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  'Calvin' Loud and Clear in Portait

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, November 25, 1989; Page D5

For 30 years Calvin Griffith offered major league baseball and its fans the picture of a clubowner most singular – born to the game, homely of speech, contemptuous of his peers and persevering with his mom-and-pop operation in the new era of baseball supermarkets.

For his authorized biography, it was appropriate that the simple title "Calvin" was chosen. Griffith did invite easy informality, this large, round-faced man of old-fashioned baseball values and no pretensions except for his frequently voiced belief that so many of the new breed of owners didn't know what the hell they were talking about. He warned them against crazy binges of bidding for the new breed of free agents.

He was sometimes twitted about his propensity for malapropisms – his prediction that outfielder Jim Eisenreich was "doomed" to be an all-star; of how a "cartridge" was removed from his knee, and his complaint that "two of my pictures have got arthritis" – but there was also the general recognition that he was the most solidly grounded baseball man among the owners, that he knew the most about how the game was played and was the best at evaluating talent.

Jon Kerr wrote the book, and it is the complete definition of Calvin Griffith as a figure in the game and as a person, with Kerr traipsing the country for support material, leaving no source untapped, no episode in Griffith's life unsearched.

As I could suggest in a foreword, it also could have been fittingly entitled "Inside Baseball" or "One Man's Family, a Baseball Heritage" or "A Name in The Game." It's all there, including how Griffith struggled to keep his franchises afloat with the new revelations of boardroom politics, and life on the brink by an owner lacking the deep pockets of the new tycoons.

He had as his role model, one from which he never distanced himself, his adopted "uncle" Clark Calvin Griffith, a founder of the American League in 1901, longtime owner of the Washington Senators and a man with such deep baseball roots he was a contemporary of A.G. Spalding himself.

Possibly Calvin Griffith inherited his value judgments on ballplayers from his "uncle," with whom I once sat during a game at Griffith Stadium. This was the day the Senators' starting pitcher struck out two of the first three men he faced and turned in a shutout inning. Ex-pitcher Griffith nevertheless was displeased.

"I don't like what he's doing," the elder Griffith said. "He's letting the ball go too high." How prescient. Said pitcher was knocked out in Inning 2.

Kerr deals not only with the younger Griffith as a clubowner, but also with the sadness of the Griffith family feuds, the stresses with sister Thelma (an equal owner) and the broken relationship with his son, Clark, who wanted more voice in the team and rebelled at his father's "old fogie" values.

Calvin Griffith presided over the last of baseball's family-owned franchises, first in Washington and later in Minneapolis, where he was booed, loved and booed again. In 1960 he was seduced by the attentions of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, which offered greener pastures and a guaranteed attendance, and he made the move, outraging Washington fans who felt deceived, and were.

Only months earlier Griffith had said, "This team will never leave Washington as long as I am alive." So when he moved, it was sourly written that "he moved the team posthumously." But in Minneapolis, despite a second-place finish in his second season, and a pennant in his fifth, the welcome from fans who had been spoiled by the quick thrills had worn off.

At the end of the 1976 season, he awoke to the flabbergasting truth of the new age in baseball when he offered pitcher Bill Campbell an $8,000 raise to $38,000. Free agent Campbell scoffed and signed with the Red Sox for $1 million.

Yet Griffith eventually was able to restock the team from the farm system that was his pet, and when he sold the club in late August 1984, it had a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL West.

That sale to Minneapolis banker Carl Pohlad later infuriated Griffith. He said his mistake was to leave the final dealing to his nephew, Bruce Haynes, a novice at the business, and Howard Fox, his former assistant. Griffith says Haynes was outsmarted and Fox was too intimate with the buyer. The $32 million they got for the team wasn't much in light of the Orioles' sale four years later for $70 million.

Griffith also charges Pohlad didn't keep his promises with hirings and firings after promoting Fox to president. He later would recall that when he had to seek approval of the AL clubowners for the team's transfer to Pohlad, "I had to make a speech to tell them what a great guy the sonofabitch was." Calvin keeps no secrets. It's a good book.

© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company

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