Calvin Griffith, Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins owner
Calvin Robertson was born in Montreal in 1911. His family was a very poor one, and in 1921 he was sent to live with his uncle Clark Griffith. Griffith had been a successful pitcher and manager in Major League Baseball who two years earlier had purchased his old team the Washington Senators. Calvin and his sister Thelma became intimates of their uncle, and Calvin became a bat boy for the club. In 1924 the two were officially adopted by the Griffith family.
An astute student of the game under his uncle's tutelage, Calvin spent hours in the living room figuring out batting orders and farm team acquisitions to help the team. He even appeared in the Nats' World Series photo with President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Eventually, he worked his way up into the front office, and in 1931 he was given the managing job for the Charlotte farm team. Four years later he moved on to lead the Chattanooga squad. Unlike his talented uncle, Calvin never played professional ball, but he was still a good businessman and a talented number-cruncher.
In 1941, Calvin's business acumen brought him back to Washington, D.C., where he took over as head of concessions for the Senators. It was Griffith who came up with the (at the time) revolutionary idea of putting ice in the soft drinks at the game to save on the soda. Commercial ice makers were still somewhat of a novelty in industry, and Calvin took full advantage of it. His good sense moved him up through the management at a steady pace, and by 1955 he had become team president. That year his mentor and adoptive father Clark Griffith passed away, and Calvin inherited ownership of the team.
Throughout the 50s, Griffith grew continuously displeased with his share of revenue in the District area. The Baltimore Orioles had joined the league in 1954, and had much of the momentum. In addition, the Senators were rarely winners, and Griffith felt there was no way to improve his situation. Soon, money was being offered to his team to move them out to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Finally in 1959, Calvin agreed to move the team. This especially rankled the D.C. citizens, who had been promised by Griffith in an editorial in the Post that, "as long as I have any say in the matter ... the Washington Senators will stay here ... forever." There was just one problem to Griffith's move: chief minority stockholder H. Gabriel Murphy's desire to keep the team in D.C. He filed several court injunctions over the next year, but to no avail. The Minnesota Twins began play in 1961.
Like his penny-pinching uncle, Calvin Griffith was a notoriously frugal person, which often got in the way of winning pennants. He brought along several young stars, including Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew, but he rarely put up the money to bring on other players to complement their talents. At first, this seemed to be just a minor setback - the Twins even won the American League pennant in 1965, and Calvin was named the AL's Executive of the Year. But his stubbornness and tightness with the pursestrings became even more problematic during the reserve clause and free agency rulings of the late 60s and early 70s. Pitcher Bert Blyleven offered this story about negotiating with Giffith:
We didn't have agents at that time, we didn't have free agency so you had to negotiate with Mr. Griffith one on one. You would have to make an appointment to meet with him and you would go into his office and he would sit in a high chair behind a high desk and you would sit on a couch that sank down. So it was like you were looking up about 10 feet at this big owner, because he was a big man. And he would basically tell you what you were going to make the next year. Whether it be a $50 raise or a $1,000 raise, basically he says, "This is what I think you're worth, son. And this is what i'd like for you to sign at."
Part of Griffith's problem was that he had built his whole career on baseball. Many of the new owners such as George Steinbrenner, Charles O. Finley, and Ray Kroc had made their money elsewhere, making many millions more than Griffith. These new owners could afford to pay huge salaries with an almost reckless abandon. This mentality was against Griffith, and it cost him dearly throughout the rest of his tenure with the Twins.
Sadly, perhaps Griffith's lasting legacy, besides his frugality, are the racist comments he made to a Lions Club meeting in Waseca, Minnesota in late 1978. There, he spoke off-the-cuff about why he had moved his team to Minnesota:
I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.
Unfortunately for Calvin, his words were recorded by a reporter for the local newspaper, and soon they were pasted all over the Minnesota Star, which called for his resignation (despite the fact he was majority owner.) The Twins' star player Rod Carew, a free agent, declared he was leaving Griffith's "plantation" and signed with the California Angels. Griffith was demonized in the press, and perhaps fairly so. But his words were simply a byproduct of the times, the ignorant words of an old man.
From 1978 to 1983, Griffith's Twins continued to slump their way through the baseball seasons. Finances were tight, the city was unhappy, and players refused to stick around for the low salaries Griffith offered. Only in 1979 did the team even manage a winning season. Finally, an offer was made by local banker Carl Pohlad to buy the Twins for $38 million. Griffith was 73 years old, and his son Clark showed no interest in taking over the company. So, with much sadness, Calvin Griffith sold off the team he had spent virtually his whole life with.
Calvin spent most of his final years in Minnesota, still attending Twins games and serving as an icon of Minneapolis sports. He passed away October 20, 1999 in Melbourne, Florida. he was 87.