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Ex-MLB stars recall shock of JFK assassination

Grant, Richardson, Robinson, Kaat remember where they were 50 years ago

They were 47 days into the offseason when the shots were fired in Dallas, changing everything.

Brooks Robinson, 27, was at a quiet Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, having his left arm treated in the clubhouse and listening to a radio. Bobby Richardson, 28, was back home in Sumter, S.C., coming off yet another World Series appearance and settling in for the winter.

Jim Kaat, 25, was riding a bicycle -- with his son in a basket on the handlebars -- while in St. Petersburg, Fla., for an instructional league. And Jim "Mudcat" Grant, 28, was so affected by the loss of his friend, "The President" -- the man who boldly helped segregated schools in Grant's poor Florida town -- that he would spend the rest of his life doing whatever it took to make Novembers go quickly by.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. People everywhere are talking about Nov. 22, 1963, and that includes many stars from that fateful year who were in attendance at Tuesday night's annual Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association Legends for Youth Dinner in New York.

President John F. Kennedy throws out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 1962. (AP)

"I think about him all the time," Grant said of JFK. "When this time [of year] comes, [the anniversary of] when that happened, you try not to think about it. But you dream about it, and it haunts you.

"It's bad thoughts for me, and I think about one-hitters, three-hitters, I try to keep it out of my mind until the month passes so I won't have to think about this horrible day that we had at that time."

* * * * *

Grant remembers Kennedy as "a very good friend of mine" and tells the story of how their relationship unfolded. Now 78, Grant cites a day when he was in Detroit and pitched for Cleveland at the same time Kennedy was in town to give a speech.

Pardon an excusable detail or two that has blurred with time; when Grant refers to "the President" in his story, it should be noted that his anecdote is from Sept. 5, 1960, when Kennedy was a Senator and kicking off his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. The only subsequent appearance by Kennedy in Detroit as President would have been at a Democratic midterm rally on Oct. 6, 1962, when the World Series was under way and Grant's season was over.

"One weekend we were in Detroit, and the President happened to be in Detroit at the same time," Grant said. "They found out that the Cleveland Indians were in town, and he said, 'I bet they're staying at the hotel.' So they found out that we were staying at the hotel, and I get a phone call. It says, 'Mudcat?' 'I said, 'Yeah?' They said, 'Well, the President is in town, do you know that?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'He would like to have breakfast with you.' I said, 'Oh, sure.' And I hung up the phone, because as African-Americans we were still getting threatening calls back in those days before you pitched.

"So they call me again, and they said, 'No, we're not kidding. He would really love to have breakfast.' I said, 'Hey, don't call me anymore, I know just what this is all about.' I hung up the phone.

1963 in baseball

The 59th World Series
Dodgers 4, Yankees 0
Most Valuable Player: Sandy Koufax (2-0)

NL MVP: Koufax (25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 K, no-hitter)
AL MVP: Elston Howard, Yankees (28 HR, 85 RBIs, Gold Glove)
Cy Young: Koufax*
NL Rookie: Pete Rose, Reds (170 hits)
AL Rookie: Gary Peters, White Sox (2.33 ERA)

* There was one overall Cy Young until 1967.

"Then they came and knocked on the door. And when I looked through the door, you can always recognize who's at your door. And it was Secret Service. I said, 'I would love to have breakfast with the President.' And we had breakfast, and we talked for about an hour. And he said, 'I have a speech to make today. If you come to my speech, I'll come to your game tonight.' Well, that couldn't be arranged, so he sent a message that it couldn't be done but stop in the White House."

Later that day, Kennedy said at Cadillac Square in Detroit: "We have no time for complacency, timidity, or doubt. This is a time for courage and action. This is a time for strong leaders -- leaders who are not afraid of New Frontiers; leaders who are not afraid of the facts; leaders who can turn our dreams into reality."

Later that day, Grant struck out 10 Tigers over seven innings but took the 4-3 loss in the opener of a doubleheader at Briggs Stadium.

"[Congressman] Adam Clayton Powell made sure that I did get to see [Kennedy at the White House]," Grant continued. "We went in to play the Washington Senators, and there was a place next to the ballpark where Adam and friends were. I was there, and he said, 'You're supposed to go see the President.' So he took me to see the President. And I talked with the President again."

Kennedy had heard about Grant's struggling hometown of Lacoochee, Fla. Its lifeblood, a cypress lumber mill, had been shut down in 1959.

"The President helped me with our schools, because schools were segregated at that time," Grant said. "And he changed that for Pasco County, in Lacoochee, my hometown. And he made sure that we had books. Because up until that time, most of us who went to segregated schools, we actually graduated from high school on four or five books, because we weren't getting equipment and we had to have hand-me-down stuff. He made sure that Pasco County and Lacoochee, Fla., had housing and the whole bit."

* * * * *

Richardson played for the Yankees in seven World Series over an eight-year span from 1957-64, and that included a '63 Series in which the Dodgers swept the Bronx Bombers. So the second baseman headed back for South Carolina, and he "remembers it as though it were yesterday," walking through his living room at the time and being told that Kennedy was shot.

Richardson said he had an opportunity to play a leading role in the Head Start Program, which was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of Kennedy's assassination.

"I had an occasion once to meet him," Richardson said of Kennedy. "Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law [of Kennedy], invited [Yankees teammate Tony Kubek and I] to come over and spend a little time with [Kennedy, who] offered us the chance to head up Head Start. I said, 'I don't think I'm the right person for that job.' Tony said the same thing. But he was a wonderful president. It just kind of reminds us that our nation sometimes does some things that are not good, and that was certainly one of them."

Robinson had hurt his left arm during the season, maybe from one of his patented dives for a ball at third base. He is not sure the cause to this day, but he knew he had to "get it worked on" after the 1963 season, when he was an All-Star for the fourth consecutive year but saw his offense dip across the board. So there he was in the same Orioles ballpark where he'd spent the summer and early fall -- doing what it would take to win his only American League MVP Award the following year.

"Our trainer was doing some diathermy -- like a machine they put around your arm and shoulder," the Hall of Famer said. "I don't remember who came in, but I think we had the radio on, probably heard on the radio. It was a shock. Then I went home, and I actually saw it on TV when [Lee Harvey] Oswald got shot by [Jack] Ruby. I thought, 'It's a crazy world out there.'

"It was a shock. Then I went home, and I actually saw it on TV when [Lee Harvey] Oswald got shot by [Jack] Ruby. I thought, 'It's a crazy world out there.'"
-- Brooks Robinson

"The conspiracy, they talk about it. I don't know. There are still a lot of questions to be answered. But I kind of go with the flow. Whenever they found out that it was just a single gunman, then I believe that. I know it would have been a lot different in American if he had not been shot."

Despite starring near the nation's capitol, Robinson said, "I never met JFK. I have met a lot of presidents, but not JFK. I met LBJ, and Bill Clinton I know quite well. Jimmy Carter. But I never got to meet JFK, and I feel that's too bad. I would have loved to have met him."

* * * * *

When Kennedy was elected in the fall of 1960, it was the last season for the original Washington Senators, who moved to Minnesota for the '61 campaign. A new Senators club would play in Washington from 1961-71 before relocating and becoming the Texas Rangers. When the original Senators went to Minnesota, Kaat went with them, having been called up in '59 and going on to a 25-year career.

"I was riding with my son, who's now 52, with him in the basket on front of the handlebars," Kaat said. "I saw all these people come out of their houses, you know, in bewilderment, and started talking about what was happening. I immediately went into the house and started watching the little black and white TV, which we all had then.

"People have used the expression, 'America lost its innocence.' I just think it's something we never dreamed would happen. We had heard about [Abraham] Lincoln, but we never dreamed it would happen in our lifetime. It certainly changed the United States. ... It's the only time that [a president has been assassinated] in our lifetime, there still seems to be some mystery about it, and I think that's why people continue to talk about it."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.
Read More: Bobby Richardson, Jim Kaat, Mudcat Grant, Brooks Robinson