You couldn't talk to John Grantham for more than a few minutes without a mention of the Wildcat Baseball League.
If you didn't bring up his favorite subject, he would, and his passion would pour out in an animated conversation.
“I always think of how much of himself he put into the program,” current Wildcat president Bill Derbyshire said. “Wildcat was part of him.”
Grantham, 74, who served as president of the league for 39 years and as executive director for three years before retiring, died Wednesday morning after a battle with Parkinson's disease.
In a fitting coincidence, the longtime current staff of the league - including Derbyshire, Jack Massucci, Gerry Tilker and Gary Rogers - met Wednesday for a previously scheduled committee meeting to prepare for the 50th-anniversary celebration of Wildcat next year.
“John was the driving force of the league,” Tilker said. “He always had plenty of ideas, and he was driven to carry those through. He'll be sorely missed.”
Grantham was appointed as president of the league “where everybody makes the team” by Dale “Mr. Mac” McMillen in 1965, a year after Grantham became involved. Grantham was selected as president over some of the other men who had been with the league since its 1961 inception, but McMillen's hunch proved right.
“I was always impressed with his organizational ability,” Massucci said. “A lot of times it was ‘My way or the highway,' but he made it work. I remember the train trips where we took 3,000 or 4,000 kids to a ballgame in Chicago or Detroit. He never lost a kid. He'd have it all mapped out, from connecting at the train station to the bus ride to the stadium. He had astounding organizational skills.”
When Grantham retired in 2004, Massucci compared him to legendary football coach Bear Bryant in his assuredness as a leader. Massucci said at the time that Grantham was so hands-on with every aspect of the league, he'd even tell volunteer coaches when they needed a haircut.
Besides those trips to Major League Baseball games, Grantham would take charge of the annual Mr. Mac Day. Over the course of those years, he brought in baseball stars such as Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. One of those players, Carl Erskine, remains a supporter of Wildcat to this day. In 1994, Grantham organized a Wildcat reunion at the Grand Wayne Center, displaying 1,500 photos and artifacts.
Grantham, who also worked as a North Side High School teacher, is in the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame.
“What sticks out for me is watching the Wildcatters grow,” Grantham told The News-Sentinel in 2004. “Most of them don't have outstanding athletic ability, but it's a situation where they're accepted and grow. Regardless of whether they're an all-star athlete - that's not important. What's important is later in your life, doing the best you can.”
The Wildcat league's no-cut teaching philosophy was publicized in Sports Illustrated and in an NBC news story. Derbyshire said Wednesday that Parade Magazine was recently in town to report on the league's success as part of a story on youth sports.
Grantham's stamp on Wildcat's success remains strong, Tilker said.
“I don't think they could have picked a better man to run the program when it started,” Tilker said. “He took it off the ground and ran with it.”
Grantham's services will be private, but those who wish to pay their respects can visit from 1 to 5 p.m. Friday at D.O. McComb & Sons Maplewood Park Chapel, 4017 Maplecrest Road.