The death recently of former big-league pitcher Mudcat Grant brought to mind an unforgettable story he shared about Ted Williams shortly after the great slugger's passing in 2002.
Grant was the featured guest at an event sponsored by the local chapter of the Major League Players Alumni Association. Asked to relate any remembrances he had of Ted, Grant told of spring training in 1960, Ted's final year as a player. Both the Cleveland Indians, Grant's team, and the Red Sox were based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that spring. Both teams had two Black players on their rosters. Cleveland, in addition to Grant, had Vic Power, a slick fielding first baseman; and the Red Sox had pitcher Earl Wilson and infielder Pumpsie Green, who had integrated the team only the year before. The two teams had agreed to meet in an exhibition game in New Orleans before heading north after training. The Indians and Red Sox were both on the same commercial flight out of Arizona. Upon arriving in New Orleans, they were met by two buses, one for each team, and one taxicab, to take the four Black players to the negro section of the city. New Orleans was rigidly segregated in those days. When they arrived at their Black hotel, the players discovered that their luggage had been mistakenly sent to the hotel where the others were staying. Mudcat, being the youngest of the four, was deputized to take the taxi to the other hotel and retrieve their bags.
As he approached the White hotel, Grant could see that the luggage was stacked next to the registration desk, but before he could enter, he was intercepted by a bell captain. "Where you goin'?" he demanded. Mudcat explained that he was just picking up the bags that were mistakenly sent to the hotel, but the bell captain sneered, "Ain't no n______ gonna set foot in this hotel."
There the matter stood, with Grant refusing to leave without getting his luggage and the bigoted bell captain denying him admission. When around the corner strode Ted Williams, just returning from his habitual walk around a city after arriving there. Williams and Grant knew one another only casually as opposing players, but Ted said, "Hi, Mudcat. How's it going?" Grant explained the standoff he had with the bell captain, to whom Ted turned and said, "He shouldn't get the bags," then, giving the bigot a hard look, he said firmly, "YOU should get them for him." He told him, "Get Mr. Grant's luggage and put it into his cab for him." The guy, thoroughly intimidated by the great Ted Williams, could only stammer, "Ye-yessir." Ted waited until the job was done, gave Mudcat a brief nod, and proceeded to his room. And Mudcat had a great story to tell the others when he returned with the luggage.
Ted Williams, even then, was famously conservative in his politics and was a lifelong Republican. In fact, in that same year of 1960, he managed to artfully avoid having his picture taken with the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, despite Kennedy's best efforts. Ted was a Richard Nixon man. In fact, when I encountered him years later on a flight from Florida to Boston, he saw that I was carrying a biography of Nixon. Pointing to it, he said, "That's the greatest SOB that I ever met. I'll tell you that," as if daring me to disagree. I didn't take the bait, but merely said, "He certainly was a memorable character." I wasn't going to argue the point. No one ever won an argument with Ted Williams.
He was surprisingly progressive, however, on the issue of civil rights.
That he had Mexican blood coursing through his veins was something he managed to hide from public view until years after his playing career was over. He saw first hand how badly Mexican people were treated in his native San Diego. He alluded briefly to the problem in his memoir, "My Turn at Bat." "If I had had my mother's name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California," he (or his ghostwriter) wrote. He was convinced that, had his mother's Mexican origins been known, it might have derailed his baseball career before it even began.
So, being light-skinned and having his father's waspish surname of Williams, he never spoke of his Mexican heritage or of the host of aunts, uncles, and cousins he had from his mother's side of the family. Nevertheless, he always identified with players from ethnic minorities and quietly reached out to help and encourage them. When Larry Doby broke the color line in the American League by debuting only a few months after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, he reported that Williams was one of the few players to engage him in friendly conversation when the outfielders switched sides between innings. Williams also took time to write Robinson a note of congratulations on breaking baseball's color barrier. When Pumpsie Green finally integrated the Red Sox in 1959, Williams went out of his way to choose Pumpsie to play catch with when loosening up before games.
It was his own acceptance speech in 1966, on being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, though, that completely caught the game's establishment by surprise. He publicly advocated for the inclusion in the Hall of the great players from the Negro Leagues who, he said, "Are not here only because they were not given a chance." The speech had been written by Williams himself, without any aid or input from public relations advisers or spinmasters. It led directly to the Hall of Fame's change of policy.
Our knowledge of Ted Williams's Mexican heritage from his mother's side of the family is directly due to the dogged research of author Bill Nowlin, who has written numerous books on the history of the Red Sox, one of which is entitled, "Ted Williams: The First Latino in the Baseball Hall of Fame." He spent years tracking down members of Ted's extended family.
If it were not for Ted Williams and his background, baseball might never have changed its policy towards the great players of the Negro Leagues -- and Mudcat Grant's luggage might still be sitting in the lobby of that New Orleans hotel.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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