Clark Griffith and the Mandate of Heaven

Thirteen years after Calvin Griffith threw up his hands and sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad, his son Clark is back with a bid to buy the team and make sure it stays in Minnesota. Why? Because he figures that's the way it ought to be.

In 1991, the friends and family of Clark Griffith gave him a "This Is Your Life" videotape to commemorate his 50th birthday. There's a grainy shot of Clark as a grade-school boy, chatting with then-President Harry Truman; a montage of Washington Post headlines of Clark's baseball and football heroics; footage of Clark appearing on 60 Minutes as the management spokesperson during the baseball players' strike of 1981; and printed speculation that Clark would succeed Bowie Kuhn as Commissioner of Baseball. Testimonials from friends and family abound, but the tape's most prominent acolyte is Clark's father, Calvin Griffith, who returns again and again to marvel at his son's athletic exploits, praise his business acumen, and to simply say, "Clark, I'm proud of you. You turned out to be a great son."

There are the necessary omissions, too. The video biography ignores the acrimonious relationship between Calvin and his wife, Clark's late, beloved mother Natalie, which resulted in the couple's eventual separation after Clark and his two younger sisters had grown up and moved away. It overlooks Clark's estrangement from his father, which reached the point where the two rarely spoke to each other even as they ran the family business, the Minnesota Twins. No mention is made of the alcoholism that destroyed Clark's first marriage.

Today, at 56, Clark Griffith is a successful attorney and happily married father of three, but one piece of unfinished business remains. Griffith wants to own and operate the Minnesota Twins. That dream appeared to die when his father sold the club to local banker Carl Pohlad in 1984, but now Griffith thinks he has a chance to win back the family business. The events of recent months have encouraged him: The timing of the Twins' lease agreement with the Metrodome, the team's lagging attendance, and political wrangling over a new stadium have prompted Pohlad to weigh moving or selling the team.

Griffith thinks the Twins can still make it in the Dome, and that he's the man to lead the way. He is planning to go to Pohlad sometime this month to make an official offer for the team. Sitting in his law office--an aerie on the 48th floor of the IDS Tower that offers a panoramic view of downtown Minneapolis--Griffith is giddy with what seems equal parts joy and trepidation. Plopping his feet--loafers, no socks--on the corner of his ornate desk, he talks as if he's telling a joke on himself, admitting that his share of the bid amounts to "everything I have, all my eggs in one basket. A total commitment. God help me."

God has already helped him quite a bit. Clark's father, born Calvin Robertson, was initially one of seven children being raised in a poor, hardscrabble family up in Canada. In 1923, when Calvin was 11, his father became severely ill; to help out the family, Calvin's rich, childless uncle adopted him and his sister Thelma and brought them down to Washington D.C., where he had recently purchased the Senators baseball team. When Calvin's father died a year later, the uncle brought the rest of the Robertson clan to Washington and eventually made the Senators a real family business. But it was always Calvin who was groomed as the heir apparent, taking over operation of the team when the uncle died many years later in 1955. Calvin named his first and only son after the uncle: Clark Griffith.

In addition to owning the Senators, Uncle Clark built a huge ballpark, Griffith Stadium, 10 blocks from the White House. The stadium was like a magical palace for young Clark and his cousins. "The family operated the park and ran the concessions, so we pretty much had our run of the place," says Mike Robertson, a cousin. "Clark practically lived there." Indeed, before hawking peanuts and popcorn, Clark would take batting practice and stand by listening to the players' locker room banter. It didn't matter that the Senators were consistently lousy enough during the '40s and '50s to inspire the slogan: Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.

"In late adolescence, you're old enough to know what's going on, but the athletes are still bigger than life. That's the way the '53, '54, and '55 Senators were for me," he says, reciting half the roster and pointing out no fewer than two autographed photos of first baseman Roy Sievers in his office. "Camrado Morrero!" he chortles, rolling the Spanish r's with gusto. "A 5-foot, 4-inch Cuban pitcher who was so slow he once got thrown out at first base on a hit to right field. And Mickey Grasso--now there was a fascinating guy. He used to be able to take a cigarette butt and roll it inside his mouth when he was talking and make smoke come out of his ears. You don't think that's impressive to a 12-year-old kid!"

If his status as the owner's son swelled Clark too much as he was growing up, there was always his mother Natalie to temper his arrogance. "She said, 'This is your motto: He who gets by on pull shall be known as a jerk.' She probably told me that a hundred times," Clark says. "She was probably the most influential person in my life by a factor of 50." To hear Clark tell it, Natalie--who died of cancer in 1989--could bird-dog baseball talent as well as any professional scout. She met Calvin when he was managing the Senators' minor-league affiliate in Charlotte and she was a season ticket-holder; later she would count the legendary manager Casey Stengel among her friends. But she also possessed a certain refinement that she meant to pass on to Clark. "She trained me exactly as she wanted to train me," he remembers. "Made sure I did my homework and did it well, and went to all the right schools." That meant attending the prestigious Sidwell Friends prep school, and, after a two-year stint in the Navy, Dartmouth College. By the time Clark emerged with his Ivy League degree in history in 1966, the Griffith/Robertson clan had relocated, transforming their ballclub from the Washington Senators into the Minnesota Twins in 1962.

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