This article is part of a Washington Post series on the decline in the number of Black players in baseball — and what the sports need to do to turn that tide. The entire group of stories, focusing on players from Willie Mays to an 18-year-okd catching prospect, is here.
Though it was a room-temperature evening in Cleveland Stadium on Sept. 16, 1960, with a gentle breeze blowing off Lake Erie, Cleveland pitcher Jim "Mudcat" Grant was hot. Red hot. Angry hot.
It was the kind of hot that had forged him growing up north of Tampa, in little, mostly Black Lacoochee, Fla. — in a shack with no hot water, no electricity, no indoor bathroom — with his mother, Viola, rearing her seven children on whatever she could earn cleaning white people's homes and canning fruit at a nearby citrus plant, after the father of the family died of pneumonia working in a lumber mill.
Yeah, that kind of hot. The kind Grant steeped in as a baseball star who still had to suffer the indignities of Jim Crow America — such as picking up his and other Black players' luggage from the hotels where the white players (and only the white players) stayed. The kind that, just a week earlier, was reheated when a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, knocked on Grant's door requesting a meeting to talk about what it was like to be a Black player in a sport that for so long didn't want any.
Grant told Kennedy what it was like, all right. He told him about hearing his so-called teammates spit racist insults at Black fans who came to watch him play in his native Florida, a state that was also no stranger to lynching Blacks. About having to take directions from his pitching coach, Ted Wilks, who was reputed to throw regularly at the heads of Black batters, and who, in 1947, as a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, had tried to organize a boycott against the Brooklyn Dodgers to avoid playing against race-barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson.
So that day in Cleveland in 1960, as Black college students risked their well-being by sitting at whites-only lunch counters, Grant boiled over. As "The Star-Spangled Banner" reached its concluding crescendo — "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave" — Grant, in the bullpen, freestyled:
"This land is not free," he sang, according to the Black-owned Philadelphia Tribune. "I can't even go to Mis-sah-sip-pee …"
For most of the first half of the previous century, Black athletes subjugated themselves to emasculation. They performed. Then they behaved as was expected of Black Americans in post-reconstruction, pre-civil-rights-era America. Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, even Robinson: They were celebrated by white America as standard-bearers for Black America in the country's pursuit of racial peace and unity, but they were celebrated in separateness.
During that rendition of the anthem, though, Grant — who was too ill to talk when I called his Los Angeles home this summer and died at 85 as this story was in production — refused to be another Black athlete who turned a cheek. Instead, he followed high jumper Rose Robinson, who years earlier refused to honor the national anthem, in evicting the accommodationist Black athlete and making room for something different: the confrontationist Black athlete.
Grant was a progenitor of the revolutionary Black athlete who fully expressed how he felt. And he did so in the most reactionary of sports, baseball, a game anointed America's pastime despite doing as much to propagate racial injustice in this country as any corner of society. Then, of course, like now, much of white America wanted nothing more from Black athletes than to entertain it and shut up.
"If you don't like our country," Wilks demanded of Grant in the bullpen, according to the Associated Press report, "then why the hell don't you get out?"
"What's it to you?" Grant fired back, the Black-owned Afro-American reported. "If I wanted to leave the country, all I'd have to do is go to Texas, which is worse than Russia."
"If we catch your n----- a— in Texas," Wilks reportedly spat, "we're going to hang you from the nearest tree."
Grant, a 6-foot-1, 186-pound all-around athlete, threw a punch that put Wilks on the ground. Other players saved the coach from further punishment. Grant grabbed his things and left.
The white press noted Grant's audacity with headlines like the Chicago Daily Tribune's on Sept. 17, 1960 — "Mudcat Grant is Sorry Man" — and quoted Grant's Black stablemate Don Newcombe apologizing for his protest and eruption. "I tried to talk Grant out of going home, but he said he was leaving," Newcombe was quoted by United Press International. "There's enough trouble around the world without getting steamed over a little incident like this."
But the Black press celebrated Grant's refusal to just wipe more racist spittle from his face. "Don, like Roy Campanella, and unlike Jackie Robinson," wrote L. I. Brockenbury in the Los Angeles Sentinel, "feels that a Negro should feel so honored to be with a white team that he should take just about anything."
Cleveland Manager Jimmy Dykes suspended Grant for walking out on the team without informing him. Grant, though, was largely unrepentant.
"I'm going to stand up for what I believe in," he said. "I'm tired of being called names. In Baltimore, [Orioles Manager] Paul Richards called me a name. I'm not going to take it anymore.
"If Newcombe wants to accept Wilks's apology," Grant continued, "that's up to him. I'm not accepting it."
Grant was part of the second trickle of Black major leaguers after Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947.
"You were always aware that you were Black because there were stares," Grant wrote years later in his book, "The Black Aces: Baseball's Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners." "People that took your money at the counter that didn't want to touch your hand. People when you sat next to them on the airplane who sat sideways, away from you."
It is notable that his mentor in Cleveland was the first Black player in the American League, Larry Doby, who followed Robinson's debut by three months — and who, in 1957, punched out white pitcher Art Ditmar, which the press noted was the first time a Black player fought a white player. Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich called it an emancipatory moment for Black athletes.
After punching out his pitching coach, Grant never stopped girding the bridge he helped build from accommodationist Black athlete to activist. Upon being traded to Minnesota, he called out Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who moved the club there from Washington to get closer to "good-working white people," for treating Black players as less. Grant then chose Black catcher Earl Battey as his battery mate, in part to demonstrate that a Black player could excel at a position that baseball has long thought too important for them. The pairing won 21 games for the Twins in 1965.
Grant's activism had impact, too: His meeting with Kennedy eventually resulted in the president funneling federal aid to Grant's hometown, providing it with running water for the first time.
"Mudcat is always ahead of things," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated in the April 8, 1968, issue, published four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. "Of course, this can be very tricky if you are a Negro. You might get your head blown off being ahead of your time."
Or as Grant himself put it: "I was in the NAACP before it was Camp."
On the field, Grant wound up with a 14-year career. He won 145 games and saved 54. His best seasons were in Minnesota, where he helped lead the Twins to the 1965 World Series while becoming the AL's first Black pitcher to win 20 games. Then, in retirement, Grant wrote his book to celebrate the Black pitchers who reached that same rung.
"He's an extension of the Negro Leagues," said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "When he wrote that book, he thought about the pitchers in the Negro Leagues who would've been 20-game winners had they been given a chance. That legacy meant something to him. He understood his place in this game."
And he understood, no doubt, the lineage of equally successful — and similarly confrontational — Black athletes who followed: Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Craig Hodges, Carlos Delgado, Toni Smith-Thompson, Maya Moore, Colin Kaepernick and more to come.