Lacoochee, Florida is a company town with no company. The Cypress trees used to make paper were pretty much gone by the 1960’s so the Cummer Sons Cypress Company moved on.
The 800 or so folks who live there are divided. The black population lives near the railroad tracks in a place known as Moss Town; their ancestors didn’t have money for proper feather beds.
Except for a few big landowners everyone who lives in Lacoochee is poor.
In the 1950’s, a skinny black kid from Moss Town, James Grant, was discovered by the Cleveland Indians. They signed him to a contract and gave him $100 to buy suits. Nobody in the surrounding towns would sell them to him. They didn’t allow Negros in their stores.
He eventually found suits and went on to a fourteen-year major league career. The highlight of his career was pitching and winning game six of the 1965 World Series for the Minnesota Twins (where he went soon after Cleveland). He also hit a home run in that game, a first for a winning pitcher. Along the way someone gave him the nickname Mudcat.
After baseball he became a television broadcaster and blues musician.
Lacoochee was only ten miles from the town I grew up in and my father’s work with civil rights brought us there often. I would hear tales of Mudcat, see roads named after him, but never got to meet him.
Six years ago he came to New York City for an event and we had lunch. He noted that we were probably the only people in New York City that had ever drunk at the Cow Palace, a dance hall, on State Road 301.
He told stories about Satchel Page (his traveling roommate), Bob Gibson, and Mickey Mantle. “It didn’t matter to Mickey that I was black. I was a poor kid from a small town just like him.”
Also Jackie Robinson, “Jackie gets a lot of press and attention. Rightfully. He was a great man. He did have it bad, but he was also taken care of. They made sure he didn’t get it too bad. Those of us that followed in the months and few years after him, we didn’t get that protection.”
On the minor leagues in North Dakota in the 1950’s: “They had never seen anyone with a tan, much less someone black like me. The mayor of the town told the manager I was not allowed to talk to white women. By the end of the summer I had a girlfriend. Kids will be kids.”
Every year he goes back to Lacoochee to spend a few months with his sister. Three years ago I went to spend a weekend with him.
He showed me the empty field where he first played baseball. He showed me the new little league park he lobbied to have built.
He introduced me to all of his relatives, most of Moss Town. Many of the older relatives had survived the Rosewood Massacre (look it up on Google).
He showed me where he was beat for being black as a child. He showed me the small house next to the tracks where he had lived.
He showed me the location of the one-room schoolhouse he attended, taught by a black woman who believed education was not just the right of whites. She did it for free. “If I missed school she knew where to find me, down in the pasture playing ball.”
We walked part of the six-mile path that led to the only Negro High School in the area. He had to walk it daily.
He showed me the house of the old Lacoochee sheriff who saved him from an angry gang of whites. “I was the first black he let in his house. I refused to walk in the back door and he had to let me in the front. The town couldn’t believe it. He was a baseball fan.”
He never once had anything bad to say.
“I love Lacoochee. I loved growing up with my family that loved me back. I loved playing ball in the cow pastures.”
I asked about all those who yelled at him, those who tried to deny him an education, those who wouldn’t let him in their homes.
“My mother told me never to lose my temper, never to give in to anger. She taught me that the best you can do is treat people with dignity and be polite with them.”
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