'He Wanted to Be The Bridge Across Racial Lines': Remembering Cleveland Pitcher Jim "Mudcat" Grant
Cleveland baseball fans are remembering former pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who died recently at the age of 85. Grant made history in the 1960s when baseball was still deeply segregated. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto said Mudcat was the first player he asked for an autograph when he was a kid.
Pluto was just 8 years old when he nervously approached Grant after the last home game in 1963.
"My father saw him and went, 'Go ask him for an autograph.' So I walk up, try to say something and nothing comes out. He looks at me and he says, 'Hey little man, do you want my autograph?' When I would run into Mudcat, I would always tell him that story," Pluto said.
Growing up in segregated Lacooche
Grant grew up Lacooche, Fla., and often described the town in a positive light.
"He made it sound like this quaint town, sitting on the porch and fishing and all these things," Pluto said.
But he said Grant was more honest when he talked with the pitcher for his book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito.
"He said, 'This is a lumber town, and it was divided. The Blacks are on one side of the tracks, and whites are on the other,'" Pluto said.
"He was afraid to ask for the bonus he was owed, [and] he frankly let them change his name because he wanted to play ball. He said, 'I didn't want to go back to that lumber town.'"
While most of Grant's friends looked up to Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in the National League in 1947, Grant was inspired by Indians' center fielder Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League later that year. Grant would ultimately room with Doby once he arrived in the Majors in 1958 with Cleveland.
In 1954, Grant was offered a $500 bonus for making minor league camp near Daytona Beach, but when he arrived, he was afraid to ask for it. It was also at training camp where he got the nickname Mudcat.
Becoming Mudcat and missing his bonus
"He was there for several days and they kept calling out players for where they were supposed to go, and they kept calling out 'Mudcat Grant,'" Pluto said. Grant finally asked why his name wasn't called, and he learned that's what they were calling him. They believed he hadn't shown up.
"Is it a pure stereotype? The Black southern kid that must have been catching those mudcat fish? Who knows. Somebody called him that," Pluto said.
"He was afraid to ask for the bonus he was owed, [and] he frankly let them change his name because he wanted to play ball. He said, 'I didn't want to go back to that lumber town,'" Pluto said.
Grant would prove his worth early on, going 21-5 with a 3.40 ERA at 18 years old for Class D Fargo. Four years later he began his journey in Cleveland, where he would pitch six seasons. The cash-strapped Indians ended up trading Grant to the Minnesota Twins in 1964 for two players and $25,000 so that they could make payroll that month.
"I think he prided himself, 'I want to be a bridge across racial lines.'"
In "true Cleveland fashion," as Pluto put it, Grant would go on to make history in Minnesota.
"He pitches in the World Series of '64, becomes the first African American in the American League to win a World Series game. Then he became the first African American to win 20 games," Pluto said.
Grant went on to pitch for 14 years and eventually rejoined Cleveland as a broadcaster.
Pluto admires Grant for how he handled adversity during a very segregated time in history.
"They had the Black players in one barracks down at Daytona Beach and the whites at the other. When you went out to eat, you maybe ate in the kitchen or out back, and to not come out of that bitter, but willing to speak his mind. It's not like he just shut his mouth and took it. And I think he prided himself, 'I want to be a bridge across racial lines.' But a bridge meant that also people were on your side of it."