Calvin Griffith

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Calvin Robertson Griffith
born Calvin Griffith Robertson

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Biographical information[edit]

Calvin Griffith was born Calvin Robertson in Montreal, QC, in 1911, the son of James Robertson and Jane Davies. He was one of seven children, two girls and five boys. His oldest sister, Mildred, would marry Joe Cronin, while the younger Thelma would marry Joe Haynes, both Washington Senators players. His younger brother Sherry Robertson became a player and would play for his brother in the minor leagues.

His father was an alcoholic and had trouble providing for the family. His mother's sister, Addie, who was married to Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, visited the family in 1922 and saw the distress they were in. She decided to take Calvin, then aged 11, and his younger sister Thelma, then 9, to Washington, DC to be raised by the Griffiths. When his father died in 1923, the rest of the family also moved south. Calvin was never formally adopted by Clark Griffith, but did change his name.

As soon as he moved to Washington, Calvin worked as a batboy for the Senators in 1922 and continued in the role until their World Series-winning season in 1924. He attended a nearby military academy during high school, then enrolled in George Washington University, spending two years there. He played baseball in both high school and college.

In 1935, Calvin Griffith was sent by his uncle to work for one of the Senators' farm teams, the Chattanooga Lookouts, as secretary-treasurer. By the end of 1937, he was running the business side of the team and managing it as well. From 1938 to 1941, Griffith was general manager and manager of the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League. In 1938, the team finished second, but won the playoffs. Griffith then returned to Washington as Head of Concessions for the Senators. He then gradually took over his uncle's responsibilities, attending league meetings, making player trades and negotiating media contracts.

When Clark Griffith died on October 27, 1955, Griffith was elected President of the team. He named a number of his relatives to positions of responsibility, including his brother Sherry as assistant farm director, his brother-in-law Joe Haynes as minor league pitching instructor, and his two youngest brothers, Billy and Jimmy, as supervisor of Griffith Stadium and director of concessions, respectively. He and Thelma owned 52% of the team, which had no debts. The team would essentially be operated as a family-run small business until finally sold to outside investors in 1984.

The team which Calvin inherited had suffered through many years of poor performance, with poor attendance being the result. Almost as soon as he took over, rumors began to circulate that he was seeking greener pastures, perhaps on the west coast or in the midwest. But Calvin reassured the press that he was a hometown boy and that he intended to keep the club in the city. However, he kept a door open, claiming that he would change his mind only if financial circumstances forced him to do so. And a delegation from the twin cities of Minneapolis, MN and St. Paul, MN, who had been angling for a major league team for a few years, opened his mind by guaranteeing him $430,000 in annual revenues and an attendance of 750,000. The big hiccup was how to move a team out of the Nation's capital without stoking Congress's anger, but by then both major leagues were contemplating expansion, and a deal was struck that Griffith could move his team, while an expansion franchise would fill the void left behind in Washington.

Thus, in 1961, he moved the club to Minnesota, where they became the Minnesota Twins. The family nature of the business was a bit puzzling for the locals, but attendance was excellent in the team's first years, topping 1 million every year from 1961 to 1970. Led by slugger Harmon Killebrew, the team improved on the field in Minnesota, and they reached the World Series in 1965, losing a closely fought series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They also lost out on the pennant on the last week-end of the 1967 season, in a dramatic four-team pennant race, then won the first two NL West division titles after the American League split into two divisions in 1969. Griffith was still making player personnel decisions in those days, for example telling manager Sam Mele to play rookie Rod Carew in 1967, even though he was making the jump from Class A ball. There were changes to the family in those years, as Haynes died of a heart attack in 1967, while Sherry Robertson was the victim of an automobile accident three years later. Calvin brought in his son, Clark Griffith II to work for the team, as well as close friend Howard Fox, a golfing buddy from his Washington days, who became his prime confidant and advisor. In 1974, Bruce Haynes, Joe's son and Calvin's nephew, became the farm director.

One of the first unpopular moves which Griffith made in Minnesota was firing manager Billy Martin after he had led the Twins to a division title in his first season at the helm in 1969. Calvin was mad at him for getting into a fistfight in a bar with star pitcher Dave Boswell during the season, and then for passing over Jim Kaat in favor of Bob Miller in Game 3 of the 1969 ALCS, which the Twins lost, 11-2, to the Baltimore Orioles. Even though the Twins won the title again under new manager Bill Rigney in 1970, the magic began to fade. By the mid-1970s, Calvin began to lose step with the times, decrying the advent of free agency and the rise in player salaries. As the last owner to live essentially from the revenues generated by the team, he was not prepared to go into debt to improve the product on the field, and let many of his star players walk away as free agents, beginning with Bill Campbell, Lyman Bostock and Larry Hisle. In what became symbolic of his now out-of-touch nature, he gave a speech at the Waseca, MN Lions Club late in the 1978 season, where he stated that he had moved to Minnesota because there were not any black people there, and also proceeded to insult Carew, the team's biggest star with whom he was in contract negotiations at the time, in the process. Carew vowed to never again play for the Twins, and the team had no choice but to trade him to the California Angels. The Waseca talk, given when he had had too much to drink and was unaware that a journalist was in the room, haunted Griffith for the rest of his life.

Problems for Calvin became more acute after his separation from his wife in 1974, and his gradual estrangement from his son Clark, even though he was a key player in the Twins' front office. Calvin did not appreciate that his son had refused to follow an apprenticeship in the minor leagues, as he had done, and mistrusted his judgment. For his part, Clark considered that his father had no understanding of the current state of baseball economics. When the Minnesota legislature decided to build a new indoor stadium to host the Minnesota Vikings and possibly the Twins, Calvin took over the negotiations on the team's lease after Clark and Bruce Haynes had failed to reach an agreement. He managed to extract a number of concessions from the state, who were anxious to have the Twins as a tenant, including an escape clause if attendance did not reach an average of 1.4 million during any three consecutive years. The team moved into the Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome on opening day in 1982, but attendance did not follow: after drawing over 50,000 for its opening game, there were barely 5000 persons in the stands for the second game. Of course, the product on the field was less than appealing, as almost all of the team's talented veterans had left, and Griffith proceeded to trade the few remaining (Roy Smalley, Roger Erickson, Butch Wynegar...) in the first weeks of the season. The Twins went 60-102 after threatening the 1962 Mets' record for futility in the early months, and as a result drew less than a million fans, then the very young team drew even fewer fans in 1983. By then, in was clear that the escape clause on the lease was in danger of being used. A group from the Tampa Bay area was looking to bring the team to Florida, and even bought out one of the team's minority owners, controlling 41% of the shares. Local businessmen rallied to buy rafts of cheap seats in the Metrodome to artificially boost attendance numbers in 1984 in order to avoid the clause kicking in. In the end, Griffith sold the Twins to local businessman Carl Pohlad for $32 million later that year. But Calvin had the last laugh, since the team of youngsters he had assembled on the cheap suddenly became good that season, and would form the core of the 1987 World Series-winning team. Griffith kept an office at the Metrodome for a few years after selling the team, but was not involved in any decisions anymore, and his hand-picked successor as GM, his close friend Howard Fox, was soon out as well, replaced by 32-year-old Andy MacPhail.

Griffith died of a kidney infection at age 87 on October 20, 1999. He was buried near Washington.

In 2020, the Twins removed a statue of him, citing his racism; it was during a period when many statues honoring Confederate rebel leaders were being taken down.

Preceded by
Clark Griffith
Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins General Manager
Succeeded by
Howard Fox

Year-By-Year Minor League Managerial Record[edit]

Year Team League Record Finish Organization Playoffs Notes
1937 Chattanooga Lookouts Southern Association 26-45 7th Washington Senators replaced Bill Rodgers (12-21) on July 17
1938 Charlotte Hornets Piedmont League 84-53 2nd Washington Senators League Champs
1939 Charlotte Hornets Piedmont League 68-74 7th Washington Senators
1940 Charlotte Hornets Piedmont League 68-65 5th Washington Senators
1941 Charlotte Hornets Piedmont League 65-70 6th Washington Senators

Further Reading[edit]

  • David Anderson, ed.: Quotations From Chairman Calvin, Brick Alley Books Press, Stillwater, MN, 1984.
  • Kevin Hennessy: "Calvin Griffith: The Ups and Downs of the last Family-Owned Baseball Team", in Daniel R. Levitt, ed.: Short but Wondrous Summers: Baseball in the North Star State, The National Pastime, Volume 42 (2012), pp. 63-68.
  • Kevin Hennessy: "Calvin Griffith", in Gregory H. Wolf, ed.: A Pennant for the Twin Cities: the 1965 Minnesota Twins, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2015, pp. 6-14. ISBN 978-1-943816-09-5
  • Jon Kerr: Calvin, Baseball's Last Dinosaur: An Authorized Biography, William C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque, IA, 1990.
  • Daniel R. Levitt and Mark L. Armour: "The Last of the Family Owners: The Griffiths Build Their Lone Minnesota Pennant Winner", in Gregory H. Wolf, ed.: A Pennant for the Twin Cities: the 1965 Minnesota Twins, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2015, pp. 15-20. ISBN 978-1-943816-09-5

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