"Right on the stove. She fell on the stove and burned her face and arms, and then she fell to the floor. We ran for the doctor, and he came and he worked with her, and he told us that she was working too hard and had to slow down. But she couldn't. She went to work that day at the juice plant. That was when I knew I had to help out.
"I was 13—that's right, I had to be 13, because that was the year I went to work—I was 13, but I was big for my age. We were all skinny, but I was big, you know, so I put up my age to 18 and went to work in the lumber mill that summer. One time at school I worked for a while on the night shift, too, 11 to 7, and I picked oranges a lot. You got 15� a box. Listen, that was better than a lot of things. When I started in the mill it was 65� an hour. You could pick a lot of oranges in an hour at 15� a box if you were strong and wanted to make some money."
For many Americans mention of Florida calls up instant images of the Fontainebleau and Murph the Surf pirating precious stones out of dark mansions. But the other Florida, the Florida of Lacoochee and places like it in the hinterlands, is part of the culture, too. A sheriff in Brooksville, about 15 miles from Lacoochee, once kicked Grant in the rear while his deputy trained a gun on him. The white kids in town threw rocks at the Negroes and cursed them without fear of reprisal. They passed their crayons and erasers on to the Negro school. It was not much of a school, really, being only two regular houses with classrooms formed by blankets hung from the ceilings. There was no gymnasium, though the Negroes in town built a clay basketball court outside.
Baseball, however, was always the first game in Lacoochee. Always had been. Grant was an All-State basketball player and a prize halfback at Moore Academy high school and through his stay into his sophomore year at Florida A&M, but it was always baseball that he cared for. Evenings, in the Florida dusk, he and his friends would play stick-ball on the dirt roads, and the Negro women would come out to watch while their dinner was fixing, and the men would sit on the stoops and puff pipes and view the prospects seriously. Balls and bats were communal property. Gloves were passed on. Before he signed with the Indians in 1954 and was sent to Fargo at $250 a month, Mudcat played with a glove that had been given to him by Fats Richardson. It was the best glove he had ever owned.
The Negro town team—the Lacoochee Nine Devils, they were called—was a great one. It regularly beat the big-city teams from Tampa and St. Petersburg. Looking back, having played the best, Mudcat still believes that many of the Nine Devil regulars could have starred in the majors had there been no color bar. Thaddeus Black, Mudcat's uncle, was a shortstop who could make all the plays. Mudcat still feels that Plunk Kelly, the third baseman, was the best he ever saw at that position. There was James Oliver, the father of Nate (Pee-wee) Oliver, now in the San Francisco Giants' organization. Cooter Singleton was 6'2" with shoulders about 48 inches wide, a 29-inch waist and some fastball. William Grant (no relation) had a curve-ball Mudcat compares to Camilo Pascual's at his prime. The Lacoochee Nine Devils lost very few games.
James Grant, in fact, got few chances to pitch, for he wasn't good enough. He had to play first or third, and even that was hard to manage sometimes because his mother did not want him to play on Sundays and chased him off the porch with a broom the first time she heard that he had done so. The reason she heard was that he hit two home runs. Later, in fact, it was as a hitter that he got his first tryout with the Indians. (His World Series homer, incidentally, was the first by an American League pitcher since 1920.) When Frank Lane was bossing the Indians, he used to give a suit to any pitcher who could get two hits in a game. Mudcat got a lot of suits, even sometimes when he was not winning many games.
Grant has 117 major league wins. Through Lane's largesse and otherwise, he also has suits in abundance—if not 117, at least, he thinks, enough of them "to go about three weeks with a couple of changes a day and everything different." He has four tuxedos, a lavender suit, a red suit, a white suit, a powder-blue suit.
He also has sweaters in just about all the hues, and shoes and slacks and many other items of interesting color and fashion. Besides the long socks, Mudcat also pioneered "highboy" shirts. When he first showed up in one, the other players hooted and said: "Hey, you can't even be caught at a tennis match with that on." And now, of course, they are very big. Score one more for Mudcat, who is still ahead of the times.
Touring with Mudcat and the Kittens, Grant is forever shifting ensembles for his act. Usually, along about the third or fourth show in a place, he comes out in the stark-white mohair suit and starts off with the line about how the White Knight got his clothes all right, but missed Grant altogether. (The audience is warmed up by the time Mudcat hits the stage anyway.) First his musicians—up to seven of them—begin, playing dance music and jazzier stuff, and then the Kittens, some very sexy girls in spare feline outfits, take over the stage to sing and dance and purr. Then Mudcat comes on. He sings—everything from show tunes to rock 'n' roll—and tells jokes and dances, and at last there is the finale with the whole troupe.
Mudcat is best, singing or joking, when he is working with the audience. He understands this and does not push the one-liners. "In the first place," he says, "I can't get risqu� simply because of who I am. Besides, humor is not just buying up all the joke books and retelling them. Humor is taking advantage of something that happens and presenting it in the right way."