Today’s generation probably doesn’t know much about Calvin Griffith, other than seeing the big headlines in the local papers about his death early yesterday.
Griffith was a local hero back in 1960, when his Washington Senators couldn’t pay people to go see a team stuck in the American League cellar since Normandy. He announced the relocation of the Senators to Minnesota a few months before the arrival of the Vikings.
“The people in Minnesota were trying to get a baseball club for so many years,” Griffith said back in 1995. “They were on the verge of getting one several times. Then the Giants went to California, Cleveland stayed and the White Sox stayed in Chicago.
“Minnesota fans got disappointed so many times, when they got a team, they wanted to show their appreciation.”
The Twins climaxed that appreciation with a World Series berth in 1965.
Griffith had a five-year honeymoon in Minnesota. All owners have one. And like all owners, he was soon put on the dark side of the moon.
Griffith’s no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip style and demeanor caught up with him in the 1970s.
“Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant they’ll scare you to death,” Griffith told a rotary club in 1978. “We came to Minnesota because you’ve got good, hard-working white people here.”
He claimed he was taken out of context, but his resignation was immediately demanded. Rod Carew, whose contract was almost up at the time, said, “I’m not going to be another nigger on his plantation.” Carew was gone.
Often times Griffith shot himself in the foot, but he was also a visionary. In the 1970s he saw that free agency could destroy baseball; it was certainly destroying his team.
After the players’ strike in 1981 and years of baseball comedy on the field, Griffith had had enough of the game’s operation. He was against indoor baseball and the need for constant advertising and marketing.
“If you have a good product, you really don’t have to advertise it,” he said.
Griffith sold the team to Carl Pohlad in September of 1984 and cried when the papers were signed.
Pohlad and Andy MacPhail defied baseball economics (among other things) by winning the World Series in 1987.
The nucleus of that team arrived because Griffith’s best players were free agents in 1982 and their desired income was far bigger than what Griffith could, or believed he could, be paid.
Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, Kirby Puckett — all products of Griffith’s minor league system.
Griffith was, in essence, a foreshadower. He proved to us that owners should never expect to be loved all the time while owning a franchise. His relationship with the community ran hot and cold, but he became a nostalgic symbol for the days of the Old Met, Carew, Oliva and Kaat.
He told us some 25 years ago that baseball was doomed for small-market teams.
“The salaries and everything else was just getting way out of line. We couldn’t hang on.”
Today the Twins still can’t hang on, but why didn’t we listen? He always had plenty to say, the trouble was figuring out when to listen.
Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]