Hometown of Lacoochee still in 'Mudcat' Grant's heart

Jim "Mudcat'' Grant figured it must be a prank.

"The president wants to have breakfast with you,'' said the man on the other end of the phone.''

"Yeah, sure,'' said the young Cleveland Indians star pitcher before hanging up.

The phone rang again.

"No, really,'' said the caller. "The president wants to see you.''

"Look,'' he said, "whomever this is, I'm not interested.'' He hung up again.

Grant was dubious. Black players endured threats and harassment, especially those in the spotlight. And this season, Mudcat was on his way to a 15-9 record.

Now somebody was knocking on his hotel door.

"The president really wants to see you,'' said a burly man in a black suit. He flashed identification. Mudcat got dressed and went downstairs.

President John F. Kennedy soon joined him at a table. He was in Detroit to give a speech. The Indians were in town to play the Tigers.

"You're from Locawoochee, Florida, eh?'' Kennedy asked.

"No,'' Mudcat corrected, "it's Lacoochee.''

• • •

A half-century later, Mudcat Grant loves telling that story. He says the president asked for the meeting simply because "he was a fan.'' But once they started talking, Kennedy wanted to know all about the poor, rural community in central Florida that had been decimated when the cypress lumber mill shut down in 1959.

Grant told him about the only "school'' in town for black kids — rooms set aside from lumber mill housing. Books, crayons and other supplies were hand-me-downs from the white schools in Dade City. Pages were torn from the books.

Kennedy promised to look into Lacoochee and invited Grant to call him when the Indians were in Washington to play the Senators. Grant didn't think he was serious. But when in Washington, Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem in Congress, called and said, "You were supposed to call the president.''

"We went to the White House,'' Grant recalled. "We talked about Lacoochee. I wrote my mom back home: 'Something is going to happen. We're going to have a school, some housing, some books.' We didn't have no telephone. She wrote me back and said, 'Boy, what have you been smoking?' "

Lacoochee got a school and some public housing. In time, it got a park and named it for beloved Constable Jesse Stanley. Still, the once-thriving community has never recovered from its economic collapse. Progress is always matched by setback. Few youngsters break the bonds like Mudcat Grant, who though now a resident of Los Angeles pays attention to his old hometown where several relatives remain.

He's encouraged by the latest efforts. The county has pledged $300,000 and private donors have chipped in more than $350,000 toward a $1 million goal to build a community center and expand ball fields.

• • •

Grant is 76 and slowed by 30 years of battling diabetes, but he presides over charity golf tournaments that have raised $2 million in 10 years for juvenile diabetes research. He serves as an inspirational speaker and Major League Baseball ambassador and historian. His book, The Black Aces, chronicles the difficult early days for black professionals and focuses on 13 African-American pitchers who reached one of baseball's coveted milestones — 20 victories in a season. This, of course, is close to Grant's heart, since he was the first black pitcher in the American League to win 20 in 1965 when he helped the Minnesota Twins reach the World Series by posting a 21-7 record.

He became close friends with slugger Harmon Killebrew, who went on to the Hall of Fame. When Killebrew died from cancer last May, Grant sang What a Wonderful World at a memorial service at Target Field. You can find that emotional performance on YouTube (visit links.tampabay.com).

Grant has been singing since he was 8. His mother, Viola, led the gospel choir at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. He was also encouraged by his elementary principal, Vera Lucas Goodwin, who gave him a Johann Strauss album.

"Imagine a kid in Lacoochee listening to Strauss,'' he said with a laugh. "She also gave me music by John Lee Hooker and Eddie Arnold. She must have thought I had a good voice, and she wanted to show me music from different cultures. She had a great influence on me.''

Grant expects to visit Florida in March for the Grapefruit League exhibition season. He'll help former Chicago Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins with charity fundraising, take in a few games and, of course, visit his hometown.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Jim "Mudcat'' Grant earned a 21-7 record for the Minnesota Twins in 1965, making him the first African-American to win 20 or more games in the American League. But the first African-American pitcher to break the 20-game mark in all of Major League Baseball was Don Newcombe, who did it for the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. The original version of this column was unclear on that point.

Hometown of Lacoochee still in 'Mudcat' Grant's heart 02/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 1:10pm]

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