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Friday, June 11, 2004

 

(Vic) Power for the People. Mudcat Grant on Racism in Baseball

While visiting Clutch Hits this afternoon, I picked up the link to an article from the Jersey Journal, featuring Mudcat Grant talking about racism in baseball in the 1960's. That article, in turn, led me to dig out this Bronx Banter piece with an interview with Mudcat Grant and Al Oliver. The interview occurred last February 14, when Grant and Oliver visited the Hall of Fame to participate in a Legends Series event celebrating Black History Month.

Both pieces got me reminiscing about the Minnesota Twins teams of the early 1960's, and my emerging childhood awareness of racism and bigotry. I grew up in Minnesota in the 1950's and 1960's, just a few miles from the old Metropolitan Stadium. I remember the excitement when the Twins came to town and we had a big league team.

And I remember Mudcat Grant fondly. Grant had his best year with the Twins in 1965, when he went 21-7, pitched 270 innings, and had an ERA of 3.30 (vs. a league average of 3.56). The 1965 Twins team was a magical team, captivating Minnesota in somewhat the same way that the 1995 Mariners did in the Northwest.

I think Grant was my favorite pitcher on that team; he was good and he had such a cool nickname. I think "Mudcat" may have been partly responsible for Charlie Finley's fascination with colorful nicknames for his starting pitchers after he bought the A's ("Catfish" Hunter, "Blue Moon" Odom, and yes, in 1970, "Mudcat" Grant was also an Oakland Athletic).

Overt Jim Crow racism was still an ugly reality in the US at that time, and the interviews with Grant that I linked to above talk about that. In the articles Grant mentions that he and Vic Power were the only two blacks on the Cleveland Indians when they were there together; that would have been from 1958 through 1961. Although Power was Puerto Rican, he was very dark skinned and regarded as a "Negro" ballplayer.

Power had a reputation as an "uppity Negro" player, who didn't show proper respect for white folk.
Looking around the internet brought back a couple of episodes I remember hearing about at the time. One time Power entered a whites only restaurant in the south, and was told, "We don't serve ------s in here', to which Power replied, "that's ok, I don't eat them". Another time he was arrested for jaywalking and told the judge, that since he saw so many "Whites Only" signs in town, he thought the "Don't Walk" sign was also for whites only. Those comments were pretty ballsy, at a time when being perceived as an "uppity -----" still brought Klan justice in the south.

Power was picked up by the Yankees sometime before the start of the 1952 season, i.e., shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1948. But, according to some people, the Yankees didn't like his "attitude". Since Elston Howard was already on the roster, they didn't need Power to break the Yankees "color barrier". The Yankees then included Power in a 1953 deal with the A's. Power then made his major league debut in 1954 with the A's.

Power's "attitude" was a continuing problem for the A's, and in June 1958 the A's traded him to Cleveland for, among other players, Roger Maris. (After Maris developed with the A's, the Yankees plucked him from the A's.) Cleveland, in turn, sent him to Minnesota just before the 1962 season started in exchange for Pedro Ramos.

I remember hearing of the trade and being excited. Power was immediately popular in Minnesota. Harmon Killebrew had "played" first base in 1961, and Power's arrival allowed Killebrew to move to left field. Power was a good glove man, and his presence helped stabilize a shaky infield. Power's personality, which had been a liability for him elsewhere, was warmly accepted in Minnesota.

Minneapolis at that time was probably an easier town for black players than many other cities. In May 1963 Sport, the preeminent sports magazine of that time, ran a cover story on Vic Power's new life in the Twin Cities. Titled Vic Power's New, Wonderful World the article talked openly about racism experienced by black players, and Power's difficulties in Kansas City and Cleveland. My older brother had a subscription to Sport, and he gave his copies to me when he was finished with them. I avidly devoured the story about Power. As I recall, Power had a white (or light-skinned) wife, and in the interview he marveled at how he could drive to his house in a white neighborhood without routinely being stopped by the police. At one point during the interview, a passing person saw Power doing the interview, and smiled and waved at him. Power waved back, and then returned to the interview, commenting about how things like that never happened to him in Kansas City and Cleveland.

As I read the article I was proud of my city and proud of my team. And I was proud that Vic Power was playing first base for the Twins, and I added Power to my list of favorite players.

Grant and Power missed being reunited in Minnesota in June 1964 by four days. Power was traded to Los Angeles on June 11, 1964, and Grant was brought in from Cleveland on June 15, 1964.

Now, of course, with the benefit of age and lesser hair, I realize that the Twin Cities were not the idyll I believed they were. The Twin Cities in the early 1960's were probably the whitest major metropolitan area in the US; as I recall the black population was well under 5%. For most of us, the only time we saw black people was on the baseball field or playing for the Murray Warmath's University of Minnesota football teams. Seeing a black person outside a ballpark or stadium was a real novelty, and I'm sure every cop in Power's neighborhood would have known immediately it had to be Vic Power in the car.

Although Calvin Griffith's latent racist attitudes are well known, Griffith may have been ahead of some of his contemporaries in valuing players primarily for their skills on the big league roster. In the scouting and development areas, though, the Twins were pretty much a non-factor in identifying and signing black players in the 1950's and 1960's.

While Googling for this post, I learned that the Sport magazine interview was conducted by Leonard Shechter. Shechter was one of the leading sports journalists of his day, challenging racism and ignorance in his writings. Shechter was also Jim Bouton's co-author on Ball Four.


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