Watch Michael Okwu's story on the effort to save the history of the earliest black baseball players on America Tonight, this evening at 9 p.m. ET and midnight ET.
Jim “Mudcat” Grant and “Sweet” Lou Johnson might be friends, but they are lifelong competitors first.
“I don't appreciate him,” said Grant, “because in 1965, the son of a biscuit eater hit a homerun and beat us that ball game and they won.”
They are two American baseball treasures. Grant, who won 145 games in 14 seasons, was the first African-American pitcher in American League history to win 20 games in a season. Johnson, with eight hits in the 1965 World Series, was the lynchpin in the Dodgers’ championship win against Grant’s Minnesota Twins that October.
But it’s what they endured off the field that has researchers interested.
The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is putting together an oral history of African American baseball greats who played in the 25 years after Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut. USC intends to chronicle as many stories of hardship, racism and triumph as they can. For USC’s Daniel Durbin, the project is “one of the most important things we can do.”
“In the end, this is going to be, to me, the most important thing I will have accomplished in my academic career,” said Durbin, the director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society.
Now, there is a sense of urgency to the project. Last month, former big leaguer Paul Blair died at the age of 69. Durbin said he would have loved to interview Blair for the project. It’s the same dilemma confronted by Steven Spielberg and members of his “Shoah Project” team 20 years ago, as they desperately tried to capture interviews with a rapidly-shrinking pool of Holocaust survivors.
“This is a terminal situation,” Durbin said. “You have players now, many of whom have already died and most of whom, or all of whom, are relatively old, who have really important stories to save. And if no one saves them, they will be gone forever.”
The project comes at a time when the number of black players in Major League Baseball stands at a record low. On opening day of last season, African-American players made up just 8.5 percent of major league rosters, according to MLB. USA Today pegged it at just 7.7 percent -- an historic low. Four teams, including the eventual National League champion St. Louis Cardinals, didn’t field a single black player on their rosters on opening day of last season.
The numbers were so dire that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation of a formal task force in April to help reverse the steady decline.
“I really think our history is so brilliant when it comes to African-Americans,” Selig told the The New York Times last year. “You think about the late 1940s, the 1950s — wow. And you look at that and you say to yourself, ‘Why did it not continue, and what could we do to make sure it does continue?’”
Saving the stories
Durbin's first interview subject was “Mudcat." A conversation that was supposed to last a few hours went on for four days, including one session in front of a classroom full of USC students in a sports marketing class.
“A lot of our history is disappearing and this is the question being asked,” said Grant from his office, brimming with baseball memorabilia, in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. “We somehow gotta maintain a certain type of scenario where these guys are brought forth all the time. That’s why I have all of these pictures in here, because our history is disappearing.”
It’s a history that shows the kind of restraint required of men like Johnson, who said his anger, expressed in tightly-focused ways, made him a better player.
“A guy asked me one time, saying, ‘Why do you black ball players attack that ball, man? You guys really attack it,’” Johnson remembered. “Simple – it’s white. That’s a silent way, man, at getting back at it; beat the [crap] out of the ball, slide hard into white base. And I’m saying this now because there were times I wouldn’t have said it. But it’s the truth, okay?”
Some of the more ugly cases of racism during their playing days were made easier by their paychecks. The players were honored to be there. They knew they were on a frontier. And they were being paid to do a job.
“You may not like me, you may not want me to stay in your hotel, but the first and fifteenth, I’m drawing a paycheck,” Grant said.
During the course of any interview with a former black baseball player, Durbin said there's a point when everything stops, where chains of memories fire off, and the person begins to open up about something they've never talked about before.
“It’s deeper stories of real serious issues in American history and American culture that have resonance, and really should be saved,” Durbin said.
Grant remembers the worst thing that happened to him during his career. It wasn’t being kicked by a policeman because he didn’t say, “Yes, sir,” or any of the other indignities he suffered. In fact, the worst thing “Mudcat” went through didn’t involve him at all – the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in September of 1963, which killed four black girls. Today, he remembers the terrorist attack as “the roughest time of my life.”
“Even though I knew of other atrocities and even though we were shot at when we were kids by Kluxes, I think [the bombing] was something that I couldn’t hardly take,” he said.
Breakfast with JFK
But the oral-history project is not without controversy. At least one team has refused to make its alumni available, Durbin said, preferring instead to have a team employee do the interviews and send the recordings to USC. Durbin is concerned about censorship, and hopes the team comes around and grants him access.
And the project isn’t all about the terrible stories of hardship. "Mudcat" recounted one memorable day when he was on a road trip in Detroit. Then with the Cleveland Indians, “Mudcat" got a call from someone saying that President John F. Kennedy wanted to have breakfast with him that morning. “Mudcat” hung up the phone, thinking it was a prank call. His teammates had been receiving a lot of threatening phonecalls, he explained, in a number of cities they visited. Ten minutes later, his phone rang again, with another person repeating the invitation.
Then, he received a knock on the door. He could tell that the men were Secret Service by the way they dressed, and they asked “Mudcat” again whether he could have breakfast with Kennedy. Grant got changed and walked down to the presidential suite to find the 35th president of the United States waiting for him. As it turned out, Kennedy was a big fan of Grant.
“‘Oh, Mudcat,’ he says, ‘Come in, I'd like to have breakfast with you. I hope you don't mind,’” Grant remembered. “I said, ‘No, I don't, I don't mind at all.’”
The two talked about baseball and civil rights. When Kennedy asked Grant if there was anything he could do for him, “Mudcat” told the president about the dilapidated conditions and lack of supplies at the school in his hometown of Lacoochie, Fla. Kennedy answered the call.
“We got a school, we got books, we got housing, which is still there to this day,” Grant said. “Our school is still there to this day.”
Durbin hopes that stories like Grant's will add color and humanity to an important chapter in history. And with historic lows for black players in MLB today, the more people who hear these stories, the more people who can be inspired by them.