Some fishing stories are legit. Most are apocryphal, tarnished by generations of fishermen’s exaggerations, but every so often, there’s one that is equal parts impressive and true. Then there was the one that Fred Merkle caught.
Baseball fans know that name, from a story now over a century old. It took place when Merkle was a rookie, in a game at the Polo Grounds in New York. That was a U-shaped ballpark, with team clubhouses beyond the outfield. If the Polo Grounds wasn’t infamous among Indians fans for a ‘curse of the Mayses,’ it wasn’t for lack of trying. That was the site of Yankees pitcher Carl Mays’ fatal beaning of the Tribe’s Ray Chapman in 1920, and of the Giants’ Willie Mays’ incredible catch during the 1954 World Series. I know, sorry — too soon?
In a late-season 1908 game at the Polo Grounds against the Cubs, the Giants’ Merkle stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. The game was tied at one. Two men were out and a runner was at first. Merkle singled the runner to third — observers noted he could have legged out a double, but he wisely, safely decided not to risk it. The lead runner was all that mattered. The next batter followed with a single of his own, scoring the man from third.
At the crack of the bat, the home crowd flooded the field. Thinking the game was over, Merkle cut short his route to second base, and began his trot to the clubhouse past center field. At the sight of this, Cub second baseman Johnny Evers began shouting among the chaos, for the baseball. It flew in from the outfield — some say Giants pitcher “Iron Man” McGinnity retrieved it and threw it into the stands. The pitcher of record that day was Christy Mathewson; he apparently sent Merkle back to second base. The ruling by the umpires was that Merkle was forced out at second.
The tied game was replayed. The Cubs won that game, and soon after, the National League pennant. Today, you might find this story referred to as “Merkle’s Blunder.” For 100 years, it was known as “Merkle’s Boner.” Do be careful if you are thinking of Googling that.
It was Fred Merkle who, in the early 1950s, discovered pitcher Jim Grant. Grant had actually been a rocket-armed third baseman, notably starring in a high school baseball tournament in Daytona Beach. Since he was a minor, Merkle kept his distance. Grant received a scholarship for both baseball and football from Florida A&M University, but since his family needed money, he dropped out of college and began working as a carpenter in New Smyrna Beach. Merkle caught wind of this, reached out to Grant, and had him sign a contract with the Cleveland Indians. Today, Grant still mentions that his bonus was a handshake.1
While in the Indians’ organization, Grant was given the nickname “Mudcat,” which is a type of southern catfish. Some accounts hold that Larry Doby — Grant’s roommate — came up with the name. It is said that Doby told him he was “uglier than a Mississippi mudcat,” and apparently, it was erroneously thought the converted pitcher had hailed from Mississippi. No one knows for sure if Doby was the originator of the label. Regardless, “Mudcat” will forever remain one of the great baseball nicknames of all time.2
While I’ll always be a novice fisherman, I do have a good fish story. My company long has had a few condos in the Florida panhandle, near the beach. They make the condos available to employees, in one week segments. I’ve had the opportunity to go every six years or so. A lot of times you get offered at the last minute, when someone bails.
The last time we were there was during the fall. Our older daughter could not take time off from her classes so it was my wife, our younger daughter, and me. The weather was bad. We spent part of at least one day sitting in front of the television, watching the weather radar. Tornados were sweeping across southern Alabama, about 90 miles to the north of us. I did get in the pool that week, just on principle.
Anyway, our daughter likes to fish, so we decided to fish there. I called and asked around about getting a fishing license, and I waited around at the courthouse one day and never did get answers. They don’t sell them at shops there like they do in Ohio. (It was weird. You could buy fishing tackle, bait, and fisherman’s clothing at any tourist or convenient store, but nobody seemed to know about licensing.) Eventually, I learned you could pay to fish on the nearby pier, and the fee included the license for the day. We had brought a couple poles but I went ahead and rented a couple bigger ones. We had some frozen squid for bait.
So we were standing on the pier, politely distanced from the hardcore fishermen at the end, in the whipping, freezing wind. We were 60 feet or more above the water (some folks exaggerate the size of the fish they catch. I exaggerate the elevation of the pier above the water). We didn’t catch anything, but we were having fun. Our daughter announced she was going to head in for a restroom break and to warm up a little. Once she was gone, a school of dolphins appeared in the distance, apparently feeding. Admiring them, and hoping they would stay until she returned, I felt a strong bite on the line. It was the strongest tug I’d ever had. I was reeling it in and I got it close to directly below me. It was making large splashes in the water below — alas, I looked around and nobody else was nearby.
Meanwhile, some antique biplanes were suddenly approaching. They were really loud. They came in from the Gulf, somewhere, heading directly to the pier. There were four of them, of various colors; show planes. They circled right above me off my side of the pier, each one trailing plumes of smoke.
Here I was with this big fish in the water below me, but the drag on the line wasn’t set strongly enough so the reel was slipping as I tried to get it out of the water. So I set the rod down (making certain it was secured) and got on my knees. I was bringing the fish up to the pier by pulling the line up through the railing with my hands, one under the other. My face was tilted at the commotion in the sky, and I noticed one of the pilots was watching me pull this big fish up with my hands.
I got the fish up to the pier. By that time, the planes had headed back out over the Gulf, but now they were coming back, in single file. Low to the water, they each took a bunch of “shots” at the beach near the pier, and sand was exploding!!! WOW!
Then they left. A guy came by and helped me unhook the fish (it was a big catfish), and threw it back to the water. Everything settled down, nice and quiet, and I had my line back in.
Then our daughter showed up. Smiling, I was all, “You’re not going to be-LIEVE what happened while you were gone.”
Of course, she had heard the planes. We did end up catching a few more fish.
Mudcat Grant ascended to the big leagues only about a decade after the color barrier was broken. Racial segregation remained throughout the country, even in Cleveland, which had clearly separate communities based on race (even among various white ethnicities to a large extent). Grant does give credit to Cleveland for its efforts to improve racial harmony, and expresses his appreciation to this day. Segregation — and intimidation — were especially intense in Florida, where the Indians and several other teams held spring training.
Since blacks had to stay in the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants, Grant became accustomed to seeing performers on the road, such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday. Larry Doby would introduce Grant to such stars. One day, Ms. Holliday sprained her ankle and she could not take the stage on her own. Grant picked her up and carried her to her spot where she performed. Grant has said his mother never quite believed his account of meeting the legendary singer.
There were incidents between Mudcat Grant and members of the team that strained their relationships. One such occurrence happened at the end of the singing of the national anthem. Grant substituted his own words for the final lines, something to the effect that it’s not the land of the free, and he couldn’t even go to Mississippi. A coach heard this, and threatened Grant, using a slur. He told the pitcher that if he ever got him in his home state of Texas…Grant stormed back to the clubhouse, changed out of his uniform, and left the team. The situation smoothed over, but not until Grant refused to acknowledged the apology of the coach- who’d been demoted to the minor leagues.
Grant has spoken at length of the resentment he held for some of his career. Eventually, he decided he was not going to carry all that hatred. He actually willed his personality to soften. It’s a remarkable story, since he is a truly lovable figure today. Also, a couple of his best, lifelong friends from the Indians were southern white players.
In June of 1964, with the Minnesota Twins visiting Cleveland Stadium, Mudcat Grant arrived at the clubhouse to find his locker cleaned out. Grant was confused, since lockers not only held game uniforms, cleats and gloves, but also mail and an accumulation of other personal items. He asked a clubhouse boy where his stuff was, and was told it was in the visitors’ clubhouse- he’d been traded.
The deal had been finalized in the middle of the previous night, and GM Gabe Paul’s front office staff failed to inform the player. In return for the six-year veteran Grant, the Indians received a couple marginal players. Plus, most importantly, cash. Money was always tight with the Indians in those days. They flirted with bankruptcy. The farm system, robust in the early 1950s before being allowed to run down later in the decade, had been restocked by the 1960s. Unfortunately, much of the talent was sent away in an ongoing struggle to make payroll.
In Grant’s first full season in Minnesota following the trade, he enjoyed a career year. He finished sixth in the AL Most Valuable Player voting, on the strength of a 21-7 record and a 2.63 ERA. He credited Twins pitching coach Johnny Sain with teaching him a “fast curve” in support of his fastball, slow curve, and change. He’d later add a slider. Later in his career, Grant bounced around among several teams as a curveball-first pitcher.
Upon his retirement in 1971, Mudcat Grant served the Tribe as a community relations representative for a time. He began an involvement in charitable organizations that continues to this day. He became a TV analyst on Channel 8 for Indians games, proving a colorful counterbalance to the straight laced play-by-play of Harry Jones. If Grant didn’t coin the phrase, “chin music,” he at least helped popularize its use. Please go grab your Pluto’s Curse of Colavito book, and review the hilarious description of Grant’s adventures with the English language, alongside a speechless Jones.
Mudcat Grant was also a singer. His Mudcat and the Kittens act performed blues and soul, with the pitcher as the front man and the sexily-clad Kittens as backup. They played shows in Cleveland, across the U.S. and also in Europe. They appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (If anyone can find footage of Mudcat and the Kittens, please share below! I’m dying to see that.) In the meantime, here is a ‘poem’ recited by Mudcat, apparently with a musical assist by Marvin Gaye.
There’s even more to Mudcat. Much of it is related to Minnesota, which also considers the former pitcher to be a present-day treasure, from the time fifty years ago when the Cleveland Indians ‘threw him back.’
- Merkle was a ‘bird dog’ scout. Those are not full-time, paid scouts. Rather, they are more like volunteers who may receive a fee from a team if the ballclub has interest in a player they recommend. [↩]
- Baseball takes some shots from critics, for reasons good and bad. But it does some things very well, and nicknames is one of them. A few years after Mudcat Grant’s signing with the Indians, his younger brother Julious signed as well. Tribe GM Frank Lane gave him the nickname, “Swamp Fire.” [↩]