Black History Month: replacing Buck’s voiceby Bruce Markusen
February 04, 2011
When Buck O’Neil died in October of 2006, black baseball lost its most effective voice. Now, you might be asking exactly what I mean by “black baseball." Collectively, it’s the legacy of the Negro Leagues and pioneers like Jackie Robinson, along with the participation of African Americans in the sport today. That legacy and its impact baseball remain major concerns to those fans who would like to see the game as diversified as possible. That diversity is currently lacking; fewer than seven per cent of current major leaguers are African American.
O’Neil’s personality, enthusiasm and intelligence made him a natural to serve as the unofficial voice of black baseball. In many ways, he was the perfect ambassador for African Americans in the game. Finding a replacement is not easy, but there is at least one man capable of filling his shoes. He is 75-year-old Mudcat Grant, who comes closer than anyone to matching Buck’s outgoing nature, along with his ability to spin entertaining and colorful stories.
Though Jim “Mudcat” Grant did not play in the Negro Leagues, he experienced segregation and racism while pitching in the 1950s and '60s. Grant grew up in Lacoochee, Fla., a small town of only 500 residents. Like much of the South, Lacoochee was subject to Jim Crow segregation. That included separate schools for Grant and his black friends. Making life more difficult was the early death of Grant’s father, which placed the burden of bread-winning on his mother, Viola. Somehow, Viola found a way to support her son and his eight siblings, in spite of a modest salary from working in a local sawmill.
Shortly after joining the sawmill’s all-black team as a batboy, Grant became hooked on the game. He couldn’t play it enough, hours and hours a day, even if he was by himself throwing a tennis ball against the family house. He played the game—and pitched it—exceedingly well. At the age of 18, Grant drew interest from the Indians organization, which signed him to a modest contract, no bonus included. Grant spent four productive seasons in the minor leagues before making his big league debut in 1958.
A ticket to the big leagues did not end racism for black players like Grant. Spring training in the South brought reminders of Jim Crow; the African Americans on the Indians had to stay in separate hotels from the white players. They even had to drink from different water fountains, an oddity that Grant and one of his Indians pitching teammates noted with amusement. “Gary Bell went to a fountain one day, and one said ‘white’ and one said ‘colored.’ And we looked underneath and the pipe went to the same (place). Is it going that way or is it going that way? No, it was going the same way.”
Grant didn’t let such samples of segregation discourage him, largely because of the confidence that Viola had instilled in him. But, like all African Americans, he took notice of the distinctions being made between blacks and whites.
Grant pitched well for the Indians, even making the All-Star team in 1963, but he truly blossomed after being traded to the Twins. The deal, in the middle of the 1964 season, turned into the steal of the decade for the Twins, who surrendered two fringe players, pitcher Lee Stange and third baseman-outfielder George Banks. Grant evolved from dependable starter into staff anchor, winning 21 games in 1965 while leading the Twins in innings pitched and helping the club achieve a World Series berth against the Dodgers. In so doing, Grant became the first black pitcher in American League history to post a 20-win season. To this date, only 12 other African Americans have reached the milestone as major leaguers.
Grant became popular in the Twin Cities, but Twins owner Calvin Griffith, not the most open-minded of men, grew irritated by Mudcat’s off-season formation of a jazz band. Deeming that an unsuitable pastime, Griffith traded Grant to the Dodgers. Grant made a successful transition from starting to relieving, foreshadowing what would be a late-career revival as a late-inning fireman. Grant forged two successive seasons as a prime time relief ace, pitching high leverage innings for two good teams in Pittsburgh and Oakland.
Rather inexplicably, the A’s released Grant after the 1971 season. He received only a minor league offer, pitched one season for the Iowa Oaks, and then called it a career. That opened a door to a second career, as a public speaker. Mudcat became a broadcaster with the Indians, doubling as the team’s community director. He made as many as 200 speeches a year, promoting the Indians and baseball in general wherever he went. Later, he switched sports, becoming part of the speaker’s bureau for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
In the early 1990s, Grant started a nationwide program known as “Slug Out Illiteracy, Slug Out Drugs,” in which he recruited retired players to put out an anti-drug message at instructional clinics. Grant also became active in the MLB Players Alumni Association, making countless appearances at clinics and golf tournaments, where he continues to tell youngsters about baseball, education, and the ills of drug abuse. Along the way, he’s had to fight health problems, including the onset of diabetes, arthritis, and persistent knee trouble. But he continues to soldier on, traveling the country from Los Angeles, where he lives, to places as distant as Cooperstown.
Though it would be easier for Grant to rest at his home in Los Angeles, he believes that he is obligated to fulfill a mission spreading the word about black baseball. “There’s a lot of African-American history that we’ve got to get to,” Grant once told me. “Otherwise, it’s going to be lost, especially when players of my generation, and previous generations, pass away.”
A few years back, Grant visited Cooperstown to participate in a celebration of Black History Month. His words, spoken so eloquently in 2004, still apply today. Grant acknowledged that baseball faces problems because of growing competition from other sports. But he believed, and still believes, that baseball can take hold with African Americans if the game makes inroads to the inner city.
“I was going to say, to be fair to the other sports back in those days (when I was growing up), there was very little made of football. There was very little made of basketball. Most everybody played the game of baseball. So today we have to be a little bit more creative in getting these kids to play baseball. There really has to be a serious effort in that inner city to get the kids to play today, because there’s no more stickball, there’s no more throwing it against the steps.”
Like Grant, I would enjoy seeing a game like stickball return to the inner city. I would love nothing more than to see kids in the suburbs throwing the ball up against the wall, or the steps of their porch. Anything that will put gloves and baseballs in the hands of young blacks should be encouraged.
Yet, Grant will not be satisfied merely with drawing more African Americans to play the sport. He wants to see a greater presence of blacks in the stands as well. He told the crowd in Cooperstown:
“Baseball, too, must try to get the black fans back. You have to make a pointed effort as you do in any other marketing scheme. I remember when Pepsi Cola outdid Coca Cola by simply getting some black girls jumping a rope (in a television commercial). So sometimes you have to make an effort.
"I remember in 1958, I was the only black pitcher in the league at that time and I had won about four games. We went to Detroit, and I came off (the field) to take batting practice, and the bleachers were full of black people. I said to Larry Doby, ‘Larry, there must be a promotion out here or something.’ He said, ‘No, don’t you know why they come out? They came to see you.’ I said, ‘You’re joking.’ He said, ‘No, they came here to see you. Let’s go out to the outfield.’ And we went from foul line to foul line, just shaking hands. So we’ve got to make an effort (like that) to get them back into the game.
“I don’t think there’s hip-hop in baseball. There’s hip-hop in basketball and football. But there’s no hip-hop in baseball. We’re going to have to try hop-hip.”
Perhaps baseball can give the game a hip-hop feel by speeding up the pace of today’s games, which drag on far too long because of needless dawdling, deliberation, and general preening. Maybe there needs to be more Negro Leagues flashback nights, with players wearing retro uniforms that honor the legacies of great teams like the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants. Perhaps teams should hold “Hip-Hop” nights, including a postgame concert, as a way of introducing the game to younger black fans. I’m certain that there are other good ideas that would be far better than my own mild suggestions.
Here’s one idea that’s sure to work. If he ever comes to your area, go see Grant speak. Don’t pass up the chance. The more people that hear Mudcat Grant talk about black baseball, the better.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.