The Last of the Pure Baseball Men

Calvin Griffith is a holdout against the forces of change
More

Whatever kept him on top of the game—the crack of the bat, the reactions of the fans, slight disturbances in the atmosphere—Griffith didn't have to respond to it very often that day. Oakland pitcher Steve McCatty did not allow a single base hit until the seventh inning, when Glenn Adams hit an infield grounder that bounced off McCatty's foot. Adams failed to advance. In the eighth, with the score still 1-0, Griffith began rooting in earnest for his boys to "give the fans a thrill." Mickey Hatcher obliged with a two-out single, but then Danny Goodwin, pinch-hitting for the young catcher Ray Smith, grounded out to end the rally. (Butch Wynegar was sitting out the first part of the season, recovering from surgery on his throwing arm.) As soon as Rickey Henderson rolled out to finish the Oakland ninth, before the Twins had even come in off the field to take their last turn at bat, Griffith was pleading. "HOSKEN POWELL," he cried, about three notches above normal volume, "LET'S DO SOMETHING RIGHT! Let's get a two-base hit—a two-base hit and a single…C'mon, Hosken, give it a chance, get on there and give us a thrill, c'mon. Fans haven't had a good day out here yet, let's go." Powell popped up to the first baseman. Next up was the second baseman, Rob Wilfong, and before Griffith had a chance to plead with him he looped a soft fly over second base. "That's a base hit," Griffith said, while everyone else in the park was still expecting it to be caught. Now the tying run was on and the game was in the hands of Roy Smalley, the Twins' switch-hitting shortstop. "I wish he was hitting right-handed," Griffith said, "with that wind blowing out like it is now." Smalley took a called strike. "What a pitch that was," Howard Fox said. Smalley stung the next pitch and sent it shooting down the left-field line—a triple, in Griffith's opinion… until it curved foul. Fox issued a nasty string of obscenities. Two strikes. "Come on, Roy, in between, split the field, split the field, make 'em run all the way out to the fence and pick it up off the ground. C'mon…"

Griffith watched in despair as Smalley's weak grounder hopped out to the mound. McCatty threw to second for one, Fred Stanley threw to first for two, and Calvin Griffith rose from his seat muttering.

He went down to the Twins Room, where newspapermen and club officials and guests gather after the games, and shot the breeze for a while over a vodka-and-tonic with Billy Martin, Cronin, and his brothers Billy and Jimmy. He watched the final round of the Masters Tournament on a big color TV, but he didn't stay long. For the first time since he had come north from Florida, Griffith was going home this night, instead of to a sports banquet or a party or a TV taping session. Home is a one-bedroom apartment in Edina, about five miles from the ball park, where Griffith has been living alone since he was separated from his wife, in 1974. She's still in the big house they bought when they came to Minnesota, and Griffith misses the place—especially the fishing dock, where he'd while away the afternoons chatting with neighbors and passersby—but the apartment suits him. At the moment, his living room was cluttered with trunks and suitcases from spring training, and he had to get back to unpack so he could pack again the next morning. His winless ball club was going to Seattle, and Griffith always travels with the team on the first road trip of the season.

Fathers and Sons: Calvin and the Young Turk

In October of 1941, only weeks after Calvin Griffith came up from the minor leagues to take a place with the Washington Senators, he and his wife, Natalie, had a son. They named him Clark, and when the time came the young Clark Griffith took his place in the family business. Now thirty-nine, he is described by one observer who knows the organization as a "modern-day expert" in the business of baseball. Along with his fellow executive vice president, Bruce Haynes, Clark handled many of the negotiations that led to the domed-stadium deal, and he receives considerable credit in the press for signing Butch Wynegar and Roy Smalley. Clark Griffith is easy to pick out in the Twins offices. Amid the checked pants, wide ties, funny hats, and oversized bellies of Calvin Griffith and his brothers, he looks the part of the 1981 executive, trim, tanned, and tastefully tweedy. In the executive parking row outside the stadium's office door, his Audi 5000 is conspicuous in a line of Pontiac Bonnevilles, Chevy Caprice Classics, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes. (Calvin Griffith drives a Bonneville Brougham with license plates that read "CALVIN"; the "Reserved" sign in front of his parking space has been altered to read "Revered.")

When I first met Clark Griffith, I asked him if he would be making the upcoming road trip with the team, and he said, "If you think what goes on between the white lines has anything to do with running a baseball team today, you've got a lot to learn." We met a couple of days later to talk baseball and business. Griffith told me he had played amateur ball in Washington, as a third baseman, shortstop, and center fielder. He preferred center field. He couldn't say what had caused the decline in the Twins' fortunes, but he talked rather expansively on what had not caused it. What had not caused it, he said, was the thing that everyone thought had caused it—the Twins cash-poor position in a league of millionaire owners. The conventional wisdom has it that the Griffith family, the only owners left in the league who have no assets other than their ball club, have been unable to compete for players, especially since the abolition of the reserve system. According to this reasoning, a millionaire owner such as Gene Autry or George Steinbrenner can reach into his bank account and take a long-term, multimillion-dollar risk on a ballplayer in the hope of someday recouping his investment in bigger crowds or a better TV contract. Even if the crowds never materialize, this owner's franchise presumably will appreciate in value every year; if he can write his baseball losses off against profits from some other source, the tax system will have, in effect, subsidized an enterprise that he can someday sell at a big capital gain. The benefits are multiplied for new owners, because the IRS allows them to depreciate players' contracts, which can account for up to 50 percent of a franchise's purchase price.

Calvin Griffith's son doesn't like this kind of talk. "People don't necessarily write things off against other businesses," he said. "A loss is a loss, and at best you can write only a percentage off. The Yankees, for example, have a very high payroll. The Yankees also take in $14 million as gross revenues from gate attendance. They spend a little less than half of that on baseball players. We, on the other hand, spend essentially 100 percent of attendance income on baseball players. Players' salaries are not funded by some wealthy individual or group reaching into their pocket; they're not funded through some misunderstood tax laws. Baseball teams are paid for by baseball fans."

The signings of Butch Wynegar and Roy Smalley, Clark Griffith said, were an act of faith on the part of the Twins management, one that he hoped would be reciprocated by fans at the gate. Was it true, I asked, that he had persuaded his father, against the old man's firmly held principles, to take this plunge into the big-money player market? Griffith didn't really answer; he just said, "It wasn't easy." What was his father's objection—simply that he didn't want to spend money that he didn't already have? Yes.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In