During Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, nearly everyone in Lacoochee was gathered around a TV set, wildly cheering for James Timothy “Mudcat” Grant, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins.
The team was playing 1,553 miles north of this tiny community in northeast Pasco County, but that didn’t dim the crowd’s enthusiasm a bit.
“All through the houses, you could hear people screaming and hollering,” Altamese Wrispus told Steve Kornacki , for a story published in The Tampa Tribune, in 2005.
“I had 30 people filling up my house and porch, watching a 24-inch color TV and trying to get a peek,” she added.
Even one of Florida’s top sports editors had taken note of her brother, who drove a brand-new Ford Thunderbird convertible three hours before the game to Metropolitan Stadium, outside Bloomington, Minnesota.
“He is at this minute the winningest pitcher in the American League,” Tom McEwen wrote, about Grant, a black pitcher from Lacoochee.
He got his nickname of Mudcat from a white teammate who had mistaken Mudcat’s home state and had proclaimed that the pitcher’s face was as ugly as a Mississippi catfish, often called mudcats.
Mudcat was standing on the pitching mound for the Minnesota Twins, as they battled the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by pitcher Don Drysdale.
Mudcat looked up into the stands and saw his mother, Viola Grant — the only family member among the 47,797 in attendance at the ballpark.
The Twins prevailed, winning 8-2, making Mudcat the first black pitcher in the American League to win a World Series game.
He was a stellar athlete
At Moore Academy in Dade City, Mudcat was 6-foot-1 and starred in football, basketball and baseball.
His nephews, Troy, and Darren Hambrick would go on to play on the Pasco Pirates football team in 1992, which remains the only Florida high school State Championship team from Pasco County.
Mudcat grew up with few memories of his father, James Grant Sr., who died from pneumonia when Mudcat was a child.
“I do remember what he stood for,” Mudcat recalled in 1989 in an interview with Bryanna Latoof of what was then known as The St. Petersburg Times: “Every time I got in trouble, there was a peach switch, the kind that didn’t break!”
Mudcat also had childhood memories of watching weekend movies starring Gene Autry.
Autry would later become the owner of the Angels major league baseball team from 1961 to 1997.
In the St. Petersburg Times interview, Mudcat recalled: “Every time I go to Angel Stadium, Gene comes through, and we get a chance to speak. The first thing he says is: ‘How is everything in Lacoochee?’”
When he wasn’t playing ball, Mudcat led a song and dance group called Mudcat and the Kittens, appearing at nightclubs during the off-season, according to his obituary published by The New York Times, on June 12, 2021.
The act made an appearance on the Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson.
“I made way more money in music than I did in baseball,” Mudcat once told The New York Times.
Mudcat also sang at the 2011 memorial service for Harmon Killebrew, a teammate and Hall of Fame player for the Minnesota Twins.
He began singing when he was 8 years old in the gospel choir his mother led at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Lacoochee.
His elementary school teacher, Vera Lucas Goodwin, gave him albums of diverse styles of music, ranging from the composer Johann Strass, to bluesman Johnny Lee Hooker, and country-western star Eddie Arnold.
Mudcat hosted his own variety show and appeared as part of ‘Mudcat and the Kittens’ on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Pasco County pledged $300,000 and private donors chipped in more than $350,000 to build a boys’ and girls’ club in Lacoochee, still struggling for economic recovery after the closing in 1959 of the Cummer & Sons Cypress Company.
In 2001, Grant’s celebrity golf tournament raised some $31,000, including the proceeds from the silent auction with sports memorabilia autographed by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Despite his obvious ability, there were many times when he was required to drink from a separate water fountain in the dugout or to ride in taxi cabs, apart from his teammates.
In New Orleans, after an exhibition game, it took Red Sox great Ted Williams to help Grant and his teammates retrieve their luggage from a segregated hotel.
When reflecting on the racial inequalities of the 1960s, Mudcat told The Tampa Tribune in 2007: “But my mother always told me, it’s not you who has the problem; it’s the other person who has the problem.”
In 1960, his biggest fan happened to be John F. Kennedy, who was seeking to become the nation’s next president.
The junior senator from Massachusetts was staying at the same hotel as Mudcat, who was on a road trip to play against the Detroit Tigers.
“Man, I could hardly say anything,” Mudcat recalled for The Tampa Tribune in 2005 about having breakfast with the future president. “But we chatted for about a half-hour and he told me what a big fan he was of me. He said he liked my nickname and what I was about. It was unbelievable.”
When describing “a very good friend of mine,” Mudcat said that when Kennedy became president, he made sure that Mudcat’s hometown of Lacoochee had new schoolbooks, and housing with running water and electricity.
Mudcat published a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s only African-American Twenty-Game Winners,” featuring outstanding pitchers who faced similar experiences of racism that he encountered, in baseball and society.
Mudcat wanted his book and his frequent speeches to “stir people to action” by calling for racial equality in sports. Especially for “the people who run major league baseball, who own teams, (and) who run youth sports leagues.”
During the peak of his career, in 1965, he was named by Sporting News as the American League Pitcher of the Year, according to the New York Times’ obituary.
It also reported that Mudcat was honored by President George W. Bush, along with several other Black Aces, during a White House ceremony, in February of 2007.
The Black Aces
Don Newcombe (1956) 27-7
Sad Sam “Toothpick” Jones (1959) 21-15
Bob Gibson (1965) 20-12
Jim “Mudcat” Grant (21-7)
Earl Wilson (1967) 22-11
Ferguson Jenkins (1967) 20-13
Al Downing (1971) 20-9
Vida Blue (1971) 24-8
R. Richard (1976) 20-15
Mike Norris (1985) 22-9
Dwight Gooden (1985) 24-4
Dave Stewart (1987) 20-13
Dontrelle Willis (2005) 22-10
Source: “The Black Aces: Baseball’s only African-American Twenty-Game Winners,” by James “Mudcat” Grant
Published June 22, 2022