James “Mudcat” Grant made history, and now he is working to preserve it. One of only 13 African American pitchers to win at least 20 games in a season, Grant became the first to do so in the American League when he went 21-7 for the Twins in 1965. A big league pitcher from 1958-1971, Grant currently devotes much of his time to championing the rich heritage of black players in professional baseball. He is the author of The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African American Twenty-Game Winners.
Mudcat Grant: Well, one thing is to live as long as I can! Another is to not forget the history of the game. Not only the game itself, but the legacy of people like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, who broke barriers and took advantage of their opportunities to give me–and other African-American players–a chance to play in the big leagues. And you can’t do that without thinking of life itself. Life has changed for my children and for my grandchildren. History is history, and you have to remember that there was news made when black players stepped onto the field.
DL: You broke into the big leagues in 1958. How did you view the game of baseball, and your place in it, at that time?
MG: It wasn’t so long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and Larry Doby was my roommate, so I viewed myself as an African-American pitcher, and the only one who was a starter. You have to remember that there was still segregation at the time. While I was a person who was part of the game of baseball, there were also circumstances where I wasn’t welcome. Because of that, I had even more of a view of myself as an African-American than I do now. It was a time where you had to live in black hotels; when we were down in spring training, it was not being able to eat in restaurants–you had to read in a newspaper where you could go to eat. It was needing to wait for a black taxi, which would often take two hours because there weren’t as many of them. So I was very aware of where I was. I was also aware that I was representing not only black athletes, but the entire African-American community. I was trying to help show America that we could live together, and that we could play together.
DL: Your professional career started in Fargo, in 1954. What was that experience like?
MG: It was a wonderful thing, yet with those circumstances, you had to realize where you were. Even though we loved that we were playing baseball, if you were African-American, names like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were always on your lips. I was more or less a walk-on when I went to Fargo, because I hadn’t signed a contract yet, and along with trying to make a ballclub you couldn’t separate the fact that when you left the field at the end of the day, you went one way and the other players went another way. Things changed when you took off your uniform, so it was like you were two different people. It also seemed like there were maybe two other black people in North Dakota, but still–and I learned this from people like Satchel Paige and Larry Doby–you couldn’t feel sorry for yourself for being different. You had to just go on the field and try to win, and while I had some skills at the time, they also needed to be honed. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
DL: What are your memories of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier?
MG: When Jackie debuted, I was a nine-year-old paperboy, delivering the black newspapers in Lacoochee, Florida. Lacoochee was a little lumber mill town, and people there didn’t have phones or TVs back then, so I’d pick up the papers at the bus station. I remember running to deliver them when it happened. Everybody was so happy, because it was a big, big thing. It was a breakthrough. I remember that I went to church, and everyone prayed over Jackie having broken the color barrier. Then, about 11 weeks later, Larry Doby signed with the Indians. When I was a kid, I actually used to get beat up a lot because of Doby! That’s because the other kids were Jackie all the way, and wanted to be him whenever we played. I was different, because they wanted to be Jackie, and I always wanted to be Larry Doby.
DL: Do most black athletes today know who Larry Doby was?
MG: No, they don’t know. The name Jackie Robinson rings loud everywhere, like it does with Dr. Martin Luther King. But kids don’t ask me if I knew Larry Doby; they just ask if I knew Jackie or Dr. King. Today, it’s all Jackie, Jackie, Jackie, and in the black community some don’t even know about his [Doby’s] days in major league baseball. So there’s a lot of work to do. We, in the black community, have to educate people. We have to impress upon, and motivate, the kids about what has been forgotten.
DL: You authored The Black Aces. Why aren’t there more black pitchers in baseball?
MG: You can look at all of the circumstances, but it’s hard to figure out the drop in not only pitchers, but in African-American players as a whole. But I do know one thing: we have to motivate kids to play baseball. I was recently at a father-son game that was predominantly black kids, and they all knew a little about Jackie, but they didn’t know enough of the overall history. We tend to put the history in the frame of a one-man show, and we should be adding Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and all of the other great players. The kids do know about Satchel Paige, but outside of him and Jackie, they don’t really know about the guys who followed Jackie. We need to do a better job of sharing that history, which will help get more kids involved with the game.
DL: Some people feel that black pitchers haven’t always been given the same opportunities, that they’ve often been moved to other positions rather then being given a chance to develop on the mound. Do you feel that’s true?
MG: I don’t think we were discriminated against as pitchers when I played. I came in as a shortstop, and they changed me to a pitcher. Earl Wilson was a catcher at first. Dave Hoskins, who was the first African-American player in the Texas League, was another one. He was an outfielder, but they threw at him so much that he decided he wanted to throw at them instead–so he became a pitcher! It was the same thing with Earl Wilson. And moving from other positions happened with white players, too. Bob Lemon was changed from a third baseman to a pitcher; Sonny Siebert was originally an outfielder. So I can’t say it’s never happened, but I didn’t see it that way.
DL: Going back to the decreasing number of African-Americans in baseball, what can be done to reverse that trend?
MG: It goes back to educating the kids and getting them involved in the game. We need to get into the community, and find the black kids, and teach them. That’s something baseball doesn’t do as well as basketball and football. We need to get the news to these kids. And it will take more than just the alumni. We need to get current players involved, like Dontrelle Willis and C.C. Sabathia. They believe in the “Black Aces,” so I know they’ll participate, but a lot of the other players don’t know us. That is that plight–that too many people, both in the game and outside of the game, don’t know the history. That history should be very important to the black community.