This article was published in the Atlantic Monthly of August 1981.
There was no snow on the ground when the baseball season started in Minnesota this year. The air was bright and warm for a change, and, for another change, the advance ticket sale promised a large crowd for the Minnesota Twins' game against the Oakland A's. Calvin Griffith, the president of the Twins, always gets a bit nervous on Opening Day, so he arrived at Metropolitan Stadium early, a little before ten in the morning, and went straight to his baseball museum of an office, down a long corridor lined with photographs of U.S. Presidents throwing out the first balls of baseball seasons past. Most of the photos were taken at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., when his uncle and foster father, Clark Griffith, the originator of the first-ball tradition, was the owner of the Washington Senators. At the Richard Nixon end of the Presidents' gallery (Jimmy Carter never bothered, and Ronald Reagan was indisposed), was an almost-life-size painting of Walter Johnson, "the Big Train," whose legendary fast ball was the Senators' meal ticket from 1907 to 1927; Johnson won the seventh game of the World Series for the Senators in 1924, when Calvin Griffith was the team's bat boy. On an inside wall, a framed newspaper page proclaimed the Twins champions of the American League for 1965; that was just five seasons after Griffith had moved the Senators to the "upper Midwest," as they call it, when the people of Minnesota still loved their Twins and Griffith was Major League Executive of the Year -- a long time ago, in other words.
This year's Opening Day was Calvin Griffith's twenty-first in Minnesota, his last in Metropolitan Stadium, and his first as the unlikeliest new member of baseball's big-spending fraternity. Next season, if construction continues apace, the Twins will move from the "Met," a tidy, comfortable park in the suburban sprawl just south of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a bowl of poured concrete that is rising out of what used to be called Industry Square, in downtown Minneapolis. It isn't rising very high: only the top tier of seats is above street level, and the playing surface is some forty-seven feet below. Griffith, who still speaks fondly of the days when every game was played in sunlight, is not very enthusiastic about the prospect of watching baseball in a basement, but something had to be done to improve the Twins' pitiful attendance figures, and, after balking and stuttering and giving the developers fits, he finally agreed that the domed stadium might be it. In the summer of 1979, he committed his club to a thirty-year stay in the Metrodome, and then, over the winter of 1980-1981 -- to give Minnesota's apparently dwindling population of baseball fans something to see in the place -- he signed Butch Wynegar, a strong young catcher, and Roy Smalley, a hard-hitting shortstop, to long-term contracts estimated to be worth a total of $4,650,000.
This was quite a departure from Griffith's stripped-down, Mom-and-Pop, cash-on-the-barrelhead style of operation, and the local press, which for years had been describing him as an anachronism, a cheapskate, and, occasionally, a Neanderthal, reacted with self-satisfied shock. Calvin Griffith was "the last of the pure baseball men": he financed his operation solely on baseball revenues, he depended for his livelihood on what was left over, and he still believed that baseball was a game of sacrifice bunts and runs batted in, not an "entertainment business" of high-salaried stars, tax write-offs, strikes, court battles, and public-relations strategy. With his sister Thelma, co-owner; and his son, Clark, and Thelma's son, Bruce, executive vice presidents; and his brothers Billy and Jimmy, vice presidents; and his nephew Tommy Cronin, sales and advertising manager; and his hot-dog-selling nieces Joie and Kim and Nancy, and who knows how many others, Griffith had held out stubbornly against the forces of change in baseball. Now, it seemed, he had finally realized that he had only two alternatives, and, finding one of them unthinkable, he had marshaled his meager resources and readied himself for a season of battle with the monied powers of the American League's Western Division: Gene Autry's Angels of California (Golden West Broadcasters), Walter Haas and Roy Eisenhardt's A's of Oakland (Levi Strauss), Jerry Reinsdorf's White Sox of Chicago (Balcor Company, real estate), Ewing Kauffman's Royals of Kansas City (Marion Laboratories, pharmaceuticals), Eddie Chiles's Rangers of Texas (Western Company of North America, oil-drilling services), and George Argyros's Mariners of Seattle (Arnel Development Corporation, real estate). At the age of sixty-nine, after almost sixty years in the game, Calvin Griffith walked into his office on Opening Day, the lone survivor of a doomed species. Sitting down behind a desktop flotilla of inscribed pencil cups, paperweights, and no fewer than four nameplates identifying him as "Calvin Griffith," he reached for an insulated pot on his desk and spilled about two cups of hot coffee into his lap. A team physician, summoned from the basement of the stadium, pronounced the injury not serious -- a first-degree burn -- and sprayed a sunburn remedy on his legs. Then Griffith changed into a dry blue suit and sat down to start the season.
There wasn't much for him to do. Five or six years ago he did a little bit of everything in the organization, but now an executive committee composed of his son, Thelma's son, and the traveling secretary, Howard Fox, who joined the Griffith family as a farm-team business manager in 1947, handles many of the day-to-day chores. Griffith took a few phone calls and received a few visitors, but mostly he flipped distractedly through his mail and waited. A television crew came in to interview him for a local "magazine" show, and he showed them a baseball autographed by a left-handed pitcher named -- as he pronounced it -- "Fie-del Castro." He explained that Fie-del had been scouted by the Senators in the forties but didn't have a major-league fast ball; the ball had been obtained by two of Griffith's Cuban players, Pedro Ramos and Camilo Pascual, and the FBI had visited his office once to have a look at the signature. Later came a phone call from Roy Eisenhardt, the new president of the Oakland A's. Griffith exchanged Opening Day good cheer with the rookie owner, telling him he'd have a lot of fun with his new ball club and assuring him that the Kansas City Royals, who had beaten the A's for the Western Division championship in 1980, couldn't possibly have as good a year in 1981. He gripped the phone by its shoulder holder and held the mouthpiece a few inches from his lips -- he tends to talk rather loudly on the telephone -- and when the conversation was over, he hung up muttering to himself: "Mmmm. That's unusual." He always asked his well-wishers how they were feeling. He always greeted them by their first names, and they usually reciprocated. He spat into his wastebasket, with the precision that seems to be in baseball men's genes, and said he would feel a hell of a lot better once the damn game got started.
Fathers and Sons: Calvin and the Old Fox
In 1929, not long after he had bought controlling interest in the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, at the age of fifty-three, set out to acquire himself a son. He and his wife, Addie, were unable to have children of their own, but Addie's sister Jane, in Montreal, had seven of them, and her husband was ill, so Calvin and Thelma Robertson -- the second-and third-oldest of the children -- went to Washington and became Calvin and Thelma Griffith. Within a year, their natural father died, whereupon Clark Griffith brought the rest of the Robertson clan to Washington and set them up in a house of their own. Calvin and Thelma, though, stayed with him.
As principal owner and president of the Senators, Clark Griffith was nearing the high point of a baseball career that he had begun at the age of seventeen, when he received ten dollars to pitch a local grudge game for a team in Hoopeston, Illinois. He played in several of the underfinanced and poorly organized baseball leagues of his time, including the American Association, the "major" league that folded in 1891. By 1893 he was with the major league -- the National League -- pitching for the Chicago Colts (later named the Cubs). Clark Griffith was slight and didn't have much of a fast ball, but he was precise and cunning. He claimed to have invented the screwball, and he was reputedly an expert at tampering with the ball, which was then legal. By the time he was twenty-five they were calling him "the Old Fox." When Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey declared competitive war on the National League, in 1900, they enlisted Griffith's aid in signing name players to their new American League. He was an established star by this time, and (ironically, in view of later developments) he was active in an early players' association that had organized to oppose the low pay and high-handed tactics of the National League monopolists. Promising better salaries and working conditions, Griffith raided the National League teams and relieved them of thirty-nine of their top players. In 1901, as player-manager of Comiskey's Chicago White Sox, he had a record of 24-7 and won the American League pennant. Two years later, the baseball war having ended, Griffith was dispatched to New York to establish a rival to the National League's Giants. He pitched for and managed the New York Highlanders, later called the Yankees, and he stayed there through the middle of the 1908 season. Next he managed the Cincinnati Reds for a couple of years, and then, before the season in 1912, he joined the Senators as manager and 10 percent owner. Seven years later, he borrowed $87,000 and bought enough stock in the franchise to install himself as president. In 1921, he passed his field-manager's chores on to a younger man, and a year after that his heirs arrived from Montreal.
Calvin Griffith didn't know very much about baseball when he came to Washington. "They didn't have any baseball for kids up there in Montreal in those days," he has recalled. "Everything was hockey -- hockey, hockey, hockey." Clark Griffith, who was also called "Teach" by his ballplayers, began young Calvin's education immediately. Calvin became the Senators' bat boy in 1923, and the following winter he listened in while Clark Griffith plotted the world championship campaign of 1924. "He used to have a habit all winter long of sitting down trying to work out deals with other clubs," Griffith says of his foster father. "He would write lineups -- he would write 101 lineups a week trying to figure out, well, we need this guy, we need this guy …. And he would talk to you about these things, what he was trying to do, why we needed this and why we needed that. I was just a kid, but he would keep on talking. And you'd go to the ball park and he'd tell you about this and about that -- look at that guy's feet, look at that guy's arm, when you're catching you're supposed to observe how the people go into the box because you can get a pretty good idea if they're gonna bunt or if they're gonna hit. Every one of them would have some peculiarity, they would give away a lot of things."
Calvin, a catcher, played ball at Staunton Military Academy, in Virginia, and later at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He was named captain of the George Washington team in his junior year there, but he was growing impatient with book learning and asked his foster father if he couldn't do some day-to-day baseball work instead. That may have been just what the old man wanted to hear. He sent Calvin to the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Senators' Southern Association farm team, as secretary-treasurer. Three years later, in 1938, Calvin went to the Charlotte Hornets, in the Piedmont League, as club president and field manager; he won the league championship in his first year. He remained a minor-leaguer until the end of Charlotte's 1941 season, when he went back to Griffith Stadium to take over the concessions operation.
Before Griffith left Washington, his older sister, Mildred, working as Uncle Clark's personal secretary, met and married Joe Cronin, the popular shortstop and manager of the Senators, who later became president of the American League. By the time Griffith returned, Thelma had stepped into Mildred's job and had become engaged to the pitcher Joe Haynes. Things were not going as well on the field or at the gate, however. The glow of the Senators' last pennant, won under Cronin in 1933, had long since dimmed. Attendance had never been spectacular in Washington -- Griffith says the club drew a million only once in the family's fifty years there -- and the Old Fox was developing a reputation for tightfistedness. When Clark Griffith died in 1955, he left Calvin and Thelma majority interest -- about 26 percent each -- in a troubled franchise. They tried various ways to turn the club around: they brought in the outfield fences to satisfy the fens' appetite for home runs, and they began selling beer, a practice that Clark Griffith had never abided. Calvin Griffith, meanwhile, was receiving eager visitors from the Twin Cities, and he began keeping charts on the Minnesota weather.
When the American League installed an expansion team in Washington and granted Griffith permission to move to Minnesota for the 1961 season, he was greeted there as a hero, the bearer of big-time baseball to a self-conscious city that wanted badly to be "major league." One of the newspapers ran a color spread on the house that he and his wife, Natalie, bought on Lake Minnetonka; Griffith gave speeches and received honorary keys and was named state chairman of the Christmas Seal campaign. The team made money, which Griffith wisely stashed away for the future. Suspecting his 1964 team was a contender, he re-enacted his uncle's canny strategies of forty-one years earlier. He bought Al Worthington and Johnny Klippstein, both relief pitchers, and then sat back to enjoy the glory of his pennant-winning team of 1965, which played out seven games in the World Series before being defeated by the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers. After the American League split into two divisions, his club won divisional championships in 1969 and 1970, but the euphoria of championship seasons wore off even faster in Minnesota than it had in Washington. In the early seventies, the star players of the Twins' glory days -- Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Tony Oliva -- were either gone or beyond their prime, and attendance, consistently more than a million in the franchise's first decade in Minnesota, began falling off. Griffith, who was able to boast in the sixties of having one of the highest player payrolls in the league, responded by tightening his belt, trading or releasing established players when their salary demands became too much for him. When baseball's reserve system was abolished in 1976, setting players free to seek their worth on an open market, the Twins became a farm team to the rest of big-league baseball. The sporting press became critical; the fans grew bitter and stayed home. But Clark Griffith had taught his heir only one business, and only one way to run it: "He told me don't do anything unless you have the money to do it." And that, as Calvin Griffith would say, was it.
By the fourth day of the 1981 season, the Twins were in last place in the American League West, with a record of no wins, three losses. The Oakland A's were in first -- three wins, no losses. Before that day was over, Ken Landreaux, who had been traded by the Twins during spring training for Los Angeles Lodger Mickey Hatcher -- a young, eager, and inexpensive ballplayer, more Griffith's type of player -- hit a double and a two-run homer to lead the Dodgers to a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros. Mike Cubbage, who after five years with the Twins had signed on with the New York Mets for $150,000 a year -- more than Griffith thought he was worth -- stroked a pinch-hit sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth to drive home the winning run in the Mets' 2-1 defeat of the Chicago Cubs. Rod Carew, the seven-time American League batting champion, traded by the Twins to California in 1979 -- a year before he became eligible for free agency -- stole home with two out in the ninth inning to break a 6-6 tie with the Seattle Mariners, and the Angels went on to win the game, 8-6. In Minnesota, meanwhile, the Twins were up against the scratch-and-run, anything-goes "Billy Ball" of Oakland manager Billy Martin, who was first employed as a major-league manager by Griffith, in 1969. The Twins won the Western Division championship that year, and Martin, wildly popular with the Minnesota fans and press, was fired on October 13, after the World Series.
Only 5,639 people thought the Twins' Sunday-afternoon game worth attending -- the 42,658 who had come on Opening Day were rapidly being averaged into oblivion -- but Griffith, number-one fan, presided over them as he always does, from a private eight-seat box on the third level of the stadium, over the first-base line. The box is enclosed in glass, with front panels that can be opened when the weather in Minnesota allows -- say, June or July. Griffith sat in his regular corner, the one farthest from home plate, and his regular refreshment was waiting for him when he arrived: a can of Fresca, with two cups, one inside the other, the inner one filled with ice. Howard Fox, who seems to be Griffith's most trusted confidant and adviser, was also in the box, with a newspaper and a scorepad. Members of Griffith's extended family were elsewhere, as usual, but as usual plenty of comrades were in the grandstand seats just below the box. The people who sit there seem to be acutely aware of Griffith's presence behind them; when they want someone in front of them to sit down, they yell, "Down in front! Calvin wants to see the game!" or "Siddown, that comes right from the top!" Occasionally, when an umpire makes a questionable call against the Twins, one or two will stand up, turn around to face Griffith, spread their arms wide, and shake their heads vigorously in sympathy, exaggeratedly mouthing some expression of dismay. Often, a couple of teenage boys find their way to the back door of the box and come in to say hello or beg an autograph. "Don't you ever sell this team," they tell him. "We're with you a hundred percent." "I'm for ya," Griffith replies. "I don't want to sell it. Thank you."
There were plenty of distractions that Sunday, but Griffith rarely missed an important event on the field. After the first inning -- the A's scored one run on a Rickey Henderson double, a sacrifice bunt, and a single by Dave Revering -- Howard Fox passed Griffith his copy of Parade magazine, in a way that suggested it was a Sunday tradition, and Griffith pored through it eagerly, commenting on this article and that advertisement. "Mmmm … King Hussein has a food taster …Can you believe that the IRS can pull you out of your own automobile? Look at this" -- he held up the magazine -- "they dragged this girl right out of her automobile for not paying her taxes. Boy, I knew they were something, but I didn't know they could go that far. I'm gonna have to read this one. C'mon, Jackson, drive a run in in April this year instead of waiting till May."
Griffith had his head buried in a stat sheet when Mickey Hatcher, playing center field after a couple of shaky starts at first base, came to bat in the Twins' half of the third. Hatcher hit a hard grounder down the third-base line, took off for first as Wayne Gross fielded the ball on a high hop, and then, as Gross's throw was speeding across the diamond, stopped in mid-stride and turned back toward the plate. A voice from the back of the box asked what in the world was going on, and Griffith, without having noticeably lifted his eye from his reading material, explained that it was a foul ball.
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.
Clark Griffith and I watched a Saturday-afternoon ball game together, and he appeared to be quite interested in what went on between the white lines. Accompanied by his eight-year-old son, Clarkie, and a friend of Clarkie's named Peter, we sat directly behind home plate, among a group of regulars and old- timers with whom Griffith was obviously familiar and friendly. He bought peanuts, joked with his neighbors, and cheered and hollered at the events on the field. The game was dismal -- the Twins collected only six hits and went down 3-0 -- and the day was not much better: gray, cool, and constantly threatening rain. I asked Clark a few questions about his father, but on this subject he was not very expansive. Could he tell me anything about his parents' separation? "I think there was a basic lack of communication and compatibility there." Did he think his father was a lonely man? "I don't know if he's lonely or not. You know, that might be a choice he makes." What makes him tick? What's the most important thing in his life? "I don't know what makes him tick. If you mean what kind of stuff he thrives on, I think he likes watching baseball games." He's taken a lot of flak over the years… "I think he enjoys taking flak." If Clark owned the team, would he be likely to hold on as long and tenaciously as his father has? "I think that there are many things a person can do in life, and I think doing something different might be interesting at some future date -- either a different job within the business, or something totally different. I think it would be exhilarating." What about young Clarkie, who was sitting behind us and rapidly losing interest in the game -- was it conceivable that someday he would own a baseball team? "No." My face must have expressed surprise at the quickness of his answer. "Well," Clark said, turning in his seat to ruffle his son's hair, "that depends on him. Right?"
A light rain had begun to fall, and young Clarkie, who for several innings had been lobbying for a trip upstairs to the glassed-in boxes, finally got his wish. We took an elevator to the third level of the stadium, and Clark led us into the booth next to his father's. No word or gesture of greeting passed between father and son, or between grandfather and grandson. Clark Griffith chatted with a radio reporter about Mark Funderburk, a young, power-hitting outfielder whom the Twins were bringing along at their AAA farm team in Toledo, and Clarkie and Peter played a rhyming kids' game that ended with the exclamation "Bellyache!" Calvin Griffith, meanwhile, sat in his corner and talked with a couple of boys wearing baseball hats. It was impossible to hear what they were saying through the glass wall that separated the booths, but it was probably something like "We're with you a hundred percent"…"Thank you."
"This is a very close-knit family," Calvin Griffith told me the next day. "I imagine you talked to Clark yesterday, and I imagine he may have told you that we don't talk." (He hadn't told me, but he didn't have to.) "He's just like all other young ones, just like I was, you know. I thought I could do a lot of things different from Clark Griffith." I asked if he meant that his relationship with his foster father had been like Clark's relationship with him. "No," he said. "Mine was so admirable you wouldn't believe it. I appreciated what happened to me … I hugged him and everything else, thanked him when he did something especially nice for me, something like that … I don't know what would have happened to me if it hadn't been for Clark Griffith. I had everything going for me. Not many people are that lucky."
Calvin's son had pushed hard for the new stadium deal, and Calvin had made him look silly by almost backing out -- or appearing to almost back out -- at the last minute. The two have also disagreed, according to Calvin, on how aggressively the team should be advertised in the local media. When I asked if anything in particular had caused a falling-out, Calvin answered that he thought his son was angry with him over the Smalley and Wynegar signings. He admitted that he had originally opposed the signings, but he resented the notion that his son was leading the Twins out of the Stone Age, and apparently told him so. "I read things in the paper where Clark is taking credit for this and for that, and it's not that I'm jealous or anything like that -- I get my name in print fifteen times more than Clark does -- but I just hate to be second-guessed. I don't think I should sit back and allow somebody to say they do this and they do that when they don't do it. And I said, Clark, just remember, no matter what you try to tell me, if your father don't think it's justified, I'm not gonna do it. Because I been in this game a whole many years longer than you . . . When the day comes when I get senile, then you can remove me from the office. But I'm not senile and I want to be a fighter to the nth degree, and that's it. I am the boss, and I'm the only one in this organization that can hire and fire people as I desire."
"Clark," he said, "is a person who lives by the credit card, and I am a person who lives by cash. Cash on the barrelhead and that's it."
Seattle was clear and gorgeous when the Twins opened their two-game series there. From their hotel, you could see Mount Rainier thrusting majestically up out of the horizon, and Calvin Griffith remarked on it several times as Howard Fox -- who often calls Griffith "Boss" and is his constant companion on the road -- drove us downtown to the Kingdome. Even though his team was still seeking its first victory of the year, Griffith was in good humor, carrying on like a kid walking through an amusement park, taking in everything and commenting on as much as possible. It was my first time in Seattle, and it seemed that he didn't want me to miss anything. As we approached the stadium it was late afternoon; the sun was sitting low over Puget Sound, causing a few big white clouds to pop right out of the sky. Griffith, full of enthusiasm for the buds and trees and sparkling air, proclaimed it a beautiful day for a ball game, and we went indoors to see one.
From a box over third base, he watched his players take batting practice on the green rug below while a PA system filled the empty arena with a Top-40 song by Christopher Cross. It was eerie. In the Kingdome's notoriously still air, hits that looked and sounded like pop flies kept falling into the outfield seats. Real pop flies disappeared into the lights and the white ceiling. "I don't like it myself," Griffith said glumly, contemplating his future in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, "but what're you gonna do? This'll give us a chance to play eighty-one games in Minnesota, with no rainouts and everything else. We play so many games in Minnesota that we shouldn't play. We shouldn't play a game when it's 40 degrees, but you have to do it because otherwise you'd lose fifteen, twenty games a year." Last year the Twins lost seven games to the Minnesota weather. That figure may not seem excessive, but club officials point out that bad weather is more damaging in sparsely populated Minnesota than it might be elsewhere. They know that a significant number of their fans come, or came, from considerable distances -- the Dakotas, Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, even Montana -- and they fear that uncertainty over the weather is keeping some of those long-distance fans away: if the game you've driven 150 miles to see is rained out, you might think twice before making the trip again.
Griffith was sure that the new stadium would help on that score, but he was apprehensive nonetheless. When he moved to Minnesota from Washington, the eager leaders of the Twin Cities area gave him the contract to sell all the beer and bratwurst in Metropolitan Stadium, a right that he had enjoyed in Washington and that had, over the years, pulled the family through more than one lean season. In the new stadium the Twins will receive only 30 percent of the concession profits, and both Griffith and the stadium commission say the Twins will have to draw about 1.4 million fans a year to make a go of it.
Last year they drew 769,206, the lowest attendance in the major leagues. And that's not all Griffith was worried about: as he looked down on the Kingdome playing surface, traversed by ugly seams that can send a ball skipping any which way, he said he had no idea what the physical characteristics of the new stadium would be. Will balls carry well there, as they do in Seattle, or will they die in midair, as they do in Houston's Astrodome, where only forty-eight home runs were hit all last year? Griffith has had his scouts looking for players who will do well on artificial turf -- strong arms, "jackrabbits," and boys who "have a lot of cat in 'em" -- but if the air in the arena turns out to be hot and light, he'll wish he had signed some home-run hitters instead. Then again if the Twins draw 700,000 for a couple of years in a row, home runs will be the least of his problems.
Of course, in Seattle, where it rains almost constantly, they love their dome, and on this visit Griffith was encouraged to hear, over and over again, about the benefits of indoor baseball. Perhaps he was also encouraged by the evening's proceedings on the field. Roy Smalley was batting .077 when he stepped up to the plate in the top of the first with a man on second, but the Kingdome is a place where he loves to hit. After taking one strike from the Seattle pitcher Glenn Abbott, he stroked a double down the first-base line to put the Twins ahead 1-0. In the sixth, after the Mariners scored on a double, a single, and a passed ball, Smalley came up again and Griffith said, "C'mon, Smalley, let's get that run back." Smalley hit a home run into the first row of seats in left field, and Griffith beamed. "See, all you have to do is talk to 'em!" The first baseman, Ron Jackson, hit two homers that night -- at last, the Twins were beginning to look like hitters -- and when it was over Griffith had a 5-4 victory to celebrate.
Smalley hit another homer the next night, but Griffith didn't get nearly as exercised over that as he did when Dave Engle, a young outfielder obtained in the Rod Carew trade, made his first major-league hit, a double, in the eighth. "Get the ball for him, get the ball for him," Griffith muttered as the ball came in from the outfield. When it looked as though the first-base umpire might throw it back to the mound, his voice grew urgent. "Will somebody get the goddamn ball for him!" Finally, the Twins coach Karl Kuehl popped out of the dugout and secured Engle's memento. "Attaboy, Kuehl." The Twins lost, 6-5, and it was on to California.
Fathers and Sons: Calvin and the Natural Hitter
In 1964, Calvin Griffith found himself a young man, Rod Carew, who would later, according to both Calvin and his sister Thelma, call him his "second father." Carew was a lonely kid of eighteen at the time. Two years before, he had emigrated with his mother from Panama to New York City. He and his father were not close. Griffith told me about Carew one night as we sat in Anaheim Stadium, which became Carew's baseball home in 1979.
"We have a scout who is a detective in New York City -- Herb Stein, still works for us. And he was a subway detective. And he used to go through all these neighborhoods and everything else, and somebody told him about this kid up there who played stickball. So he went and saw this boy and he liked the action of him and everything else. We were coming into New York, and I even went myself to New York, and I despise New York -- but I went to New York on this one trip and we gave the kid a uniform and let him go out there and take batting practice, and he was only up to bat around four or five swings and we said take him in the clubhouse, don't let anybody else see him." Griffith is widely reputed to be one of baseball's most astute judges of raw talent, so I asked him what he saw in the young Carew after only four or five swings. Like many baseball men, he couldn't put it into words. "I just saw the stroke in there, I just saw the stroke that he had …He was just a natural hitter. You don't find many like that."
Carew spent about two and a half years in the Twins farm system, and he would have spent more but for Griffith's intervention. After seeing Carew play in spring training in 1967, the Twins manager, Sam Mele, wanted to send him down to the Twins AA farm team in Charlotte, North Carolina. Griffith, who claims he'd done this only once before in his baseball career -- with Harmon Killebrew -- pulled rank. "I said oh no, you're not gonna send him to Charlotte, you're gonna put him at second base and let him go. I said I think he's a major-league ballplayer and I want to see him get a chance. No experience, the manager said, no experience. I said we'll give him the experience up here in the big show. He made the All-Star team that year" -- and he has been a perennial All-Star since.
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 -- his "option" year -- 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.
Copyright © 1981 by Michael Lenehan. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1981; Volume 248, No. 2; pages 35-49.