Black aces remember how it was

AnotherViewsquareA major league pitcher today, even if he barely completes the minimum five innings, pitches a “quality start.” “Back in our day,” says Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who pitched four of his 14 big-league seasons (1958-1971) for the Minnesota Twins in the mid-1960s, “a quality start for us was nine innings.”

Today’s lowered standards for starting pitchers sometimes baffles Grant and other retired hurlers of his ilk. “If they give you the ball to start the game, you want to pitch nine innings,” continues Grant, trying to not sound like a “we were tougher then” type of old-timer.

(l-r) Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Luis Tiant, Ferguson Jenkins Photo by Onika Nicole Craven
(l-r) Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Luis Tiant, Ferguson Jenkins
Photo by Onika Nicole Craven

Today’s pitchers are more specialist than workhorse, adds Ferguson Jenkins, the Hall of Famer who pitched for six MLB clubs in 19 years (1965-1983). Along with the typical four starters, “It was long relief and short relief when I played. There were nine pitchers on the staff when I broke in,” he points out. “Now the bullpen is the stronger part of the game — a lot of set-up [pitchers] and the closer.”

“The opinion of the experts today [is] that pitchers can easily be overworked, so they cut the time as far as innings [go],” notes Grant. “[We believe] they are being babied.”

David Price, who last month was traded by Tampa Bay to Detroit, couldn’t flat-out disagree with Grant. “I never want to be taken out of the game,” he says respectfully. “I work extremely hard.”

Even rarer than seeing an MLB starter pitch nine innings is seeing a Black starting pitcher. “We don’t see a whole lot of Black ballplayers altogether,” admits Grant, a member of an historic list of Black 20-game winners — The 12 Black Aces, which is the title of his 2006 book.

Don Newcombe in 1951 was the first Black pitcher to win at least 20 games once in their career, followed by Sad Sam “Toothpick” Jones (1959), Grant and Bob Gibson (1965), Jenkins and Earl Wilson (1967), Al Downing and Vida Blue (1971), J.R. Richard (1976), Mike Norris (1980), Dwight Gooden (1985) and Dave Stewart (1987).

Jenkins did it seven times in his career; five times for Gibson; four for Stewart; and thrice for Blue and Newcombe.

In the eight years since Grant’s book was published, only three Blacks have reached this milestone — Price was the last in 2012. “It’s special,” says the 2014 All-Star.

During his appearance at the All-Star Fan Fest last month, Grant was asked his opinion on underrated Black starting pitchers. “I think lefthander Rudy May, and Dock Ellis [would qualify].  [Ellis] was a right-hander that won 19 games twice. [But] he was noted for other things besides pitching,” noted Grant.

Legend has it that Ellis’ no-hitter in 1970 is the only one ever thrown by someone supposedly high on LSD. He won 138 games in his career (1968-1979). “If maybe Dock hadn’t done all that drinking and all those drugs, his career would have been longer,” said Jeffrey Radice in a recent MSR phone interview on his No No: A Dockumentary that will be screened twice this Wednesday, August 13 (7 and 9 pm) at the Trylon Microcinema  in South Minneapolis.

He and Dock actually roomed together while playing for the Pirates in the 1970s, noted the filmmaker on Grant, who was among those interviewed for the film. “He was at the end of his career and at the beginning of Dock’s,” who later died from liver disease in 2008.


More on Dock Ellis and our interview with producer-director Jeffrey Radice in a future “Another View.”

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