Jack and Mudcat

By Dr. Daniel Durbin | 2/23/15 |


My son is autistic.

And, you can't help but love Mudcat Grant. 

And, between those two facts lies this story.

Jack Wilson Durbin was born on November 29, 2011.  Like most babies, he was a surprise from the start.  Blond and blue-eyed, he stared out at the world silently on his first day as if expecting something more.  With a fortitude unseen in my time, he responded to the poking and prodding and needle-sticking of his first year with little more than an angry look and a grunt of disapproval.

For a year, Jack grew as most children do.  He learned his first words, "Daa" for "dad" and "mo" for "more" and "up" for " up" and "love, love, love" when he laid his head on his daddy's shoulder while being held and hugged.

Jack was an angel. But, like most true angels, he had trouble understanding the mortal complexity of human existence.

About the time he was two, Jack began to lose his words.  "Up" disappeared. "Mo" and "daa" and dozens of others soon followed.  For the longest time, he refused to lose "love, love, love."  But, inevitably, it, too, disappeared.  Jack was silent.

When he got excited, Jack began to beat the air with his hands, as if futilely trying to lift himself off the ground with the wings he had given up to be a boy.  He began to run in circles at top speed, never quite able to get airborne.

Jack entered his own world, a world that was never contrary to, but ran parallel with the human plane on which we poor mortals exist.  I had lost my son.

James "Mudcat" Grant was born on August 13, 1935 in the deepest depths of the Jim Crow South.

Jim grew up in the world of the Ku Klux Klan and terrorist threats to his family and friends, a world in which "reckless eyeballing" of white women could land you in jail or worse.  Jim knew the meaning of living in a racist hell.

Jim's nickname grew from a racist joke when he broke into professional baseball.  But, as "Mudcat," Jim would turn the baseball world on its ear when he won the American League Pitcher of the Year Award in 1965. Mudcat pitched the Minnesota Twins to the World Series and won two games and hit a home run in that Series.

Mudcat had breakfast with John Kennedy, attended Robert Kennedy's funeral, helped create the role of closer in baseball, sang the blues on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," and spoke out anywhere and everywhere he could on race and baseball.

I first met Mudcat while sitting on a panel discussing the just released Jackie Robinson biography "42."  As I waited for the program to begin, someone pointed across the room at an older gentleman walking with crutches.

"Do you know who that is?"


"That's the old Twins pitcher Mudcat Grant."

For the first and only time in my life a human being elicited the response, "You mean THE Mudcat Grant?"

Mudcat Grant held a unique place in my heart and my memory.  He was one of the very few true sports heroes of my childhood.

Mudcat and I became friends that day and have remained so ever since.  Mudcat will turn 80 in August.  One of his most endearing (and, for his wife Trudy, infuriating) qualities is that a part of Mud has never really grown up.  Though on a strict diet, Mudcat sneaks a margarita when he can get away with it, holds business breakfast meetings over buttered waffles and syrup, sneaks the occasional late night dish of ice cream, and continues to enjoy life like a young man of 18.

Perhaps this is why children seem to so readily identify with him.  With a napkin and a game of peek-a-boo, he can keep any child busy for days.  For a man who hid from the KKK, had every racist name invented hurled at him, and, for a time, lost his true love to the racist policies of baseball, Mudcat continues to have a uniquely innocent heart.  No matter how many times he   cheats on his diet (and, perhaps because he cheats so innocently), you've got to love the man.

Jack doesn't know who James “Mudcat” Grant is.  But, for that matter, Jack doesn't know who his grandfather is.  But, Jack has met Mudcat and Jack has played with Mudcat and Mudcat's cool with him.

A while back, Mudcat celebrated Jack's third birthday with a margarita (with extra lime) and with a big bag of gifts for Jack, including an autographed baseball, a backpack, and a limited edition toy.  Jack can't toss a baseball, yet.  And he doesn't quite get the notion of birthdays or birthday gifts.  But, he  does know a kindred spirit in Mudcat, elderly innocence seen through the eyes  of an angel.  And, one day, he will know that an old ball player from Lacoochee, Florida was his Grandpa Mudcat and that his Grandpa Mudcat was not only a great pitcher, but a great human being.

With intensive and expensive therapy, Jack has started to find his words again, though most of them are new.  "C'mon," and "Mick" for "Mickey Mouse" and “ou’side” for “outside” and "go" and "car" and "shooooooes" and “reach” and “give” and "bah-x" for "box" and, just recently, as he laid his head on his father's shoulder and threw his arms around his father's neck, he found "love, love, love," once again.