Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Jim “Mudcat” Grant

I began collecting baseball cards in the spring of 1972. The first card I collected was the Topps card of Dave Cash. Another of the early ones was Jim Grant’s. While I knew that Cash played second base for the defending world champion Pirates, I didn’t know much about Grant. The fronts of the 1972 Topps cards don’t indicate position, forcing me to guess whether he was a position player or a pitcher.

So I flipped his card over, discovered that he was a pitcher, and then looked at his statistics on the back. His numbers filled up most of the card, indicating his long career in the major leagues. After a midseason trade to the A’s, Grant had finished out the 1971 season in the Bay Area. Grant had pitched effectively in middle relief for manager Dick Williams, posting an earned run average of 1.98 in 15 appearances. His 1971 numbers looked so good that I assumed that Grant was a solid pitcher who would help the A’s significantly in 1972.

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Little did I know that the A’s, specifically Charlie Finley, had released Grant several months earlier. Grant’s pitching was not the reason; his salary was. Finley saw the opportunity to save some money. As it turned out, Topps had already printed Grant’s card, so rather than just cancel it, the company published it as part of its first series in the spring. As it turned out, Grant would not pitch for any major league team in ‘72, and his ‘72 card would represent his last with the Topps Company.

There were other misconceptions I held about Jim Grant. I knew him by that name, and didn’t realize that most people in the game referred to him as “Mudcat” Grant. If I had known that he was Mudcat Grant, he would have immediately made it to the top of my list. Jim Grant sounds like the name of an actor in Hollywood, but Mudcat Grant sounds like an old fashioned country ballplayer.

The card also intrigued me because of the Oakland uniform. I liked the vivid green A’s insignia against the basic white background of the uniform, not to mention the nifty sleeveless vest that comprised the jersey. What a cool uniform! Again, little did I know that the A’s had already abandoned their uniform from 1971 in favor of solid-color pullovers that reminded some of the shirts worn by members of “Star Trek.” I mean, who knew that a single baseball card could produce so many misconceptions?

Then there is the actual subject of the card. Sporting perhaps the best set of mutton chop sideburns of the era, Mudcat Grant has become one of my favorite people in baseball, ever since I had a chance to talk to him extensively during his visit to Cooperstown in February of 2004.

The Hall of Fame had invited Mudcat and Al Oliver, his former teammate with the Pirates, to be its guests for a special Black History Month program in Cooperstown. The two were big hits with the audience in the Bullpen Theater, who seemed almost spellbound by Grant and Oliver’s ability to mix tremendous recall with offbeat humor and boundless vitality. I had the honor of interviewing both men, having dinner with them, and listening to their colorful stories from their heyday in the game. To call it one of the greatest thrills of my career, well, that would be an understatement.

I began thinking about that weekend in 2004 when I read on Sunday that Grant had just been elected to the Shrine of the Eternals by the Baseball Reliquary. The Shrine, based in Southern California, serves as a kind of an alternative Hall of Fame, with criteria predicated as much on a candidate’s place in social and cultural history as on what he does on the field. Along with Luis Tiant and Dr. Frank Jobe, this year’s fellow inductees, Grant is well-deserving of the honor.

Born and reared in Lacoochee, Fla., Grant signed with the Indians as an amateur free agent in 1954. Four years later, as a 22-year-old, he moved up to the major league roster, but struggled through mediocrity over his first three seasons, shuttling between the rotation and the bullpen. He also struggled with problems of race. During the 1960 season, he became involved in an altercation with bullpen coach Ted Wilks, who allegedly made a racist remark to him. Furious, Grant headed to the clubhouse, dressed, and then made his way home. Manager Jimmy Dykes suspended Grant for the remainder of the season.

During the expansion year of 1961, a good offensive season in the American League, Grant began to turn the corner. He pitched 244 innings to the tune of a 3.86 ERA, winning 15 games. But after the season, he was told to report to active duty in the Army. As a result, he was available to pitch only on weekends during the early part of the season, and after receiving a 30-day furlough, he hurt his arm.

It was not until Grant encountered a change in venue that he emerged as a legitimate, front-of-the-rotation starter. Along with a change in scenery, Grant seemed to respond to a change in coaches. After being dealt to the Twins in the midst of the 1964 season, he put up a career best ERA of 2.82.

Then came the pinnacle of his career. In 1965, the year in which the exalted Johnny Sain became Minnesota’s pitching coach, Grant logged 270 innings while winning 21 of 28 decisions and spinning a league-high six shutouts. Learning to throw a hard curve under Sain’s tutelage, Grant evolved into the Twins’ ace, spearheading their drive to the American League pennant. He then did his best to lead the Twins to their first world title, winning two games in the World Series and even hitting a three-run homer, but Minnesota dropped a tough seven-game match-up against the pitching-rich Dodgers.

Grant never quite reached such heights again. He pitched creditably in 1966, but slumped in ‘67 before being traded.

It wasn’t just subpar pitching that prompted the Twins to send him on his way. The team’s owner, the ultra-conservative Calvin Griffith, didn’t like the fact that Grant spent some of his spare time performing as a jazz musician. In 1964, he had formed a group called “Mudcat and the Kittens.” That kind of musical pursuit qualified Grant as some sort of subversive in Griffith’s mind, so the owner included Mudcat in a trade that also sent Zoilo Versalles to the Dodgers for veteran catcher John Roseboro and reliable relievers Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller.

Los Angeles converted Grant to fulltime relief pitching, a role in which he flourished despite his lack of a strikeout pitch. After brief interludes in Montreal and St. Louis, Grant took his relief skills to Oakland and Pittsburgh, where he excelled in the middle and late innings. Like Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz in later years, Grant became one of the few pitchers to make the successful transition to the bullpen after already establishing himself as a starter.

In September of 1970, the A’s curiously traded Grant to the Pirates for a player to be named later, who turned out to be young outfield prospect Angel Mangual. Oakland writers and fans, not to mention A’s players themselves, roasted Finley for making the deal. In 72 games with the A’s, Grant had saved 24 games, forged an ERA of 1.82, and emerged as one of the American League’s most effective firemen.

Not surprisingly, Grant pitched well for the Pirates down the stretch, assisting the Bucs in their quest to win the National League East. But because he joined the Pirates after the deadline of Aug. 31, he was not eligible for postseason play. In 1971, Grant’s pitching fell off somewhat, as his ERA rose to 3.60. Thanks to their deep bullpen, which featured palm ball specialist Dave Giusti at the end of games, the Pirates felt that Grant was expendable, so they sent him back to Oakland in midsummer, settling for a small sum of cash in exchange.

Grant pitched beautifully during the second half. He provided an ancillary benefit as well. If not for Grant’s return to Oakland’s bullpen in 1971, Rollie Fingers might not have developed into the game’s most consistently effective relief pitcher of the 1970s.

“I learned how to become a reliever from Grant,” Fingers told a reporter for Baseball magazine many years later. Fingers watched Mudcat attack opposing hitters by mixing his pitches, rather than relying on one dominant pitch. Fingers also observed the different ways that Grant warmed up in the bullpen, depending on the game situation and the inning.

To his discredit, Finley did not value Grant’s influence on Fingers, nor his ability to pick up outs in the late innings. So in a cost-cutting maneuver that smacked of his tendency toward cheapness, he released Grant. Mudcat later signed with the Indians, his original organization, and agreed to pitch at Triple-A in hopes of returning to the big leagues. But the promotion never came, and Grant called it quits after the 1972 season.

Unlike some former players who struggle to find a niche outside of baseball, Grant is a renaissance man who has lived a whirlwind life since retiring as an active player. He has continued to pursue his musical interests, becoming an accomplished singer and public performer. Even in his late 70s, Grant continues to perform at nightclubs across the country. Grant credits such legends as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie among his singing influences.

Grant has remained active in the game—and in games that resemble baseball. Equipped with an outgoing personality, Grant has worked as a color commentator on A’s and Indians broadcasts and in a public relations capacity for Cleveland.

For a time, Grant left baseball to become a special marketing director for the Anheuser-Busch Company. Grant also worked for the speakers’ bureau of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. He returned to baseball in 1984, when he was chosen as an assistant venue director for baseball at the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.

About a month after the Olympics, Grant received an offer from Hank Aaron, who was working in the Braves’ front office, to become a minor league pitching coach. Eager at the chance to work for one of the 26 major league teams, Grant accepted the offer to work with the young pitchers on the Durham Bulls.

In 1990, Grant initiated one of baseball’s most worthwhile programs, which was dubbed “Slug-Out Illiteracy, Slug-Out Drugs.” Based out of Los Angeles, the program encouraged former players to put forth an anti-drug message during instructional clinics. An active member of the MLB Players Alumni Association, he regularly makes appearance at youth clinics around the country, with a particular emphasis on enticing young African Americans to play the game.

In 2005, Grant published his first book, The Black Aces, which chronicled the efforts of the first 12 African-American pitchers to enjoy 20-win seasons in the major leagues.

Baseball excellence, musical skill, broadcasting, writing, coaching, and public service. Grant has done it all. I can’t think of anyone much more deserving of a place in the Shrine of the Eternals.

To find out more about the Baseball Reliquary, visit http://www.baseballreliquary.org.

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Comments

  1. scott said...

    Pretty sad that Mudcat couldn’t get called up to the sad-sack ‘72 Indians.  Besides Gaylord Perry and Dick Tidrow and a young Milt Wilcox they had nobody on the mound…. they couldn’t at least give him a shot?

  2. jim vankoski said...

    Knowing my relationship with the Mickey Vernon Museum Jim Grant gave me a call last year to tell me that he loved Mickey Vernon because Mickey drove in the winning run in his first major league win in 1958 when they were both with Cleveland.

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Scott, how Mudcat couldn’t get a job with someone in 1972 remains a mystery to me. He had put up good numbers in ‘71 and his arm remained sound. As you said, that ‘72 Indian staff was nothing to write home about, so yes, Mudcat should have made that team.

  4. Tim Wigal said...

    Larry Doby gave him the nickname when he was first with the Tribe.  I had the privilege of being his guest at dinner in Cleveland once in the late 1970s and he was generous, charming and erudite. He kept my friend and I enthralled with his stories about music, baseball and broadcasting. But he was almost interested in what we had to say.  Although I was too shy to ask for an autograph that night, I later found one and it hangs proudly in my office.  Thanks for the great article about a class act

  5. Cooldrive said...

    I remember batters being upset with Mudcat because he was always smiling.  They thought he was laughing at them.
        I don’t think any player smiled as much as Mudcat (Freddie Sanchez doesn’t smile…he grimaces).

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Butch, Mudcat did not pitch in the Negro Leagues. He came up in the 1950s, when the Negro Leagues were in decline. So he started in the Indians’ system before earning a promotion to Cleveland.

  7. butch said...

    Great Job About A Very Good Pitcher!! Tell Me, Did He Pitched In The Negro Leagues, Or Was He Too Young? I Know He Supports The Negro League Baseball Museum In Kansas City!! Replies Are Welcome!!

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