"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Waseca speech was low point for Calvin Griffith

Maybe it's no coincidence that Calvin Griffith's Waseca Lions Club speech came during the Jimmy Carter presidency. It was a Murphy's law era. We read that Carter didn't actually use the word "malaise." It's quite a leap to paraphrase using a word like that. It doesn't seem very journalistic. This isn't to say we didn't feel malaise. It's a word many people would have to look up.
The year 1978 was right at the heart of the discouraging stuff we associate with the 1970s. I concluded my college studies that year. I now learn that college inflation began taking off right after that.
It was in September of 1978 that Calvin Griffith, owner of the Minnesota Twins, traveled south to rural Waseca. First he played golf with a friend. That evening would see him visit the Lions Club. Lions Club affairs are the most tame and innocuous things you can imagine, normally. I'm puzzled how Nick Coleman even came to be there. We're supposed to believe he wasn't at the Lions Club meeting to cover it.
Even with Griffith set to speak, you could hardly assume that anything earthshaking would come out of it. The Lions organization is benevolent and non-controversial, an outlet for career men who ply their professions in a pretty routine manner. Bless them.
Coleman was a staff writer for the Minneapolis Tribune. It wasn't the "Star Tribune" yet. The '70s were a time when that newspaper really did fit the stereotype of "liberal media." There was a paternalistic liberal slant that could grate on readers, even readers who weren't strongly conservative. People like to feel they can think for themselves.
Coleman was a resident of Rochester. History would have it that Coleman was at that Lions Club meeting as a guest of his father in law. The audience introduced themselves. Coleman did so by name only, legend has it, and not by occupation.
Griffith began taking questions from the audience. Somehow Griffith got steered into territory that would be dangerous for him. He made comments that today would set off major alarm bells. The new media could churn things up like a blender. Media were limited back then, and I would further suggest the populace was more temperate.
Why more temperate? I think there was an understanding that generational traits came into play. Remember that book written by Tom Brokaw about "the greatest generation?" There was a chapter called "Shame." We placed that World War II generation on a pedestal. How could we not, given the sacrifice and travail of the WWII and Depression years? But these people by and large were not exemplary on race matters. We got TV's Archie Bunker character illustrating that.
Calvin Griffith was like Archie both in terms of his values and how he carried himself generally. The young generation did not reject the Archie mold out of hand. We understood the anachronistic ways. In a peculiar way we might have loved these people even more. They were products of the culture that nurtured them. Maybe in the Deep South that mold could present some really objectionable things. In the Midwest it seemed more a matter of style and not substance.
I am astonished to learn that Coleman was at this meeting with no notebook or tape recorder. He lacked "anything with which to write," according to an historical account. I would have proceeded with real trepidation, trying to throw together an article with no contemporaneous notes. No way would my memory be that reliable. Paraphrasing is dangerous under these circumstances.
Coleman would end up penning an article for the Sunday edition. I believe it was on the front page, above the fold in fact. The quotes were toxic. Baseball fans my age still well remember it. Heck, people my age in general still remember it.
Griffith was the man who brought major league baseball to Minnesota. He would later help ensure it stayed here. The fact he had some generational tics, Archie Bunker-style, should not have caused turbulent waters. But turbulent waters we got. Coleman was able to construct quotes from memory, which I would bet were not word for word. It's hard enough to quote things verbatim even if you're taking notes. People often talk too fast. But there was Coleman's article, including the following:
“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” (Griffith) said. “It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks 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.”
Griffith went on to make what was interpreted as a disparaging comment about Rod Carew. Most perceptive people believe Griffith was really taking a dig at Carew's agent. He was also venting about the phenomenon of multi-year player contracts. Time was marching on and leaving the Griffiths behind. Bowie Kuhn in his autobiography called the Griffith clan "church mice" within the new model of baseball.
Griffith would sell the Twins franchise in 1984. Calvin bowed out of the business as the last of the family owners whose franchise represented their principal business and source of wealth.
The (alleged) quotes about Carew brought irony. It was Griffith who virtually ordered Sam Mele to play Carew daily in 1967. Griffith had an uncanny eye for baseball talent. Carew was making the jump from Class A. In '67 Carew proved himself, albeit as a streaky sort of hitter. We remember how he had to leave the team from time to time for National Guard duties. My generation is fully aware that "National Guard" is code terminology for "getting excused from going to Viet Nam." Well congratulations, Rodney, you did what nearly all young men sought to do at the time. George W. Bush?
Had Rod pushed his batting average a little higher in his rookie year, maybe we could have won the pennant. We got edged out at the end by Boston, in what is likely the most crushing chapter in Twins history. It could drive one to drink. Griffith was of the type who would avail himself of the cocktail hour. That was another generational trait. Those were the days before aggressive enforcement of DWI. How quaint! Maybe we've forgotten. A police officer might peer into the driver's window and say "are you sure you're in good enough shape to drive home?"
Chris Matthews of MSNBC recently said "everyone used to drive drunk." Ever hang around at a Shriners' convention then? There's real Americana, scary actually. Griffith may have had some alcohol in his system for his Waseca speech.
Carew was initially incensed by Griffith's remarks about him. The passage of time softened any anger. Bob Shower wrote a book, "The Twins at the Met," in which Carew is a narrator. Carew praised Calvin for sticking with him.
Journalists could get a little edgy referring to the Twins owner as "Calvin" rather than "Griffith." This isn't the standard form. Use of first name is often seen as disrespectful too. I thought a lot of journalists actually had problems showing respect for Griffith, because he seemed like such a throwback. That shouldn't have mattered. The power of the media was underscored.
One columnist with a gimlet eye wondered if Griffith's idea of a snappy tune might be "On the Banks of the Wabash."
Power of the press indeed
Coleman's article naturally resulted in a firestorm. If he hadn't been at the meeting: nothing. Paraphrased or not, Griffith came across as the antithesis of politically correct, at a time when the p.c. term hadn't gained circulation yet.
Griffith felt like there was a certain sanctity to a Lions Club meeting, that the comments should be considered private. Coleman's little typewriter caused Calvin to be haunted henceforth. Most obituaries for Calvin in 1999 acknowledged the episode. A big controversy with obituaries is whether they should include any dubious information at all.
Surely Calvin was like a bear with boxing gloves in saying what he did. But I'm not sure the amplification was called for. It was just words. It wasn't sticks and stones.
Griffith famously operated the Twins as a family company. Relatives were all over the place. Griffith was cloaked in total hero status when he brought his Senators to Minnesota in 1961. And for ten years it was a fairy tale type of story. The new Twins were one of baseball's most profitable and successful franchises. But the next decade wasn't so wonderful. A couple key family members died. But most of all, baseball's changing economics undercut Griffith's operational philosophies.
My generation became discouraged by it all. We could clearly see what was happening. We were no longer so enthralled by big league ball. We turned to soccer for a time: the Kicks.
A life immersed on the diamond
Calvin saw the whole broad spectrum of baseball as his life. He was batboy with the Washington D.C. team in 1922. I'm impressed by how the young man got his education from a military academy! Calvin was a 1933 graduate of Staunton Military Academy. He went on to study at George Washington University. He played baseball as pitcher and catcher while at both Staunton and George Washington.
In 1935 he got into the business of baseball in the midst of the Great Depression. Calvin's penny-pinching ways can easily be understood. The Depression made people appreciate every nickel. My father had that trait.
Calvin was elected president of the Washington Nationals in 1955, right after the death of Clark Griffith. The Washington franchise was limping at that time. Leaving the nation's capital would present political difficulties.
In 1959 the specter of a new baseball league appeared. It would be called the Continental League. The main push was to get the Dodgers and Giants replaced in New York City. Major league baseball was prodded to expand, to fend off the new threat. We in Minnesota could have gotten an expansion team. Shudder. Remember how lousy the New York Mets were in 1962? Minnesota was blessed getting an established team and organization: the Senators. But Washington would not be deserted, as a new team would sprout there with the same name: Senators. But even that team wouldn't stick there. Yet another incarnation of a big league team would come along, the one in existence today.
Minnesota fell in love with the Twins. We were charmed by the family aspect of the business. This prompted one observer to say "we didn't get a ballclub. We got a family. It was like being around the Beverly Hillbillies."
The initial decade was like a wondrous dream. But after 1970, we only drew a million-plus in attendance twice, in 1977 and '79. Calvin became quite pressed with his financial resources, and we could all see it. He tried to resist the inexorable changes.
The year was 1982 when the Twins went indoors to the Dome. Competitively we were doing poorly. We heard about an "escape clause" that Calvin might exercise. Tampa Bay eyed the Twins. Harvey Mackay organized a ticket buyout in the face of that escape clause. Griffith proclaimed he still felt loyalty to Minnesota. He wanted to sell to a Minnesota buyer. On the scene came Carl Pohlad.
Griffith made the sale and would have an office in the Dome. I remember seeing him in the pressbox.
Griffith left us for that pressbox in the sky on October 20, 1999, at the age of 87. He chose to be buried outside of Washington D.C. Is it possible his heart was in the nation's capital all along? We can wonder. Surely Minnesota had been the site giving him countless wide-eyed moments, like at mid-season of '65 when Harmon Killebrew hit that famous home run that sank the Yankees.
Calvin Griffith, RIP.
Addendum: I associate Waseca MN with the old Ruhr-American company that solid a wide array of hunting-fishing stuff. They had an outlet in Glenwood. They had an assortment of books, one of which was called, famously, "How to Live with a Bitch." As I remember, the title was intended seriously for those interested in hunting dogs. But oh my, the book became an oddball favorite among men wanting to exchange humorous gifts. "How to Live with a Bitch." File that away in Minnesota lore and history.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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