In his poem, Life, which he recites to young audiences and, if there appears to be a demand for it, in his nightclub act, too, Mudcat Grant begins:
Life is like a game of baseball, and you play it every day.
It isn't just the breaks you get, but the kind of game you play.
The poem goes on from there, 56 lines in all. In it, Fear is pitching against you. Greed, Envy, Hatred and Defeat comprise the opposition infield. Carelessness, Waste, Selfishness and Jealousy are also starters on that team, with Discouragement and Falsehood forming a shallow but formidable bench. Luckily, God is calling balls and strikes and working the bases, too.
A lady from California once sued Mudcat for $50,000, contending that Mudcat had plagiarized Life from her. Mudcat got, among others, some Catholic nuns to declare that they heard him reciting his poem in Minnesota long before the lady in California had ever written her poem. The suit was dismissed.
April 8, 1968
Score one for the home team, which has Religion at first base, Brotherhood at third, Ambition and Work in the pasture. Truth and Faith are "your keystone men." Courage is the starting pitcher, Honor is in the bullpen and Love is in the dugout. It is interesting that along with such stalwart, lofty characters Mudcat has made a special point of inserting Humor in the lineup behind the plate. It is, he says, "important to the scheme." Mudcat keeps things very much in perspective, even about himself. For instance, the last time he was traded he said philosophically, "Baseball players are like streetcars: they just come and go."
But this time, having been traded to the Dodgers at the age of 32, dogged by an uncertain knee and a 5-6 record last year in Minnesota, Mudcat is just standing on the mound, looking out over his shoulder.
Your centerfielder is very fast,
though small and hard to see.
So watch him, son, when he gets the ball,
Mudcat is watching his centerfielder very closely.
It has been generalized often enough and conveniently that Mudcat Grant is a very complex man. Closer to the truth, he seems to be a very consistent man, complicated only by the various environmental strains of time and subculture that tug at him from all sides. Basically, he is a man saturated with the solid qualities of his upbringing: Southern rural, Negro Baptist. But then he is also touched by all the other experiences of his life: baseball, show biz, public relations, Northern middle-class suburbia. Mudcat is always ahead of things. Of course, this can be very tricky if you are a Negro. You might get your head blown off being ahead of your time.
"I was in the NAACP before it was Camp," he said in his most famous quote of 1965, when he was the best pitcher in the American League and everybody was paying close attention to whatever he said. Now he is deeply, even tenderly, involved with the life of a small Midwest town that has not one Negro in its population. Mudcat is always ahead.
"I was wearing the long socks or even the pretty long socks with garters while everyone else was still wearing those short socks," he says. "I mean I was wearing long socks nine, 10 years ago, and everybody laughed at me for it."
Now Mudcat is thinking about getting two violins into his off-season act, Mudcat and the Kittens, to play rock 'n' roll. Violins for rock 'n' roll? This is something very new. Also, he is looking forward to pitching in Los Angeles this summer, because he knows that very big things can happen to him if he gets exposure in a big town like L.A.
"If I have the talent to do all the things people are always telling me I have the talent to do, Los Angeles has got to be the right place for me," he says. "I was going down with the Kittens to open in San Juan a few weeks ago, but the Dodgers asked me to wrap up the act and start working out early. Fine, fine. Early practice could be a blessing in disguise. A blessing in disguise. I win just a few games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and I have to be worth even more with the Kittens in San Juan. A blessing in disguise."
Some people in baseball think Mudcat could have carried his name on anyway, even if he had spent his whole playing career in smaller places like Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Somewhere, goes the thought, Grant may end up becoming the first Negro play-by-play announcer or one of the first Negro managers. Beyond that, who knows? Sidney Poitier can't play all the parts.
For Mudcat, ending up in Los Angeles is only a special bonus. Throwing his arms wide, he says he would have been delighted to have played with an expansion team in Meridian, Miss, if that meant escaping Minnesota. Life with the Twins grew progressively sour after his 21-7 1965 season, when Grant finished up with two World Series victories over the Dodgers—one of them clinched with his own monstrous home run. Last year the Twins, rife with racial antagonism and curious personality conflicts that superseded even usual simple discrimination, served as nothing but a jailhouse for Grant. He did not get along with the new manager, Cal Ermer, or the pitching coach, Early Wynn. For that matter, he grated on many of the same teammates with whom he had rollicked in victory two years before.
Shortstop Zoilo Versalles, the '65 MVP, whose descent into mediocrity and dissension parallels Grant's, and who was, with him, dispatched to the Dodgers over the winter, at least managed to direct most of his discontent toward Ermer. Grant sprayed his about almost indiscriminately so that, in the end, he was left with no one else to dislike except himself. To his credit, and even to his salvation, he did not spare himself when that option was left.
Grant does not like to consider that he must make a comeback. The word seems to rattle him. But he acknowledges the facts. The Dodgers have viewed him from the first as no more than an extra starter and as the long relief man, a position that has traditionally been accepted as the first way station on the trip to unconditional release—"so that you can make a deal on your own." Grant's legs have hobbled and disturbed him for two painful seasons, and he started only two games after Ermer became manager. Grant is really not so much coming back from a bad season as he is from a de facto retirement.
To effect a return he has been training diligently on the field and with weights to strengthen his legs. "I'll tell you," says Manager Walter Alston, "he's been working his tail off for us."
Unlike many hard throwers, Grant, who has a good changeup, does not have to go through a pitching change-of-life and pick up a new pitch. "A pitcher has to face it," he says. "Almost from the very first, you lose something every year you throw. If a pitcher says he is just as strong as last year, he is just a liar, baby. I know I can't run as fast as I did 10 years ago, so there's no reason to expect I can throw as fast. From the time you get in this game you got to say, 'Every year I lose something here [he taps his bicep], I can make up for it here [finger to the head].' "
Johnny Sain, now the pitching coach at Detroit but Grant's mentor in his greatest season, offers his own example as a study in optimism. "Really, when you've had some success and then fallen back, it's hard to get going again in the same environment," Sain says. "When you've been on top with one club, it's hard to go to the bullpen and work your way back. The people you've been around just won't let you. When I went from the Braves to the Yankees it was a fresh start. I told 'em I'd relieve, start, do anything they wanted. It was a fine break for me, the same way it can be for Mudcat, because a pitcher has a little more advantage than a hitter in moving to another league. If he's a pitcher with a lot of craft, a lot of little extras, they'll have to see him several times before they get a line on him."
Grant is pleased with the comparison. "Fortunately," he says, "I don't have to depend on any one pitch each time. I have a very good fastball, a very good curve, a very good sinker and a very good razzafratz." Some people listening in thought, as Mudcat grinned sheepishly, that he said spitter instead of razzafratz. Whatever, Grant has always been able to adjust.
Now, in a striped turtleneck and some sort of snappy white zippered jumper, Mudcat cases the players' lounge at the Vero Beach training camp. He is drawing on a wooden-tipped cigar, in which he occasionally indulges himself, and examining the various games available on the premises. Mudcat is working at becoming a member of the Dodgers, and keeping up. "Hmmm," he reckons as another page is announced, "that's three calls for Lefebvre tonight. Somebody is after him." He moseyes over to the checkers table. Mudcat will play most any game. At checkers, he prefers the pool variety, an outlaw version in which the pieces can be jumped all over the board. He also likes Giveaway, where the idea is to lose your men first.
"Here's Mud," someone says.
"Game, Mud?" asks Mr. Newton, an older gentleman in a straw hat. Mr. Newton comes from the Washington area, but he visits Vero each spring to relax and watch the Dodgers and play them checkers. Mr. Newton has never lost a game of checkers to a Dodger. The closest was one time when Roy Hartsfield, the manager of the Spokane farm club, was ahead but ended up being able only to tie Mr. Newton.
"Regular checkers?" asks Mud.
"Regular," says Mr. Newton.
"He's tough," a kibitzer says.
"I know," Mud replies. "He's about the best." Mr. Newton is not to be taken lightly, that is for certain. As he explains, he has considerable strategy, featuring trying to keep his men in a triangle formation and trying to keep them on the vital "power spots." He takes an early lead.' 'I could play him some pool," Mud declares wistfully.
But wait. Suddenly Mud comes back and jumps two of Mr. Newton's men in one move and, not only that, now he is zipping right down past the power triangle and is only one jump away from getting the first king. "Go ahead, Mud," he cries, banging his fist on the table and almost clanging his diamond-cluster ring. Mr. Newton is shaken. "I'm infiltrating his system," Grant says. But, alas, experience tells. Mud loses the edge, and they are left, one king apiece, facing each other down. "A draw," says Mr. Newton, relieved. Mud agrees.
"That's as close as anyone on the Dodgers ever came to beating me," says Mr. Newton, a good sport. "You play a real good game. You should have beat me, Mud. You had me."
"Maybe I'll get you in some pool next time."
"O.K.," Mr. Newton agrees.
"I had him thinking anyway," Mudcat says, smiling with satisfaction. He smiles so easily, it is difficult to conceive of anger ever sitting on his brow. Indeed, it does take much to rile him, but that can happen, and sometimes does spectacularly. Grant, who has been in the majors for 10 years, is two weeks short of qualifying for a pension. He was suspended for that long several years ago after he stormed out of a bullpen during a heated dispute with a white coach, Ted Wilks, over the legitimacy of the last few words in the national anthem.
"Still," he says, "I never hated any man, never, ever hated any man—till last year. Then I got to hating just about everybody. I thought every white man was a...," and he rattles off several earthy words. "My mind was so perverted. I was crawling with hate."
He will give an account of the saga, but he would rather, he indicates, talk of his redemption, and he introduces this subject, as he sometimes will, with the diction of an announcer.
"I was so disappointed in myself," he says, "but I could not help myself. The people who did help me were my wife Tiny and Gabe Paul, the president of the Indians, who spoke to me citizen to citizen, and Don Newcombe and all of the people of the little town of Cherokee, Iowa, which I will discuss in detail later."
Mudcat, who has a variety of dialects, moves through most of them in the course of any conversation. There is, above all, historic Southern, which flows gently into the tinted jargon of musicians. But it can be changed suddenly, as when Mudcat begins to sound like a sports announcer. He will, for instance, often refer to himself as, "the pitcher of record," an infamous cliché that has never been fit for human tongue on or off the air. He also moves into the vernacular of what he calls "the show-biz world," as when he is talking about the appearances of Mudcat and the Kittens on Johnny Carson's show and other big-time national variety productions. When cataloging these appearances. Grant invariably identifies himself with those who also happened to be on the bill, with the chichi expression "worked with," as in, "On that show I worked with Leslie Uggams and George Jessel"; or, "Oh, yeah, that time I worked with Nancy Wilson and Barbara McNair."
Grant's move into entertainment, along with his potential for becoming an announcer or club official, makes him something of an original. Few other Negro baseball players—Jackie Robinson and Maury Wills are the most prominent exceptions—have ever managed, as white players routinely do, to use a playing career as a springboard to later success within or outside of the game. Negro baseball players generally have had to content themselves with settling for neighborhood celebrity status as liquor-store proprietors. Nor do many of the present group of Negro superstars give evidence of becoming long-term "personalities" in the world at large once their numbers have been ceremonially retired. Of his contemporaries, Grant seems the one most likely to attain that lustrous, lasting stature.
The path James Timothy Grant Jr. has followed upward, geographically as well as financially, has gone from the discrimination and abject poverty of the rural South to a handsome income and a comfortable residence in the North in Cleveland's suburban Shaker Heights. He may be said to be a prototype of the successful Negro of his generation. The Grant family now numbers two children—James Timothy III, who is almost 4, and Joy Jima, just turned one. They and Mrs. Grant will go out to Los Angeles for the balance of the summer once Mudcat is settled. Mrs. Grant is named Lucille, but everyone calls her Tiny, just as no one who knows him calls her husband Jim.
He is Mud most of the time, sometimes James, and occasionally, among old baseball friends, Coochee, for he was born in 1935 in Lacoochee, Fla., a town of 1,700 located inland about 40 miles north of Tampa. There were three sisters before him, and he was a twin to a sister, Johnnie. A brother Julius followed two years later, but James Grant Sr. died before his second son was born. Mrs. Grant, Viola, who is now 58, worked as a domestic and at Lacoochee's citrus canning factory, which is known in the vernacular as the "juice plant."
The Grants' frame house lacked hot water, electric lights and toilets, and young James Jr. often had to study by kerosene lamp or, classically, from the light thrown off by the fire. "I remember the one morning very clearly," he says, "I was about 12 or 13, I guess. It was a big breakfast. Sometimes we were hungry, but we didn't know about it so it didn't matter. We ate possum. We ate coon. The whole bit. A lot of times we just had biscuits with syrup for breakfast. But this morning was a big breakfast. The biscuits were already done, I remember, and Mother was over the stove. We were just kids. We didn't know, we didn't realize how hard Mother was working. There were eggs she was cooking and sausage, and just all of a sudden she collapsed.
"Right on the stove. She fell on the stove and burned her face and arms, and then she fell to the floor. We ran for the doctor, and he came and he worked with her, and he told us that she was working too hard and had to slow down. But she couldn't. She went to work that day at the juice plant. That was when I knew I had to help out.
"I was 13—that's right, I had to be 13, because that was the year I went to work—I was 13, but I was big for my age. We were all skinny, but I was big, you know, so I put up my age to 18 and went to work in the lumber mill that summer. One time at school I worked for a while on the night shift, too, 11 to 7, and I picked oranges a lot. You got 15¢ a box. Listen, that was better than a lot of things. When I started in the mill it was 65¢ an hour. You could pick a lot of oranges in an hour at 15¢ a box if you were strong and wanted to make some money."
For many Americans mention of Florida calls up instant images of the Fontainebleau and Murph the Surf pirating precious stones out of dark mansions. But the other Florida, the Florida of Lacoochee and places like it in the hinterlands, is part of the culture, too. A sheriff in Brooksville, about 15 miles from Lacoochee, once kicked Grant in the rear while his deputy trained a gun on him. The white kids in town threw rocks at the Negroes and cursed them without fear of reprisal. They passed their crayons and erasers on to the Negro school. It was not much of a school, really, being only two regular houses with classrooms formed by blankets hung from the ceilings. There was no gymnasium, though the Negroes in town built a clay basketball court outside.
Baseball, however, was always the first game in Lacoochee. Always had been. Grant was an All-State basketball player and a prize halfback at Moore Academy high school and through his stay into his sophomore year at Florida A&M, but it was always baseball that he cared for. Evenings, in the Florida dusk, he and his friends would play stick-ball on the dirt roads, and the Negro women would come out to watch while their dinner was fixing, and the men would sit on the stoops and puff pipes and view the prospects seriously. Balls and bats were communal property. Gloves were passed on. Before he signed with the Indians in 1954 and was sent to Fargo at $250 a month, Mudcat played with a glove that had been given to him by Fats Richardson. It was the best glove he had ever owned.
The Negro town team—the Lacoochee Nine Devils, they were called—was a great one. It regularly beat the big-city teams from Tampa and St. Petersburg. Looking back, having played the best, Mudcat still believes that many of the Nine Devil regulars could have starred in the majors had there been no color bar. Thaddeus Black, Mudcat's uncle, was a shortstop who could make all the plays. Mudcat still feels that Plunk Kelly, the third baseman, was the best he ever saw at that position. There was James Oliver, the father of Nate (Pee-wee) Oliver, now in the San Francisco Giants' organization. Cooter Singleton was 6'2" with shoulders about 48 inches wide, a 29-inch waist and some fastball. William Grant (no relation) had a curve-ball Mudcat compares to Camilo Pascual's at his prime. The Lacoochee Nine Devils lost very few games.
James Grant, in fact, got few chances to pitch, for he wasn't good enough. He had to play first or third, and even that was hard to manage sometimes because his mother did not want him to play on Sundays and chased him off the porch with a broom the first time she heard that he had done so. The reason she heard was that he hit two home runs. Later, in fact, it was as a hitter that he got his first tryout with the Indians. (His World Series homer, incidentally, was the first by an American League pitcher since 1920.) When Frank Lane was bossing the Indians, he used to give a suit to any pitcher who could get two hits in a game. Mudcat got a lot of suits, even sometimes when he was not winning many games.
Grant has 117 major league wins. Through Lane's largesse and otherwise, he also has suits in abundance—if not 117, at least, he thinks, enough of them "to go about three weeks with a couple of changes a day and everything different." He has four tuxedos, a lavender suit, a red suit, a white suit, a powder-blue suit.
He also has sweaters in just about all the hues, and shoes and slacks and many other items of interesting color and fashion. Besides the long socks, Mudcat also pioneered "highboy" shirts. When he first showed up in one, the other players hooted and said: "Hey, you can't even be caught at a tennis match with that on." And now, of course, they are very big. Score one more for Mudcat, who is still ahead of the times.
Touring with Mudcat and the Kittens, Grant is forever shifting ensembles for his act. Usually, along about the third or fourth show in a place, he comes out in the stark-white mohair suit and starts off with the line about how the White Knight got his clothes all right, but missed Grant altogether. (The audience is warmed up by the time Mudcat hits the stage anyway.) First his musicians—up to seven of them—begin, playing dance music and jazzier stuff, and then the Kittens, some very sexy girls in spare feline outfits, take over the stage to sing and dance and purr. Then Mudcat comes on. He sings—everything from show tunes to rock 'n' roll—and tells jokes and dances, and at last there is the finale with the whole troupe.
Mudcat is best, singing or joking, when he is working with the audience. He understands this and does not push the one-liners. "In the first place," he says, "I can't get risqué simply because of who I am. Besides, humor is not just buying up all the joke books and retelling them. Humor is taking advantage of something that happens and presenting it in the right way."
Maybe the funniest short bit he does is the most natural, and it developed simply because people are always asking pitchers what it is the manager says when he comes to the mound to talk to a pitcher in trouble.
"Managers always explain the situation to you and the catcher to show how smart they are," Mudcat begins, tugging the microphone wire after him as he walks around the stage talking to the audience. It is Baltimore or Cleveland or York, Pa., or it is the Holiday Inn in Groton, Conn., or it is Steelman's Steak House in Cherokee, Iowa.
"They point out everything to you, managers, like you can't possibly keep track of it yourself or like maybe you just dropped in from somewhere.
" 'Well, Mud,' the manager says when he gets out to me, 'men on first and third.'
" 'Sure is, Sam,' I say, just like it never occurred to me.
" 'And only one out, Mud,' he says." (Grant falls deeper into dialect as he tells any story.)
" 'Hmmm,' I say. 'Yes, jes one out it is.'
" '...and Al Kaline comin' up, Mud.'
" 'Yes,' I say, 'that sure looks like Mr. Kaline hisself movin' out of the on-deck ring.' That manager is right again.
" 'Course, I've spent this whole inning trying to figure out how I can get around Kaline, I been looking over there at him in the on-deck for the last five minutes jes wonderin' what in the world I can throw him. But the manager finally went and stood with his foot up on the top step of the dugout, which is what managers do either when they want to get smart or when they want to appear smart, so now he can come out to the mound and inform me that they is men on first and third, they is one out and I have got to pitch next to Al Kaline. That is what managers tell you when they come out to the mound."
The people laugh, and Mudcat starts to sing. He describes his own voice as "somewhere between a baritone and a tenor, depending on the song." A Minnesota entertainment critic, reviewing his act just after the glorious '65 season, described Grant as "unquestionably the best singer in the area to have won two World Series games this year."
Mudcat does a lot of dance numbers, too. He and the Kittens have their own special choreographer now. Often he will break off the singing and the hoofing and go into more patter. "So I say, 'Now look, Sam, I know I haven't ever thrown a slider, and you know it, and Earl sure knows it, but we are forgetting that there is also the eleement of sooprise to contend with, and Mr. Mantle, standing there at the plate, does not know either that I have added a slider to my repeetoire.' " Just when he says "repeetoire" everybody at Steelman's Steak House in Cherokee, Iowa roars.
It was last November that Mudcat Grant came to Cherokee. He had never heard of the town before, but his agent said it was a good booking, so Mud took it and left for Sioux City, which is the jumping-off place for Cherokee. Mud was still mad. The Twins had not traded him yet, and the memories and the disappointments of the season just ended still hung heavily upon him. It was in that frame of mind that Mudcat discovered that there was not one single Negro living in Cherokee. "There were kids 6, 7, 8 years old who had never seen a Negro before in living color," Mud says. "I remember—it's funny the things they tell you when they don't know something—this one little boy was playing with me one day and climbing all over me and we were having just a great old time, and all of a sudden he just stopped and looked at me a minute, and then he told me my hands were dirty. Just my hands. He said my hands were dirty. That killed me. Then we went right back to wrestling together.
"Another time," Mudcat says, "I was in the drugstore and I looked down and saw this little girl staring at me. She literally didn't know what I was. So I just bent over and said 'boo' to her, and she 'bout died."
Pretty soon everybody in Cherokee was looking at Mudcat. And then they were talking to him and visiting with him. When he wasn't playing at Steelman's, Mudcat was all over town, at Larry French's house or with the Bob Stevensons or dropping by the hangouts or the schools. "I guess I visited just about every school in the area," he says, "elementary right on up. At first I would just sort of stand there and show them what a Negro was. Then I'd start talk-in', and pretty soon we'd all be talk-in'. We just talked and got to know each other. Don't get me off on kids. I can't resist kids. I just talked and they asked me questions about almost anything, from Vietnam to the riots to baseball. There was no mayhem. Cherokee was just the warmest little town.
"My ultimate goal in life is to get enough money to put together an apartment-type building in Lacoochee for my family. We're a close family, and this way, if we're all living together, it would be even easier to work out all our problems. We work together. Like I have already sent one of my nephews through college—I have about a thousand nephews and nieces in Lacoochee—but now when he gets the chance he has to work to pay that money back. Only the money won't go to me. It will go to pay for the education of the next one in the family. Do you see? It is a type of contract you enter into. You get your way paid, but then when you have the chance you have to pay for someone else.
"I live in Shaker Heights. That is my home now, but Lacoochee will always be my home, and now Cherokee is my second home. We started a program there, the high school principal and the music teacher and some of us, working to raise money for a boys' baseball field. Just before I had to go out to L.A. before spring training, I made another trip to Cherokee and made a lot of appearances there, trying to raise the funds for the field. And I wanted to see all my friends again anyway. Someone told me, 'Mud, if you ever came to live in Cherokee and ran for mayor, there wouldn't be no contest at all.' "