For Black Aces, history by accident
New book weaves tale of African-American pitchers
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The crowd of autograph-seekers milled about as Mudcat Grant, Mike Norris, Vida Blue and Al Downing sat behind a folding table on Main Street in the humid air of an overcast Saturday afternoon.
The four men had missed the showers that blew through town earlier while they were signing autographs indoors at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a building about two blocks away. Now the quartet had a more public duty: honoring a class of 13.
In a way, the day was a coming-out party for Grant, Norris, Blue, Downing and the nine other black pitchers who'd won 20 or more games in one season during their Major League careers. Grant was the first of the group to do so, and he was the face behind the book The Black Aces, which Tom Sabellico and Pat O'Brien wrote.
But the idea itself was all Grant's.
"Baseball is a metaphor for life that runs through the book," O'Brien said. "Baseball is a metaphor for life, so this makes it more interesting and it gives a few more person-to-person kinds of experiences."
It's those experiences that Grant wanted to chronicle. He came upon the idea for the book four or five years ago, but it took years to turn his idea into a book, which hit the bookstands across America on May 18.
To see his idea in print drew a smile from Grant.
"I feel great about it, because now it'll be able to get in the hands of baseball fans," he said. "It is relative to history that has sort of been underneath the rug."
Grant can see the book now as a history lesson -- a colorful reminder of the accomplishments and the hardships that the "Black Aces" had to endure to achieve the success they had. Yet the book is a bit more than a history lesson, O'Brien said. It's also a life lesson.
"There's a thread that runs through it," O'Brien said as he shied away from telling what that "thread" was. "Sometimes you can take the pill and sugarcoat it and make it more palatable. We didn't sugarcoat anything in this book.
"But it's not a sensational book; it's a book that told in Mud's voice through Mud's experience and his life. It's really history told from his experience."
Baseball has been at the center of Grant's experience. From the time he broke into the Majors with the Indians in 1958, including his 21-7 season with the Twins in 1965 and his last season in 1971 with the Athletics, Grant uses his distinctive voice to show how professional baseball has paralleled U.S. history.
His story isn't one of melancholy or bitterness, though. It's a story that speaks to success and about the men who had it -- 13 of them to date. The 71-year-old Grant was the first in the American League to do it, with Don Newcombe the NL's first. Grant's effort to recruit the others for his project went well.
"It was not difficult," he said. "A lot of them didn't know what they had accomplished."
He admitted he didn't realize it either until after Howard Cosell came down and interviewed him after his 20th win, which came in Baltimore.
"Howard came up with a microphone and a television camera, and he said, 'How do you feel being the first African-American to win 20 games?' " Grant said. "I said, 'I just wanna be another pitcher like everybody else.'
"That was the wrong thing to say."
Grant said he realized how wrong it was as soon as he got into the Twins clubhouse. He summoned Cosell.
"I found Howard, and I said, 'Howard, that's not what I wanted to say,'" Grant said. "So he said, 'What do you want to say?'
"I said, 'I want to say I am very proud to be the first African-American to be part of history -- something my children, my grandchildren and my great-great grandchildren will be able to see in the archives of Major League Baseball.'"
Grant saw his book as keeping that archive stocked with lively stories of accomplishments and successes -- successes for him, for Norris, for Blue, for Downing, Earl Wilson, Sam Jones and the other seven members of the Black Aces.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.