Mudcat Grant, RIP: Motivation

Mudcat Grant

Mudcat Grant shook a nagging cold and short rest to beat the Dodgers in the ’65 Series on the mound . . .

Jim (Mudcat) Grant, the first African-American credited with 20+ pitching wins in an American League season, was also only the second American League pitcher to hit a World Series home run. But he wasn’t sure how far he’d go starting Game Six of the 1965 World Series.

The righthander pitched on two days’ rest and a cold that nagged at him for a couple of weeks. Then, with deuces really wild—two out, two aboard, and his Twins holding a 2-0 lead against the Dodgers—Grant swung on Dodger reliever Howie Reed and drove one into the left center field seats, dancing his way across the plate.

The Twins held on to win Game Six, but it proved just a holding pattern until Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax could beat them with his second Series shutout in as many days. But it still wasn’t bad for a thirty-year-old pitcher who once had to, shall we say, clean up his act.

The Mudcat was said to have rubbed the inside front of his uniform with soap, waited for the daily sun to warm up enough to produce a little foam, then scoop a little onto his hand to apply to the ball. He got away with it until the day he overdid the soap inside his gray road uniform and the foam became too visible to ignore.

Hall of Famer Don Sutton once bragged that he was accused of throwing doctored balls so often he should get a Black & Decker commercial out of it. In due course, Sutton did get just that. It’s a shame nobody thought to offer the Mudcat—who died Saturday at 81—a commercial for Dial. Or at least Lifebuoy.

Just picture the friendly-looking Grant holding a bar and purring, with that power failure-defying smile of his, “Aren’t you glad I stopped using Dial? But don’t you wish nobody else would?” Or, “Take it from a stinker on the mound—use Lifebuoy so you won’t be a stinker anywhere.”

Behind that friendly face and somewhat extroverted personality, there bristled a man who’d once gotten into racial trouble he didn’t ask for as a young Indian. In the bullpen one day, singing along with “The Star Spangled Banner,” Grant sang “this land is not so free/I can’t even go to Mississippi.” He claimed he did it for fun, but bullpen coach Ted Wilks was not amused.

“Wilks heard me and called me a (racial) name,” the Mudcat told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I got so mad I couldn’t hold myself back. I told him that Texas [Wilks’s home state] is worse than Russia. Then I walked straight into the clubhouse.”

Manager Jimmy Dykes had no clue of the source after Grant walked into the clubhouse, changed clothes, and left the ballpark entirely without a further word. The skipper suspended Grant without pay for the rest of the season and refused to rescind it even after Grant called the following day to apologise. Wilks apologised, too, but Grant understandably refused to accept that at face value; the coach would be gone after the season.

Dykes didn’t hold it against Grant, however. He settled Grant into a starting role in 1961. Grant led the Indians with 244.2 innings pitched and three shutouts and was second with 146 strikeouts behind Gary Bell’s 163. Since pitching wins then were considered the alpha and omega, though, Grant’s team-leading fifteen have to be measured against his 3.86 ERA and his 4.45 fielding-independent pitching.

Still, he made himself an Indians fixture, even working in the team’s off-season ticket office and with their community relations department, until a hard 1964 start got him dealt to the Twins that June, for pitcher Lee Stange and infielder George Banks. Twins manager Sam Mele was convinced the trade was a winner for both sides.

Mudcat Grant

. . . and with the insurance runs off his own three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

It was for Grant. As a 1964 Twin he posted his lowest ERA (2.82) over twenty or more starts in a season. In 1965 he parlayed 5.4 runs of support per start into those 21 wins that season. (In due course, Grant would write a book about the so-called Black Aces, the African-American pitchers who’d enjoyed 20+ win seasons including himself.) He also posted a 2.74 World Series ERA in three starts with two credited wins. (He beat Hall of Famer Don Drysdale in Game One, lost to Drysdale in Game Four, then beat Claude Osteen in Game Six.)

The Mudcat also swore he got his biggest 1965 help from pitching coach Johnny Sain, the one-time Boston Braves pitching standout, who’d taught him a way to throw his curve ball faster. “I’ve never had a real good fast curve before,” he told writer Jim Thielman.

I’ve always had a good fastball, a change of pace and a slow curve. They said I needed to change speeds. I’ve always been able to change off my fastball, throw a straight slow ball up there. But until this year, I never thought in terms of spinning the ball. That’s where Sain helped me.

Grant shook off a hard first half in 1966 to pitch a strong second half. Then two things happened in 1967. First, he was struck on the forearm as spring training was about to end, costing him the season’s first two weeks. Then, Mele—who’d already dumped Sain as pitching coach at 1966’s end—faced his own firing squad, replaced by Cal Ermer.  Between injuries (knee and arm) and Ermer’s inability to define his role, Grant began looking for a way out of town.

He got it when the Twins traded him and their 1965 American League Most Valuable Player award-winning shortstop Zoilo Versailles to the Dodgers for 1968. The Mudcat loved the idea—the Twins atmosphere in parts had become intolerable to him.

“It was a problem between the Minnesota manager and management and myself,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Some of it was racial, too. They made me feel as though I wasn’t even a man. I’d pitched only 95 innings and it isn’t because of my knees, either. I have lived with the knee trouble for years. But I told them I couldn’t remain with them and wanted to be traded.”

Now a full-time reliever, Grant pitched brilliantly enough as a 1968 Dodger: a 2.08 ERA, a career-low 2.57 FIP, and—even more remarkably, considering his proneness to it in the past and even allowing Dodger Stadium’s difficulties for hitters—he surrendered only one home run all season long.

The Montreal Expos adopted the Mudcat in the expansion draft, then dealt him to the Cardinals in early June. A somewhat lost season turned into a sale to the Athletics, and Grant flashed one more brilliant season in relief, with a 1.86 ERA for the year even with the A’s selling him to the Pirates that September. But after a 1971  for the Pirates and (sold back to) the A’s, and his failure to make a return to the Indians stick in spring 1972, the Mudcat called it a career.

Grant’s concern for black ballplayers didn’t end when his career did. In due course, the righthander who once led a musical group named Mudcat and the Kittens became an active and vocal presence encouraging African-American youth toward baseball.

It certainly took in his own family. (Grant was also the grandfather of 34.) Domonic Brown—who looked like a Phillies comer until an assortment of knee and leg injuries diminished him as an outfielder, then a hitter, until he finally made his way through three seasons in the Mexican leagues—is Grant’s nephew.

“We just gotta motivate them to play and we’ve got to be around,” said Grant in 2008, after he’d been an Anheuser-Busch distributor and, before that, a television analyst for the Indians and the A’s and a pitching coach for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Not to mention the author of The Black Aces.

“We haven’t been around enough,” he continued. “Now, part of that is the African-American ex-players’ fault, too, because we haven’t been there. Even though we see tons of children, we haven’t been in the inner city like we should.” He probably helped awaken others like him to get there.

Unlike some of the pitches he Dialed in once upon a time, there was no soft-soaping it for the Mudcat there.

2 thoughts on “Mudcat Grant, RIP: Motivation

  1. Well due credit to The Mudcat, as you say — but it was Don Newcombe, not Grant, who became the first black man to win 20 in the big leagues.

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