Sports, entertainment, literature — right-hander Jim “Mudcat” Grant was an unqualified success in life no matter where he applied himself. Fans of the Cleveland baseball club, along with the Minnesota Twins and anyone else who appreciated Grant’s contributions to Major League Baseball and American culture, will mourn his passing but also celebrate his life.
Grant, the first Black player in MLB history to win 20 games in a season in the American League, who also was an accomplished blues singer, author and co-founder of The Black Aces, has died at age 85, the Twins reported Saturday. The club received word from Grant’s personal assistant at the urging of Grant’s family.
A two-time All-Star who played with five other MLB teams from 1958 to 1971, Grant wrote a book in 2007 called “The Black Aces,” which told the stories of the Black pitchers who won at least 20 games in a season. The first was Dodgers righty Don Newcombe in 1956; the most recent was left-hander David Price in 2012.
After his playing and broadcasting days, Grant stayed devoted to encouraging the participation of Black ballplayers, a demographic that has been in notable decline for decades.
Some of the living Black Aces sent their regards on social media. Ferguson Jenkins wrote:
Dontrelle Willis with CC Sabathia:
Sabathia has started a clothing line that honors the Black Aces, and he’s also president of the Players Alliance, a collective that uses its voice and resources to create opportunities for the Black community in baseball and beyond.
The other Black Aces include: Vida Blue, Al Downing, Dwight Gooden, Sam Jones, Mike Norris, J.R. Richard, Dave Stewart, Earl Wilson and Bob Gibson — who died in October at age 84.
This is all part of Grant’s legacy. And there’s more. Grant sang the blues and danced, performing with the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and had his own variety TV program in Minnesota. At teammate Harmon Killebrew’s memorial service in 2013, Grant sang “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong, in tribute to his friend. Grant said he appreciated being embraced by Killebrew, who was white and the most popular player among fans when the Twins traded for Grant in the middle of the 1964 season.
Grant’s zenith on the mound came during the 1965 season when he went 21-7 with a 3.30 ERA — throwing six shutouts in 39 starts — to help the Twins reach their first World Series. They fell in seven games to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers, but the Twins wouldn’t have gotten that far without Grant, who won Games 1 (beating Don Drysdale) and 6.
Game 6 was a six-hit complete game on two days of rest after throwing five innings in Game 4. Grant also hit a three-run homer, only the second AL pitcher to do so in the World Series at the time.
Grant’s results as a starter were never as good again, but he pitched six more seasons and transformed himself into an ace reliever, appearing in a league-high 80 games, and 135 ⅓ relief innings, with the Cardinals and Athletics in 1970.
Grant eventually embraced his “Mudcat” nickname after early antipathy. In time, it gave him instant recognition, along with a persona and a brand. It worked well not only because he was an athlete but also because of his career as a musical performer. It sounded cool.
But at the time it was given to him, Grant did not approve. In a video, he discussed what being a Black ballplayer was like in the late 1950s. You weren’t on equal footing with white players, and it was especially obvious at Spring Training in the South.
“When I walked into camp, a little raggedy kid from Florida, some of the white players thought I was from Mississippi,” Grant said. “All Black people were supposed to be from Mississippi. So they started calling me ‘Mississippi Mudcat.’ Later on, ‘Mississippi’ was dropped.”
Reporters also called him “Mudcat” in newspaper stories at the time, which confused his mother when she read them.
“She wrote me a letter and said, ‘Son, check out that Mudcat, he could be some kin to us,’” Grant said.
The nickname stuck, Grant said, and it became “one of the best things that happened to me.”
Sure — thanks to Grant’s own accomplishments. But Grant said his mom came around too, especially when strangers would find out Grant’s origins and would knock on her door to meet the mother of the baseball-playing bluesman and, later on, author.
“Oh, ‘Mudcat’?” she’d say. “He’s my son!”
Grant’s legacy runs much deeper than his own personal achievements. Four years ago, when he was in Minneapolis accepting a community service award, he reminded everyone why recognizing the work of The Black Aces was important:
"By highlighting this history maybe we can make an impression on African-American youngsters to play this game," Grant said. "We are losing African-Americans in Major League Baseball to other sports. The opportunity was there all the way back when Jackie Robinson played with the Dodgers, and it's still there, so veteran African-American players need to tell our young black athletes to play the game of baseball. It's a wonderful sport."