How foolish Calvin Griffith, owner of the Minneapolis Twins, made himself out to be when he told a gathering that he moved his Senators baseball team to Minnesota's more Nordic setting because only 15,000 souls of African descent live there.
Griffith was quoted in dispatches as telling an almighty audience of Lions at lunch in Waseca that "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. We came here because you've got hard-working white people here."
Ah, the civic-club luncheon always delighted Sinclair Lewis, whose growing-up years in Sauk Center (half as big as Waseca) gave him the stuff for a clutch a biting novels about small-town prairie life. George Babbitt and Calvin Griffith are soul brothers.
Now Griffith is not of that sod, however. He comes out of the sinful East, where his family owned and operated the team that generally was last in the American League. Griffith Stadium, a marvelous old wooden affair, was located (ironically, I think) in the vicinity of Howard University, the nation's leading black institution of higher learning. When the stadium was demolished, Howard got the land.
Anyway, it wasn't a shortage of black patrons that gave Griffith financial problems; it was the shortage of fans of any hue. The Senators weren't very good and were more of an ornament, more an occasion for the president to throw out the first ball, than anything else.
By 1960, Griffith figured it was time to light out. He pleaded with his fellow owners - who had veto powers over any moving plans he entertained - to let him leave Washington. He argued that Washington was too black, and blacks didn't go to ball games. Alas, sportswriter Bill Furlong had secreted himself in a ventilator in the Chicago hotel room and heard - and later wrote - all.
The outrage expressed in the aftermath of Griffith's Lions Club exposition only shows how the times have changed.
As a youth, I went to Chicago's Wrigley Field, and when the Brooklyn Dodgers were in town there were great numbers of black people sitting in the grandstands behind the visiting team dugout because it contained one Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the first black in baseball.
There was no fierce "right on" stuff in those days, only murmuring waves of deep appreciation when Jackie made a great play, got a hit or - better yet - stole a base, with his hat flying off.
I also remember my days as the callow, but willing, groundskeeper at what passed for a baseball park in Dubuque, Iowa, my hometown, vagrant blacks were advised to get out of Dubuque by sundown, as they were in many other habitats across the farmland that once sent union troops to fight the South. Many Dubuque eateries and saloons, particularly the second-rate kind, had signs in the windows: "We do not cater to colored trade."
"Colored" baseball teams, more gypsy than scheduled, would occasionally play in Dubuque. I remember the Indianapolis Clowns and the Texas Spiders. In tattered uniforms, they arrived invariably in late afternoon, by vintage buses with rumpled fenders. The manager would come around to this white kid grounds-keeper and ask him where to go for take-out sandwiches.
I would say, "Why do you want take-out? I know where we can get something to eat." So we would all pile in the rumpled bus, and I would guide them to Main Street and the Coney Island Restaurant run by the father of my friend and contemporary, Jim Kerrigan.
When the team followed me in, the white jaws of customers dropped, and I would tell Jim how these players and I wanted something to eat, and Jim would sit us down at the counter stools. I always ordered a couple of "Coney Islands" - tasty hot dogs covered with mustard, chili and juicy onions and enclosed by a bun steamed spongy. Delicious, I noticed that the ballplayers ordered hot chiken or beef sandwiches. Afterward, they quietly said thank you to me, and I thought that some of them couldn't figure me out.
Today, if there was a Texas Spiders team, and it went to Dubuque, everything would be all right. My hometown has grown up that way with the rest of the country. I imagine, though, that in the old days Calvin Griffith could have given his Waseca speech, in Dubuque and many other cities, including New York City, delivered with the same purpose. "At times you try to be comical and try to get a laugh and that's it," Griffith tried to explain. "I did get quite a few laughs."
He also got the promise from his superstar, Rod Carew, who just won his seventh American League hatting title, to never again play for Griffith's Twins. Carew said he refused to be "a nigger on his plantation and play for a bigot."
"What the hell, racism is a thing of the past," Griffith protested. "Why do we have colored ballplayers on our club? They're the best ones. If you don't have them, you're not going to have a club."
Aw, pshaw, is what George Babbitt would have said, puffing.