 1969, finishing May with a sizzling .403 average.  On the strength of his excellent start, Carew was able to maintain a healthy lead and win his first batting title with a .332 mark.  The battle for runner-up proved to be a close one with Boston Red Sox center fielder Reggie Smith securing the bridesmaid position by the slimmest of margins ahead of Carew’s teammate and good friend Tony Oliva as both sluggers ended the season at .309.  The difference came down to less than a point as Smith’s .3094 mark bested the .3093 figure of Oliva while Baltimore Orioles right fielder Frank Robinson finished just a tick behind in fourth place with a .308 average.  Since Carew’s arrival in the big leagues, Oliva had acted as a veteran mentor for the youngster.  Years later, Carew reflected on winning his first batting crown while leaving Oliva and the rest of the AL in his wake saying, “It was like beating my teacher.”  The Twins spent nearly the whole season atop the AL West and comfortably won the division title but were subsequently swept by the AL East-champion Orioles in the ALCS.  Carew drew MVP support for the first time, classifying 10th in the election.  Smith’s runner-up finish marked the closest the slugger would come to winning a batting crown.  Smith cracked the top 10 in average three more times in his career, peaking at seventh in the AL the following year.  The relative ease with which Carew won his first batting title is particularly impressive considering that his season was interrupted on multiple occasions by military obligations which required him to spend one weekend per month and two full weeks in August with the US Marine Reserves.

Carew got off to another blistering start in 1970 and was leading the AL with a .376 batting average on June 22 when disaster stuck.  In the process of turning a double play, Carew suffered a broken left leg when Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Mike Hegan upended the keystoner while attempting to break up the twin-killing.  The injury kept Carew out of action until September 22, leaving him well shy of the required plate appearances to qualify for the batting crown.  For the second year in a row, Minnesota won the AL West title but once again were swept by Baltimore in the ALCS.  With Carew out of the running for the batting crown, California Angels left fielder Alex Johnson paced the junior loop with a .329 average.  Fully healthy in 1971, Carew slotted fifth in the AL with a .307 mark while Tony Oliva earned the third and final batting title of his career with a .337 average.  Yet, Oliva’s and Carew’s strong hitting could not keep the Twins from tumbling out of contention and finishing the campaign in fifth place with a 74-86 record.

During Carew’s initial two seasons in MLB, batting average and scoring had declined to alarmingly low levels.  In an effort to increase offense, MLB reduced the height of the pitching mound for the 1969 campaign.  However, in 1972, the AL saw a temporary drop in both batting average and scoring that mirrored the 1967 and 1968 seasons.  Carew returned to the head of the AL leaderboard during the offense-starved 1972 campaign, collecting his second batting crown with a .318 figure that was by far his lowest average in the seven seasons he claimed top honors.  At the time, Carew’s .318 average also represented the fifth-lowest mark produced by a batting champion in the 72-year history of the junior circuit.  While Carew captured the 1969 batting title after racing out to a big lead, in 1972 he came from behind to win.  At the All-Star break, a trio of Kansas City Royals outfielders occupied the top-three spots with right fielder Richie Scheinblum’s .324 average leading the respective .317 and .314 clips of left fielder Lou Piniella and center fielder Amos Otis.  Carew ranked a few positions lower, finishing the first half in sixth place with a .301 average.  However, Carew’s bat heated up in August as he hit .359 for the month and began climbing up the leaderboard.  Going into September, Carew sat third with a .316 average, trailing the .318 figure of Chicago White Sox first baseman Dick Allen who held a hairline advantage of less than a point over Scheinblum.  An offseason trade acquisition for Chicago, Allen was in the process of putting together a brilliant campaign as he challenged for the Triple Crown—entering the season’s final month atop the batting average, home run, and RBI leaderboards—while keeping the surprising White Sox within striking distance of the first-place Oakland Athletics in the AL West division title hunt.  Allen and Carew traded the batting lead back and forth early in the month before the Twins keystoner took over for good on September 9 and finished the year with an AL-best .318 mark.  In contrast to his fellow Royals outfielders who each faded from contention, Piniella remained in the batting race and came on strong at the very end, closing the campaign with four consecutive multi-hit games to snag the runner-up position with a .312 average.  Allen easily secured the home run and RBI leads but slipped to third in the batting race, barely edging teammate Carlos May, as both finished at .308 with Allen’s .3083 figure a whisker ahead of May’s .3078.  Piniella’s and Allen’s respective second and third-place results represented high-water marks for each player, though Piniella slotted fourth two seasons later during his initial campaign with the New York Yankees and repeated the ranking in 1978 when he helped the club win the World Series championship.

After capturing his second batting title, Carew reflected on the advice Tony Oliva gave him during his rookie campaign.  “He told me not to worry about who was pitching, or what pitch he might be throwing,” Carew explained.  “He said I should just concentrate on hitting the ball.  It’s something I’ve tried to do all the time.  If you do that, you don’t guess, and guessing is the worst habit you can develop as a hitter.  When you guess, you get fooled and you lose your timing.”  While Carew took home his second batting title in 1972, the season was a lost one for Oliva who missed all but 10 games due to a knee injury.  With the Twins offense weakened by the loss of Oliva, the team finished a distant third in the AL West after posting a 77-77 record.  Though the junior circuit’s introduction of the designated hitter during the following season enabled Oliva to play for four more years, the slugger was never able to rediscover the form that made him a perennial contender and three-time winner of the batting crown.  Allen won the AL MVP Award by a wide margin—garnering 21 of 24 first-place votes—while Carew classified 14th in the election.  On completely opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of power hitting, Allen clubbed a loop-high 37 long balls as Carew earned the unique distinction of becoming the first AL player to win a batting title without going deep.

Following a noticeable downturn in average and scoring in 1972, AL offense returned to more normal levels in 1973.  Carew got off to slow start, batting just .246 in April.  However, he quickly regained his hitting stroke, assumed the batting lead during the second half of June and never looked back, easily claiming the honor for a third time.  Carew ended the year with a .350 mark, boasting a forty-plus point advantage over the rest of the field.  Similar to 1969, the battle for runner-up came down to a minuscule difference as Milwaukee Brewers first baseman George Scott and Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Tommy Davis each finished at .306 with the former’s .3063 mark barely nosing out the latter's .3062 figure.  Scott’s .306 average proved to be a career-high for the slugger who had previously slotted in the AL top five once before in 1967 when he ranked fourth with a .303 mark.  Davis’ third-place finish was his best result since capturing back-to-back NL batting crowns as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962 and 1963.  Neither Scott nor Davis came close to contending for a batting title over the remainder of their careers.  Although junior circuit offense as a whole picked back up in 1973, had Carew not been there to dominate the number-one spot, Scott would have paced the loop while posting the second-worst average for a batting champion, with only Carl Yastrzemski’s AL-topping .301 mark from 1968 representing a lower figure.  In addition to leading in average, Carew also paced the circuit with 203 hits and 11 triples.  Minnesota repeated its third-place finish from 1972, once again concluding the campaign at exactly .500, going 81-81 on this occasion.  With his lofty batting average, Carew drew greater support from MVP voters and slotted in a three-way tie for fourth in the election.

In contrast to the previous season, Carew came out of the gate strong in 1974, beginning the year in grand fashion by notching a .398 average in April.  Carew’s bat continued to sizzle as he sported a .400-plus mark for much of May and early June.  While Carew’s average hovered around .400 during the opening months of the campaign, he had unlikely company at the top of the leaderboard in Oakland Athletics right fielder Reggie Jackson.  Known much more for posting eye-popping home run figures and alarming strikeout totals than for producing high batting averages, Jackson stayed in close proximity to Carew through the end of May.  Following a May 22 game against Minnesota, Jackson, who had won the prior season’s AL MVP while pacing the junior circuit in home runs and RBI remarked, “I could win the Triple Crown if Rod Carew retires before he gets the required plate appearances.”  Jackson subsequently faded from contention in June and finished the year ranked 17th in the AL with a .289 average.  As Jackson’s challenge fell by the wayside, Carew opened up a commanding lead in the batting race, holding a .400 average as late as June 27, and checking into the All-Star break with a .382 mark.  Carew maintained a wide gap for the balance of the season and cemented his fourth batting title with a .364 average.  Slotting well behind Carew in the bridesmaid position was fellow keystoner Jorge Orta who batted .316 for the White Sox.  Carew’s 48-point edge over Orta represented the largest margin of victory in an AL batting race since the circuit’s inaugural campaign in 1901 when Nap Lajoie secured top honors with an 86-point advantage over second-place Mike Donlin.  Royals designated hitter Hal McRae grabbed the number-three spot with a .310 average.  A third-year player, Orta’s .316 average was a healthy increase from the respective .202 and .266 figures he registered during his partial rookie and sophomore seasons.  Orta delivered a solid follow-up performance in 1974, ranking eighth in the AL with a .304 average, but otherwise never classified among the batting leaders for the remainder of his career.  By contrast, McRae’s third-place result marked the first of five trips to the top-10 rundown for the slugger.  With his fourth batting crown, Carew surpassed the total of his mentor Oliva.  Aside from earning top batting honors, Carew also led the AL with a .433 OBP and paced the loop for the second season in a row in hits with 218.  Additionally, his 7.5 WAR ranked first among junior circuit position players.  Minnesota continued to stay mired in the mid-pack of the AL West, improving by only a single game, compiling an 82-80 record while finishing in third for the third-straight year.  Carew slotted seventh in the MVP election.

The 1975 AL batting race played out in a similar fashion to 1974 with Carew getting off to a scorching hot start, dashing out to an early lead, flirting with .400 as the calendar turned to June, and comfortably claim the honor once more.  However, in this case, he overcame pulled leg muscles in April to conclude the month with a .448 average.  After dipping below .400 in early May, Carew raised his average back up to .425 with an incredible stretch that saw him collect a trio of hits during the final game of May and ride the momentum into the following month by recording three hits in each of the first four contests to begin June.  Carew stayed above .400 through June 16, still boasted a .375 mark at the All-Star break, and ended the season at .359 to easily win his fifth batting crown.  Red Sox rookie center fielder Fred Lynn finished second to Carew with a .331 average while Yankees catcher Thurman Munson’s .318 figure ranked third.  Lynn shared Boston’s outfield with another standout freshman in left fielder Jim Rice who grabbed the number-four spot with a .309 average.  Lynn’s and Rice’s impressive showings in the batting race represented the first of multiple trips to the leaderboard for the rookie pair.  Munson’s third-place finish was the best result for an AL catcher since Yankees backstop Elston Howard slotted third in 1964.  Munson never again ranked as high as third or hit better than .318 but managed to win the following year’s MVP Award after playing a key role in New York’s AL East division title victory while posting a .302 mark.

By adding a fifth batting crown to his collection, Carew put his name in the exclusive company of Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Dan Brouthers as the only players to achieve the honor that many times.  He also joined Cobb, Wagner, and Hornsby as just the fourth batter to accomplish the feat in four consecutive seasons.  What’s more, for the second year in a row, Carew led AL position players in WAR and OBP with respective figures of 7.9 and .421.  Additionally, he topped all batters in the loop with 5.1 WPA.  Never known for his power, Carew showed extra pop in his bat, setting a new personal-best with 14 home runs—nearly doubling his previous career-high of eight.  Twins owner Calvin Griffith and manager Frank Quilici noticed Carew was growing into a leadership role and on July 25 named him captain of the team.  Going into the season, the idea of moving Carew from second base to first base had been toyed with but when the campaign got underway, he took his familiar spot at the keystone.  However, on September 12, with the club out of the AL West pennant race and laboring to a fourth-place finish and disappointing 76-83 record, the decision was finally made to move Carew to first.  Breakout rookies Lynn and Rice helped the Red Sox leap from an 84-78 mark in 1974 to go 95-65 and win the AL East division title.  Lynn subsequently became the first player to secure both MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards in the same season.  Rice finished runner-up to Lynn for rookie honors and slotted third in the MVP election, just a hair behind Royals first baseman John Mayberry.  Carew classified ninth in the MVP vote.

The 1976 campaign witnessed a memorable batting race in which Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae dominated the top-two positions, trading the lead back and forth over the second half of the season.  Carew maintained a steady pace throughout the campaign but was unable to build up enough momentum to catch the Royals pair as he ended the year in third with a .331 average, ranking close behind Brett’s batting crown-winning .333 mark and McRae’s .332 runner-up figure.  Although Carew fell short in the batting race, he did manage to slot fifth in the MVP vote as Minnesota rebounded to an 85-77 record and finished third in the AL West.  Carew did not lead the junior circuit in any major categories but he did conclude the campaign with exactly 200 hits, thus reaching the 200-hit plateau for the third time in four seasons.

While Carew had played a supporting role in the tight 1976 batting race, the 1977 edition proved to be a cakewalk for the future Hall of Famer with the only intrigue being whether or not he could become the first AL hitter to finish the season with a .400 average since Ted Williams in 1941.  A few weeks prior to the beginning of the 1977 campaign, Carew was honored for his charitable work off the field as the recipient of the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award.  When the season got underway, Carew raced out to a fine start, hitting .356 in April.  He then took over the batting lead during the second half of May and never relinquished the top spot.  Carew’s pursuit of .400 got serious in June as he hit a blistering .487 for the month and entered July with a .411 average.  Boasting a .400-plus mark so late into the season drew Carew ample attention and praise.  Twins manager Gene Mauch said of Carew, “I have never seen a better hitter.  I really believe he’d hit .400 on artificial turf.  I’ve never seen a hitter make as solid contact as consistently as Rod.”  Yankees skipper Billy Martin echoed similar sentiments stating, “He is the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen, bar none.  In the National League, with all the artificial turf, he’d be hitting .400 every year.”  Carew led all of MLB in fan balloting for the All-Star Game, setting a new record by receiving a whopping 4,292,740 votes.  Carew simultaneously graced the covers of the July 18 editions of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated, with the latter publication featuring an article penned by Ted Williams in which the famous Red Sox slugger stated that he hoped Carew would hit .400.  Although Carew slipped under .400 on July 11, he remained within striking distance of the vaunted mark for the balance of the campaign while playing a vital role in keeping Minnesota in the AL West pennant race.  After struggling for much of the previous six seasons, the Twins succeeded in establishing themselves as an early contender by leading the division for all May and most of June.  Similar to Carew’s pursuit of .400, the club stayed in touch with first place, even briefly retaking the division lead in mid-August.  However, the team slumped heavily, going 7-18 in September, and fell out the pennant race.  Minnesota finished the year in fourth with an 84-77 record, 17 1/2 games behind the AL West champion Royals.  While most of his teammates floundered during the club’s September swoon, Carew’s bat heated up as he posted a .416 average for the month and got three hits in each of the two October contests to conclude the season with a magnificent .388 mark.  Carew finished 52 points ahead of his next closest challenger, eclipsing the 48-point margin with which he won the 1974 AL batting crown.  What’s more, Carew owned a 50-point lead over all qualified MLB hitters as Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Dave Parker earned the NL batting title with a .338 average.  In addition to picking up his sixth batting crown, Carew also paced the loop in a slew of categories including hits, runs scored, triples, OBP, OPS, OPS+, Rbat, WPA, and WAR.  Carew set new personal bests in most offensive categories and reached the 100-RBI plateau for the first time.

Though he fell short of joining Williams as a .400 hitter, his .388 average represented the highest AL mark since Williams registered a slightly-greater .388 figure during the 1957 campaign.  Also, Carew’s 239 hits were the most for a junior circuit batter since Heinie Manush’s 241 in 1928.  At season’s end, Carew was named the Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News.  Then in November, he garnered 12 of 28 first-place votes to win the AL MVP Award.  The 16 additional first-place tallies were split among 10 other players.  Carew remained humble throughout his pursuit of .400 and realistic about the chances of achieving the feat.  After capturing the MVP Award, Carew said, “I’m thrilled, it’s just great.  I’m just happy to have gotten it.  I didn’t have myself geared to winning it, because so many other players had such good years and I didn’t want to be too disappointed if I lost.”

Well behind Carew in the runner-up spot of the batting race with a .336 average was his young teammate, outfielder Lyman Bostock.  Only 26 years of age, 1977 represented the third big league campaign for Bostock who had already established himself as a batting crown threat by posting a .323 mark during the previous season which slotted him in fourth place, just behind the tightly-clustered triumvirate of George Brett, Hal McRae, and Carew.  Bostock built on his strong 1976 effort with a solid start to 1977.  While Carew easily ran away from the pack, Bostock spent much of the campaign leading the remainder of the AL.  Bostock encountered a late challenge from Baltimore Orioles right fielder Ken Singleton as the pair traded the number-two position in the batting race during September.  Bostock successfully held off Singleton to secure bridesmaid honors with a .336 average while the O’s slugger settled for third with a .328 figure.  Seen as a key player in Baltimore’s runner-up finish in the AL East, Singleton collected a trio of first-place MVP votes and classified third in election.  With Carew earning most of the credit for Minnesota’s pennant push, Bostock did not factor in the MVP election, only drawing a sole ninth-place vote.  Singleton’s .328 average and number-three result in the batting race each marked personal-bests for the right fielder.

Although Bostock was a veteran of just three major league campaigns, he became eligible for free agency at the conclusion of 1977 and left the Twins to sign a lucrative five-year contract with the California Angels.  During the same offseason, Minnesota lost another marquee player when outfielder Larry Hisle, who was fresh off a standout effort in which he led the AL with 119 RBI, also departed the club via free agency to sign a six-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Prior to the start of the 1978 campaign, Bostock took the opportunity to detail the benefits of learning from former teammates Carew and Tony Oliva, the latter of whom had transitioned into a player-coach role during his final big league season in 1976 before focusing exclusively on his hitting coach duties for 1977.  “Tony was the teacher and Rodney was the demonstrator,” Bostock explained.  “Tony taught me how to set pitchers up, what to look for against certain guys.  Tony illustrated everything and Carew demonstrated it.  Carew would go in and do the thing Tony was talking about.”

Bostock unexpectedly struggled to open the 1978 season, batting an anemic .147 in April.  Feeling he was not earning his lucrative contract, Bostock attempted to return his April salary to Angels owner Gene Autry.  When Autry refused, the young outfielder donated the money to a variety of charities.  Bostock soon broke out of his uncharacteristic slump and by September 23 had raised his average to a solid .296 with a two-hit performance versus the Chicago White Sox.  Sadly, later that night, while visiting his uncle in Gary, Indiana and reconnecting with two female friends from his childhood, Bostock was shot by one of the ladies’ estranged husband.  Bostock passed away from the gunshot wound early the next morning, he was just 27.

After easily claiming his sixth AL batting crown during his MVP-winning 1977 campaign, Carew once again dominated the leaderboard in 1978 but this time around secured the honor by a much slimmer margin.  Carew began 1978 in identical fashion to 1977, posting a .356 average in April.  He then took over the lead in early May and briefly raised his average above .400 during the latter half of the month.  Going into the All-Star break it appeared that the batting race might play out similarly to 1975 as Carew ranked first with a .349 average, followed by the respective .331 and .323 figures of Red Sox sluggers Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.  Carew never managed to run away from the pack but continued to maintain a comfortable advantage over the rest of the AL for the remainder of the campaign—only relinquishing the top spot for a single day in early August—before earning the batting title with a final mark of .333.  With his latest batting crown, Carew became one of just five players to accomplish the feat seven times as he matched the total of Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial while only trailing the eight of Honus Wagner and 12 of Ty Cobb.  Unfortunately, Carew’s achievement was overshadowed when the Twins regular season ended in controversy after a series of racist comments made by team owner Calvin Griffith became public.  Griffith’s remarks further stained an already contentious relationship between Carew and the notoriously-cheap owner as the veteran vowed to never sign another contract with the Twins organization.

Slotting just nine points behind Carew in the bridesmaid position of the batting race was Texas Rangers left fielder Al Oliver.  After spending his initial 10 big league campaigns with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oliver came to Texas as part of a massive 11-player, four-team trade during the offseason.  A career .296 hitter going into 1978, Oliver was no stranger to playing second fiddle in the batting race, having finished runner-up on the 1974 NL leaderboard with a .321 average that was only bested by the .353 figure of Atlanta Braves outfielder Ralph Garr.  Oliver did not immediately establish himself as a threat in the 1978 AL batting race, registering a .288 average through the first half.  Returning to the field after being sidelined for a month by a pulled muscle under his rib cage, Oliver opened the season’s second act slotted behind 19 qualified junior circuit hitters.  However, he quickly rose up the rankings as his bat got scorching hot.  At one point, Oliver even snatched the lead from Carew for a single day in early August before spending the final weeks of the campaign battling Rice and Yankees outfielder Lou Piniella for the number-two spot.  Oliver hit .350 during the second half to ultimately finish runner-up to Carew with a .324 average, followed by the respective .315 and .314 marks of Rice and Piniella.  The close fight for third in the batting race played out in opposite fashion to the AL East pennant race which saw Rice’s Red Sox and Piniella’s Yankees end the season tied atop the standings.  New York then beat Boston in a one-game tiebreaker playoff to capture the division title and advance to the playoffs where the club defeated the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

With Minnesota’s lineup weakened by the departures of Lyman Bostock and Larry Hisle, the team slumped heavily and finished the 1978 campaign well out of contention in fourth place.  In fact, the Twins’ 73-89 record represented the franchise’s worst win-loss mark since 1961.  Despite having less protection in the lineup, Carew still managed to cement his seventh batting crown while also pacing the junior circuit in OBP for the fourth time in five years.  Rice stood atop the AL leaderboard in most offensive categories and won the MVP Award while Carew classified 11th in the election.

With Carew’s contract set to expire at the conclusion of the upcoming 1979 season and the disgruntled superstar publicly stating that he intended to test the free agent market rather than sign an extension to stay with Minnesota, the club began actively shopping the veteran.  On February 3, the Twins traded Carew to the California Angels in exchange for four players.  Carew quickly adjusted to his new surroundings and appeared to be in the process of making a strong run at claiming his eighth batting title when he sprained his right thumb on June 1.  Carew who, was hitting .355 at the time, missed the next 45 games.  When he returned from injury, he struggled to rediscover his tempo, batting an uncharacteristically-low .287 over the remainder of the season to finish with a .318 average for the year.  With Carew hampered by the thumb sprain, one of the players who previously slotted runner-up to him in the batting race stepped up to earn top honors as Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn’s .333 mark paced the AL.  While Carew’s .318 average was not far off from Lynn, he classified outside the top-10 leaderboard because he only made 493 plate appearances, nine short of the number required to qualify for the batting crown.  Thus, when the nine plate appearances were added to Carew’s total, his average decreased from a .318 figure that ranked 10th-best in the loop to a .311 mark which slotted 12th.  Despite the injury, Carew helped the Angels reach the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s 19-year existence as the club won the AL West title with an 88-74 record.  Carew’s bat heated back up in the ALCS where he went 7 for 17 and registered a team-high .412 average.  However, California fell to the Orioles in four games.

Carew raised his batting average to .331 for 1980 but only finished fifth on the rundown and well behind the eye-popping .390 figure of Royals third baseman George Brett who claimed his second AL batting crown.  The strike-shortened 1981 campaign saw Carew miss cracking the top-10 leaderboard for the second time in three seasons as his .305 mark slotted him 11th while Red Sox third baseman Carney Lansford paced the circuit with a .336 figure.  The following year, Carew posted a .296 average through the first half which ranked 20th in the AL but came on strong during the season’s second act to climb all the way up to third on the leaderboard and finish the year at .319 as Royals left fielder Willie Wilson secured top honors with a .332 mark, edging Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Robin Yount by a single point.  Carew’s solid campaign was one of several by an ensemble of Angels hitters that led the club to its second playoff appearance.  Unfortunately, for California the outcome was the same as three seasons earlier with a loss in the ALCS, on this occasion in five games to Yount’s Brewers.  Over in the NL, another one of the players who previously finished runner-up to Carew in the batting race joined the ranks of the elite as Montreal Expos first baseman Al Oliver concluded the 1982 campaign atop the senior circuit leaderboard with a .331 average.

Six seasons removed from his last serious attempt at batting .400, the now 37-year-old Carew got off to a blistering start in 1983, posting a .449 average in April followed by .438 mark in May.  Similar to his MVP-winning 1977 campaign, Carew began garnering attention for his latest run at .400.  As part of a June 13 Sports Illustrated cover story on Carew, teammate Doug DeCinces said of the ageless wonder, “The difference between this guy and the rest of us is that when we get hot, we go up to .300.  When he gets hot, he goes up to .500.”  Carew continued to boast a .400-plus average throughout June and into July, checking into the All-Star break batting .402—a figure nearly 50 points ahead of his nearest challenger, young Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs.  Carew finally fell below .400 on July 15, then labored through a difficult second half of the month at which point Boggs quickly began to close the gap.  A .349 hitter across 381 plate appearances as a rookie in 1982, the idea of the 25-year-old Boggs contending for a batting title was not a surprising development.  Boggs hit exactly .400 during the latter half of July while Carew slumped to .200 over the same stretch.  This enabled Boggs to catch Carew and the pair swapped the batting lead during late July and early August.  Boggs maintained his pace and pulled away from Carew in September, ultimately winning his first batting crown with a .361 average while the veteran finished runner-up with a .339 mark.  Although it had been five years since Carew won his last batting title, the final result of the seven-time batting champion playing bridesmaid to Boggs represented something of a changing of the guard as the young third baseman went on to become the AL’s next perennial batting champion, earning top honors for four straight seasons from 1985 to 1988.  The emergence of Boggs denied Carew the chance to become the first player to win batting crowns in three different decades—an achievement since accomplished only by George Brett who stood at the head of the junior circuit leaderboard in 1976, 1980, and 1990.

Carew’s second-place finish to Boggs proved to be his last serious run at winning another batting title.  During the 1984 and 1985 campaigns, Carew posted respective .295 and .280 averages that would have satisfied most hitters but were below-par for the seven-time batting champion.  On August 4, 1985, Carew became the 16th player to reach the 3,000-hit plateau.  Ironically, Carew’s 3,000th hit came during an Angels’ 6-5 win against his old team, the Minnesota Twins.  After achieving the milestone, Carew humbly said, “It’s something I thought I’d never accomplish but I’ve been around for 19 years, and if you stay around long enough, good things happen to you.”  The 1985 season marked the end of the veteran’s distinguished career as he retired with 3,053 hits and a lifetime .328 batting average.  Six years later, Carew received the call to the Hall of Fame, easily being voted in on his first appearance on the ballot with 90.5% of the vote.  Few players have dominated the batting leaderboard over a lengthy stretch of seasons the way Carew did.  In fact, since Carew’s retirement only eight-time NL batting champion Tony Gwynn has equaled or surpassed Carew’s total of seven batting crowns.

----by John Tuberty 

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Sources and Quote credit: 
All statistics are drawn from Baseball Reference

Associated Press, “Reaching That .400 Percentage,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 28, 1977, Volume 121, Number 251, p.16. Accessed via California Digital Newspaper Collection. (includes both Gene Mauch’s and Billy Martin’s quotes about Rod Carew)

Associated Press, “Carew Nabs AL MVP,” Desert Sun, November 16, 1977, p.B7. Accessed via California Digital Newspaper Collection. (includes Rod Carew’s quote about winning the AL MVP Award)

Sun-Telegram news services, “Hunter fired, Carew fired up as regular season ends,” San Bernardino Sun, October 2, 1978, p.C4. Accessed via California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Ted Williams with John Underwood, “I Hope Rod Carew Hits .400,” Sports Illustrated, July 18, 1977, p.20-23. Accessed via SI Vault.

Ron Fimrite, “Portrait Of The Artist As A Hitter: The Man Behind The Camera Is Rod Carew, Part-Time Photographer, Full-Time Batting Star, Whose Phenomenal .435 Average Has Made Him The Focus Of Unwanted Attention,” Sports Illustrated, June 13, 1983, p.74-85. Accessed via SI Vault.(includes Doug DeCinces quote about Rod Carew)

“Rod Carew to Be Sidelined 4 Weeks by Thumb Injury,” The New York Times, June 5, 1979.

Mike Downey, “Carew: Rod Carew Has Never Been Much for Talking About His Feats, or the Good Things He Does Off the Field. He Has Let His Bat Do the Speaking and It Has Done So, Eloquently, for 19 Seasons,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1985 (includes Rod Carew’s quote about reaching 3,000 hits)

Arno Goethel, “Carew Best Bet For .400 Swat Mark, Cal Says,” The Sporting News, May 31, 1969, p.22, 32.

Bob Fowler, “Oliva’s 1967 Tip Helped Carew to Batting Title,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1972, p.19. (includes quote from Rod Carew about beating Tony Oliva in 1969 AL batting race and also Carew quote about advice he received from Oliva as a rookie)

Bob Fowler, “Who’s Premier Swatter in A.L.? Rod Carew,” The Sporting News, June 29, 1974, p.3. (includes Reggie Jackson quote about Rod Carew)

Bob Fowler, “Schedule Favors Twins’ Effort To Leave Starting Gate Fast,” The Sporting News, April 12, 1975, p.27.

Bob Fowler, “Carew Taking on Bat Title Complexion Again,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1975, p.19.

Bob Fowler, “Twins Tab Carew for Killer’s Old Role,” The Sporting News, August 16, 1975, p.8.

Bob Fowler, “Twins Turns to Carew to Halt Gateway Turnover,” The Sporting News, October 11, 1975, p.23.

Jack Lang, “Well-Rounded Rod Wins Clemente Award,” The Sporting News, April 9, 1977, p.24, 30.

A.L. flashes, “Sky’s Limit For Rod,” The Sporting News, July 2, 1977, p.30.

Bob Fowler, “Twins’ Hot Rod Knocks for All-Time Honors,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1977, p.11.

Oscar Kahan, “Record Votes for Carew, Garvey as All-Stars,” The Sporting News, July 23, 1977, p. 47.

Bob Fowler, “The Real Rod Carew: Majors’ Player of Year,” The Sporting News, October 15, 1977, p.3.

Jack Lang, “MVP Prize Caps Carew’s Greatest Season,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1977, p.45.

Dick Miller, “Lyman’s Pie in Sky Proves to Be Angel Food,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1978, p.3. (includes Lyman Bostock quote about being helped by Tony Oliva and Rod Carew)

Leonard Koppett, “More Credit to Carew’s Batting,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1978, p.4.

Dick Miller, “Charity Big Winner in Bostock Slump,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1978, p.11. 

Dick Miller, “Bostock Death Stuns Angels, All of Baseball,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1978, p.51.

Bob Fowler, “Twins’ Players Raging Over Cal’s Remarks,” The Sporting News, October 14, 1978, p.29.

Randy Galloway, “Rangers’ Sag No Fault of Swatter Oliver,” The Sporting News, November 4, 1978, p.54.

Dick Miller, “Injured Carew Tries Hypnosis,” The Sporting News, June 23, 1979, p.12.

Cards: Kellogg’s 3-D Superstar Rod Carew cards-1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979; Topps-Rod Carew, Reggie Smith, Tony Oliva; 1973 Topps-Rod Carew, Lou Piniella, Dick Allen; 1974 Topps-Rod Carew, George Scott, Tommy Davis; 1975 Topps-Rod Carew, Jorge Orta, Hal McRae; 1976 Topps-Rod Carew, Fred Lynn, Thurman Munson; 1977 Topps-Rod Carew, Lyman Bostock, Ken Singleton; 1979 Topps-Rod Carew, Al Oliver, Jim Rice; 1984 Topps Drake’s Big Hitters-Rod Carew, Wade Boggs; 1986 Fleer Rod Carew 

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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Mudcat Grant’s Underrated Late-Career Run as a Fireman

Jim “Mudcat” Grant’s major league career spanned from 1958 to 1971, the majority of which was spent as a starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins.  Grant’s most memorable season came in 1965 when he made history by becoming the first African-American pitcher to post a 20-win campaign in the AL.  That same year, the right-handed hurler picked up a pair of victories in Minnesota’s narrow World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.  However, just a few seasons later, Grant found himself moving from team to team through a series of transactions, bouncing in and out of the starting rotation, at times exiled to a mop-up role in the bullpen.  Finally, in 1970, Grant found stability as a member of the Oakland Athletics where he became the leader of the club’s relief corps.  An overlooked aspect of Grant’s career is his successful transformation from a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher to an effective relief pitcher who could be counted on to close out tight games.

During this era, a team's primary relief pitcher was commonly referred to as a fireman or stopper.  Unlike today, where one-inning saves by closers are the norm, the top relievers of this era were often asked to come into the game with runners on base and pitch multiple innings.  Grant’s journey from frontline starter to fireman was not without its difficulties.  After going 21-7 with a 3.30 ERA while leading the AL in victories, win-loss percentage, and shutouts during his banner 1965 campaign, Grant saw his record slump to 13-13 in 1966 despite posting a slightly lower 3.25 ERA.  The righty’s middling record was largely the result of a decrease in run support.  After being provided an average of 5.63 runs per game in 1965, his run support dropped by a full run and three-quarters to 3.88 in 1966.  Grant fell out of favor with the Twins during a difficult 1967 season in which his ERA ballooned to a career-high 4.72 as he battled knee injuries, was removed from the starting rotation in mid-July, and gathered dust as a seldom used member of the bullpen for the remainder of the year.  During the offseason, the hurler was packaged in a trade to the Dodgers where he had a nice rebound campaign, posting a 2.08 ERA across 95 innings.  Although Grant’s 1968 season was successful from a performance standpoint, it was unsatisfying professionally as he was unable to break into the rotation—drawing just four starting assignments—and rarely received the call in high leverage situations out of the bullpen.  Grant’s stay in Los Angeles lasted just a single year as he was left unprotected during the expansion draft and subsequently selected by the Montreal Expos.  Joining the startup Expos franchise presented the veteran with the opportunity to become a starter again.  Grant rose to the occasion, having an excellent spring training and was named Opening Day starter for the club’s inaugural game.  However, Grant was largely ineffective as a starter for Montreal and after producing an ugly 1-6 record and 4.80 ERA, was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in early June.  Shortly after the trade, Grant drew a few starts for the Redbirds but following back-to-back rough outings, the righty was sent back to the bullpen.  Unlike Los Angeles the year before though, St. Louis called upon Grant in tight games and high leverage situations.  Towards the end of the season, he became one the club’s main options to close out games.  Grant finished 1969 with seven saves, five of which came in September.  His combined record for Montreal and St. Louis stood at 8-11 with a 4.42 ERA.  However, there was a significant gap between his 5.46 ERA as a starter and 3.16 mark in relief.

After splitting the 1969 season between Montreal and St. Louis, Grant once again found himself on the move when he was sold to the Oakland Athletics on December 5 for the hefty sum of $50,000—an amount which was double the $25,000 waiver price.  Grant joined an A’s club that, after spending decades as an AL-doormat, had finally emerged into a contender.  Led by the breakout performances of young sluggers Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando, Oakland finished the 1969 campaign in second place with an 88-74 record.  The A’s had done a good job of remaining in striking distance of the division lead until the Minnesota Twins finally pulled away in September to win the AL West by nine games.  The acquisition of Grant was part of a busy winter in which the team also picked up veteran players Felipe Alou, Al Downing, Diego Segui, and Don Mincher.  A’s owner Charlie Finley explained his strategy behind bringing in Grant and the other seasoned players.  “Oakland’s big problem in the past was its youth,” Finley remarked.  “Now we’re sprinkling a little experience along with the youth, which I think will pay dividends.”

On March 28, a little over a week before the start of the regular season, Grant played in the East-West Major League Baseball Classic to honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The charity exhibition game, which was held at Dodgers Stadium, featured more than a dozen future Hall of Famers including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Tom Seaver.  Players were divided geographically into two teams of East and West.  During the pregame ceremonies, Grant, who was an accomplished singer who took bookings as an entertainer in his spare time, delighted the crowd with a soulful rendition of the National Anthem.  Grant pitched the eighth inning for the West but was unable to help his team win.  Sensing a good promotional opportunity, Charlie Finley called upon Grant to sing the National Anthem before the A’s April 13 home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.  This marked the first time an active player sang the Anthem before a major league game.  In addition to Grant’s singing, the home opener was also notable for the use of bright gold bases as part of a one-game experiment commissioner Bowie Kuhn allowed Finley to try.

Grant started the season in the all too familiar role of mop-up reliever.  Nevertheless, he made the most of the situation, throwing seven and two-thirds scoreless innings in six appearances through the first month of the campaign.  By late May, Grant sported a minuscule 1.57 ERA when he embarked on a five appearance stretch in which he gave up just one unearned run over nine and two-thirds innings while racking up four saves.  With the A’s record hovering around .500, the team began using Grant as their primary reliever to protect late game leads.  Despite thriving in the fireman role, Mudcat still was hoping for a chance to prove himself as a starter in Oakland.  “Everyone prefers starting,” the 34-year-old veteran said.  “There’s just something about starting and relieving.  Starters are still considered to be better pitchers, even when that isn’t true in all cases.  It’s something that’s left over from the past.  We’re still living in the past in some respects.”  After Grant secured Oakland victories with back-to-back saves on June 9 and 10 against his original club, the Cleveland Indians, the righty drew praise from A’s manager John McNamara.  “You can’t say anything but superlatives about Grant,” the skipper proclaimed.  “He’s been great.  He’s done the job every time we’ve called on him.”  The hurler was particularly stingy on opposing hitters during a month-long stretch from May 17 to June 16 in which he gave up just a single unearned run across 27 innings in 16 appearances, going 2-0 while picking up seven saves.  During the impressive stretch, the A’s record improved from 17-17 to 34-28.  Mudcat picked up his eleventh save on June 30 and in the process lowered his ERA to 0.93.  Aside from his stellar work on the mound, Grant was also showcasing his musical talents, making appearances at Oakland’s Jack London Inn night club.

With the emergence of Grant as one of the game’s top fireman, the A’s bullpen had a relief pitcher they could count on to consistently close out tight games, something the team had lacked for the past few seasons.  Based on the veteran’s postgame comments, it seemed he was becoming more accepting of pitching out of the bullpen.  “Don’t get me wrong, I’d still like to start,” Grant remarked.  “But there’s a lot to say about the bullpen.  There’s the drama involved and key situations where you have to produce or a game is lost.  It forces you to do your thing.”  Grant finished the first half of the season with a 4-0 record, 13 saves, and an otherworldly 0.79 ERA.  Despite his dominant pitching, Grant was not selected for the All-Star Game.  AL skipper Earl Weaver opted to only select starting pitchers to fill out the junior circuit’s roster for the Midsummer Classic, essentially underscoring Grant’s comments about starters being widely viewed as better pitchers than relievers.

When play resumed after the All-Star break, Grant picked up right where he left off, garnering saves in five straight appearances to close out the month of July.  Included in that stretch was a July 26 outing in which Grant protected a one-run lead with two scoreless innings over the New York Yankees to give Oakland the 4-3 win.  In the process, Grant collected his sixteenth save of the season while also securing starting pitcher Catfish Hunter’s fourteenth victory.  Hunter’s postgame praise of Grant highlighted the reliever’s importance to the club.  “In other years, I didn’t want to come out of the game because we didn’t have good relief pitchers,” Hunter stated.  “Now that we have Grant, I don’t worry.”  Securing Hunter victories was a running theme throughout the 1970 season for Mudcat as he ultimately saved eight of Catfish’s team-leading 18 wins.  Sportswriters had fun with the two hurlers having such similar nicknames—one scribe even began referring to them as “The Cat People.”  However, Grant was in some ways a victim of his own success.  After the veteran’s July 26 save against New York, McNamara was asked about the possibility of moving Grant out of the bullpen to start.  “Not a chance,” the manager said.  “His effectiveness in the bullpen is obvious.”

Although the acquisition of Grant gave Oakland a reliable reliever who could be counted on to secure victories in tight games, the club was still having trouble closing the gap the first-place Twins had opened up on them early in the season.  Many of Grant’s former teammates still called Minnesota home and, on August 9 and 10, he picked up saves number 19 and 20 at their expense.  These wins helped the A’s draw closer in the division race and by the middle of the month, the club had moved into second place and pulled to within three and a half games of the Twins.  However, Oakland lost ground with a disastrous 1-11 stretch during the latter part of August.  Then, on September 14—with the A’s eight games in arrears of the Twins—Finley abandoned any efforts to win the division when he sold Grant to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Two days later, the eccentric owner departed with another one of his key veterans when he sold outfielder Tommy Davis to the Chicago Cubs.  Finley’s late season moves drew criticism from members of the press as well as his own players but the team owner defended the sales explaining he had acquired Grant and Davis to finish first and didn’t need them to finish second.  Prior to his sale to Pittsburgh, Mudcat was putting the finishing touches on his finest season as a reliever with a 6-2 record and 1.82 ERA while successfully converting 24 of 25 save attempts.  In addition, Grant had proved to be a great fit in the A’s clubhouse, providing a strong veteran presence for the young team.  The well-traveled hurler would now be moving to his seventh organization and sixth in the space of four seasons.  Yet, in leaving Oakland, Grant expressed a level of disappointment that had not been present when he departed other teams.  “Everything I did was for the Oakland A’s,” Grant said after learning he was sold to Pittsburgh.  “You join the club, you put your worth into the club, you hurt for the club, you have an outstanding year for the club, and two weeks before the end of the season, someone (Finley) phones you that you’ve been sold.  Finley thanked me for the season I had and for the help I gave some of the players.  This really hurt.”

At the time of Grant’s sale to Pittsburgh, the Pirates were in the midst of a close three-team NL East pennant race with the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs.  However, since the hurler had been acquired by the club after August 31, he was ineligible for postseason play should the Pirates win the NL East.  Nevertheless, Grant was still able to make a big impact in the pennant race.  On September 16, the righty made his first appearance with his new team, protecting a two-run lead with three scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies to help ensure a 5-3 victory before giving way to Pittsburgh’s fireman, Dave Giusti, in the ninth.  Grant’s outing impressed Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh who had never seen the veteran pitch.  “This was a nice unveiling,” the skipper said of Grant.  “He gave this club a real shot in the arm tonight.”  With Pittsburgh holding a two and a half game edge over both New York and Chicago, the club hosted the Mets for a crucial September 25-27 three-game series.  During the series opener, Grant was called upon to pitch with one out in the top of the seventh after a bases loaded walk by Giusti allowed the Mets to tie the score.  Grant induced New York’s number three hitter Cleon Jones to ground into an inning ending double play.  Pittsburgh then scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh, thus making Grant the pitcher of record in the 4-3 victory.  The following day, Grant once again entered a tied game during the top of the seventh inning, this time facing Ken Boswell with two out and runners on first and second.  Grant forced Boswell to ground out to him to end the threat.  Pittsburgh hitters repeated their heroics of the night before, scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh while Grant closed out the game to earn his second consecutive win.  The next day, the Pirates beat the Mets in the final game of the series to complete the sweep and clinch the NL East pennant.  Mets manager Gil Hodges later admitted he had passed on the chance to claim Grant through waivers, which had allowed Pittsburgh to acquire the veteran.  The Pirates were unable to ride their regular season momentum into the playoffs as they were subsequently swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS.  Although Grant was ineligible for Pittsburgh’s postseason roster, he did have a memorable moment during the NLCS, singing the National Anthem at Three Rivers Stadium prior to Game Two.  Mudcat finished 1970 with an 8-3 record, 24 saves, and a 1.86 ERA in 135 1/3 innings.  Because he was traded away from the AL, his 72 appearances did not lead the junior circuit but his 80 overall appearances split across the two leagues led all of baseball.  With his 24 saves for the year, Grant joined Ellis Kinder and one of his former pitching coaches Johnny Sain as the only hurlers to have achieved both a 20-win and 20-save season.  Technically, Grant is recognized as the first pitcher to accomplish the feat since Kinder’s and Sain’s respective 20-save campaigns took place in 1953 and 1954 before saves became an official MLB statistic in 1969.

During the offseason, the Pirates completed the Grant sale by sending outfield prospect Angel Mangual to Oakland.  Charlie Finley addressed Grant’s absence in the bullpen during a January 26 press conference to introduce new A’s manager Dick Williams.  “Grant did a great job last year,” Finley said.  “But he kept some of our other relief pitchers from getting a chance to show what they could do.”  However, despite Finley’s comments, according to Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown, the A’s owner expressed interest in reacquiring Grant in March.  “I told Charlie we were counting on Grant,” Brown explained.  “But if we ever decided to deal him, we’d try to give him first crack.”

Mudcat picked up right where he left off in 1970 with an excellent first two months to start his 1971 campaign.  While Pittsburgh’s fireman Dave Giusti was given the bulk of closing duties, Grant was regularly used in tight games and saw his share of save opportunities as well.  After a difficult April 14 outing in which the righty blew a save and was charged with the loss, he went on a 25-inning stretch without giving up a run.  Grant drew attention, not only for his success on the mound but also for his appearance.  Long known as one of the most stylish players of his day, Grant sported thick mutton chop sideburns that reflected the mod subculture that was growing in popularity.  In late May, the former 20-game winner spoke about his career renaissance in the bullpen.  “I’m having success at a late age.  I could have folded up, after not starting and falling into the relief pitching thing.  But I count it as another experience.”  At the end of May the veteran’s record stood at 3-1 with a 0.67 ERA and four of five save opportunities successfully converted.

Unfortunately, NL hitters began teeing off Grant in June as he posted a 5.32 ERA for the month and followed it up with an even more unsightly 5.82 mark in July.  After not giving up a home run during the first two months of the season, he was taken deep a combined eight times in June and July.  In addition, Grant had uncharacteristically been struggling with control issues throughout the campaign, allowing an average of more than three walks per nine innings.  By August 9, Grant’s ERA had climbed to 3.60 when Pittsburgh decided to part ways with the veteran and sold him back to the Oakland Athletics.  Grant was leaving a Pirates team that appeared poised to return to the postseason, comfortably sitting atop the NL East with a six and a half game edge over the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.  Fortunately for the righty, the A’s club he was rejoining looked to be an even safer bet to make the playoffs, leading the AL West by a commanding 13 1/2 game margin over the runner-up Kansas City Royals.

Shortly after learning of his sale back to Oakland, Grant was contacted by Finley who insisted the hurler immediately meet the team in Boston where the A’s were set to play the Red Sox in a doubleheader the following day.  Oakland manager Dick Williams wasted no time in using the veteran, bringing him in to relieve starter John “Blue Moon” Odom during the second game of the doubleheader.  Grant earned the save by pitching the final three and one-third innings of Oakland’s 7-5 victory.  Following the win, Williams spoke glowingly about Grant’s performance.  “I was thrilled,” the A’s skipper said.  “He was excellent, excellent, excellent.  He threw strikes and brought it in.  It looks like he picked up right where he left off last year.”  As Grant settled back in with Oakland, he quickly became impressed with improvements the club was making under the direction of their new manager, Williams.  “I’ve seen more guys give themselves up, like hit behind the runner, in one week than I did all last year,” Grant said.  “You’ve got to give Williams credit.  He’s done a tremendous job to orchestrate things.  He’s put things together.”

Grant impressed his managers with his work out of the bullpen for the A's and Pirates

Following his sale to the A’s, Grant reclaimed his pinpoint control which had abandoned him in Pittsburgh, pitching 10 innings for Oakland before issuing his first walk.  Home runs were initially a cause for concern as the righty surrendered three longballs in his first four appearances for the A’s.  However, from that point forward, he did not allow another batter to go deep on him for the remainder of the year.  Grant was generally used in close games and shared the fireman role with Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles as each of the three pitchers saw their share of save opportunities.  On September 15, Grant earned the win, throwing three scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox.  With Kansas City’s loss to the California Angels later that evening, Oakland officially clinched the AL West.  The A’s finished the season 16 games ahead of the second-place Royals with a 101-60 record.  In his month and a half with Oakland, Grant went 1-0 while posting an excellent 1.98 ERA and successfully converting three of four save attempts.  Adding his totals from Pittsburgh, the veteran’s final ledger for 1971 was an overall mark of 6-3, supported by a respectable 3.17 ERA, and 10 saves.

With their division title victory, the A’s advanced to the postseason for the first time in four decades.  Oakland’s opponent in the ALCS was the defending World Series champion Baltimore Orioles who were also winners of the past two AL pennants.  Like Oakland, Baltimore easily clinched their division, posting a nearly identical 101-57 record.  Unfortunately, the youthful A’s inexperience showed against the playoff-tested O’s as they dropped the first two games of the series on the road in Baltimore despite sending a pair of 20-game winners, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue, to the hill.  The series moved back to Oakland for Game Three where the A’s, facing elimination, started veteran right-hander Diego Segui.  Prior to the game, Grant sang the National Anthem in front of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum fans.  With the A’s down 5-2 in the top of the eighth inning, Grant entered the game to face the top of Baltimore’s order.  After surrendering a leadoff triple to Don Buford, the hurler settled down and dispatched of Paul Blair, Boog Powell, and Frank Robinson in succession.  Reggie Jackson took O’s starter Jim Palmer deep in the bottom of the eighth to make the score 5-3.  In what would ultimately be the final inning of his fourteen-year major league career, Grant quickly retired Andy Etchebarren and Brooks Robinson on fly outs before surrendering back-to-back singles to Davey Johnson and Mark Belanger.  Grant then ended Baltimore’s two-out threat by striking out Palmer.  After Gene Tenace and Mike Hegan were fanned to open the bottom of the ninth, Grant’s spot in the batting order came up.  Dick Williams pinch-hit slugger Curt Blefary for Grant.  Palmer mowed down Blefary to strike out the side and complete the sweep over the A’s, giving Baltimore its third consecutive AL pennant.  The Orioles were then defeated in a thrilling seven-game Fall Classic against the club that sold Grant to Oakland, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While Grant had missed out on winning the World Series title with his sale from Pittsburgh to Oakland, the A’s had turned a corner from contender into division champion and were in good shape to make another postseason run in 1972.  However, at the end of November, Oakland decided to release Grant.  Charlie Finley called the pitcher personally to deliver the news.  The release of Grant was surprising considering he had been among the game’s best relief pitchers for the A’s in 1970 and had returned to the team for a strong finish to his 1971 campaign, all while providing veteran leadership to a young clubhouse.  Grant’s release perhaps can be traced to Finley not being interested in paying his lucrative salary, which Pittsburgh had increased to $60,000 prior to the 1971 season.  Finley was likely fine with absorbing a portion of Grant’s salary to obtain him for the stretch drive but parted ways with the hurler rather than pay his full salary for the upcoming 1972 campaign.  “This whole thing of being released means having to prove myself all over again,” Grant said.  “I figure if you do the job, you should get paid for it.  If I play for a smaller amount and do well, then we’re back into that again—my salary.”  Grant did his best to take the release in stride adding, “I want to remember the game of baseball as something nice, something I enjoyed playing.”  Although the possibility of retirement loomed, the 36-year-old still showed confidence in his abilities.  “They keep telling me I’m an old man and that I’m through, but I look around and see guys as old as me not doing as well.”

After being let go by Oakland it looked as if Grant might retire and pursue a full-time career as an entertainer.  However, Grant chose to continue playing professional baseball and joined his original club, the Cleveland Indians, for spring training.  “This is like being back home,” Grant said.  “This is where everything started for me.  I hope I can finish my career just as it began—pitching in Cleveland.”  Unfortunately, Grant was unable to make the Tribe’s Opening Day roster but the franchise did offer the veteran a chance to pitch for their Triple-A team in Portland.  Nevertheless, after a phone conversation with Charlie Finley, the hurler decided to return to the A’s organization for a third stint, this time in the dual role of reliever and pitching coach for Oakland’s Des Moines-based Triple-A affiliate, Iowa Oaks of the American Association.  “It’s a good deal.”  Grant said.  “I can continue to pitch and get some coaching experience.”  Grant’s deal with the Oaks also gave the righty flexibility.  “Charlie says if any big league club wants to sign me at any time this season he’ll let me go.  Actually, on my record, I don’t see how anybody let me go this year.  I’ll never go to a camp as a free agent like I did with the Indians.”

Grant pitched well for the Oaks, working as the team’s fireman, a role he had flourished in during parts of the past two seasons with the A’s.  However, with young reliever Rollie Fingers coming into his own and veteran hurlers Darold Knowles and Bob Locker also available to close out tight games, Oakland’s bullpen had the late innings covered.  Nevertheless, Grant remained hopeful for a call up to Oakland.  On August 3, the Oaks hosted the A’s for an exhibition game between the two clubs.  Oakland was in the midst of another excellent campaign, sitting atop the AL West with a six-game lead over the second-place Chicago White Sox.  The A’s won the exhibition game, 5-3, defeating the Oaks in extra innings with Grant taking the loss.  Sportswriter Ron Bergman, who covered the A’s beat for the Oakland Tribune and contributed to The Sporting News, was on hand for the game and printed an exchange between Grant and A’s pitching coach Bill Posedel in the August 26 edition of The Sporting News.  “You going to hang ‘em up after this year?”  Posedel asked Grant.  “Not as long as I know I can pitch better than some of the guys they’ve got up in the big leagues now,” Grant replied.  Bergman also printed another quote from Grant speaking to an Oakland beat writer.  “Don’t let them forget about me down here,” Grant said to the scribe.  The righty finished the season with a 5-5 record and an impressive 2.38 ERA while collecting 16 saves—a mark that trailed only Ron Tompkins among American Association pitchers.  Oakland captured their second consecutive AL West crown and won their first of three straight World Series championships.  Despite his solid pitching for Iowa, Grant was unable to earn a promotion to Oakland or draw interest from another club, a puzzling outcome considering his success with the A’s and the Pirates over the previous two campaigns.

After the 1972 season, Grant decided to retire, bringing an end to a professional career that began in 1954 when he left tiny Lacoochee to try out for the Cleveland Indians.  In 14 major league seasons, Grant compiled a 145-119 record with a 3.63 ERA and 54 saves.  With his playing career behind him, Mudcat chose to, once again, return to his original team, this time joining the Tribe as a broadcaster.  After several years in the booth with Cleveland, Grant made his way back to his final club, briefly working as a broadcaster for the A’s in 1979.  Grant also continued to be a sought-after entertainer for singing and public speaking engagements.  In 1992, Grant’s former teammate Rollie Fingers was elected to the Hall of Fame.  Fingers, who retired as the all-time saves leader in 1985, became just the second reliever, after Hoyt Wilhelm, to be voted into Cooperstown.  During Fingers’ acceptance speech, he recognized Grant for the key role the veteran played in helping him develop into a successful relief pitcher.  “I learned a lot from watching and in 1970, I had the opportunity to sit in the bullpen with a guy who was on his way out of the game,” Fingers said.  “He had some great years with Cleveland and Minnesota.  He was our stopper in 1970 in the bullpen.  I had the chance to sit and talk with him and watch him pitch and I learned a lot from this man and I’d like to thank him, Jim “Mudcat” Grant.  Thank you, Jim.”

At age 70, the multi-talented Grant displayed his skills as an author when he released The Black Aces:  Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners.  The book profiled each of the African-American pitchers to win 20 games in a season and also included Negro League hurlers who were denied the chance to play in the American and National Leagues due to the color barrier.  Among the hurlers profiled in Grant’s book was San Francisco native Mike Norris who won 22 games for the A’s in 1980.  Norris spoke of the impact that seeing Grant succeed as an African-American pitcher had on him during his childhood.  “Mud pitched here in Oakland when I was a kid, but he was at the end of his career.”  Norris said.  “What that let me know was that it was possible that a black pitcher could pitch in the big leagues.  That’s what Mud was to me.  He was reality.”

Grant and several of his fellow Black Aces made appearances at charity events and benefits.  In February 2007, President George W. Bush honored the Black Aces at the White House as part of an event celebrating Black History Month.  In addition, to Grant, fellow Black Aces Ferguson Jenkins, Dontrelle Willis, and Mike Norris were in attendance.  President Bush said he viewed the Black Aces as “a way not only to herald success, but to inspire others” and thanked Grant for “showing courage, character and perseverance.”  In May of that same year, Grant returned to the Oakland Coliseum for a pregame ceremony honoring the Black Aces.  Alongside Grant were Norris, Vida Blue, and Dave Stewart, each of whom posted 20-win seasons while pitching for the Athletics.  For the ceremony, the four hurlers wore Kansas City Monarchs jerseys made famous by Negro League pitching icon Satchel Paige.  Fittingly, Grant sang the National Anthem during the pregame festivities while Stewart threw out the first pitch.

On June 11, 2021 Grant passed away at age 85.  After learning of his passing, Stewart honored Grant on Twitter saying, “I can hear you singing now.  Sitting at the piano, putting on a Mudcat concert.  People who know you, and some who don’t making song requests.  What was once a small crowd has now turned into a big one.  You fill the room with happiness, laughter and love.  RIP Mud!  You are loved.”

----by John Tuberty

Follow me on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Sources: Baseball Reference, The Sporting News via SABR’s Paper of Record, San Bernardino Sun via California Digital Newspaper Collection and SABR’s Paper of Record, Albany NY Knickerbocker News Union Star via Fulton Newspapers and SABR Paper of Record, Mudcat Grant SABR bio, SI Vault, Rollie Fingers’ Hall of Fame speech via National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum You Tube channel, George W. Bush White House Archives, Dave Stewart’s Twitter, Montreal Gazette via Google News Archive, ESPN, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Tom Sabellico, and Pat O’Brien-The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners (Aventine Press), Danny Peary-We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era, 1947-1964 (Hyperion), Terry Pluto-The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump (Gray & Company, Publishers), Bruce Markusen-A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (Saint Johann Press)

Quotes credit:
-Charlie Finley quote about bringing in seasoned players is from p.39 of the December 20, 1969 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about preferring starting over relieving is from p.17 of the May 23, 1970 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-John McNamara quote praising Grant is from p.12 of the June 11, 1970 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and was retrieved from California Digital Newspaper Collection via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about enjoying the drama of pitching out of the bullpen is from p.14 of the July 1, 1970 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and was retrieved from California Digital Newspaper Collection via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Catfish Hunter quote about Grant is from p.8 of the July 27, 1970 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and was retrieved from California Digital Newspaper Collection via SABR access to Paper of Record
-John McNamara quote about not moving Grant out of the bullpen is from p.30 of the August 15, 1970 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about trade from Oakland is from p.8 of the October 3, 1970 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Danny Murtaugh quote about Grant is from the September 17, 1970 edition of the Nassua NY Newsday and was retrieved from Fulton Newspapers via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Charlie Finley addressing Grant’s absence in the A’s bullpen is from the January 27, 1971 edition of the Herkimer NY Evening Telegram and was retrieved from Fulton Newspapers via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Joe L. Brown quote about Charlie Finley trying to reacquire Grant is from p.9 of the August 28, 1971 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about career resurgence as reliever is from p.29 of the May 25, 1971 edition of the San Bernardino Sun and was retrieved from California Digital Newspaper Collection via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Dick Williams quote about Grant and Grant’s quote about Williams improving the A’s are from p.10 of the September 11, 1971 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about being released by Oakland is from p.47 of the December 11, 1971 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about joining Cleveland is from p.41 of the March 11, 1972 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about joining Iowa Oaks is from the April 8, 1972 edition of the Albany NY Knickerbocker News Union Star and was retrieved from Fulton Newspapers via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Bill Posedel and Grant quotes to each other and Grant quote to Oakland beat writer are from p.5 of the August 26, 1972 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Rollie Fingers quote about Grant was transcribed from his 1992 Hall of Fame acceptance speech and retrieved from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum You Tube video of the acceptance speech
-Mike Norris quote about Grant is from p.232 of Black Aces
-George W. Bush quotes about the Black Aces was retrieved from George W. Bush White House Archives
-Dave Stewart quote about Grant is from Dave Stewart’s Twitter

Cards: Mudcat Grant cards-1971 Topps, 1972 Topps, crop of picture from 1991 Swell Baseball Greats, crop from 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates Picture Pack, Black Aces book cover; Catfish Hunter 1987 Mother’s Cookies, Ellis Kinder 1954 Topps, Johnny Sain 2003 Topps All-Time Fan Favorites, John McNamara 1970 Topps, Danny Murtaugh 1971 Topps, Dick Williams 1972 Topps, Rollie Fingers 1972 Topps, Mike Norris 1984 Fleer

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