Thursday, February 17, 2022

Mudcat Grant: A True Renaissance Man of Baseball

Jim “Mudcat” Grant’s major league career spanned from 1958 to 1971.  Grant is most remembered for his impressive 1965 season when he made history by becoming the first African-American pitcher to post a 20-win campaign in the AL.  During the era he played in, Grant was one of the few pitchers to excel as both a starter and a reliever.  However, the right-handed hurler’s skills were not limited to the baseball diamond as he also was an entertainer who appeared at night clubs and on television.  Years after his playing career ended, Grant became an author and wrote about the accomplishments and experiences of his fellow African-American 20-game winners.  With his many talents, Mudcat Grant was a true renaissance man of baseball.

Grant was born on August 13, 1935 in Lacoochee, Florida, a small town roughly 40 miles north of Tampa.  Grant described Lacoochee as a “company town” developed by a lumber mill which set up tiny row houses that acted as workers’ quarters for the company’s employees.  Grant and his family lived in impoverished conditions with no electricity or running water.  Growing up as an African-American in the segregated South, he also faced discrimination and often had to endure verbal and physical punishment due to the color of his skin.  At age 13, Grant went to work in the lumber mill, an exhausting and dangerous job for anyone, much less a young teenager.  “Working in the lumber mill was tough work,” Grant recalled.  “You come home bone tired.  You can get fingers, arms, and legs cut off.  You can get buried in sawdust.  You could even get killed.  I had relatives who were hurt, but none died in the mills.  But people did die.  When it happened, there was a chilling sound of a whistle coming from the mill.  It was a whistle between shifts, which wasn’t supposed to sound.  That was when you knew something bad had happened.”

Grant’s baseball career started during his early teen years playing for a local semi-pro black team, the Lacocchee Nine Devils.  In 1951, a scout from the Boston Braves offered Grant a contract but tore it up when he found out the youngster was only 16.  Fortunately, Grant had also caught the eye of the Cleveland Indians who invited him to their Daytona Beach spring training camp in 1954.  Grant was given the nickname “Mudcat” at the camp by an older player, Leeroy Irby, who thought he looked like he was from Mississippi.  “He began to call me Mudcat,” the pitcher explained.  “You know the saying, ‘Mississippi Mud.’  There must be mudcats in Mississippi.  All of a sudden I realized I had a nickname.  Everybody called me Mudcat.”  The young hurler initially resented the moniker but eventually came to accept and embrace being called “Mudcat.”  The Indians sent Grant to their Fargo-Moorehead Class C affiliate where he went 21-5 with a 3.40 ERA and was named the Northern League’s Rookie of the Year.  The following season, he was moved up to Class B Keokuk where he posted a similar 19-3 record and 3.46 ERA.  Grant spent 1956 in Class A Reading but struggled by comparison, seeing his record slide back to 12-13 and his ERA rise to 3.72.  Nevertheless, for 1957, the righty was promoted to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League where he dominated opposing hitters, going 18-7 with a 2.31 ERA.  After four years in the Indians minor league system, Grant made Cleveland’s roster to open the 1958 season.  On April 17, he took the hill for his first major league start against the Kansas City Athletics.  The 22-year old rookie showed a veteran’s poise, keeping the A’s bats in check but trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.  With two out and runners on 1st and 2nd base, Grant’s spot in the batting order came up.  Indians manager Bobby Bragan pinch-hit veteran slugger Mickey Vernon for Grant.  Vernon stroked a double to left field which scored both runners to give the Tribe the 3-2 win and Grant credit for a complete game victory.  At the time of his major league debut, he was one of barely a handful of black pitchers regularly used in the starting role.  Grant made 44 appearances during his rookie campaign, 28 as a starter and 16 in relief.  He finished the year with a 10-11 record and a 3.84 ERA.

One of the highlights of Grant’s rookie season, was getting the opportunity to become teammates with his childhood hero, Larry Doby.  In July 1947, Doby achieved the pioneer role of becoming the AL’s first black player less than three months after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.  Doby took Grant under his wing and proved to be a great role model for the rookie pitcher.  Grant reflected on the positive impact Doby had on him as a young player, “The most I ever learned about the game was from him.  He taught me everything from how to dress and mix colors to how to become part of the community.  Larry made sure he went out into his community and spoke to people.  He knew people by name everywhere from Kansas City to Washington, D.C.”  Doby also advised Grant on how to deal with the prejudice he faced being a black player in a sport that had only been integrated a decade before.

In addition to Doby, Grant received guidance from legendary hurler Satchel Paige.  “Doby taught me about life, but Satchel Paige taught me about pitching, so I had the best coaches in the world right there,” Grant recalled.  “I met Satch in 1955 when we were both in the minor leagues and he was so smart and funny.  One day he told me, ‘You’re gonna need a titty pitch if you want to pitch in the majors.’  I thought it was a dirty joke, but no, he was serious.  ‘A titty pitch is right here,’ he said, pointing to his chest.  What he was trying to tell me is that if you can’t pitch inside at the top level, you can’t succeed.  But he had to communicate it in his style, which was always fun, because you never knew what he was going to say next.”

Following his rookie campaign, Grant bounced back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen in 1959 and 1960, going a combined 19-15 with a 4.26 ERA.  Sadly, an ugly incident brought a premature end to the young hurler’s 1960 season.  On September 16, the Indians hosted the Kansas City Athletics.  Grant stood in the bullpen and sang along during the playing of the National Anthem.  When the “land of the free and the home of the brave” line came up, Grant instead sang something to the effect of “This land is not so free, I can’t even go to Mississippi.”  Bullpen coach Ted Wilks took exception to Grant’s improvised lyrics and called the pitcher a racial slur.  Grant left the ballpark in disgust.  As a result, he was suspended by the club for the final two weeks of the season for leaving the ballpark without permission.  Fortunately, Grant and Wilks never again shared a clubhouse as the bullpen coach left the organization at the season’s end.

Grant shook off the ugly ending to his 1960 campaign and opened the following year strong, winning his first seven decisions.  The young righty finished the season with a solid 15-9 record and 3.86 ERA.  In the process, he became a mainstay in the Tribe’s starting rotation.  Grant also emerged as one of the leaders in the locker room.  Barry Latman, who served as Cleveland’s player representative and pitched alongside Grant for four seasons said the young hurler acted as a “go-between between black and white players,” adding that “if there was ever a problem I’d go to Mudcat Grant, who had a good relationship with everybody.”

During his career, Grant had the opportunity to become acquainted with many famous entertainers like Miles Davis and Billie Holliday as well as important figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.  When Grant was invited to a face-to-face meeting with Kennedy, he took the opportunity to make the President aware of the poor conditions in Lacoochee.  Grant’s meeting with Kennedy helped lead to Lacoochee being part of a federal assistance program.

Grant earned his first All-Star selection in 1963.  Despite Cleveland playing host to the Midsummer Classic and being the Tribe’s sole representative for the AL All-Star team, Mudcat was not called upon to pitch in the game.  During Grant’s 1963 All-Star campaign, he shared the clubhouse with 43-year-old hurler Early Wynn, who had previously played for Cleveland from 1949 to 1957.  With 299 career victories to his credit, Wynn was signed by the Tribe to give the veteran the chance to win his 300th game.  On July 13, Wynn successfully accomplished his goal and reached the 300-win plateau.  Wynn retired at the end of the year but remained with the Indians organization, replacing the club’s longtime pitching coach Mel Harder for the 1964 season.  Grant struggled mightily under the direction of Wynn, who insisted on tinkering with the right-hander’s delivery.  “He (Wynn) wanted me to throw overhand although that was not my natural delivery and I was uncomfortable doing it,” Grant explained.  “It was much more natural for me to throw side-armed.  I don’t know if that was the only reason for my lousy start in 1964, but it was certainly a main contributing factor.”  On June 15, Grant’s record stood at 3-4 with an unsightly 5.95 ERA when he was traded to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for pitcher Lee Stange, minor league third baseman George Banks, and a reported $75,000 in cash considerations.  “I hate to leave Cleveland,” Grant said after the trade.  “I started here and I wanted to finish here.  But ball players are like streetcars—we come and go.  I was always proud to be an Indian.  Larry Doby was my idol and I always aspired to play on the team he had been with.”  In six-plus seasons with Cleveland, Grant went 67-63 while posting a slightly-higher than the league average 4.02 ERA during that stretch.

With his trade to the Twins, the 28-year-old Grant joined an impressive roster that featured a solid young core of players including Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, and Jim Kaat.  Grant flourished in his new environment going 11-9 with a 2.82 ERA, following the trade, to finish the season with an overall 14-13 record and a respectable 3.67 ERA.  One of the main reasons for Grant’s significant improvement in Minnesota was his ability to get his walks under control.  During the majority of his years in Cleveland, Grant averaged around four walks per nine innings.  However, with his trade to the Twins, he was able to essentially cut that total in half.

Grant started off his 1965 campaign by winning his first five decisions and was 9-2 when he earned his second trip to the All-Star Game.  With the game being held in Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium, once again, Mudcat’s home ballpark played host to the Midsummer Classic.  Yet, on this occasion, Grant was not his team’s sole representative as the hurler was one of six Minnesota players on the AL squad.  With the junior circuit trailing 3-0, Grant was called upon to pitch the second and third innings.  Grant’s performance was shaky as he gave up a two-run homer to Willie Stargell, which gave the NL a 5-0 lead, before he settled down and struck out sluggers Dick Allen, Ernie Banks, and Pete Rose.  The AL came back to even the score in the fifth inning but ultimately lost the game, 6-5.  Going into the All-Star break, Minnesota stood atop the AL standings with a five-game lead over the second-place Indians.  Grant and the Twins continued winning in the second half of the season while his former club floundered and fell out of the pennant race.  On September 25, Grant took the mound against the Washington Senators with a chance to win his twentieth game.  Grant pitched brilliantly, going the distance in Minnesota’s 5-0 triumph.  The righty gave up just one hit—a third inning double to Don Blasingame—and a pair of walks while striking out seven.  With his one-hit shutout, Grant made history by becoming the first African-American pitcher to post a 20-win season in the AL.  Prior to Grant, the only African-American hurlers with 20-win campaigns were Don Newcombe and Sam Jones, who each accomplished the feat in the NL.

The day after Grant’s one-hit gem, the Twins clinched the AL pennant.  Minnesota ended the year at 102-60, seven games in front of the second-place Chicago White Sox.  A key contributor to the pennant, Mudcat finished the season with a 21-7 record and 3.30 ERA.  Grant’s 21 victories led the AL while his .750 win-loss percentage and six shutouts also paced the junior circuit.  In addition, he ranked second in the league with 14 complete games and third with 270 1/3 innings pitched.  Grant credited Twins pitching coach Johnny Sain, who joined the club prior to the 1965 campaign, with helping him develop into a more effective pitcher.  “Johnny’s first project with me was to teach me a new pitch,” Grant explained.  “He boiled down my repertoire to a fastball, a change of pace and a slow curve, and he wanted me to learn a fast curve, which is similar to the slider.  That extra pitch, improved control, and the Twins’ ability to score runs when I was pitching, were the keys to my becoming a twenty-game winner in 1965.”

Minnesota showed their confidence in Grant by naming him starting pitcher for Game One of the World Series against the NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers.  Grant faced off against veteran hurler Don Drysdale at Metropolitan Stadium.  Grant outdueled his Dodger counterpart, going the distance and allowing just a pair of runs in Minnesota’s 8-2 victory.  With the Twins up 2-1 in the Series, Grant took the hill for Game Four, once again opposing Drysdale, this time on the road at Dodger Stadium.  In a reversal of Game One, Drysdale gave up just two runs and went the distance while Grant failed to make it out of the sixth inning and was touched up for five runs as Los Angeles evened the Series with a 7-2 victory.  After the Dodgers won Game Five, the Series returned to Minnesota with the Twins facing elimination.  Despite suffering from achy knees and a cold that had plagued him throughout the Series, Grant took the ball for Game Six on two days’ rest opposite Claude Osteen.  Grant rose to the occasion and pitched his finest game of the Series, once again going the full nine innings, this time allowing no walks while holding Los Angeles to just six hits and a single run in the Twins 5-1 victory.  Mudcat also helped his own cause in the bottom of the sixth inning when he launched a three-run home run off reliever Howie Reed to make the score 5-0.  Grant’s blast came after Reed had intentionally walked number eight hitter Frank Quilici with two out and a runner on second to face the righty.  Years later Grant reflected on his home run, “He threw me a hanging curve and I said to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness, look at this.’  I remember after I hit that home run the fans were so excited, it was deafening.  I played that whole Series in a fog, floating on air.”  Grant’s victory forced a decisive seventh game.  However, Minnesota’s bats were no match for Los Angeles’ Game Seven starter, Sandy Koufax, who held the Twins to just three hits in a 2-0 shutout victory to give the Dodgers the World Series championship.

Grant’s 21-win campaign earned him AL Pitcher of the Year honors from The Sporting News.  Additionally, the righty finished sixth in the AL MVP vote.  As Grant began gaining more recognition for his achievements on the mound, he also started drawing attention for his talents off the field as well.  Grant’s delightful nature made him a sought-after speaker for banquets and schools.  At these speaking events he would often recite a poem he wrote called “Life” which compared life to a game of baseball umpired by God where emotions like love, ambition, and courage play on your team while feelings such as greed, anger, and fear are part the opposing side.  The hurler’s notoriety in baseball helped opened up opportunities for him to follow his other passion, singing.  He began taking bookings at night clubs, sometimes performing solo or fronting a group he formed called Mudcat and the Kittens which featured a full band with three female dancers providing backing vocals.  Grant sang a wide variety of music including rhythm and blues, ballads, rock n’ roll, pop, and jazz.  In addition, he also danced and told jokes as part of his act.  Grant made a television appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson shortly after the conclusion of the World Series and was also spotlighted on The Jimmy Dean Show a few weeks before the start of the 1966 season.  As a pitcher, singer, speaker, and poet, the multi-talented Grant truly was a renaissance man of baseball.  Grant’s engaging personality not only served him well as an entertainer but also endeared him to his teammates.  Just as he had in Cleveland, Grant established himself as a leader in Minnesota’s locker room.  Bob Fowler, a beat writer who covered the Twins during this era, described Grant as the catalyst and synergy of the club.  Fowler also added, “He was a guy that players, whether they were black or white, looked up to.”

With his 21-win season, pair of World Series victories, and television appearances, Grant was quickly becoming one of baseball’s most recognizable players.  Prior to the 1966 season, Grant sought a raise after his banner 1965 campaign.  When the Twins countered with a much lower offer than what he was seeking, the righty decided to stage a holdout.  In the days before free agency, players were bound by the reserve clause, thus one of the few ways a player could increase their salary when they reached an impasse with management was to holdout.  Grant was one of three Twins players whose holdouts stretched into March.  Grant’s holdout lasted the longest of the three and drew the most media attention which, in the process, raised the ire of Minnesota’s penny-pinching owner Calvin Griffith.  While Grant was able to increase his salary with the holdout, he still wound up settling for a much lower raise than what he had been seeking.

Although Grant missed part of spring training due to his holdout, he showed no signs of rust when the 1966 campaign began, going the distance in a 2-1 victory over the Kansas City Athletics on Opening Day.  However, unlike the previous year, luck and run support were not on Grant’s side as his record stood at an ugly 5-12 through the first half of the season despite a 3.28 ERA that was nearly identical to his 1965 mark.  Meanwhile, the Twins appeared to be suffering from a World Series-hangover as the beleaguered club had managed just a 40–45 record going into the All-Star break and was already 17 games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles.  Nevertheless, both Grant and Minnesota found their footing in the season’s second act.  The hurler posted an excellent 8-1 record to finish the year at 13-13 with a 3.25 ERA while the Twins went an MLB-best 49-28 after the All-Star break to close at 89-73 and end the campaign as runner-up to Baltimore who won the AL pennant by nine games.  Grant’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, the righty’s run support dropped by a full run and three-quarters to 3.88 in 1966.  Overall, Minnesota’s offense scored 100 fewer runs than the year before.  By contrast, the Twins pitching staff allowed 19 less runs.  Even though their staff had remained among the league’s best, the club decided to part ways with pitching coach Johnny Sain at the end of the season.  The firing of Sain drew criticism from multiple Twins pitchers including Grant.  In Sain’s place, the team hired one of Grant’s former pitching coaches in Cleveland, Early Wynn.  During the offseason, Minnesota acquired right-hander Dean Chance to bolster their already impressive rotation.  Chance, along with Grant and Kaat, gave the Twins a trio of former 20-game winners as well as the three most recent recipients of The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year Award.

Despite Grant’s banner 1965 season and strong finish to 1966, he found himself the odd man out in Minnesota’s rotation just a few months into the 1967 campaign.  Grant’s record stood at 4-5 with a 3.28 ERA on May 27 when he missed a couple of turns in the rotation due to his troublesome knees.  On June 9, manager Sam Mele was fired after the team’s disappointing 25-25 start.  When Grant returned from injury, Mele’s replacement, Cal Ermer, used him erratically, starting him only four times over the next month and a half.  Grant struggled to find consistency under Ermer and clashed with both his new manager as well as his pitching coach Wynn.  The situation came to a head in late July when the Twins were on the road in New York to face the Yankees.  Following the opening game between the two clubs, Ermer ran a curfew check at the team’s hotel and discovered several players, including Grant, were not in their rooms.  The righty explained he had gone to the hotel clerk and asked to stay in a different room because his roommate Earl Battey was nursing a bruised arm and did not want to sleep in an air-conditioned room.  Nevertheless, Ermer fined Grant $250 and pulled him from his scheduled start the next day.  As a result, Grant asked to be traded.  The hurler informed Ermer of his trade request and then made his intentions public, giving his side of the incident and why he was set on leaving the Twins.  “I do not mind so much the $250 fine,” Grant said.  “I do object to Ermer not believing in me.”  The incident highlighted the growing disconnect between Grant and Ermer.  “I never thought it was necessary to notify him I had changed rooms,” Grant explained.  “The fact that I was scheduled to pitch, in my mind, was an automatic understanding that I would be in bed before curfew.”  Despite making his trade request public, Grant completed the season with Minnesota.  The disgruntled pitcher was used sparingly for the remainder of the campaign, drawing just one more start after Ermer’s fine while being relegated to mostly mop-up duty out of the bullpen.  Grant finished his bitter 1967 season with a 5-6 record and a career-worst 4.72 ERA as the Twins lost out to the Boston Red Sox by a single game in a close pennant race.

On November 28, Minnesota finally dealt Grant, packaging him with shortstop Zoilo Versalles in a blockbuster trade to the club’s World Series opponent from two years earlier, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  In exchange for Grant and Versalles, the Twins received catcher John Roseboro and a pair of relief pitchers, Bob Miller and Ron Perranoski.  Like Grant, Versalles had been one of the main contributors to Minnesota’s 1965 pennant-capturing drive, winning that season’s AL MVP Award.  Versalles also experienced his own issues with Ermer who chose to bench the shortstop for late inning defensive substitutes during the closing weeks of the season.  Shaken by the trade, Versalles commented on his icy relationship with Ermer, “I said ‘good morning’ to him; he said ‘good morning’ to me.  That’s about all.  You know that when you play all these years and then they bench you in the eighth or ninth innings, something’s wrong.  I was playing brokenhearted.”  While Grant was pleased to be leaving the Twins, he took the opportunity to take the team’s owner and manager to task, telling Stan Issacs of Newsday, “Even if it was Piston, Georgia in the Piedmont League, it would have been better than Minnesota.  Spiritually and mentally I’ll have peace of mind by getting away from Minnesota, from Griffith and the new manager, Cal Ermer.  That team is a mess, mostly because of Griffith and his meddling.”

After Grant’s difficult 1967 campaign, some were ready to write the 32-year-old veteran off, suggesting that one more bad season would likely bring an end to his career.  Nevertheless, Grant flourished in his new environment, playing alongside many of his former World Series foes.  The righty hoped to make the Dodgers starting rotation but was primarily used in a mop-up or long relief role.  Grant did make four spot starts during the first half of the season and pitched well, going 1-2 with a 2.88 ERA.  However, the hurler was at his best out of the bullpen where he posted a minuscule 1.80 ERA.  Grant was particularly good from late August-on, allowing just a pair of runs over his final 36 innings to close out the season with an excellent 2.08 ERA.  Los Angeles finished the campaign tied for seventh with a 76-86 record, a three-game improvement from the previous year.  Meanwhile, Minnesota struggled in their first full season with Cal Ermer at the helm, going 79-83 to slide back to seventh in the AL.  After the disappointing campaign, Ermer was replaced as manager by Billy Martin.

Despite re-establishing himself as an effective pitcher, Los Angeles left Grant unprotected during the 1968 expansion draft where he was subsequently selected by the Montreal Expos.  Joining the startup Expos franchise presented the veteran with the opportunity to become a starter again.  Mudcat rose to the occasion, yielding just one earned run during spring training.  Having a dominant spring was out of character for the Florida native, who usually struggled during baseball’s preseason.  Montreal was so impressed by Grant’s outstanding spring, he was given the honor of being the franchise’s first Opening Day starter.  For the Expos’ initial game, the club faced the New York Mets, on the road, at Shea Stadium with Grant pitching opposite Tom Seaver.  Although the righty struggled with effectiveness and was lifted from the game in the second inning with Montreal trailing, 3-2, the Expos ultimately came back to win an 11-10 slugfest.  Unfortunately, Grant’s poor Opening Day outing was a sign of things to come for the hurler.  After beating the Cubs in his second start of the season, he lost his next six decisions.  On June 3, Montreal traded Grant to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Gary Waslewski.  While being sent from the Expos to the Cardinals put Grant with a more competitive club, he knew he had lost his opportunity to prove he belonged in the starting rotation.  “I’ll have to go back to the bullpen and I don’t dig that,” Grant remarked after the trade.

Mudcat was the pitcher of record for each of his first six appearances with the Cardinals.  The veteran took the loss in a rough debut for St. Louis on June 7 when he allowed the go-ahead run after entering the seventh inning of a tied game against the Houston Astros.  Four nights later, he made a lengthy relief appearance, pitching the final seven frames to earn the win against the Cincinnati Reds.  On June 19, Grant made the Expos pay for trading him by finishing the game with five and one-third scoreless innings out of the bullpen.  Grant subsequently drew a June 25 starting assignment on the road in Montreal where for the second time in the space of a week, he triumphed over his former club, going the distance in an 8-3 win.  St. Louis then decided to start Grant on three days’ rest against the Chicago Cubs.  In a stark contrast to his previous start, Grant pitched miserably, retiring only one batter before giving up four runs en route to taking the loss in a 12-1 drubbing.  On July 3, Grant made his second straight start on three days’ rest and faced the Mets.  Once again, the results were not pretty, as he was tagged with his ninth loss of the season after surrendering five runs in three and two-thirds of an inning as part of an 8-1 defeat.  Grant had no way of knowing at the time but his loss against the Mets would be the final start of his career.  After his pair of rough outings, the righty settled back into the bullpen.  Unlike Los Angeles the year before, 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 the campaign 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.  St. Louis ended the year at 87-75 but was unable to factor into the NL West pennant race.

During this era, the United States was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War.  Grant made multiple offseason trips with the USO to visit soldiers stationed in South Vietnam.  As part of these goodwill tours, Grant and a group of baseball players traveled to remote bases to meet with troops serving on the front lines and also visited wounded service members in hospitals and intensive care wards.  Grant was touched by these experiences and did his best to raise the soldiers’ spirits by singing and dancing to entertain the troops and taking time to read letters from home to critically injured soldiers.

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.

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.  Grant put his non-baseball talents to use by singing a soulful rendition of the National Anthem during the pregame ceremonies.  Grant took the mound late in the game for the West but was unable to help his team win.  Sensing a good promotional opportunity, A’s owner Charlie Finley called upon Grant to sing the National Anthem before the club’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 but by late May with his ERA sitting well below 2.00, the team began using the veteran as their primary reliever to protect late game leads.  During this era, the top relief pitchers were commonly referred to as firemen or stoppers.  Unlike today, where one-inning saves are the norm, primary relievers of this era were often asked to come into the game with runners on base and pitch multiple innings.  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.”  Mudcat excelled in the fireman’s role and by the end of June had picked up 11 saves and 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.

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 though, manager Cal Ermer and pitching coach Early Wynn, the two men the righty clashed with during his final year with the Twins, had since been replaced in their respective roles.  Grant locked down saves number 19 and 20 against Minnesota on August 9 and 10 and by the middle of the month, the A’s had 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.  With the Pirates 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, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh called upon Grant 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 his former pitching coach 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.  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 resurgence as a reliever.  “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.”  Always introspective, Grant also gave insight into how he dealt with racism that had been directed his way during his life, “Somebody can hate me, but that person can’t make me hate him.  If I do I’ve become just as sick as him.”  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.

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 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 and pitched the final two frames.  The veteran righty managed to keep Baltimore off the board but Oakland was unable to mount a challenge and the Orioles completed the sweep to give the club their third consecutive AL pennant.  Baltimore was then defeated in a thrilling seven-game Fall Classic against the team 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.  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.  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.  Away from the ball field, the former pitcher continued to be a sought-after entertainer for singing and public speaking engagements.  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 returned to the baseball diamond for the 1985 season to serve as the pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves’ Single-A affiliate Durham Bulls.

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.

In Black Aces, Grant said the hardest pitcher to write about was himself.  Nevertheless, he did a great job putting his 20-win season and distinguished career in perspective saying, “I won 21 games, but that’s the only time I won 20 or more.  Maybe it was a reward, or a blessing, or something like that.  But I got a chance to get in that number one time, and in this small career that I had, I only won 145 games, but look at it this way:  I am one of the few pitchers to win 20 and save 20; I’m the first black pitcher to win 20 games in the American League; I led the American League in shutouts in 1965 with 6, I was second in the League with complete games with 14; I was second in the League in appearances in 1970 with 72, for Oakland.  Take all of those things piled on in that small career and I consider myself blessed.”

On June 11, 2021 Grant passed away at age 85.  After learning of his passing, Twins president and CEO Dave St. Peter honored Grant on Twitter saying, “God Bless Mudcat.  An amazing body of work on the mound.  A HUGE personality off the mound.  Will never forget his smile, his voice or the way he could light up a room.”

----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, The Virginian-Pilot via NewsBank, New York Times October 17, 1987 article, New York Times June 12, 2021, This Great Game, George W. Bush White House Archives, Dave St. Peter’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:
-Grant quote about growing up in a Lacoochee and working in the lumber mill is from p. 65 of The Curse of Rocky Colavito
-Grant quote about origin of Mudcat nickname is from p.5 of the February 1, 1964 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about Larry Doby is from p.404 if We Played The Game
-Grant quote about Satchel Paige is from This Great Game Interview with Grant
-Grant quote about Ted Wilks incident is from the June 12, 2021 New York Times Mudcat Grant obituary
-Barry Latman quotes about Grant are from p.482 and 578 of We Played The Game
-Grant quote about Early Wynn tinkering with his delivery is from p. 224 of Black Aces
-Grant quote about being traded from Cleveland is from p. 17 of the June 27, 1964 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about working with Johnny Sain is from p.226 of Black Aces
-Grant quote about hitting a home run during the 1965 World Series is from the October 17, 1987 New York Times
-Bob Fowler quotes about Grant are from p.53 of A Baseball Dynasty
-Grant quote about Cal Ermer’s fine is from p.35 of the July 28, 1967 The Virginian-Pilot retrieved via NewsBank
-Zoilo Versalles quote about Cal Ermer is from p.44 of the December 16, 1967 edition of The Sporting News and was retrieved via SABR access to Paper of Record
-Grant quote about Calvin Griffith and Cal Ermer is quoted by Stan Isaacs from the December 5, 1967 edition of Newsday and included on p. 231 of Black Aces
-Grant quote about trade from Montreal is from the June 4, 1969 edition of the Montreal Gazette and was retrieved via Google News Archive
-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
-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
-Grant quotes about career resurgence as reliever and dealing with racism are 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
-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 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
-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
-Grant career quotes is from p.227 of Black Aces
-Dave St. Peter quote about Grant is from Dave St. Peter’s Twitter

Cards: Mudcat Grant cards-1962 Topps, 1978 TCMA, 1972 Topps, 1961 Topps, 1966 Topps, 1967 Topps, 1990 Target Dodgers, 1989 Pacific Baseball Legends 2nd Series, 1969 St. Louis Cardinals Photocards, 1971 Topps, 1991 Swell Baseball Greats, 1985 TCMA Minor League, Black Aces book cover; Larry Doby 1954 Bowman, Satchel Paige 2018 Topps Archives, Don Drysdale 1966 Topps, Claude Osteen 1966 Topps, Zoilo Versalles 1965 Topps, Cal Ermer 1968 Topps, Ellis Kinder 1954 Topps, Johnny Sain 1952 Topps

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