The Last of the Pure Baseball Men

Calvin Griffith is a holdout against the forces of change

Carew evidently did not get along well with all his managers—he was defensive and temperamental by reputation—but Griffith stood by him while he adjusted to notoriety, and for this and other things Carew expressed gratitude on more than one occasion. Today, of course, Carew is the most famous of former Twins and, if the sportswriters are to be believed, also one of Calvin Griffith's most vehement detractors. "Carew, I don't know what happened to him," Griffith says sadly. "If it wasn't for Calvin I don't know where he'd be today."

One of the causes of the falling-out, certainly, was money. To Griffith, a player's worth as an athlete does not necessarily translate into worth as an employee; if he doesn't bring people into the ball park, he doesn't justify a huge salary. Carew, who was a long time getting the recognition he deserved, was beginning to draw people near the end of his stay in Minnesota, Griffith says, but the team, finishing in third and fourth place through the seventies, never drew enough to pay Carew what he could get elsewhere. Griffith's negotiating style probably didn't help matters any. He dislikes agents intensely, claiming that they mislead their clients and—this seems more important to him;—that they deprive him of the one chance he has to talk with his ballplayers face-to- face; often, in his explanation of how he lost this player or that, the agent turns out to be the villain. Griffith is also a very blunt fellow. He remembers things, and he is not the least bit reluctant to bring up a key error or a ninth-inning strikeout in order to squeeze a few extra dollars out of a negotiating session. He calls this habit honesty and says it's the reason players now pay agents to do their negotiating for them. Though he thinks players could benefit from talking over their strengths and weaknesses with an old hand like him, he doesn't think they see it that way. "They don't want to remember the things they didn't do right."

Lately, Howard Fox has been handling most of the Twins player contracts, but Griffith always negotiated with Rod Carew, and Carew received no special treatment; at one point, in order to save a little "do-re-mi," as he would put it, Griffith reportedly pointed out that Carew was just a "singles hitter." As long as the reserve system was still in place, Griffith held the bigger stick in contract negotiations. When Carew's contract came up for renewal in 1975, the player's options were limited: he could accept the Twins' best offer; he could try to get himself traded, which would, of course, have required the club's cooperation; he could take the case to arbitration, which he had done unsuccessfully the year before; or he could quit playing baseball. He signed a three-year contract that Twins sources say was worth an average of $170,000 a year, and Griffith sweetened the pot with a $100,000 bonus in 1977, when Carew hit .388 and was named the American League's most valuable player. By that time, however, the stick had changed hands. As the expiration of Carew's contract approached, it was Griffith who had only three choices: under the new law of baseball, he could accept Carew's terms for a new contract, trade him before his current contract ran out, or watch him play a fourth year&nbsp -- his "option" year&nbsp -- in Minnesota, after which he would be a free agent. In the third case the Twins would lose Carew without even getting a traded player in return, so Griffith really had only two choices.

The situation required delicacy and tact. In September of 1978, Griffith went to speak at a Lions Club function in Waseca, Minnesota, and was quoted as saying that Carew was "a damn fool" for having signed the three-year contract in 1975. The copyrighted story that came out in the Minneapolis Tribune three days later, written by Nick Coleman, a reporter who happened to be there, also quoted him on the subject of why he had moved his team to Minnesota: "It was when I found out you only had 15,000 black people here. Black people don't go to ball games, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

There followed an uproar, of course, and Griffith has been explaining and apologizing for those remarks ever since. At the time, he claimed that he was quoted unfairly—a claim supported by a couple of the Lions present— and he expressed surprise that the reporter could have distorted his words so thoroughly while using a tape recorder. The reporter replied that he hadn't used a tape recorder. Griffith said—and still says—that he had had a couple of drinks that night and was trying to give his audience a laugh. His reference to Carew, he said, was merely an expression of his belief that long-term contracts are no bargain for ballplayers; he insists that Carew would have done better with the Twins if he had come into his office, sans agent, and negotiated one year at a time. As for the black population of the Twin Cities, he claimed to have said that he was surprised to learn, after coming to Minnesota, that only 15,000 blacks lived there. (Fifteen thousand was a gross underestimate, by the way. But whatever he said, it's worth mentioning that the notion he was referring to—that blacks, as a group, simply don't go to baseball games much, for whatever reason;nbsp;;-- is not unheard of in baseball circles, though it's by no means common, either. However unfortunately he embellished his reference, Griffith was trying to explain how the Minneapolis metropolitan area, which had a population of about 1.7 million in the 1970 Census, could seem a better place for baseball than the Washington area, with a population of 2.8 million.)

Immediately after the incident, Rod Carew appeared to have written Griffith off completely. In one article he was quoted as saying, "I'm not going to be another nigger on his plantation." In another, "He respects nobody and expects nobody to respect him. Spit on Calvin Griffith." Just a few days later, however, he said, "Everybody is trying to get me to rap Calvin…I'm through talking about the incident." And in January of 1979, when his contract was being negotiated, Joe Soucheray of the Minneapolis Tribune quoted him as saying, "I'm not trying to be another Pete Rose [referring to Rose's recent $800,000-a year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies]. I've been underpaid for so many years now that it no longer bothers me…I've been willing to make concessions. I've been willing to take less money than people think." It seemed to Soucheray and to at least one other local sportswriter that Carew was beginning to regret the prospect of leaving. Soucheray asked, "What are we to make of Carew's sentimental wavering? Carew is practically crying out for Griffith to take advantage of him." In the end, Carew was traded to California, where he reportedly signed a five-year contract for $4 million.

On a wet Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, I approached Rod Carew to ask him about the incident. I couldn't claim to know Calvin Griffith well, but I found myself agreeing with the disinterested onlookers who had told me that he couldn't possibly have meant any harm by the things he was supposed to have said—although knowing Calvin, all agreed, it was entirely possible that he had said them. I wondered if Carew could have meant the things that he was supposed to have said. I had in mind his ambivalence about leaving Minnesota, and I suppose I was speculating that it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding, aggravated into significance by the press and by the contradictory feelings that might pass between a now-mature player and the man he had called his second father. Carew was not very expansive on the subject. "I don't care to talk about the Twins organization," he said. "For some reason everything I say about it gets twisted and turned."

Maybe Next Year

When I last spoke with Calvin Griffith, the 1981 baseball season was little more than two months old, and already it had brought setbacks enough to last most owners an entire year. The team was digging itself deeper into the cellar every day, and home attendance, averaging fewer than 8,000 a game, foretold one of the worst seasons, perhaps the worst, in the franchise's history. In mid-May, Griffith had fired the manager, Johnny Goryl, and had replaced him with the third-base coach, Billy Gardner; Goryl, he said, was "just too nice a guy." About the same time, just a few days after Butch Wynegar had returned to the lineup, Roy Smalley had gone out with a chronic back injury, and on June 12, the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike, an action that threatened to place the 1981 season in limbo. Through it all, Griffith was hopeful. Hope, and its companion stubbornness, keep the last pure baseball man going in the hostile environment of the new baseball.

Griffith once told a story in which the Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner, pointed a finger it him across a meeting room: "You can't compete with me," Steinbrenner barked. "How can you? The Yankees gross $28 million a year and the Twins gross $5 million." Those numbers might not be scrupulously accurate, but the analysis becomes truer every day. Over the past decade, all of the significant developments in baseball economics have made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The boom in television revenues has skewed income toward the already rich teams in major media markets, where advertisers are willing to pay dearly for commercial time; this year, according to a Broadcasting magazine survey, the New York Yankees expected to collect some $4 million for local broadcast contracts, while the Kansas City Royals, who beat the Yankees for the American League pennant in 1980, could hope for no more than $500,000. At the same time, salary arbitration is raising the poorer teams' expenses; last year, an arbitrator virtually forced the pitiful Chicago Cubs to trade their most popular player, the relief pitcher Bruce Sutter, by awarding him an annual salary of $700,000, a figure presumably based on the salaries paid by richer teams to similarly talented relievers. Increasingly, it seems, the George Steinbrenners are setting the salary standards for the Calvin Griffiths. If these trends are not reversed, baseball will slowly devolve into a withered roster of regional superteams—fans in Boston will find themselves cheering for, God forbid, the East Coast Yankees.

That day is a long way off, but Griffith's day of reckoning may be close at hand. According to Twins press materials and audit sheets that Griffith read to me, the team lost money consistently through the early 1970s. They made something more than $1.5 million in the years 1976-1979, but much of that money came from the concession stands and much of it was wiped away by the season of 1980, a debacle that Griffith thought impossible. The Twins brought in about $3.5 million at the gate in 1980, probably the lowest attendance income of the twenty-six major-league teams, and their local broadcast income was about $1.25 million, lower than that of thirteen others. Even with their scanty player payroll—approximately $3 million, one of the three or four lowest in the American League—the Griffiths spent about $1.2 million more than they took in for the season, reducing their cash surplus to less than $1.5 million. The 1981 season could be worse.

The temptation to get out of the game must visit Griffith often in the night. If he sold out tomorrow, he could transform himself from an anxious, beleaguered scapegoat into a millionaire. He prefers, however, to hang on and hope. He knows that he is uncannily capable of snatching profit from the jaws of disaster—in 1978, for example, he put $21,000 in the bank on a total attendance of less than 300,000—and he hopes he can stay afloat long enough to see some changes. The domed stadium should be good for attendance, at least until the novelty is gone, and maybe by that time baseball's spendthrift owners, who are currently committing themselves to huge salary expenditures for decades into the future, will realize that they can't go on like that forever. Maybe the boom in cable and subscription TV will produce some cash, and maybe major-league baseball teams will learn someday to share their TV revenues, an arrangement that has worked well to maintain competitive balance in the National Football League.

Maybe the Twins will get hot. Last year, after the manager, Gene Mauch, abandoned the team in late August, it won twenty-three of thirty-six games, including a team-record twelve straight, and rose from fifth place to third in the American League West. This year, the Twins are inept but young, and Griffith thinks they are only two or three players away from being contenders. Maybe he'll find those players in the minors. Griffith has always poured a disproportionate share of his income into his farm system—more than $2 million last year, which, he says, ranks the Twins higher than all but eight or nine other teams in the majors—and that investment, which has produced such players as Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Bill Campbell, and Bert Blyleven, is bound to pay off again. Stranger things have happened in baseball. Two years ago, the Oakland A's attracted only 306,763 paying customers. Their payroll, less than $1.3 million, was widely reputed to be the lowest in the league, and their owner, Charlie Finley, was a notorious and much-vilified tightwad. But while his franchise was apparently crumbling around him, Finley was drafting young players wisely and trading shrewdly, and, when the 1981 season opened the A's terrorized the American League West, setting a major-league record by winning eleven games before losing one. They went on to win eighteen games in April, tying another record, and their home attendance over the first month of the season averaged almost 25,000 a game, a rate that would translate to 1.8 million over a seventy-three-date season. If the Twins could turn around like that, Calvin Griffith could be a hero again. Winning would transform him from a stubborn, gruff, ineloquent anachronism into a persistent, no-nonsense, colorful charmer, a grand old guardian of national tradition.

Of course, there's a twist to the Oakland story. Last winter, before he could enjoy the benefits of his labors, Charlie Finley sold his ball club to a group of blue-jeans magnates. The irony is not lost on Calvin Griffith; he knows the same could happen to him. In the immediate future he can borrow if he has to, and pass the debt on to a new owner if he runs out of time, but the immediate future will not last long. "I don't want to sell," he told me, "but I'm not gonna be a goddamn fool about it, and get involved where the corporation is $5 million in the hole or something…I'm not that stubborn. If I see the handwriting on the wall that there's no more future in the game, then we're gonna have to get out."

And what, I asked, would Griffith do if he suddenly found himself without his Twins? I had heard him talk often about fishing and golf and the sunny life in Florida, and I was taken aback by his answer. "Most likely," he said, "crawl into a shell and die." I hope it doesn't happen that way. Whatever his failings, Griffith does a rare job well—he loves baseball—and it's a job that gets harder to do every day. He deserves a nice exit. I hope he goes with a can of Fresca in front of him, his son and his grandson at his side, and men on first and third with nobody out, giving the fans a little thrill.

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