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.

After an abortive, one-term stab at law school, Clark joined the Twins operation, where Calvin and his Canadian siblings had scratched, cut, and pasted together a ball club that made it into the World Series in 1965. Clark was already a heavy drinker by then, and a man of congenitally different temperament from his hardscrabble father. Calvin and Natalie's marital strain only added to the tensions between father and son, but as an employee Clark initially tried to keep his head down and learn the intricacies of the game. He spent a good deal of his summers beating the bushes with his uncle, Sherrod Robertson, the Twins' scouting director. Clark stills remembers driving across the country looking for prospects by day and drinking mai tais beside motel swimming pools at night, all the while dreaming and scheming about what he would do when Calvin finally followed through on his promise to turn over the reins of the team.

Clark Griffith had a ringside seat for observing the broad economic changes just beginning to buffet baseball. The major leagues' first work stoppage occurred during spring training in 1972; three years later, an arbitrator's ruling in a case involving pitcher Andy Messersmith created the free-agency era and launched a dramatic uptick in the cost of running a team. Always a quick study, Clark grasped the changing times in a way that soon made him a force among the administrators of the game. In 1975, he was named chairman of the Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation (now known as Major League Baseball Properties), the organization in charge of licensing and selling baseball merchandise. A few years later, he earned a rousing ovation from a pleasantly surprised ownership group when he informed them that million-dollar checks would soon be coming their way. He also joined the owners' Player Relations Committee, a key strategic position in baseball's inner sanctum because it was the PRC that managed negotiations with the increasingly powerful players' union. He began to be the subject of fawning profiles in big-city newspapers, which invariably commented on his Monet prints and his love of chess. He was a Renaissance man who would help lead baseball into the future.

But back in Minnesota, he couldn't get anybody to listen to him. "When everybody was younger back in Washington, everybody got along with Clark," says one family member close to the situation. "But in Minnesota Clark seemed to be--not an outcast, but here's a college kid coming back here trying to tell us how to run a ball club which we've been doing for 60 years. He had some good ideas, but he just pushed it the wrong way." Then again, Calvin and the clan were not the most receptive audience. The Twins were the last American League team whose owners derived their income solely from baseball. While the George Steinbrenners and Ted Turners of the world were burning up their shipping and media profits to enhance the profiles of themselves and their teams, the Griffiths and the Robertsons were fretting over what would happen to the mortgage payments on their retirement homes. Calvin's patron, Uncle Clark, had always preached the gospel of penurious management; just because all the other owners had lost their minds didn't mean Calvin had to join them.

As longtime fans will always remember, the final years of the Griffith regime were painful to watch. Young stars reared through the Twins' fertile farm system sought salary arbitration to win raises that the elder Griffith deemed obscene, and he gave them away in trades--or simply watched them move on through free agency. Never a tactful man to begin with, Calvin responded to the exodus with a volume's worth of tactless, ill-conceived remarks, including an infamously racist speech given at a Lions Club dinner in 1978. The Twins' greatest star of the era, Rod Carew, declared after leaving to sign with the California Angels that he wasn't going to work on "Massa Calvin's plantation" anymore. At one point Clark tried to get the better of all the bad press with an ad campaign that made a joke of his father's legendary cheapness. But Calvin scuttled it. Cost too much, he said.

A siege mentality developed, and Clark was increasingly scorned for trying to engage the enemy--the modern baseball system--rather than circle the wagons. He remembers Calvin firing him from his position as executive vice president on a number of occasions, once in response to the size of the contract Clark negotiated with budding star Kent Hrbek. (For his part, Calvin denies ever firing Clark, but notes that his brothers would clamor for his son's ouster from time to time. In any event, Clark was never officially dismissed until after the team was sold.)

By September 1982, the Twins had more than a half-dozen family members on the executive payroll and a starting lineup consisting entirely of first-year players whose salaries totaled barely a quarter of the league average--and still the team was losing money. Family members began agitating for Calvin to unload the team; so, apparently, did Howard Fox, the team's traveling secretary, who had ingratiated himself into Calvin's inner circle. Clark says that he argued strenuously against a sale, and claimed that Fox, in particular, did not have the family's best interests at heart. "I knew Hrbek and [Gary] Gaetti were on the verge of becoming stars; I'd seen them play in the minors. I knew we had a 22-year-old center fielder named Kirby Puckett who was going to be pretty good. But I could see I wasn't getting through. Finally I just gave up and decided to go to law school," he says.

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