The Obit For Calvin Griffith

Associated Press
10-20-1999 19:36 EST

MINNEAPOLIS: Calvin Griffith, a tight-fisted owner who inherited the Washington Senators and moved them to Minnesota, died Wednesday in Melbourne, Fla. He was 87.

   Griffith developed pneumonia, a kidney infection and a high fever on Monday, said Sima Griffith, his daughter-in-law. She said he had a pacemaker put in three to four weeks ago and had been in a rehabilitation center.

   Griffith moved the Senators after the 1960 season and the team was renamed the Minnesota Twins. He sold the club for $36 million to Carl Pohlad in 1984, ending 65 years of franchise ownership by the Griffith family.

   Baseball was the family's primary business, and Calvin Griffith was intent on holding the line on escalating salaries. Former Twins great Harmon Killebrew recalled tough negotiations one year.

   "We were $500 apart and I wasn't going to let $500 stand between us and me getting to spring training," Killebrew said Wednesday from Scottsdale, Ariz. "I ended up signing the contract. I told him that if that $500 meant that much, I'd go ahead and sign the contract."

   For all the acrimony brought by Griffith's frugality, his reputation was hurt much more by a speech to a local Rotary club in 1978.

   "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," he said. "We came (to Minnesota) because you've got good, hard-working white people here."

   The Minneapolis Star wrote a front-page editorial calling for Griffith to sell the team. Griffith said his words were taken out of context, but civil rights groups called for a boycott of Twins games.

   Rod Carew, whose contract was soon to expire, said he would no longer play on Griffith's "plantation." Carew left Minnesota for the Angels in 1979.

   Under Griffith, the Twins led the American League in attendance their first 10 seasons, featuring such stars as Killebrew, Carew, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, and Bob Allison.

   "The people in Minnesota were trying to get a baseball club for so many years," Griffith said in 1995. "They were on the verge of getting one several times. Then the Giants went to California, Cleveland stayed in Cleveland 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 love affair peaked in 1965, when the Twins lost the World Series in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It began to fade during the 1970s as free agency crept into the game, and the Twins began losing top players.

   "You talk about somebody standing up for his principles -- about how the game should be run or the ownership of a team -- Calvin certainly was one of the dinosaurs," Twins manager Tom Kelly, who joined the team as a coach a year before Griffith sold the team, told WCCO Radio on Wednesday.

   Griffith was among the first owners to prophesy doom for small-market teams.

   "It was very difficult for Calvin to compete in the way that the game is today, so I think he saw the writing on the wall," Killebrew said. "There wasn't any way he could survive and that's why he sold the team to Mr. Pohlad," Killebrew said.

   The Twins, under Pohlad, won World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. Some of the key players on those teams were acquired under Griffith.

   Public sentiment turned against Griffith when he talked about selling the Twins to a group that wanted to move the Twins to Tampa, Fla.

   Pohlad sold the Twins two weeks ago to a group led by Glen Taylor, owner of the NBA's Timberwolves, and Robert Naegele Jr., the lead investor of the Wild, the Minnesota team that enters the NHL next season. The sale is contingent on a new stadium.

   The Twins have languished at or near the bottom of the American League in recent years and attendance has plunged at the Metrodome. The Twins finished 1999 with a 63-97-1 record, worst in all baseball.

   Griffith was born in Montreal on Dec. 1, 1911, one of Jimmy and Jane Robertson's seven children. He and sister Thelma were sent to Washington to live with their aunt and uncle when Calvin was 11 and Thelma was 9 because their parents were struggling financially.

   When Jimmy Robertson died a short time later, the children were adopted by Addie and Clark Griffith and took the Griffith name.

   In the early 1920s, Griffith was a bat boy and the mascot for the Senators, the team for which his uncle and adopted father became a Hall of Fame pitcher. Clark Griffith was also a co-founder of the American League and owner of the Senators.

   Calvin Griffith worked in various capacities in the minors and majors before taking control of the Senators in 1955 after his adopted father died.

   Griffith, who spent winters in Florida and summers in Minnesota, is survived by his wife, Belva Block; son, Clark II; daughters Corinne Pillsbury and Clare Griffith; three grandchildren; sister Mildred Cronin, widow of former major league shortstop Joe Cronin; and brother Billy Robertson.

   A memorial service is planned at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis at an undetermined date. Griffith will be buried at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Washington.