Calvin Griffith, 87, who shocked and dismayed thousands of Washington area sports fans when he moved the Washington Senators baseball team to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins in 1960, died of heart ailments and a kidney infection Oct. 20 at a rehabilitation facility in Melbourne, Fla.
Mr. Griffith's move ended 49 years of his family's involvement in major league baseball in the national capital. He left, he said, because Minnesota made him an offer he couldn't refuse. A new version of the Senators came to Washington as an American League expansion team in 1961. But that team, plagued with problems on and off the field, became the Rangers and moved to Texas after the 1971 season. Since then, Washington has been without major league baseball.
As the nephew and longtime understudy to Clark Griffith, who acquired control of the Washington Senators by 1919, Calvin Griffith was a baseball executive all of his professional life. In 1924, when the legendary Walter "Big Train" Johnson pitched the Senators to a victory over the New York Giants in the seventh game of the World Series, Calvin Griffith was the Senators' bat boy. Thirty-one years later, when Clark Griffith died in 1955, Calvin Griffith assumed control of the team.
But by then the club had fallen on hard times. Not since 1933 had the Senators won the American League pennant, and 1924 was their only World Series victory. "Washington . . . first in war, first in peace and last in the American League," had become a national joke.
During the six seasons that Calvin Griffith presided over the team, the Senators finished last four times, in seventh place once and in fifth place once. Never did they win as many games as they lost. Attendance at the old Griffith Stadium in Northwest Washington was sparse.
In October 1960, after having turned down three previous requests, the American League gave Mr. Griffith permission to move the Senators to Minnesota.
Minneapolis, Mr. Griffith said, had "guaranteed me nearly a million admissions for three years . . . full concession rights and a low stadium rental." His decision to leave, he said, was made "with strong emotions. . . . It was difficult to uproot our family tradition in Washington."
The move to Minnesota came only two years after Mr. Griffith wrote in an article in The Washington Post that "the Washington team will never be moved in my lifetime." In an editorial, the newspaper said he had "yielded to temptation . . . eaten his words." Sports columnist Shirley Povich would write more than 10 years later that Washington "supported the Griffith clan of baseball operators for the 49 years of 1912-60 in an elegance unmerited by the quality of schlock baseball they gave Washington."
In Minnesota, Mr. Griffith's Twins led the American League in attendance their first 10 seasons, featuring such stars as Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, Bob Allison and Rod Carew. In 1965, the Twins won the American League pennant but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. After the American League split into two divisions, they won divisional championships in 1969 and 1970.
For $55 million, the Twin Cities area built the 55,000-seat Metrodome, and in the summer of 1979, Mr. Griffith signed a lease committing his baseball team to play there for the next 30 years. But the advent of free agency, which allowed baseball players to move from one team to another in search of ever-escalating salaries, tightened the financial squeeze on owners such as Mr. Griffith, who financed their operations primarily on baseball revenue and their livelihoods on whatever was left. "Calvin Griffith was the last of the pure baseball men," Michael Lenehan wrote in a 1981 profile in Atlantic Monthly magazine that portrayed him as a "holdout against the forces of change."
During the 1970s, attendance in Minneapolis began to slip and Mr. Griffith became increasingly intent on holding the line on escalating salaries.
He provoked a bitter controversy when he declared in a 1978 speech to the Minneapolis Rotary Club that "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. . . . We came [to Minnesota] because you've got good, hard-working, white people here."
The Minneapolis Star wrote a front-page editorial calling for Mr. Griffith to sell the team. He 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," and left Minnesota for the Angels in 1979. In 1984, Mr. Griffith sold the club to Carl Pohlad for $36 million.
Born in Montreal, Calvin Griffith was one of seven children of Jimmy and Jane Robertson. His mother was the sister of Clark Griffith's wife, Addie. After their father became ill, Calvin and his sister, Thelma, came to Washington to live with Clark and Addie Griffith.
Clark Griffith was a former major league pitcher who had won 237 and lost 140 games in a 19-year career. He had managed the Chicago White Sox in 1901 and later became the first manager of the New York Highlanders, the team that eventually became the Yankees.
In Washington, he presided over a Senators team that came to include the likes of Bobby Burke, the only Senators pitcher other than Walter Johnson to pitch a no-hitter.
Others on the team through the years included Ossie Bluege, Joe Cronin, Muddy Ruel, Joe Kuhel, Joe Judge, Buddy Myer, Mickey Vernon, Cecil Travis, Buddy Lewis, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos and Stanley "Bucky" Harris, the "boy manager" who brought Washington its first American League pennant and only World Series championship in 1924.
Under Clark Griffith, the Senators promoted and encouraged the tradition of inviting the president of the United States to throw out the first ball on opening day of the baseball season.
Calvin Griffith attended Staunton Military Academy, where he was a catcher on the baseball team. Later he was baseball captain at George Washington University.
After college, he was secretary treasurer of the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Senators' farm team in the Southern Association, and then field manager and president of the Charlotte Hornets, the Senators' farm team in the Piedmont League. After the 1941 season, he returned to Washington to take over the concessions operation at Griffith Stadium.
When Clark Griffith died, he left 26 percent of the team each to Calvin and Calvin's sister, Thelma. Calvin became chief operating officer of the team.
In an effort to turn the operation around, he moved outfield fences closer to home plate to make home runs easier to hit, but he also began to receive visitors from Minnesota.
Survivors include his wife, Belva Block; a son, Clark II; two daughters, Corinne Pillsbury and Clare Griffith; three grandchildren; a sister, Mildred Cronin; and a brother, Billy Robertson.