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The 12 Black Aces: An Elite Group Made Of Black 20-Game Winners
James “Mudcat” Grant
NEW YORK— James Timothy “Mudcat” Grant turns 70 in August. With age comes a license for reflection. Grant already made his mark, long ago, but as the years accrue, he longs to make a point.
So “Mudcat” came up with this idea a while ago, and dubbed the project “The 12 Black Aces.” He has worked tirelessly to turn the group into a franchise, one of both tribute and education.
The label refers to the dozen African-American pitchers who have posted 20-win seasons in Major League Baseball history. That’s it. Twelve. A modest number that should both stun and inspire admiration for the few who share in the accomplishment.
The dozen overcame what has often been called the “last barrier,” a perceived reluctance to put black men on the mound that endured long after baseball’s color line was crossed.
“It was the same question asked of quarterbacks in football — could you orchestrate a game?” says Al Downing, the left-hander who became the ninth Black Ace by going 20-9 for the 1971 Los Angeles Dodgers.
Grant, a right-hander who pitched for seven teams across a 14-year career, was fourth in the procession, having gone 21-7 in 1965 for the American League champion Minnesota Twins.
“Mudcat’s mission is to celebrate the history of these 12 guys,” said Pat O’Brien, a Manhattan attorney who is co-authoring a book on the subject. “He is such a wonderful spokesman for baseball. It’s a piece of American history, not just black-American history.”
With an anticipated publication date of World Series time, the book, simply titled The 12 Black Aces, will be part Grant biography and part historical chronicle. Authors Tom Sabellico and O’Brien will profile the dozen 20-game winners, as well as another dozen who had 20-win talent but were segregated into the Negro Leagues.
“We will also take a look at some of the young pitchers today who have the potential to get there,” said O’Brien.
That segment could be a quick read — a “glance” rather than a “look.” Last season the Majors’ 30 starting rotations counted only four African-Americans as somewhat regular members: Dontrelle Willis, Dewon Brazelton, C.C. Sabathia and Jerome Williams.
Despite the historic paucity of black pitchers, this trend is no more than a reflection of the general decline of African-Americans’ participation in baseball — another of Grant’s targets.
“He always talks about finding a way to rekindle the interest of young African-Americans,” said O’Brien. “Fewer and fewer get into baseball. It’s not the ascension sport, the sport of choice, for kids.”
It is Grant’s hope that learning of their forebears’ rich role in the quilt of baseball will spark passion in a new generation.
“February is always very important for us,” said Grant. “It’s a chance to let the children know. There’s no continuity in terms of awareness. This is an opportunity to let kids know it’s OK to be proud of what your culture has done.”
Grant also wants kids to learn of the “unspoken color line” once drawn around the mound. It is dangerous to generalize, but countless black prospects who were signed as pitchers in the 1960s and ’70s were quickly converted to speed positions in the outfield.
Dr. Richard Lapchick, the head of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, tracks demographic data and is a frequent spokesman on trends. He said, with a backward glance, that attitudes toward pitchers were “probably as controversial a subject as you could come up with in discussing certain positions, like quarterbacks.
“They were thinking positions,” he added, “leadership-making positions, and the opinion was that African-Americans weren’t capable of playing them.”
The notable early exceptions were men who had already gained their footholds on the rubber in the Negro Leagues. They arrived in the Majors with the chance to make an immediate impact — and they did.
Don Newcombe’s mind wasn’t on making history on Sept. 29, 1951. His primary concern was protecting the Brooklyn Dodgers’ share of the National League lead with one more game left on the regular-season schedule. For another thing, a dozen other pitchers had already won 20 that season — it was an era when the number had no particular cachet.
Still, when Newcombe blanked the Phillies, 5-0, for his third shutout of the season, the former ace of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles became his race’s first 20-game winner.
The feat was quickly eclipsed by a hectic end to the season, then swallowed by despair — brought on five days later by Bobby Thomson’s homer. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World gave the New York Giants a playoff win and the pennant.
Was it even a “feat”? History hasn’t recorded it as such. Newcombe is credited with being the first African-American to lead his league in strikeouts (164), which he did that same season. In addition, he is credited with being the only winner of MLB’s Holy Trinity: the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards.
Why, he is even credited with becoming the first American to jump continents and play in Japan following his big-league career.
But first black 20-game winner? Not a mention.
The perspective of time, however, has enhanced the achievement.
Today’s high school sophomores have never seen a black 20-game winner. No. 12 among “The 12 Black Aces” is Oakland’s Dave Stewart, who earned membership in 1990.
Following is the chronological roll of honor, according to each Ace’s first 20-win season:
The “12 Black Aces” accounted for 29 seasons of 20-plus wins. Eleven of the 12 are still with us, save for Jones, who passed away in 1971 at the age of 46.
It’s a living legacy. Mudcat Grant wants to ensure that it becomes eternal.
“We are an endangered species,” said Grant, who is heartened by the reception he has received from contemporary African-American players.
“Willis, C.C., Torii Hunter … they’ve talked about wanting to help us,” he said. “I will be getting together with them in Spring Training. Some of us are getting to be around 70, and we hope these young guys will be able to continue our work.”
Grant already has turned men spread across generations — Newcombe is 78, Gooden is 40 — into a brotherhood. At “12 Black Aces” get-togethers, many meet for the first time.
“It gives you a different perspective,” said Downing. “You knew of them, but didn’t know them. You knew what kind of pitchers they were, and you get to find out they’re nice guys, too.”
Downing paused, then added, “We still have that common denominator. I don’t think you’ll see much more of us in the future.”