This article was written by Kevin Hennessy
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
When Calvin Griffith sold the Minnesota Twins in 1984, he bowed out of baseball as the last of the family owners whose franchise represented their principal business and source of wealth. Griffith spent practically his entire life in baseball, spending his young adulthood working in one capacity or another for the Washington Nationals organization that his uncle Clark owned. Upon the death of his uncle, Griffith took over the franchise and ran it from 1955 to 1984. He ran the operation as a family company, with relatives holding nearly all of the key positions. In 1961 he moved the Senators from Washington to Minnesota, and for the next ten years he oversaw one of baseball’s most profitable and successful franchises. Griffith struggled during his last decade in Minnesota, however, after a couple of key family members died and baseball’s changing economics undercut his operational philosophies.
Calvin Griffith was born Calvin Robertson on December 1, 1911, in Montreal, Quebec. Calvin was the second child of seven children born to Jane Davies and James Robertson, who married in 1908. His family included an older sister, Mildred (who later would marry Joe Cronin, Washington shortstop and future American League President), a younger sister, Thelma (who would marry Washington pitcher Joe Haynes), and younger brothers Bruce, Sherrod, Jimmy, and Billy. Jimmy and Billy were twins born in 1921. By that time the situation with his family had become a struggle due to Calvin’s father’s alcoholism, which eventually would cut James’ life short in 1923 at the age of 42. The family had little money and it was necessary for Calvin to work to help support the family.
In the summer of 1922 the family was visited by James’ sister Addie Griffith, wife of Clark Griffith, at that time the owner of the Washington Nationals. It was decided that Calvin (age 11) and his younger sister, Thelma (age 9), would return to Washington, D.C., and stay with the Griffiths. From this point on Calvin and his sister were raised as members of the Griffith family. Upon the death of Calvin’s father, the rest of the Robertson family also moved to Washington. Although Calvin and Thelma were never formally adopted by the Griffiths, they did have their names legally changed – in Calvin’s case from Calvin Griffith Robertson to Calvin Robertson Griffith.
Calvin began his involvement with baseball as the Washington batboy in 1922. This continued on through the world championship season of 1924 and the American League championship season of 1925. In 1928 he entered the Staunton Military Academy, graduating in 1933. After Staunton, Griffith entered the George Washington University, which he attended the next two years. During his time at Staunton and George Washington, he played baseball as a pitcher and catcher.
In the spring of 1935, Griffith left George Washington and went to work for the Washington organization at its Chattanooga farm club as secretary-treasurer, and in 1937 he took over as head man. With the team struggling in mid-season, Clark fired the manager and enlarged Calvin’s duties to include field manager. In 1938 the elder Griffith promoted Calvin to the same all-inclusive post with their affiliate in Charlotte. In 1941 Clark called Calvin back to Washington to take over a newly opened position with the big league club as assistant secretary, head of concessions.
Gradually Calvin began taking over the responsibilities of his uncle. Specifically he began attending league meetings in place of Clark, along with taking charge of making player trades and negotiating contracts with the media.
Clark Griffith died on October 27, 1955, and on November 1, at age 43, Calvin was elected president of the Washington Nationals. In the reorganization, Joe Haynes was named roving minor league pitching instructor; Sherry Robertson became assistant farm director; Billy Robertson assumed the position of supervisor of Griffith Stadium personnel and maintenance; and Jimmy Robertson remained as director of concessions. Calvin had inherited, along with his sister Thelma, 52% of the Nationals’ essentially debt-free franchise. The ballclub and the stadium were valued at approximately $4 million.
The Move to Minnesota
By 1955 the Washington franchise had suffered through years of poor performance and attendance. Rumors of offers from Louisville, Los Angeles, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities were confirmed by Calvin in the authorized biography written by Jon Kerr in 1990. But political difficulties in moving a franchise out of the nation’s capitol and a one-franchise city likely led to the delay in any transfer of the Senators. An article in the Washington Post January 15, 1958, bylined by Calvin, stated:
I have lived in Washington, D.C., for about 35 years. I attended school here and established many roots here. The city has been good to my family and me. This is my home. I intend that it shall remain my home for the rest of my life. As long as I have any say in the matter, and I expect that I shall for a long, long time, the Washington Senators will stay here, too. Next year. The year after that. Forever.1
Shirley Povich’s article in Baseball Digest later that year detailed Griffith’s testimony before the U. S. Senate’s Anti-Trust Committee. There Calvin tried to backpedal, explaining that what he had said above did not mean that he would not stay should the club no longer be able to financially function in Washington.
With many large cities clamoring for major league baseball and the major leagues dragging their heals on expansion, in 1959 52-year-old New York lawyer William Shea championed the creation on of a new eight-team major league — in Shea’s case largely to replace the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants who had departed for the West Coast in 1957. The threat of Shea’s Continental League sparked further talks by the American and National Leagues regarding expansion. Part of this discussion included consideration of Minneapolis-St. Paul as an expansion site, or alternatively, as a site for relocation of Griffith’s Washington franchise. Griffith had been promised a guaranteed annual attendance of 750,000 and an estimated $430,000 media contract by the Twin Cities delegation. Part of a possible expansion plan included the addition of a new team in the nation’s capitol, as Griffith’s possible relocation of the Senators was being challenged in the courts at the time by minority owner H. Gabriel Murphy.
The next year expansion finally became a reality. The National League voted at a meeting on October 17, 1960, to expand to New York and Houston, with those teams beginning operation for the 1962 season. In a meeting on October 26, the American League voted to expand to 10 teams for the following season (1961). Calvin Griffith would be allowed to move his franchise to Minnesota, with a new American League franchise replacing his in Washington.
Success in the 1960s
The Senators were greeted warmly in Minnesota. Ticket orders rolled in well in advance of tickets going on sale for the opening of the 1961 season. Minneapolis sportswriter Sid Hartman probably put it best:
The Senators became the Minnesota Twins, moved into Met Stadium, took over the concessions business, and there were relatives all over the place: Joe Haynes, Thelma Haynes, Sherry Robertson, Billy Robertson, Jimmy Robertson. You didn’t know who was in charge of what. Your reaction was, “What is this? We didn’t get a ballclub. We got a family.” It was like being around the Beverly Hillbillies.
And then there was this guy Howard Fox. He wasn’t a relative, but he was the guy hanging out at Woodhill and Wayzata Country Clubs with Calvin. We wondered, “How does Fox fit it?”
It was an odd organization, but who cared? It was terrific to have major league baseball. The Upper Midwest went crazy, sending buses throughout the summer from every little town in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and even Montana.2
The Twins were very successful at the gate from the beginning. From 1961 though the 1970 season Minnesota topped one million in attendance each year, including totals of over 1.4 million in four of those years: 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1967. The team also showed dramatic improvement on the field. With last-place finishes in four of the last six seasons in Washington, the Twins started with a seventh-place finish in 1961 (in the expanded ten-team American League), jumping to second in 1962 and third in 1963. After a sub-par 1964 season, the Twins won the American League pennant in 1965 and came close in 1967.
Much of the improvement was due to quality players that were signed and developed in the Senators/Twins farm system, most notably Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, outfielders Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, and three-time batting champion Tony Oliva, first baseman Don Mincher, 1965 Most Valuable Player and shortstop Zoilo Versalles, and pitchers Camilo Pascual and Jim Kaat – all important members of the 1965 pennant-winning ballclub. By the end of the decade the system had also produced future Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven.
Calvin was not above interjecting his opinions or directives when it came to his managers. A commonly cited example was when he insisted that Sam Mele stick with rookie Rod Carew during the 1967 season, when Carew was making the jump from playing class A ball in 1966.
In the mid-1960s, Calvin’s son, Clark II, joined the organization. Joe Haynes passed away in 1967 due to a heart attack at age 49; Sherry Robertson died due to injuries suffered in an automobile crash in Houghton, South Dakota in 1970 at the age of 51. George Brophy took over as farm director for Sherry Robertson, and Howard Fox became even closer to Calvin as a confidant/advisor.
The Hiring/Firing of Billy Martin as Manager
Since the move to Minnesota Calvin had been though three managers. Cookie Lavagetto, the holdover manager from Washington, was dismissed during the 1961 season and replaced by coach Sam Mele. Griffith let Mele go early in the 1967 season and replaced him with coach Cal Ermer, who lasted through 1968.
To lead his club on the field, Griffith appointed Billy Martin as manager on October 11, 1968. Billy had played for the Twins in 1961, his final season as a player. In 1965 the Twins brought Martin back to the major league club as a coach–a position he held through the 1967 season. In 1968 Billy was sent to the Twins’ triple-A affiliate in Denver to manage the team.
Billy’s tenure as a coach with the Twins had been controversial–most notably his physical altercation with Traveling Secretary Howard Fox in 1966, which had carried over from a charter flight into the hotel. The two publicly made peace, but Fox would continue to dislike Martin. Another notable altercation occurred during the 1969 season when Martin fought with his own pitcher, Dave Boswell, outside a bar on August 7. This event was not popular with Calvin, who said he had warned Martin against going to the same establishments as his players before he was hired as manager. Calvin did, however, support Martin’s fine of Boswell for the incident.
The Twins won the West Division of the American League that season, the first year of divisional play, and they entered the best-of-five playoff series against the East Division champion Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles won the first two games in Baltimore by one run each and then beat the Twins at home 11-2. In the third game, Billy had chosen to start Bob Miller over Jim Kaat, a decision which Calvin let it be known that he did not approve.
According to Tom Mee, the Twin’s public-relations director at the time, the decision to fire Martin came at a meeting during the World Series in New York City on October 13. Everyone in the assembled group of six was asked to express his opinion about whether or not Martin, working 1969 under a one-year contract, should be rehired. Everyone spoke against Martin until it got to Mee. According to Mee, the “pro-Billy” people were not there–Sherry Robertson, in particular — and only Mee ended up speaking up in favor of Martin. After everyone had spoken Howard Fox called the question, saying, “Well, what are you going to do?” to Calvin, who responded, “I’m gonna fire his ass.”3
The firing was very unpopular with fans and the media. Don Riley wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press the day before the firing:
Just remember what I told you. Griffith may not be popular with the masses but I don’t believe he’s stupid. If he didn’t rehire Martin, he leaves himself open to the biggest fan revolt since Gopher [University of Minnesota] fans learned there are football fields where you can see the game for five bucks . . . 4
And in his column the day after:
Griffith couldn’t have done a more dastardly work of unpopularity if he turned down a reprieve for Joan of Arc – or got caught drilling holes in Washington’s rowboat.5
Arno Goethel, the Twins’ beat writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, added an analysis of the situation a couple days later. All the sources of conflict were mentioned: Martin’s temperament, the Howard Fox conflict, Calvin’s second-guessing of Billy’s managerial style, the fact that Billy did not have complete control over the make-up of his coaching staff, and that Martin couldn’t tolerate the nature of the Twins charter flights, which frequently included relatives and associates of Twins front office personnel. According to Tom Mee, the organization never did fully recover from the firing of Billy Martin as it moved into the 1970’s. 6
Failures in the 1970s
As Griffith searched for a replacement for Martin, he uttered one of his more memorable quotes: “I can’t tell you what I intend to do, but I can tell you one thing; it won’t be anything rational.” 7 Griffith eventually hired Bill Rigney, and in 1970 the Twins’ again won the West Division. And again they lost the American League Championship Series in three straight games to the Orioles. This was to be the Twins’ last division championship under Calvin’s ownership. Rigney survived as manager until 1972, when he was replaced in mid-season by Frank Quilici.
Aging stars combined with lack of replacements led to the Twins failures of the early 1970s. As the decade wore on, the change in baseball’s reserve system led to further problems for Calvin. He had been brought through the Nationals organization, learning from his uncle that a baseball team was operated with a bottom line, and was concerned with making a profit, not spending money that team didn’t have. Avoiding debt and interest payments were always foremost in his management style.
After 1970 the team drew over a million in attendance only twice (1977, 1979) at Metropolitan Stadium. These lower attendance figures meant less revenue for salaries, which Calvin already considered too high for mere ballplayers. Calvin reacted to the new baseball economics by futilely trying to resist changes such as salary arbitration, player agents, free agency, and the increasing importance of television revenue, which gave an advantage to teams in larger markets. As time moved on, Griffith was considered a “dinosaur” or a “vestige of yesterday” relative to the new baseball owners of the late 1970s.
On the personal side, 1974 was the year Calvin separated from his wife and moved out of his Lake Minnetonka home. Calvin had married Natalie Morris of Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1940; the couple had three children: Clark, Corinne, and Claire. The two never did reconcile or divorce.
1978 – The Lions Club Talk in Waseca
On Thursday, September 28, 1978, Calvin accepted an invitation to travel south to the rural town of Waseca, Minnesota, to spend the afternoon playing golf with his friend, sportswriter Tony Sybilrud, and speak to the Waseca Lions Club that evening.
Coincidentally, Minneapolis Tribune staff writer Nick Coleman was also in attendance that night. Coleman was not there to cover the event (Coleman lived in Rochester, Minnesota, and covered southern Minnesota for the paper) but rather a guest of his father-in-law. It was later said that during the introduction of the audience Coleman identified himself by name only and not by vocation.
The meeting proceeded in a question and answer format. Griffith began to make comments about specific players and about race in general. Coleman is quoted as saying “I was wincing the whole time thinking, you don’t want to say that.” 8 He was not there with a tape recorder or anything with which to write, so when he returned from the meeting he wrote everything down from memory. The next day he called his editors to ask if they wanted him to write a story based on what he had heard. They called back and said yes, and that it would run in the Sunday paper.
In the most damaging part of the article, Coleman detailed:
At that point, Griffith interrupted himself, lowered his voice and asked if there were any blacks around. After he looked around the room and assured himself that his audience was white, Griffith resumed his answer.
“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” he said. “It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks 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.”9
A few of the comments were specifically about Griffith’s star first baseman, Rod Carew. Calvin’s comments are believed to have underlined his dislike for agents and multi-year player contracts but clearly also impugned Carew’s intelligence:
Carew was a damn fool to sign that contract. He only gets $170,000 and we all know damn well that he’s worth a lot more than that, but that’s what his agent asked for, that’s what he gets. Last year, I thought I was generous and gave him an extra 100 grand, but this year I’m not making any money so he gets 170 – that’s it.10
This, and comments that Calvin made in general about blacks led to Carew’s public response in the papers a couple of days later on the final day of the 1978 baseball season, which also happened to be his thirty-third birthday:
I will not ever sign another contract with this organization. I don’t care how much money or how many options Calvin Griffith offers me. I definitely will not be back next year.
I will not come back and play for a bigot. I’m not going to be another nigger on his plantation.
How does he expect these players to respect the thing that’s across their chest – Twins – when it’s coming right from the top that he doesn’t care about the players?
He respects nobody and expects nobody to respect him. Spit on Calvin Griffith.11
Carew never again played for the Twins. Going into the 1979 season, at the end of which Carew would be a free agent, Griffith traded him to the California Angels for four players. Time however, softened Carew’s feelings for Calvin. In Bob Shower’s book, The Twins at the Met, Carew is included as one of the narrators. He praised Calvin for sticking with him early in his career. Recalling his Hall of Fame election, Carew also said:
When I first got the news that I was going into the Hall of Fame, he was the first person I called. It was 3 o’clock in the morning for him in Helena, Montana, and I woke him up. I called him before my mom because I owed him that much respect.12
From Calvin’s perspective the comments from the meeting were blown out of proportion and misunderstood. Also from his perspective, comments made in a Lions Club meeting were meant to stay within the walls of the Lions Club meeting. It also had been reported that Calvin had had “a few” drinks over the course of the afternoon and evening.
The Waseca talk haunted Calvin the rest of his life. Personally, I have been working in Waseca the past three years, and it appears that even the most marginal baseball fan is aware of that story of that day. Few obituaries for Calvin in 1999 were run without mention of the Waseca talk being the low point in Calvin’s career, and his life.
Calvin and His Family Business
As already alluded to, the Senators/Twins franchise under Calvin (and to some extent under his uncle) was a family business. Calvin’s son, Clark II, joined the organization in 1966. Thelma’s son, Bruce Haynes, joined the team in 1974 as farm director.
In the latter years of the Griffith-owned franchise much was made of the rift that existed between Calvin and his son. Disagreements that may have germinated when Clark did not consent to an apprenticeship in the minor leagues as his father had done, led to the elder Griffith gradually losing trust in his son’s judgments.
These disagreements manifested themselves in the organization’s response to the changing nature of the business: free agency, advertising, and negotiations between the players’ union and the representatives of management, in which Clark II played a significant role. Calvin described his relationship with Clark in a curious comment: “This is a very close-knit family. I imagine you talked to Clark yesterday, and I imagine he may have told you that we don’t talk.”13 The addition of Bruce Haynes to the executive mix further complicated the question of who would eventually inherit ultimate decision-making power after Calvin finally stepped down as president.
Move to the Metrodome, More Relocation Talk, and Sale to Carl Pohlad
Beginning in the early 1970s and fueled by the Minnesota Vikings’ desire to have a stadium with more capacity and one that could shelter the team from brutal Minnesota winter weather, talks began regarding a new domed facility for Minnesota sports teams. By 1975, the year that the Twins’ and Vikings’ leases were set to expire at Metropolitan Stadium, negotiations began in earnest.
Eventually funding for the domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis’s Industry Square location on the east side of downtown made its way through the Minnesota legislature. In July of 1979 the lease agreement was worked out with the Vikings. The Twins, on the other hand, had been sending Calvin’s son, Clark Griffith II, nephew Bruce Haynes (both Clark and Bruce were executive vice presidents), and lawyer Peter Dorsey to the lease meetings with no results. Eventually Calvin entered into the lease negotiations, landing some favorable clauses for the club:
- The Twins would get 30 percent of the stadium’s gross concession receipts up to an attendance of 1.4 million. After that they would receive 20 percent. In contrast, the Viking’s lease was for 10 percent.
- The lease contained an escape clause which allowed the team to be released from the contract if attendance fell below an average of 1.4 million for three successive years or if the team experienced net operating losses in three successive years.
- If the team could produce evidence of lack of attendance due to summer heat (the architects felt that the Metrodome, being mostly underground, would make air conditioning unnecessary), then the Twins were not bound to play in the Metrodome if the commission did not install air conditioning.
- The Twins would pay no more than $700,000 of the $1.7 million needed to build the team new offices in the Metrodome.
In 1982 the Twins moved into the Metrodome after experiencing a dismal strike-shortened 1981, both at the gate and on the field. In response Griffith unloaded five high salaried veterans — a couple of whom had just been signed to large multi-year contracts by Clark — and instead relied on group of young, untested rookies to fill out the roster. The season rivaled 1981 for results: the Twins went 60-102 and drew less than a million fans–this in their first season in a new stadium. The next season the Twins’ record improved to 70-92 but attendance slipped further to 858,939. The Twins were poised to test the three-year escape clause Calvin had negotiated.
Perhaps the most serious threat of relocation was to Tampa Bay. In 1983, Earle Halstead, Jr., retired publisher of The Baseball Blue Book, took a potential ownership group from Tampa Bay to visit Calvin in Winter Park, Florida, where Calvin stayed during spring training. The group purchased the 41 percent of the Twins owned by H. Gabriel Murphy. Their plan was then to go after Calvin or Thelma’s ownership in the Twins and offer Calvin an opportunity to continue to run the team. The move to Tampa Bay was to take place for the 1986 season. Calvin denied that any deal had been struck and further added that if anyone was going to move the team to Florida, it would be him.14
As the 1984 season proceeded, it appeared obvious that the Twins would not draw the 2.4 million fans required to bind the team to the Metrodome lease (the number needed to average the three-year total needed to meet the lease requirement), and the community began to worry. Local businessman Harvey Mackay organized a ticket buyout that would eliminate the escape clause and force Calvin to sell to a local buyer. Calvin claimed that this attempt, in the end, was in vain, as he could still have claimed net operating losses over the three seasons at the Metrodome.
Griffith contended he felt a loyalty toward Minnesota and in the end wanted to sell to a Minnesota buyer and keep the team in the Twin Cities. He ended up selling the club to local businessman Carl Pohlad for a price of $32 million in payments and salaries over a period of 20 years. Calvin thought Pohlad was also buying his management team, but in the end few were held over from the Griffith ownership. After the sale he had an office in the Metrodome but was never involved in any decisions. In the end, Calvin had not only brought major league baseball to Minnesota but also allowed it to stay there.
Three years later, when the Twins won their first World Series, it was with a core of players from the 1982 team. Both 1982 and 1987 rosters included Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, Tim Laudner, Frank Viola, and Randy Bush. Twins farmhands Kirby Puckett, Greg Gagne, Gene Larkin, and Mark Davidson also played key roles on the 1987 World Champions. The new management had also reacquired former Griffith-era stars Bert Blyleven and Roy Smalley.
Griffith died October 20, 1999, at the age of 87 due to a kidney infection, 15 years after he had sold his interest in the ballclub that was his life. He is buried outside Washington, D.C.
KEVIN HENNESSY has been a member of SABR and the Halsey Hall Chapter since 1997. He lives in St. Paul.
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Washington Post. “Clark Griffith Brings Home 5 More Children to Adopt.” November 24, 1925.
1 Calvin Griffith.
2 Hartman, 95-96.
4 Riley, October 13, 1969.
5 Riley, October 14, 1969.
7 Kerr, 88.
12 Showers, 64.
14 Andelman, 34.