Remembering Mudcat Grant, Baseball Rebel Against Racism

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June 16, 2021 10:00 a.m.

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Six decades before Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest American racism, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, an outstanding pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, sang his own version of the national anthem to express his frustration with America’s race relations.

It was late in the 1960 season during a game with the Yankees in Cleveland. Grant was sitting in the bullpen with the other pitchers before the contest. As usual, when the national anthem was played, Grant sang along. But instead of the normal closing words of the song — “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” — Grant sang, “This land is not free. I can’t even go to Mississippi and sit down at a counter.”

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According to newspaper accounts at the time, the Indians’ pitching coach, Ted Wilks, a Texan, confronted Grant. “If you don’t like our country, then why the hell don’t you get out?” Wilks asked.

Grant answered: “If I wanted to leave the country, all I’d have to do is go to Texas, which is worse than Russia.”

Wilks snapped: “If we catch your n—— ass in Texas, we’re going to hang you from the nearest tree.” 1

Wilks and Grant engaged in a fist fight. The other players had to separate the two men. Upset, Grant headed for the clubhouse and then left the ballpark. Grant later told reporters that he was sick of hearing “derogatory remarks about colored people. I don’t have to stand there and take it.”

Indians manager Jimmy Dykes suspended Grant for the remaining week of the season. “I had no alternative but to suspend the boy,” Dykes said, using another derogatory word. Grant received a great deal of hate mail as a result of the incident. The team made no public comment about Wilks’s racist insults but, to the Indians’ credit, he was quickly reassigned to the minor leagues.

Grant, who died on Friday at the age of 85, joined the Indians in 1958 and spent 14 years in the big leagues. His best years were with the Minnesota Twins, whom he helped get to the 1965 World Series when he became the American League’s first Black pitcher to post a 20-win season.

He was part of the second wave of Black players in major league baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Baseball integrated at a snail’s pace. The last four teams to put a Black player on their rosters were the New York Yankees (in 1955), Philadelphia Phillies (1957), Detroit Tigers (1958), and the Boston Red Sox (1959).

By 1959, African American ballplayers comprised 10 percent of major league players. But Grant’s generation of Black players still had to endure segregated hotels, restaurants, and spring training facilities, racist epithets on and off the field, and discrimination by managers and top baseball executives.

Those early Black players seethed with anger and frustration over the racism they experienced in baseball and the larger society, but only a few, including Grant, spoke out, fearful of being labeled troublemakers and losing their jobs.

Like many of his Black counterparts, Grant was raised in the South and confronted the indignities of segregation from an early age. Born in 1935, Grant grew up in the poor, mostly African American town of Lacoochee, Florida.

“From the very minute you walked out of your house,” Grant later recalled in his 2006 book, The Black Aces, “there were incidents. You had water fountains you couldn’t drink from, restaurants you couldn’t go into. You had to always watch where you were and know what you were going to do, because something was going to happen to you every day. You knew of the lynchings. You would hear it in the night, and if you didn’t, word came through the next town that somebody was hanged or castrated.” 2

Grant remembered the unwritten Florida law against Black men “reckless eyeballing” white women. “And sometimes whites, including the Ku Klux Klan, would get drunk, go riding through town, and fire guns into your house. That was called ‘n——shooting time,’” 3 he later told interviewers. His mother would put him down by the fireplace in a wooden box to keep the bullets from hitting him, he said.

“If you were born Black in the South, no matter where you were, you were subject to violence, especially if you went to another section of town, they would have the right to harm you. We had to run like hell in many circumstances,” 4 he told interviewers on another occasion.

Grant’s father, a log cutter at the local lumber mill, died from pneumonia when Grant was a baby. He and his five siblings were raised by their mother, who worked at a citrus canning factory and as a domestic worker. The family lived in a shack without electricity, hot water, or a toilet.

From a young age, Grant showed talent at baseball. Local Black stars mentored him at almost every position. When he was 12, he heard that Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers, soon followed by Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians. This was enormous news, even in a remote outpost such as Lacoochee.

At age 14, Grant was pitching for the Lacoochee Nine Devils against the Sylvester Bulldogs in a road game in Georgia. By the eighth inning, he had struck out 16 batters and held the lead by a run. Before the ninth inning, however, a white man called Grant and his manager over. Showing them a shotgun under his overcoat, he said they better lose because he had money on the game. Grant struck out the first two batters. Then the manager called a team meeting on the mound, ordered his players to run for the bus after the final out, and told Grant to walk the next three hitters to allow the equipment to be packed and put on the bus. Grant walked three batters, then struck out the next hitter on three pitches. The entire team raced for the bus, its engine already running. They sped off, fleeing racist curses and buckshot through the back window.

In high school, Grant excelled not only in baseball (as a pitcher and position player), but was also named to the All-State football team as a quarterback and to the All-State basketball team as a forward. The Boston Braves offered him a contract until the scout realized that Grant was only 16. Instead, Grant attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, hoping to become an English teacher. He had to drop out to help his mother with the family’s finances. He worked at a lumber mill and played again for the Lacoochee team, hoping he’d get another look from the pros.

Cleveland offered Grant a contract to report to the Class D Georgia-Florida League, but the Indians farm team was in Tifton, Georgia, which enforced its Jim Crow segregation laws. Instead, The Indians sent Grant to its Class C team in Fargo, North Dakota. As one of only a handful of African Americans in the town, Grant drew considerable attention, more wonderment than discrimination. For the first time, Grant experienced desegregated public facilities. Escaping any serious incidents in Fargo, he was nevertheless confronted by a white fan during a road game in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who hysterically screamed “you n—–.” Grant recounted in The Black Aces.

But Grant didn’t let racist incidents disrupt his ambitions to make the majors. In the minors, he won 17 games and the league’s Rookie of the Year Award for 1954. When he returned home to Florida after the season, he visited a nearby white town and failed to follow the local custom of addressing whites with “Yes sir, no sir” — something he didn’t have to do while playing in the North. He was beaten and arrested by a sheriff for not paying the proper respect.

Reflecting on this and other incidents, Grant observed that: “When you sign a contract you think that baseball is going to be the savior from all the humiliation you normally face. It gives you a sense of false security that now you can eat regardless of your race. So, we anticipated everybody would say, ‘Okay, you’re a ballplayer. Come on in!’ You think that for a minute, but you’re hurt that you can’t go in [to a restaurant] with your [white] teammates. What are they going to think once they get inside and you’re sitting on the bus and they have to bring you a sandwich? It’s a hurtful feeling.”

Even Grant’s nickname carried some vaguely racist origins, coming from a white teammate who mistook his home state and said his face was as ugly as a Mississippi catfish, often called mudcats. The moniker stuck.

While playing for the Indian’s minor league team in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1956, Grant went into a local bar and was refused service. He decided to keep trying. He went to the same bar night after night, and finally a white teammate came over to him and said “Mudcat, I don’t know why you keep coming. They don’t want you in here. They are not going to serve you. Why don’t you just leave?” Grant responded, “But you are my teammate. Why wouldn’t you come over and sit at my table with me?”

Some of his white teammates were more sensitive than this, recognizing the difficulty that Grant faced, but few of them believed that it was their responsibility to stand up for him. Grant observed, “We’ve been taking it for so long that they just thought we could keep on taking it.”

Grant explained in his book: “You were always aware that you were Black because there were stares. People that took your money at the counter that didn’t want to touch your hand. People when you sat next to them on the airplane who sat sideways, away from you.”

Grant was promoted to the Indians’ Triple-A team in San Diego for the 1957 season. He was an outstanding hitter and often played shortstop or outfield when he wasn’t pitching. In San Diego, Grant dated a white woman named Trudy and they wanted to get married. According to Grant, the Indians front office called told him: “We understand that you are dating this white lady. Well, that don’t happen in the big leagues.” 5

Not wanting to ruin his professional career, the couple broke up with Jim and went their separate ways. (Years later, when Grant married and then divorced, and after Trudy’s husband died, they got back together and were married in 1984).

(In 1960, Maury Wills, a rising star with the Los Angeles Dodgers, got the same treatment from the Los Angeles Dodgers. General manager Buzzie Bavasi told Wills to stop dating white actress Doris Day, otherwise it would ruin both of their careers and embarrass the team. Like Grant, Wills reluctantly complied with the team’s demand. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t outlaw state bans on interracial marriage until 1967 with its Loving v. Virginia decision).

Most of Grant’s coaches and teammates did not help him deal with the steady racism he faced on and off the diamond. “In the 1950s and 1960s,” Grant recalled in The Black Aces, “there were coaches who felt Blacks were inferior, that we didn’t have it in us, that we couldn’t be quarterbacks or pitchers. Blacks and whites could be absolutely equal but the coach would see them differently.”

But there were exceptions. Grant quickly became close friends with his white teammate Gary Bell, who was from San Antonio. Their friendship, including palling around together on and off the field, raised some eyebrows. In 1958, Grant and Bell decided to room together during away games, and became the first Black and white roommates in the major leagues.

Another exception was the great slugger Ted Williams. During one spring training early Grant’s career, the Indians were playing an exhibition game against the Red Sox in New Orleans. The white players stayed in the team’s segregated hotel, the few Black players stayed with local Black families, but all players’ luggage went to the hotel. Grant went to the hotel to receive their bags.

As Grant recounted the story for an oral history project, white hotel employee stopped him outside the building. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Grant explained that he was looking for the bags of the colored players. “You ain’t got no bags here,” the bellman said. “You ain’t coming in here.”

Williams overheard the conversation and approached Grant.

“Mud, you know, the bellman is right. You shouldn’t be going over there to get them bags. HE should be going over there to get them bags,” 6 Grant recalled Williams saying while looking at the white hotel employee, who quickly retrieved Grant’s luggage and put it in a cab for the Black player. 7

Nineteen sixty, when lunch counter sit-ins began throughout the South, was a tumultuous year for Grant and for the country. While pitching against Baltimore, he threw a ball that nearly hit a batter, and the Orioles manager, Paul Richards, yelled out, “Damn n—–.” 8 When Grant came to bat, the Orioles pitcher threw at him, but he got a single instead. At first base, the Orioles Jim Gentile apologized profusely to Grant for his manager’s racism. While Grant had learned to control his reactions to the endless racist onslaughts, that day he couldn’t hold back and after backing up a play the next inning he shot the ball at the Orioles dugout right over the head of Richards.

On Labor Day that year, Grant was with the Indians at the Sheraton Cadillac Hotel in Detroit when he got an unexpected invitation to breakfast from Senator John F. Kennedy, who was the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Kennedy was in the city campaigning, and Grant was surprised to learn that the Senator had been closely following the careers of both Grant and his former roommate Larry Doby (who had recently retired).

JFK, who had sought and failed to get Jackie Robinson’s endorsement, told Grant that he admired the Black ballplayers who pioneered integration. At an hour-long breakfast, Grant described for Kennedy the harsh poverty, poor education, and virulent racism he and other Blacks had experienced. After he was elected president, Kennedy invited Grant to another breakfast, this time at the White House. After the meeting, the President arranged for federal assistance to Grant’s hometown, which brought running water to Lacoochee for the first time, as well as a park, a school, and new housing.

It was amidst the emerging lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and other civil rights fervor —as well as encouragement from several white teammates (Gary Bell, Frank Funk, and Barry Latman) to be more outspoken — that Grant revised the words to the national anthem.

The slights and the challenges would continue. In 1961, as the fastest player on the Indians, Grant was asked to pinch run in a game. At first base, Indians coach Ray Katt told him: “If this guy hits a ‘tweener [a batted ball that splits the fielders], I want you to act like you’ve got two watermelons and a man’s after you with a shotgun.”

Grant answered: “So you mean to tell me you want to talk to me about some watermelons?” and then let loose on Katt to protest his racist instructions. 9

Then Grant called time out, and walked slowly off the field into the dugout in disgust. When his manager ordered him back on the field, Grant took off for the clubhouse. But then Grant decided to talk with Katt. He felt that letting Katt know how his words hurt would do some good.

This approach began to define Grant’s response to racist insults and segregation. Grant had met and become friendly with Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s philosophy and his mother’s guidance convinced Grant that “you can’t act like them. You can’t be like them.” 10

“Martin Luther King’s passion for humanity enhanced my passion for humanity, to improve humanity, for everybody,” Grant said. “Even though he was Black and worked so hard for Black people, his idea was to encompass everybody.” 11

Grant pursued this philosophy of engagement with his white teammates and others. One day while the team was on the road, his longtime teammate, Jim Perry, a native of North Carolina, called Grant into his hotel room. “I just want you to know that the way I was [racist],” Perry said, “I’m not going to be that way anymore.” 12

In 1964, the Indians traded Grant to the Minnesota Twins. Although he was pleased to go to Twin Cities where the fans were less racist, he braced himself for working for Calvin Griffith, the team owner who had a well-deserved reputation as a racist. When Griffith brought the Senators from Washington, D.C. to the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Bloomington to become the Minnesota Twins, he told a local group that he was drawn to the area because it had so few African Americans: “Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rasslin’ ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. It’s unbelievable. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking, white people here.” 13

To their credit, Twin Cities white fans and leaders lambasted Griffith for these and other racist comments. As Grant recounted in The Black Aces, Griffith treated “all Blacks differently. He paid you less. He thought of your value as less. He had to be convinced that he had to have Black ballplayers.” It wasn’t until June 2020 that the Twins removed a statue Griffith from in front of Target Field a few months after a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd triggered a nationwide uprising against racial injustice.

In the 1950s and 1960s, several major league managers tried to prevent a Black pitcher from becoming a 20-game winner on their watch. Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts kept Brooks Lawrence out of several games so he wouldn’t have a chance to win 20 games. Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins stood in the way of Earl Wilson achieving that landmark.

“Not only managers,” according to Grant, “but catchers [conspired against Black pitchers]. Some catchers would tell the hitters, the opposing player, what was coming because they didn’t want you to do well as a pitcher.” You had to win the game anyway, “but now you’re not only pitching against the opposing team, you’re pitching against your own catcher.” 14

On the Twins, however, Grant joined with Earl Battey to form an all-Black battery, and he credited his catcher for helping him become, in 1965, the first African American to win 20 games in the American League. Minnesota won the pennant that year, and Grant also became the first Black American League pitcher to start a World Series game. The Dodgers narrowly beat the Twins in seven games. Grant won two games and lost one game in the Series, the same as the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. But while Koufax enjoyed a wide array of gifts and accolades, as well as a long list of commercial endorsements, Grant got little more than his World Series bonus.

Several reporters recognized the discrepancy. In the New York World Telegram & Sun, for example, Phil Pepe observed: “the world is not quite ready for Negro heroes, and so Jim must struggle because nobody is breaking his neck to sign him for movies and endorsements. He is handsome and he is famous, but he is Black. Sandy [Koufax] could get $100,000 just for demonstrating the way he soaks his arm in a bucket of ice after he pitches. Jim Grant has the kind of pleasant face that would look good in a television commercial, if television was ready for his kind of face.” 15

At the very least, Grant expected the Twins to give him a significant raise after his sterling season and World Series. He asked for an increase from $21,500 to $50,000 to put himself closer to the pay level of other top pitchers. But Griffith only offered him a $2000 raise, reminding Grant that he had also received a $4000 World Series bonus. In the end, Grant managed to get $35,000, but he became more outspoken about his owner after 1965.

To make up in income some of what he should have received in salary and endorsements, Grant organized a singing group, Mudcat and the Kittens, that toured the country during the off season, including appearances on Johnny Carson’s and Mike Douglas’s TV shows.

“I made way more money in music than I did in baseball,” Grant once recalled. 16

The Twins traded Grant to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he transitioned into a successful relief pitcher. He pitched four more seasons with the Dodgers, Expos, Cardinals, Pirates, and Athletics and retired from MLB in 1972 with 145 wins, 54 saves, and a 3.63 earn run average.

Late in his career, Grant had several opportunities to sing the national anthem using the regular words. On March 28, 1970, at a pre-season benefit game at Dodger Stadium for the late Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Grant sang the anthem before over 30,000 fans. Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley asked Grant to sing the anthem, in uniform, on Opening Day, two weeks later. It was the first time a player had done so in a regular season game.

.Before Jackie Robinson died in 1972, he urged Grant to do more in his retirement than just pursue a singing career. Robinson — who was disappointed about lingering barriers to Blacks in baseball, especially in coaching, managing, and the front office — also encouraged Grant to speak out about the sport’s persistent past and present discrimination.

Grant put that advice into practice. In his hometown of Lacoochee, Grant helped start a Boy’s and Girl’s Club, a Food for Thought program, a Wounded Warriors chapter (to support military veterans), and a benefit golf tournament. He continued working in baseball as a broadcaster, doing public relations, and as a pitching coach for the minor league Durham Bulls.

He was inspired by the words of the early twentieth century Black leader, Marcus Garvey, who claimed that “a people without the knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.” In 2007, Grant published a book, The Black Aces, about the great African American pitchers, part of his project to educate Americans about the history of baseball integration after Robinson. “We need to change,” Grant wrote, “the commonly held, but totally distorted, notion that baseball and America integrated instantly in 1947, resulting in a steady march forward toward a successfully integrated society and a harmonious racial co-existence ever since.”

Grant hoped that his book and his frequent speeches would “stir people to action: the people who run major league baseball, who own teams, who run universities, who run youth sports leagues, the parents and the children.”

Grant pledged to help “re-energize the interest of today’s Black youth in baseball.” African Americans now comprise only 8 percent of all major leaguer players, down from a high of 27 percent in the mid-1970s. Through his Black Aces Foundation, Grant recruited other African American major leaguers to tour the nation’s big cities and small towns, encouraging local officials to provide the playgrounds, equipment and other resources to expand the participation of young Blacks in organized baseball.

“We bring out our love of the game,” Grant explained in his book, “our desire to share the rich heritage of Blacks in baseball, and our hope that young Black kids will embrace the game and grow from it, just as we did. We’re following the advice of Jackie Robinson, defining the importance of our lives by the impact we have on the lives of others.”

 


Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College.

Robert Elias is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

Their books, “Baseball Rebels: The Battles Over Race, Gender and Sexuality That Shook Up the Game and Changed America” (University of Nebraska Press) and “Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Worker’s Rights and American Empire” (Rowman & Littlefield) will be published next year.


 

1 Robert S. Brown, “Mudcat Grant and the Protest of the National Anthem,” Paper presented at 30th Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture (May 30-June 1, 2018), 6.; “Mudcat Grants Walks Off the Field, Gets Suspension,” Sacramento Bee, Sept. 17, 1960 (AP story reprinted in many newspapers). Also recounted in Steve Jacobson, Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball – and America, Lawrence Hill Books, pages 56-57 and in William Moore, We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athletes, and the Quest for Equality, 2007

2 Jim Grant, The Black Aces (Farmingdale, NY: Black Aces, LLC., 2006), 5. Also in Bill Staples and Rich Herschlag, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times into Home Runs, 2007

3 Bill Staples and Rich Herschlag, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times into Home Runs, 2007, p. 193

4 Kelly Holtzclaw and Jon Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 2018, p. 61

5 Kelly Holtzclaw and Jon Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 2018, p. 64

6 Hall of Fame oral history: http://www.baseballmusings.com/GrantOliver.html

7Hall of Fame oral history: http://www.baseballmusings.com/GrantOliver.html

8 Grant, Black Aces, 218.

9 Holtzclaw and Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 67.

10 Holtzclaw and Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 63.

11 Holtzclaw and Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 63.

12 Holtzclaw and Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 104-105.

13 Kansas City Star, June 19, 2020 https://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/for-petes-sake/article243657112.html. Minnesota Star-Tribune, June 19, 2020 https://www.startribune.com/twins-remove-calvin-griffith-statue-citing-racist-statements/571365382/

14 Holtzclaw and Leonoudakis, Baseball Pioneers, 74

15 Florio and Shapiro. One Nation Under Baseball, 97-98.

16 Quote in NY Times obit, June 12, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/12/obituaries/mudcat-grant-dead.html and in many other places

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