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Calvin Griffith Dead at 87
By William Wilcoxen
October 20, 1999
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The man who brought big league baseball to Minnesota has died at the age of 87. Calvin Griffith died in his retirement home of Melbourne, Florida, of kidney infection. Griffith started the Minnesota Twins when he moved his baseball team from Washington, D.C., to the Twin Cities in 1961.

GRIFFITH WAS BORN Calvin Robertson in Montreal, Quebec, in 1911. One of seven children in a poverty-stricken family, Calvin was sent at age 11 to live with an aunt and uncle in Washington where he could indulge in three square meals a day. When his father died a year later, young Calvin was adopted by his uncle, Clark Griffith, a turn-of-the-century pitcher and manager who had purchased baseball's Washington Senators in 1919. Calvin became the Senators' bat boy. In 1995 he told Minnesota Public Radio how, following afternoons at the ballpark he would sit at the knee of his adoptive father, soaking up the older man's abundant knowledge of the game...
From the Archives
Calvin Griffith talked with MPR's Euan Kerr in a 1995 interview. Listen online (19:27)
 
Griffith: After dinner, we'd sit in the living room or in the den and he would get his pencil and paper out and start talking about ballplayers and which ones he would like to get, and make batting orders and all that. So I got all the dope from him about how to play the game and why this should be done and that should be done.
Griffith called himself the Senators' mascot and he was such a part of the team that he joined them at the White House for photo sessions after their World Series seasons of 1924 and '25. He later managed minor league teams in Charlotte and Chattanooga. He loved the challenge of trying to win a baseball game with his wits and once described his managing days as the best years of his life. In 1941, Calvin was called back to the family business to oversee concession sales at Senators games. The rationing in place during World War Two made it more difficult, but Griffith was resourceful.
Griffith: I was the one who started putting ice in the cups and pouring Coca-Colas in there because I found out you could get two Coca-Colas out of one bottle. And I had tops on it and everything else, we went first class.
Griffith rose through the management ranks from concession manager to team president and he inherited majority ownership of the Senators when Clark Griffith died in 1955. A keen understanding of the game led Calvin to be more involved in the day-to-day operations of his baseball team than many other owners were. He occasionally offered instruction to Senators' managers. In 1959, Griffith advised Cookie Lavagetto to make room in the lineup for a youngster named Harmon Killebrew.
Killebrew: He was a great judge of baseball talent and he thought that I was ready to play. He told Cookie Lavagetto that. I don't think Mr. Lavagetto believed that at the time, but Calvin got cookie to put me in the lineup and I hit a home run opening day that year and one the last day of the season to tie with Rocky Colavito of the Indians for my first home run championship.
Outfielder Tony Oliva, the 1964 rookie of the year, grew up in Cuba and remembers leaning on Griffith during his transition to life in the United States. Listen (1:57)
 
After the 1960 season, Griffith responded to financial incentives from Hamm's beer and other sponsors by moving the Senators to Minnesota.
Announcer: Minnesota has Twins and the whole state is celebrating. The Twins, in this case, is their first major league baseball team and 25,000 are on hand for the opener. By the way, neither Minneapolis nor Saint Paul, ancient rivals, is home court. They play in Bloomington, seven miles from either city.
The Twins put Minnesota back on the pro sports map after basketball's Lakers had forsaken Minneapolis for Los Angeles. The Twins drew big crowds to Met Stadium throughout the 60s, and in 1965 Griffith was named baseball's executive of the year, as Minnesota won the American League pennant before dropping the World Series to Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Twins continued to operate as a family business and Calvin Griffith was the patriarch. Stubborn and strong-willed, Griffith said he was always honest with the fans and with himself and said he treated his players as if they were his own children.

Outfielder Tony Oliva, the 1964 rookie of the year, grew up in Cuba and remembers leaning on Griffith during his transition to life in the United States.
Oliva: Griffith was like a father to me. Because a lot of times you need somebody to talk to. You're coming at the right time or a bad time, he was always was there. And he all the time had good advice for you.
In the 1970's, player salaries began climbing rapidly and Griffith pulled no punches in complaining that ballplayers were overpaid. Pitcher Bert Blyleven remembers that salary "negotiations" with Griffith were not very negotiable.
Blyleven: We didn't have agents at that time, we didn't have free agency so you had to negotiate with Mr. Griffith one on one. You would have to make an appointment to meet with him and you would go into his office and he would sit in a high chair behind a high desk and you would sit on a couch that sank down. So it was like you were looking up about 10 feet at this big owner, because he was a big man. And he would basically tell you what you were going to make the next year. Whether it be a $50 raise or a $1,000 raise, basically he says, "This is what I think you're worth, son. And this is what i'd like for you to sign at."
Former Twin Bert Blyleven recalls his first meeting with Calvin Griffith. Listen (2:59)
 
Infielder Roy Smalley, who was traded to the Twins in 1976, agrees that among players Griffith had a reputation as a miser.
Smalley: I don't think people liked playing for Calvin. He was very tough and he was kind of curmudgeonly and tight.
But Smalley, who is an investment advisor for Dain Rauscher, says looking back he now appreciates Griffith's situation. As people who had made millions in other fields began purchasing baseball teams and driving up salaries, Griffith was one of the last pure baseball men whose only business was his ballclub.
Smalley: He was a real throwback to the old baseball owners that really knew something about the game, which is not say that he knew more than his managers or anybody else that he had working for him. But he did know an awful lot and he took an interest in it and he watched the games. It's like Yogi Berra said, "You can see a lot by looking." And Calvin watched and watched with interest and had more than a passing knowledge, he was great in that regard.
The late 70s and early 80s were difficult for Griffith and the Twins. African-Americans boycotted Twins games for a time after newspaper accounts quoted Griffith making racial slurs in a 1978 speech before the Waseca Lions club. Griffith took exception to the quotes. But the Twins began struggling on the field. The organization signed several good young players who would come up through the Twins minor league system, then leave Minnesota for more lucrative contracts with other teams. Calvin's son, Clark Griffith, remembers there were tensions within the family business.
Griffith: When we argued, it was because I would walk in and I'd want to talk about business and broadcasting and finance. And those were three things he had no interest in.
In 1984, Calvin Griffith wept at the signing ceremony during which he sold the Twins to Minneapolis banker Carl Pohlad for $38 million. Griffith continued to attend Twins games regularly for a few years and was a prominent figure in Minnesota. Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, wrote a biographical play of Griffith's life and remembers Calvin taking him to a warehouse where a collection of mementoes dating back to 1907 was stored.
Reuler: He'd never thrown out a swizzle stick, a box of matches, or any baseball memorabilia or paraphernalia. His favorite thing was he had a letter from Fidel Castro, who wanted a tryout with the team back in the early 50s.
Once the pressures of owning a team were removed, Calvin Griffith's relationship with his family improved. Son Clark says he grew closer to his father in the last 10 years.
Griffith: I was thinking last night as I drove to Melbourne, Florida, to be with him that the last out of the National League championship series would have been a moment when I would have picked up the phone and dialed his number knowing he was watching the same game. And we would've spent time just discussing how the game ended or certain plays during the game. And you know, I'll certainly miss that.

Calvin Griffith died at the age of 87. He will be buried in Washington, D.C.