By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who threw the first regular season pitch in Montreal Expos history, passed away on Friday at the age of 85.
The Minnesota Twins announced his death on Saturday.
No cause of death has been released. Grant died in Los Angeles, where he had been living in recent years.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander, who was also an accomplished blues singer, registered 145 wins in a 14-season major league career, but he’s best remembered for his 21-win campaign with the Minnesota Twins in 1965 which made him the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a season in the American League.
He is also fondly recalled by Twins fans for almost single-handedly leading their club by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic that same year. With his team facing elimination in Game 6, Grant, pitching on two days rest, not only threw a complete game, but he also clubbed a three-run home run in the Twins’ 5-1 victory. Unfortunately for him, the Twins were shut out by Sandy Koufax in Game 7 the next day.
Longtime Canadian baseball fans, however, might recall Grant as the Expos’ Opening Day starter in their first regular season game, played against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969. Facing Tom Seaver, Grant surrendered three runs on six hits and got just four outs, but the Expos rebounded to win 11-10. Grant made nine more starts for the Expos before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Born in Lacoochee, Fla., in 1935, Grant was raised in a family of seven children. According to his SABR bio, his father, James, died when he was two, so his mother, Viola, worked multiple jobs to support the family. Grant was a multi-sport athlete in high school, starring for the basketball, football and baseball teams and his athletic prowess would earn him a baseball and football scholarship to Florida A&M.
But Grant was forced to leave the college during his sophomore year because his family was struggling financially and needed him to work. Fortunately for him, Cleveland Indians scout Fred Merkle had seen Grant pitch in high school and tracked him down. Grant was offered a tryout at the Indians’ minor league camp in Daytona Beach, Fla., and that’s where he got his nickname “Mudcat.”
“A guy named Leroy Bartow Irby saw me, decided I was from Mississippi and called me ‘Mudcat,’” Grant told Terry Pluto for his 1994 book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito.
Grant impressed at the camp and signed with the Indians and over the next five seasons, he evolved into a top pitching prospect who would make his major league debut on April 17, 1958.
Over the next three seasons, he was a dependable starter and reliever for the Indians, but he enjoyed a breakout campaign in 1961. Pitching exclusively as a starter, he went 15-9 and posted a 3.86 ERA in 35 starts, spanning 244 1/3 innings.
He was primarily a starter for the Indians for next two-and-a-half seasons before he was dealt to the Twins on June 15, 1964. And it was in Minnesota that he’d enjoy his greatest major league success. One of the reasons for that was that pitching coach Johnny Sain taught him a “fast curve” and after adding it to his arsenal, Grant finished with an American League-leading 21 wins in 1965. He also topped his circuit with six shutouts and tossed 14 complete games. For his efforts, he was named The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year.
As noted earlier, he also propelled the Twins to their first World Series and though his effort in Game 6 is the one that most remember, Grant was also the winning pitcher in Game 1 when he out-dueled Don Drysdale and tossed a complete game in the Twins’ 8-2 victory.
He followed that up with a 13-win season in 1966, but in the ensuing campaign, he clashed with manager Cal Ermer when he was shuttled between the starting rotation and the bullpen and he asked for a trade. His wish was granted when he was dealt to the Dodgers on November 28, 1967. The pitching rich Dodgers employed him as a reliever in 1968 and he thrived in that role, posting a 6-4 record and a 2.08 ERA in 37 games.
After that season, the Expos selected Grant from the Dodgers with the 36th pick in the expansion draft. Expos manager Gene Mauch said he planned to use Grant as a starter and the veteran righty hoped that would be case.
“I pitched only 95 innings last season, mostly in relief,” Grant told the Montreal Gazette in a February 1969 interview, “and that’s not enough . . . In order to have a good season, you should pitch at least 300 innings.”
Grant had been to Montreal before. He had played a gig with his blues band at the Esquire Show Bar in 1965.
The former 20-game winner encouraged Canadian fans to temper their expectations about the Expos in their first season.
“No expansion club is going to win a pennant,” Grant told Ted Blackman of the Montreal Gazette in March 1969. “It’ll never happen . . . not even if you buy 500, 25-year-olds. But we’ll win a few, my friend.”
Grant was dominant at the Expos’ first spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. He didn’t allow an earned run in 25 Grapefruit League innings, which convinced Mauch to name him their Opening Day starter.
So it was Grant who would throw the first regular season pitch in Expos history on April 8, 1969 against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to throw many more that day. After the Expos took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, Grant allowed two singles and a walk to begin the bottom of the second inning before Mets outfielder Tommie Agee hit a bases-clearing double. That would be Grant’s last pitch of the day.
“No, Mudcat didn’t have it today,” Mauch told reporters after the game. “He had no command of his breaking ball. He was wild in the strike zone, if you know what I mean. He usually hits the corners but everything came down the middle and they hit him. And hit him good.”
Pitching on just three days’ rest, Grant would redeem himself in his next start. On April 12 against Fergie Jenkins and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, he’d carry a perfect game into the sixth inning and eventually exit after permitting three runs on six hits in eight innings, enough to record his first – and only – win with the Expos in their 7-3 victory.
“A little steak, a little wine and a little Ella (Fitzgerald),” Grant told reporters after the game when asked about his formula for winning that day.
Grant admitted that he had tired in the later innings.
“A little tired?” Grant repeated to a reporter. “No, a lot tired. But actually, it’s not really being tired but losing some of your stuff. Yeah, it’s nice to finish but I wouldn’t mind getting knocked out in the third inning every time if we win every time.”
But even after this strong performance, Grant struggled to find consistency with the Expos. Just four of his 10 starts would be quality starts by today’s standards, but another highlight was the complete game he tossed on May 14 when he held the Houston Astros to three runs (only one earned) on seven hits, but his team couldn’t muster much offence in a 3-1 loss.
There’s no question, however, that Grant enjoyed the city of Montreal, so much so that he had plans to open a discotheque there. He didn’t always love Jarry Park though.
“You can’t pitch shutouts in that wind [at Jarry Park], if that’s what people want,” he told the Montreal Gazette for their May 14, 1969 edition. “You’re always conscious of the wind, trying to pitch a little differently, because a pop fly could be a homer. You allow two, three or four runs in this park and you’re not pitching that badly.”
After not recording an out against the Cincinnati Reds in his 10th and final start with the Expos on May 24, Grant was moved to the bullpen and he tossed a scoreless inning in relief in a 6-2 loss to the San Diego Padres on May 31. Three days later, with his record at 1-6 and ERA of 4.80 in 11 appearances, Grant was dealt to the Cardinals.
“Players are like street cars . . . they come and go,” Grant told reporters after the trade. “The only sad part is that my family just arrived from Cleveland today. Oh yeah, and I’ll have to go back to the bullpen [with the Cardinals] and I don’t dig that.”
Grant would go 7-5 with a 4.12 ERA in 30 appearances down the stretch with the Cardinals before being sold to the Oakland A’s. He was dominant as a closer with the A’s in 1970, posting a 1.82 ERA and registering 24 saves in 72 games before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He split his final big league season between the Pirates and the A’s in 1971.
After hanging up his playing spikes, Grant worked in a number of roles, including as an analyst on Indians and A’s broadcasts, a minor league pitching coach and in various corporate positions outside of baseball. In 2005, he wrote a book called The Black Aces which shone the spotlight on the 12 black major league pitchers that had 20-win seasons.
Grant eventually relocated to Los Angeles and was an accomplished speaker and was passionate about getting more black youth into baseball. His efforts paid off in his own family. His nephew, Domonic Brown, suited up for parts of six big league seasons with the Phillies from 2010 to 2015.
“We just got to motivate them to play,” he said about inspiring black youth to play baseball.