The Last of the Pure Baseball Men

Calvin Griffith is a holdout against the forces of change

Opening Day

There was no snow on the ground when the baseball season started in Minnesota this year. The air was bright and warm for a change, and, for another change, the advance ticket sale promised a large crowd for the Minnesota Twins' game against the Oakland A's. Calvin Griffith, the president of the Twins, always gets a bit nervous on Opening Day, so he arrived at Metropolitan Stadium early, a little before ten in the morning, and went straight to his baseball museum of an office, down a long corridor lined with photographs of U.S. Presidents throwing out the first balls of baseball seasons past. Most of the photos were taken at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., when his uncle and foster father, Clark Griffith, the originator of the first-ball tradition, was the owner of the Washington Senators. At the Richard Nixon end of the Presidents' gallery (Jimmy Carter never bothered, and Ronald Reagan was indisposed), was an almost-life-size painting of Walter Johnson, "the Big Train," whose legendary fast ball was the Senators' meal ticket from 1907 to 1927; Johnson won the seventh game of the World Series for the Senators in 1924, when Calvin Griffith was the team's bat boy. On an inside wall, a framed newspaper page proclaimed the Twins champions of the American League for 1965; that was just five seasons after Griffith had moved the Senators to the "upper Midwest," as they call it, when the people of Minnesota still loved their Twins and Griffith was Major League Executive of the Year—a long time ago, in other words.

This year's Opening Day was Calvin Griffith's twenty-first in Minnesota, his last in Metropolitan Stadium, and his first as the unlikeliest new member of baseball's big-spending fraternity. Next season, if construction continues apace, the Twins will move from the "Met," a tidy, comfortable park in the suburban sprawl just south of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a bowl of poured concrete that is rising out of what used to be called Industry Square, in downtown Minneapolis. It isn't rising very high: only the top tier of seats is above street level, and the playing surface is some forty-seven feet below. Griffith, who still speaks fondly of the days when every game was played in sunlight, is not very enthusiastic about the prospect of watching baseball in a basement, but something had to be done to improve the Twins' pitiful attendance figures, and, after balking and stuttering and giving the developers fits, he finally agreed that the domed stadium might be it. In the summer of 1979, he committed his club to a thirty-year stay in the Metrodome, and then, over the winter of 1980-1981—to give Minnesota's apparently dwindling population of baseball fans something to see in the place—he signed Butch Wynegar, a strong young catcher, and Roy Smalley, a hard-hitting shortstop, to long-term contracts estimated to be worth a total of $4,650,000.

This was quite a departure from Griffith's stripped-down, Mom-and-Pop, cash-on-the-barrelhead style of operation, and the local press, which for years had been describing him as an anachronism, a cheapskate, and, occasionally, a Neanderthal, reacted with self-satisfied shock. Calvin Griffith was "the last of the pure baseball men": he financed his operation solely on baseball revenues, he depended for his livelihood on what was left over, and he still believed that baseball was a game of sacrifice bunts and runs batted in, not an "entertainment business" of high-salaried stars, tax write-offs, strikes, court battles, and public-relations strategy. With his sister Thelma, co-owner; and his son, Clark, and Thelma's son, Bruce, executive vice presidents; and his brothers Billy and Jimmy, vice presidents; and his nephew Tommy Cronin, sales and advertising manager; and his hot-dog-selling nieces Joie and Kim and Nancy, and who knows how many others, Griffith had held out stubbornly against the forces of change in baseball. Now, it seemed, he had finally realized that he had only two alternatives, and, finding one of them unthinkable, he had marshaled his meager resources and readied himself for a season of battle with the monied powers of the American League's Western Division: Gene Autry's Angels of California (Golden West Broadcasters), Walter Haas and Roy Eisenhardt's A's of Oakland (Levi Strauss), Jerry Reinsdorf's White Sox of Chicago (Balcor Company, real estate), Ewing Kauffman's Royals of Kansas City (Marion Laboratories, pharmaceuticals), Eddie Chiles's Rangers of Texas (Western Company of North America, oil-drilling services), and George Argyros's Mariners of Seattle (Arnel Development Corporation, real estate). At the age of sixty-nine, after almost sixty years in the game, Calvin Griffith walked into his office on Opening Day, the lone survivor of a doomed species. Sitting down behind a desktop flotilla of inscribed pencil cups, paperweights, and no fewer than four nameplates identifying him as "Calvin Griffith," he reached for an insulated pot on his desk and spilled about two cups of hot coffee into his lap. A team physician, summoned from the basement of the stadium, pronounced the injury not serious—a first-degree burn—and sprayed a sunburn remedy on his legs. Then Griffith changed into a dry blue suit and sat down to start the season.

There wasn't much for him to do. Five or six years ago he did a little bit of everything in the organization, but now an executive committee composed of his son, Thelma's son, and the traveling secretary, Howard Fox, who joined the Griffith family as a farm-team business manager in 1947, handles many of the day-to-day chores. Griffith took a few phone calls and received a few visitors, but mostly he flipped distractedly through his mail and waited. A television crew came in to interview him for a local "magazine" show, and he showed them a baseball autographed by a left-handed pitcher named—as he pronounced it—"Fie-del Castro." He explained that Fie-del had been scouted by the Senators in the forties but didn't have a major-league fast ball; the ball had been obtained by two of Griffith's Cuban players, Pedro Ramos and Camilo Pascual, and the FBI had visited his office once to have a look at the signature. Later came a phone call from Roy Eisenhardt, the new president of the Oakland A's. Griffith exchanged Opening Day good cheer with the rookie owner, telling him he'd have a lot of fun with his new ball club and assuring him that the Kansas City Royals, who had beaten the A's for the Western Division championship in 1980, couldn't possibly have as good a year in 1981. He gripped the phone by its shoulder holder and held the mouthpiece a few inches from his lips—he tends to talk rather loudly on the telephone—and when the conversation was over, he hung up muttering to himself: "Mmmm. That's unusual." He always asked his well-wishers how they were feeling. He always greeted them by their first names, and they usually reciprocated. He spat into his wastebasket, with the precision that seems to be in baseball men's genes, and said he would feel a hell of a lot better once the damn game got started.

Fathers and Sons: Calvin and the Old Fox

In 1929, not long after he had bought controlling interest in the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, at the age of fifty-three, set out to acquire himself a son. He and his wife, Addie, were unable to have children of their own, but Addie's sister Jane, in Montreal, had seven of them, and her husband was ill, so Calvin and Thelma Robertson—the second-and third-oldest of the children—went to Washington and became Calvin and Thelma Griffith. Within a year, their natural father died, whereupon Clark Griffith brought the rest of the Robertson clan to Washington and set them up in a house of their own. Calvin and Thelma, though, stayed with him.

As principal owner and president of the Senators, Clark Griffith was nearing the high point of a baseball career that he had begun at the age of seventeen, when he received ten dollars to pitch a local grudge game for a team in Hoopeston, Illinois. He played in several of the underfinanced and poorly organized baseball leagues of his time, including the American Association, the "major" league that folded in 1891. By 1893 he was with the major league—the National League—pitching for the Chicago Colts (later named the Cubs). Clark Griffith was slight and didn't have much of a fast ball, but he was precise and cunning. He claimed to have invented the screwball, and he was reputedly an expert at tampering with the ball, which was then legal. By the time he was twenty-five they were calling him "the Old Fox." When Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey declared competitive war on the National League, in 1900, they enlisted Griffith's aid in signing name players to their new American League. He was an established star by this time, and (ironically, in view of later developments) he was active in an early players' association that had organized to oppose the low pay and high-handed tactics of the National League monopolists. Promising better salaries and working conditions, Griffith raided the National League teams and relieved them of thirty-nine of their top players. In 1901, as player-manager of Comiskey's Chicago White Sox, he had a record of 24-7 and won the American League pennant. Two years later, the baseball war having ended, Griffith was dispatched to New York to establish a rival to the National League's Giants. He pitched for and managed the New York Highlanders, later called the Yankees, and he stayed there through the middle of the 1908 season. Next he managed the Cincinnati Reds for a couple of years, and then, before the season in 1912, he joined the Senators as manager and 10 percent owner. Seven years later, he borrowed $87,000 and bought enough stock in the franchise to install himself as president. In 1921, he passed his field-manager's chores on to a younger man, and a year after that his heirs arrived from Montreal.

Calvin Griffith didn't know very much about baseball when he came to Washington. "They didn't have any baseball for kids up there in Montreal in those days," he has recalled. "Everything was hockey—hockey, hockey, hockey." Clark Griffith, who was also called "Teach" by his ballplayers, began young Calvin's education immediately. Calvin became the Senators' bat boy in 1923, and the following winter he listened in while Clark Griffith plotted the world championship campaign of 1924. "He used to have a habit all winter long of sitting down trying to work out deals with other clubs," Griffith says of his foster father. "He would write lineups—he would write 101 lineups a week trying to figure out, well, we need this guy, we need this guy …. And he would talk to you about these things, what he was trying to do, why we needed this and why we needed that. I was just a kid, but he would keep on talking. And you'd go to the ball park and he'd tell you about this and about that&nbsp -- look at that guy's feet, look at that guy's arm, when you're catching you're supposed to observe how the people go into the box because you can get a pretty good idea if they're gonna bunt or if they're gonna hit. Every one of them would have some peculiarity, they would give away a lot of things."

Calvin, a catcher, played ball at Staunton Military Academy, in Virginia, and later at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He was named captain of the George Washington team in his junior year there, but he was growing impatient with book learning and asked his foster father if he couldn't do some day-to-day baseball work instead. That may have been just what the old man wanted to hear. He sent Calvin to the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Senators' Southern Association farm team, as secretary-treasurer. Three years later, in 1938, Calvin went to the Charlotte Hornets, in the Piedmont League, as club president and field manager; he won the league championship in his first year. He remained a minor-leaguer until the end of Charlotte's 1941 season, when he went back to Griffith Stadium to take over the concessions operation.

Before Griffith left Washington, his older sister, Mildred, working as Uncle Clark's personal secretary, met and married Joe Cronin, the popular shortstop and manager of the Senators, who later became president of the American League. By the time Griffith returned, Thelma had stepped into Mildred's job and had become engaged to the pitcher Joe Haynes. Things were not going as well on the field or at the gate, however. The glow of the Senators' last pennant, won under Cronin in 1933, had long since dimmed. Attendance had never been spectacular in Washington—Griffith says the club drew a million only once in the family's fifty years there—and the Old Fox was developing a reputation for tightfistedness. When Clark Griffith died in 1955, he left Calvin and Thelma majority interest—about 26 percent each—in a troubled franchise. They tried various ways to turn the club around: they brought in the outfield fences to satisfy the fens' appetite for home runs, and they began selling beer, a practice that Clark Griffith had never abided. Calvin Griffith, meanwhile, was receiving eager visitors from the Twin Cities, and he began keeping charts on the Minnesota weather.

When the American League installed an expansion team in Washington and granted Griffith permission to move to Minnesota for the 1961 season, he was greeted there as a hero, the bearer of big-time baseball to a self-conscious city that wanted badly to be "major league." One of the newspapers ran a color spread on the house that he and his wife, Natalie, bought on Lake Minnetonka; Griffith gave speeches and received honorary keys and was named state chairman of the Christmas Seal campaign. The team made money, which Griffith wisely stashed away for the future. Suspecting his 1964 team was a contender, he re-enacted his uncle's canny strategies of forty-one years earlier. He bought Al Worthington and Johnny Klippstein, both relief pitchers, and then sat back to enjoy the glory of his pennant-winning team of 1965, which played out seven games in the World Series before being defeated by the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers. After the American League split into two divisions, his club won divisional championships in 1969 and 1970, but the euphoria of championship seasons wore off even faster in Minnesota than it had in Washington. In the early seventies, the star players of the Twins' glory days—Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Tony Oliva— were either gone or beyond their prime, and attendance, consistently more than a million in the franchise's first decade in Minnesota, began falling off. Griffith, who was able to boast in the sixties of having one of the highest player payrolls in the league, responded by tightening his belt, trading or releasing established players when their salary demands became too much for him. When baseball's reserve system was abolished in 1976, setting players free to seek their worth on an open market, the Twins became a farm team to the rest of big-league baseball. The sporting press became critical; the fans grew bitter and stayed home. But Clark Griffith had taught his heir only one business, and only one way to run it: "He told me don't do anything unless you have the money to do it." And that, as Calvin Griffith would say, was it.

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