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Cooperstown Confidential
2004-03-12 14:05
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

By Bruce Markusen

Spring Training Edition

March 11, 2004

Rapping With Mudcat And Scoop

On February 14, former major league standouts Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Al Oliver visited the Hall of Fame to participate in a Legends Series event celebrating Black History Month. In one of the most enjoyable assignments I’ve received at the Hall, I had the pleasure of interviewing these two well-spoken former stars. One of a dozen African-American pitchers to win 20 games in a major league season, Grant won two games and hit a key home run for the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. Oliver, a lifetime .303 hitter and the 1982 winner of the National League’s batting crown, helped the Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Championship in 1971. Grant was also a member of that 1971 Pirates team, but was traded in mid-season to the Oakland A’s, thus denying him the opportunity to play in that fall’s World Series.

The educational program with Grant and Oliver, which featured a number of youngsters in the audience, highlighted the Hall of Fame’s celebration of Black History Month. Grant and Oliver talked at length about the racism that they battled in becoming big league stars, while also expressing hope that baseball will eventually overcome its current struggles in recruiting young African-American players and fans. The following is a partial transcript of that interview, which occurred in front of a capacity crowd in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater.

Markusen: Why is baseball struggling in drawing more young African Americans to play the game?

Oliver: The bottom line is, I really don’t think that they have had the proper Afro Americans to market the game of baseball. Basketball has Michael Jordan. Football has so many guys, like Walter Payton. Baseball, for whatever reason, did not have that proper player. It seems like they were lacking something—you take the Ken Griffey Juniors, the Barry Bonds. In Barry’s case, they say he didn’t get along with members of the media. Ken Griffey would have probably been the one that could have promoted it.

Our young people look at TV today. And TV is a vital part of their lives. And what they see is what they do. They see a Michael Jordan soaring through the air. They see a Barry Bonds hitting balls out. But see, that’s not marketable. And they see these running backs and these wide receivers. Deion Sanders was a perfect example. Everyone wanted to be like Deion.

If baseball would market the Afro Americans just a little bit more, then it would be easier for myself and guys like Mudcat to go out into the inner cities and promote baseball so much better. When I was coming up, that’s all that you saw. Growing up in Ohio, you look at the Cincinnati Reds—Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson. You look at the Cleveland Browns—Jim Brown. The marketing [today] is really not there, and I think that’s the main reason.

Markusen: One of the programs that baseball—Major League Baseball—has tried to push over the last decade or so is RBI—Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities. What kinds of strides do you think RBI is making?

Oliver: I think they’re doing the best that they can do. I know that Mudcat and I have talked briefly about that this morning. I really believe that they need to bring in more players who have been there, ballplayers who have been successful. I really believe the more successful that you’ve been, the more you have to offer. The more that you’ve been around, the more that you’ve been well-traveled, like Mudcat especially. Mudcat has seen it all. I believe there’s nothing in this world that Jim “Mudcat” Grant has not seen! And people he’s come in contact with, and things that he knows.

I really think that sometimes we can be our own worst enemy—the Afro American—if you really get down to the truth of the matter. Sometimes there is a tendency not to invite another Afro American, afraid that this particular one might know more than you do. And as a result, you don’t invite him because [you think] you might lose your job. It’s not about that. The only thing that we want to do is be supportive and enhance your program. We don’t want your job.

Markusen: Mudcat, your thoughts on RBI?

Grant: I’m really disappointed in the RBI program. The intention of it was to promote baseball in the inner city. It hasn’t gotten very much promotion. And on top of that, for some reason, they will not use ex-African American ballplayers. We beg to be used. We’re not called for certain events; we’re not called for certain tournaments. I think if they use us more, the program will improve. I think right now it may be a semi-political thing. As long as baseball promotes the word ‘RBI,’ it would seem [in their minds] to be OK, but nothing is really happening in the inner city communities when it comes to RBI. We have to get the cities involved where the ballfields are, where the RBI players play. Take care of the field a little bit. You know, run that machine over there. Don’t let [the field] get so bad that the kids don’t want to play. So we have to get the cities involved; they’ve been ignoring where the inner city kids play.

But I’m more disappointed in the head of the RBI program because we don’t make a point [of getting former black players involved]. I think we are afraid to say that this is definitely an inner city program. Say it. And then do it. And then when you do the program, bring white kids in, too. Let them mix. Let them do things. But first do the job that the RBI program is supposed to do. It’s an inner city program; get these kids playing baseball. Call us, so we can motivate parents to be managers and so forth.

Oliver: Mudcat just hit on one key point when he said ‘inner city,’ but let’s bring in whites. Today’s society, in the inner city, you see whites as well. And what better way can we learn about each other. See, that’s where we need to be at in 2004. This is not 1804. We should be like this now. What better way to bring people together to learn about each other, and find out that, hey, we are all in this together.

Grant: We’ve done that in the past. We were much segregated in baseball, as all of you know. But then Jackie [Robinson] came in, Larry Doby came in, and then the rest of us came in and we taught America that we could live together, that we could worship together, that we could play together, that we could understand one another’s history. We did that. But we need to make the point of starting first in the inner city. Get out there and motivate these children and mothers and dads. We need to say, ‘If you’re kid played baseball, and he gets to the point that he’s pretty good, he may sign a contract where you won’t have to work for the rest of your life.’

Oliver: That’s true.

Grant: That’s true! We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t convinced our black parents, ‘Man, look at the opportunities.’ Jackie [Robinson] must be rolling over in his grave right now. He must be. Jackie died from all of the pressures that happened in the game and what he had to do. And here we are, not taking advantage of that. And I think part of the blame belongs to us, too. We’re going to change that, by the way. We’re going to change that. We’re going to make some people angry, but we’re going to change that.

Markusen: Mudcat, you grew up in Florida. How did you become interested in baseball? How did you start playing?

Grant: I was the batboy of the local black team in Lacoochee, when I was about five years old. It was a sandlot team, a mill team. We sold baseballs and made baseballs, and I was the batboy. Somehow or other I got hooked [on baseball]. I was always interested in music and I could play the organ like nobody. But then somebody gave me a baseball, and for some reason I forgot how to play the organ. I kept playing [baseball]. I remember when there was no one to play with, I would take a tennis ball and throw it up against the house and then grab a bat and hit it. And I would draw circles, big circles, semi-circles, and smaller circles, and then I would hit [into the circles]. Onetime my mother said, ‘I don’t want you hitting that ball against this house no more.’ But I did—and she outran me. {crowd laughs}

And I kept on playing. Then I got to the point where this game, it just took. It just took over. At the age of 14, I was one of the ten best baseball players in the state of Florida. At the age of 15, I was the best baseball player in the state of Florida—in the Negro league schools. Of course, we weren’t allowed to go to white schools back in those days. But I kept it up and got better, much better. Reflecting on it now, I know I was better, but then, you don’t think that way [at the time]. I remember at the end of a game when they brought me in to pitch—I was the third baseman—I threw so hard that the opposing high schoolers would not come to bat; the coaches had to kick them out of the dugout. I used to wonder, ‘Why don’t they want to come up and hit against me?’ It wasn’t until I was like 30 years old that I realized that I could play!

One day I was in a high school tournament as a third baseman. I got four hits. And we needed to win the game. So the coach brought me in [to pitch], and the [home plate] umpire was Fred Merkle. {Oliver laughs} What you laughing at? Anybody remember Fred Merkle? Do you know the Fred Merkle story? {A child shouts out, ‘Bonehead!’} Bonehead Merkle, that’s it, that’s him. He was the umpire. And I was throwing so hard that the catcher couldn’t catch the ball; it was hitting Bonehead all over the shins. So he told the Cleveland Indians, ‘There’s a guy I think you should all take a look at.’ And that’s how it started from there. Mr. Merkle was a wonderful man. His wife and Mr. Merkle became friends of mine. And back in those days, when a bird-dog scout recommended you, they got paid as you went [up the minor league ladder], and so I was able to earn them a piece of money. So that’s how I got started.

Markusen: For those who don’t remember, Fred Merkle, playing against the Chicago Cubs, failed to touch second base on what was essentially a game-winning hit, and by a technicality, they got the forceout at second base. It basically cost the [New York Giants] the pennant, and Merkle unfortunately was known as ‘Bonehead,’ a nickname that I’ve sometimes shared with him over the years.

Let me pick up on something you said, Mudcat. Throwing the ball up against the house. I grew up in the early to mid-1970s. My father was a huge baseball fan. That was one of the things that I did, was throw the ball—a rubber ball, a tennis ball—and I ruined our glass door that we had leading into our kitchen. And then ultimately I found this big boulder that I could throw the ball up against and I would play imaginary games. I think that’s something we don’t see from the kids today—the imaginary games, the creative games, playing games like “Running The Bases” where you get hung up between two bases. I think that’s something that’s needed today, whether you’re talking black, white, or Latin American youngsters, that creativity.

Grant: Sure. Sure. There’s no doubt about that. Even though we have more organized baseball now than we had back in those days.

Oliver: Did you play “fungo?”

Grant: Oh yes.

Oliver: You see, we had fungo when we were youngsters. Fungo was a game where if you were the hitter and you hit the ball past the pitcher, it was a single. You hit the ball past the next guy, behind him, it was a double. Off the fence was a triple. And naturally over the fence was a home run. And that’s how you became a real good hitter. Those were the things back then that we did. We created our own games. And like Mudcat was saying, I used to throw the ball up against the steps. The steps would be from here to this young man right here [in the front row of the theater]. I would throw the ball as hard as I could, and [former major leaguer] Larry [Hisle] went to pick it. And that’s where I obtained the nickname “Scoop” to this day. I always had the ability to pick it at first base. Nobody could throw the ball by me at first base, even if they tried. I could catch anything. But like I told my shortstop and the other infielders, when I have to throw the ball, be ready. But I’ll catch yours! I had a good arm, but where it was going at times I didn’t know. And that’s where it all started, just from throwing the ball up against the steps.

Markusen: At what age, Al, did you start playing ball?

Oliver: Organized ball?

Markusen: Just picking up a glove and a bat.

Oliver: Probably when I was five or six. Just like one of my grandsons now; it is really amazing to watch him. Yeah, five or six I started with bat and ball. At five or six, I also started with basketball, football. I mean we did everything. My mother said when I was about six years old, ‘Junior is going to be a ballplayer.’ That’s what she told my dad. And she was right. Junior turned out to be a ballplayer. The thing was, you really didn’t know what sport because back then we played them all. But she was right [about me choosing baseball].

Markusen: When you were a youngster, you didn’t need to get two whole teams of nine players apiece. You were able to use these games to overcome the lack of numbers.

Oliver: Yes, right. Because we didn’t have a full team until I started playing Little League ball. And I started playing Little League at age ten. Those were the fun days.

Markusen: Mudcat, you wanted to say something.

Grant: I was going to say, to be fair to the other sports back in those days, 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.

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. {the crowd laughs}

Markusen: Mudcat, you mentioned Larry Doby. He was your hero growing up. Tell us about that.

Grant: Well, with Jackie Robinson, you had people spill out into the streets when Jackie Robinson signed. Every player, every kid, was Jackie Robinson. ‘I’m Robbie. I’m Jackie. I’m JR.’ But I was Larry Doby. I got beat up every day because I was not Jackie Robinson. I said, ‘I’m Larry Doby.’ For some reason that struck me because it was seven weeks—11 weeks later [after Robinson’s debut]—that Doby made his debut. That was 1947, ’48. And in 1958, about ten years later, Larry Doby became my roommate. In spring training—this was 1957—they told me, ‘You’re going to room with Larry Doby.’ I said, ‘Uh, uh.’ They said, ‘Yes, you are!’

So I got in the room and they were still at the ballpark. And then Larry came in a little bit later, and I was sitting in one spot. Larry said, ‘Well, you must be Mudcat Grant.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Doby.’ He asked, ‘Do you like that bed over there?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Doby.’ He said, ‘You like TV?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Doby.’ He said, ‘We’re going to have to get rid of this yes sir, Mr. Doby.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Doby.’ {the crowd laughs}

He taught me just about everything. I know the history of Larry Doby, because late at night Larry would pace, late at night. He would yell, he would scream. This is how he would overcome some of the difficulties that he had to go through. I know it was difficult. And then he taught me, ‘This is what you’re going to have to face [as a black player]. You’ve got to face it, and when you cross the white lines, you better win. It ain’t about, ‘Oh, this is so bad for me.’ You better win. Because if you don’t win, good-bye, see you later.’

Markusen: Did Larry know that you were the guy that idolized him? Did you ever tell him about that?

Grant: I told him that about in the middle of the season. I couldn’t tell him [right away]. But I told him in the middle of the season and that seemed to touch him pretty good that I was rooming with my idol. But of course you know that Larry himself wasn’t hurt [physically], but he was hurt by the fact that Jackie was the first to sign. And we don’t forget Larry Doby, but Larry came 11 weeks later and went through the same thing, but it wasn’t New York City, it was Cleveland, Ohio. And even to this day, as we celebrate Black History Month, we hear Jackie, Jackie, and [basketball great] Bill Russell, and nothing about Larry Doby. That hurts me, too.

Markusen: Larry passed away recently, just this past year. Had you been keeping in touch with him?

Grant: See him all the time. He got crabbier as he got older! {the crowd laughs} But I’m very close to his family and we always had good times together, Larry and I. We always had a lot to talk in baseball, but he was kind of stubborn because he knew I wanted him to tell the story. He said ‘Don’t you tell me what to do.’ And I said ‘I’m telling you what to do, you tell this story.’ He said ‘Shut up.’ I said ‘Don’t tell me to shut up.’ We didn’t get the story, but I’m gonna tell it anyway.

Markusen: Al, how about you? Did you have a baseball idol or hero growing up?

Oliver: Not so much hero because you know my dad was my mentor, but the guys that I had high respect for were Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. So being from southern Ohio and being a Reds fan, those were the two guys. And who was ever to think later that one day I would play against Frank and [oppose] him to the World Series and then play for him as a player. So those two were the ones that I really enjoyed watch play. You know, I would tell any young person today, you know, don’t get so much hung up on us as athletes. It starts from home. Look at your parents as your role models; those are your true role models. Yes, I do feel that we have an obligation and that’s to be good citizens, be productive on the field, and do the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. But those were the two guys that I looked at, Frank and Vada.

Markusen: Robinson was one of the most hard-nosed players I can remember seeing. He would take guys out at second base. Was that an aspect of his play that you really liked, how hard he played the game?

Oliver: How hard he played, there’s no question about that. You know, and Vada’s smoothness as a runner, yeah, I always liked those hard-playing players, I always did. Because I played with a lot of them, you know, throughout my career. Hard players, hard-nosed… Frank is hard-nosed as a manager, too.

Grant: Yeah, he was hard-nosed. You speak to him, you know, you play against him and say ‘How are you doing, Frank?’ He’ll say ‘What are you speaking to me for?’

Oliver: But Frank has settled down. You know, really it’s amazing. It’s great to see because he’s such a good guy and one other thing about Frank Robinson is that he is one of the most intelligent people that I have ever been around… He can stand next to you with his manager, I’ll never forget, he could almost call every pitch. I mean he was smart.

Grant: And underrated.

Oliver: Oh yeah.

Grant: Frank deserves to be [ranked] up there.

Markusen: How’d you fare against him [Robinson]?

Grant: Not too good!

Markusen: Mudcat, let’s talk about that time period that you came up; 1958 was the year that you made your major league debut for the Cleveland Indians. Especially for the youngsters here, I think it’s important to realize how different America was, how different it was for the black player. Segregation was going on seemingly in every aspect of society. Some of it was so ridiculous, to the point of segregated water fountains, hotels, restaurants. As a major league player, how affected were you by all of that and were there any efforts made by your teammates or the organization to help shield you from it?

Grant: First, I wasn’t affected by it because by that time, I had my mother nail confidence into me where I could overcome it. But I still got training by the African Americans that were already there. You’re right, though, some of the kids here can’t associate with what was going on back in those days. It just doesn’t seem real because now we’re in a different generation. But we could not stay at the same hotels, especially in spring training. We could not drink at the same water fountain. In fact, [Indians pitcher] 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.

[Let me talk about] Ted Williams. Some of the white players, man, they could not put up with this, but were afraid to say something. Even today some of the white players need closure because they know they should have said something and didn’t say anything. But Ted Williams did. We were in New Orleans, one of the most segregated cities there was at that time. What they did with us, we played the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition game; this was during spring training. So you flew in on the airplane, and then after you come through the airport, the white players and all of the bags [for both white and black players] went on the bus and went to the white hotel. We could not ride in a white cab so they put us outside of the airport into some grassy areas where we waited for black cabs to come and pick us up. Sometimes it would be an hour; sometimes it would be two hours that we had to wait there. Now the cab would pick us up and we would go to the black hotel or motel or bed-and-breakfast. And the bags would be over at the white hotel. Now the Boston Red Sox had been sued to get black players on the time. They had two black players, Pumpsie Green and Earl Wilson. Me and Vic Power were the only two black players on the Cleveland Indians. So four black players couldn’t merge onto a hotel. If you did, it created some problems. The four of us couldn’t go, so we pulled straws. For the first time ever I lost the pool. Now I’ve got to go to the hotel. And I did. I went over to the hotel. You had to pay the black cab driver four times as much to drive to the white hotel because it was dangerous. So I get out of the cab and this guy walked up to me and he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well actually, I’ve come to get those bags.’ The bags were still sitting in the lobby. He said, ‘You ain’t got no bags here.’ And I said, ‘Those bags belong to the colored baseball players.’ He said, ‘That’s a likely story. You ain’t coming in here.’ So Ted Williams—and this is three hours later—Ted Williams was coming back from dinner. So he saw me—Ted Williams and the trainer. Ted said, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ I said, “Well Ted, I’m not doing too good. You know I can’t stay here.’ He said, ‘It’s a shame you can’t stay here.’ I said, ‘And our bags are sitting right over there. But this bellman won’t let me go and get the bags.’ So Ted said, ‘Mud, you know, the bellman is right. You shouldn’t be going over there to get them bags. HE should be going over there to get them bags.’ Ted then said [to the bellman], ‘That’s right, boy. Go over there and get them bags!’ {crowd erupts in laughter}

So those were some of the things that happened back in those days.

Card Corner

For this week’s entry, we rely on a submission from researcher and SABR member Maxwell Kates, who nominates a 25-year-old card from the 1979 Topps set. Card No. 616 in that set features journeyman infielder Billy Almon, the 1974 draft’s No. 1 choice who never reached expectations of stardom in the major leagues. The card’s photo, which was snapped during a game at Shea Stadium, shows Almon dressed in the San Diego Padres’ highly unattractive uniforms of the day. As Max points out, those yellow-and-brown beauties are believed to be the last uniforms featuring both the team name and the city name on the front of the jersey… Beyond the ghastly colors of the Padres’ uniforms, Mad Max finds something intriguing in the odd way that Almon is holding the bat, which he is gripping by the wrong end (perhaps after being called out on strikes yet again). Perhaps he is getting ready to crack the bat over his thigh, ala Jim Rice? And then there’s the dazed expression on Almon’s face, as if to say, “What should I be doing with this piece of wood? I am after all in the major leagues.” In 1979, Almon would bat only .227 with an on-base percentage of .301 and a total of one home run. For his career, the shortstop-third baseman performed only a bit better, batting .254 with 36 home runs in 15 seasons with the Padres, Expos, Mets, White Sox, A’s, Pirates, and Phillies. He was, however, an excellent bunter, leading the National League with 20 sacrifices in 1977… Just how highly was Almon regarded as an amateur? When Almon graduated high school in 1971, several teams wanted to draft the lanky shortstop in the first round, but he wrote to each club informing them of his decision to attend an Ivy League school (Brown University). The Padres drafted him anyway, taking him with a 10th round selection in the ’71 draft. Three years later, the Padres once again targeted Almon, selecting him with the first overall pick in the draft after he set a school record by hitting 10 home runs in a short season. The Padres even gave Almon a $90,000 bonus—a huge amount at the time—but he struggled to hit in both the minors and the majors, making him just one of many No. 1 picks to turn into big league disappointments.

Pastime Passings

John Henry Williams (Died on March 6 in Los Angeles, California; age 35; leukemia): The contentious son of Hall of Famer Ted Williams died after being diagnosed with leukemia last fall and undergoing a bone marrow transplant in December. After his father’s passing in July of 2002, John Henry gained notoriety when he campaigned to have the elder Williams’ body cryonically frozen. John Henry and his sister, Claudia, claimed that their father had signed a handwritten pact indicating his preference to be frozen, but their half-sister, Bobby Jo, insisted that Williams wanted to be cremated. John Henry also entered the public spotlight in the spring of 2003, when he attempted a career playing independent minor league baseball, but his efforts were quickly stalled by injury.

Marge Schott (Died on March 2 in Cincinnati, Ohio; age 75; lung disease): A controversially colorful owner, Schott oversaw the Cincinnati Reds from the mid-1980s through the end of the 1999 season. At the peak of her career, Schott’s Reds won the World Series in 1990, surprising the favored Oakland A’s in four games. Unfortunately, her tenure as owner was also marred by a series of racial slurs and other insensitive remarks. The outspoken Schott drew the ire of the baseball establishment through her praise of Adolf Hitler and her criticism of umpires for canceling an Opening Day game due to the sudden heart attack death of home plate umpire John McSherry.

Pete Cera (Died on February 24 in Hazelton, Pennsylvania; age unknown): A veteran of 60 years in baseball, Cera worked most notably as a major league and minor league trainer. He also served as a traveling secretary and clubhouse manager during a career that began with the Hazelton Red Sox in 1938. Cera also worked as the clubhouse manager for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, the year that they won the World Championship.

Lloyd Merriman (Died on January 20 in Fresno, California; age 79; emphysema): A veteran of five major league seasons, the left-handed hitting outfielder batted .242 in 455 games. More notably, Merriman served a tour of duty in the Korean War, flying combat missions with both Ted Williams and John Glenn.

Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams (Greenwood Press) is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004.

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