Clark Griffith and the Mandate of Heaven

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.

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.

"Clark was against the sale," Calvin confirms. "He was always hoping the ball club would be turned over to him. I was hoping the same thing, but those salaries just kept going up. Finally I told him we had no other choice. It was tough. He reacted like somebody had stuck him with a knife."

For a solid decade, Clark nursed the wound. After buying the Twins for a price variously estimated between $36 and $43 million, Pohlad installed the lowly traveling secretary Howard Fox as president of the ball club. Fox promptly fired nearly all Griffiths and Robertsons beginning with Clark. Calvin, who claimed Pohlad had promised jobs would be maintained for his relatives, howled in dismay; Clark knew it was coming. He married for a second time and got his law degree, eventually representing a number of other clubs in player salary arbitration cases. Along the way, he and his wife, Sima, had two daughters, Natalie, now 8, and Caroline, 5. And he watched as just another fan when the Twins won world titles in 1987 and 1991.

"There is no question that Clark has always believed heart-and-soul in this buying [back] of the Twins," says his younger sister Clare, now living out in Berkeley, California. "He has locked on to this as his destiny. I have challenged that and tried to talk him into coming up with a different dream, but he is locked in. Clark is a history buff; he knows his military leaders. He knows where all the generals have fought and won, or died. He has fantasies about going into battle and leading the charge."

Clark made his first tentative offer to buy back the team when the game of baseball was at its lowest point in modern times, during the protracted players' strike and owners' lockout that wiped out substantial chunks of the '94 and '95 seasons. He was encouraged, he says, by the developing drive for a revenue-sharing plan that would force large-market teams with high payrolls to share some of their money with franchises in smaller cities. He was likewise heartened by the apparent determination of the new owners, even the wealthiest ones, to spend their money more wisely.

The offer was not taken seriously. A year or so later, Clark again broached the subject of buying the Twins, and again Pohlad essentially ignored him. Griffith doesn't have the kind of money it takes to buy a major league baseball team, and the only other publicly named participant in the proposed deals was Mike Veeck, an equally bright, creative man with equally colorful family ties to the game--and equally meager resources. To make matters worse, relations between the Griffiths and the Pohlads had been checkered to say the least.  

But events of the last six to nine months have certainly strengthened Clark's hand. Last October, ex-West Publishing executive Vance Opperman let it slip that he was interested in getting involved with Clark's pursuit of the Twins. Opperman, who together with his father, Dwight, was a principal in the recent sale of law-book giant West Publishing for $4.3 billion, can certainly bring enough cash to the table to buy any major league team.

Then there is the matter of the Twins' Metrodome lease agreement and the imbroglio over the building of a new stadium. Pohlad maintains that the team cannot be profitable without a new facility, yet a sizable majority of the general public seems equally adamant in its opposition to funding it with taxpayer dollars. But an escape clause in the Metrodome lease--ironically, one that was originally negotiated by Clark on behalf of his father in 1979--gives Pohlad some timely leverage. Under the terms of the clause, Pohlad can break the lease and move his team to another city if the Twins lose money and fail to draw at least 80 percent of the average league attendance for three straight years. All indications are that the club's abysmal 1997 campaign will fulfill the third year of that requirement.

As a result, Pohlad and the public are currently involved in what amounts to a high-stakes game of chicken. The owner recently announced that he is soliciting consulting firms to scout potential locations for him to move the team. A special session of the state Legislature is scheduled to convene next month to once again take up, among other matters, the issue of building a new ballpark. If the Twins do intend to move, they must notify the Metropolitan Sports Commission, which operates the Metrodome, by December 1 of this year.

But how will it look if Pohlad--who has many family members and business interests in Minnesota--moves the Twins to another city when there is a credible offer on the table to keep the club here?

Clark Griffith, a devoted chess player, is poised to make his move. "We will submit a bid sometime in the first 10 days of August," he says, sitting in his office during the latter part of July. "It will be for $80 million. I have verbal commitments for that much; now I am working on the written part. You never quite know who is going to write the check when the time comes. I solidified another group today. I told them, 'It's time, let's go get it,' and they said, 'Okay, let's go.' This is much more specific than the other offers I have made. In fact it is being prepared by an accounting firm in Cincinnati that specializes in baseball transactions."

Even with heavy hitters like Opperman involved in the deal, Griffith says the plan is to balance the ownership structure so that partners are investing either $5 million or $10 million in the purchase, no more or less. There can be partnership groups--five people can put in a million dollars apiece to acquire a $5 million share, for example--but each $5 million and $10 million group will have only one representative with an official say in the way the franchise is operated. In this way, Clark and his partners plan to raise $50 million of the proposed purchase price, and borrow the remaining $30 million. The $80 million bid is at the low end of the scale in terms of public speculation over what Pohlad might be able to fetch for the Twins, with some estimates going as high as $105-$110 million.

But a price tag over $100 million is feasible only if the franchise is moved to another city or the Legislature approves the construction of a new stadium, and Clark maintains that both scenarios are problematic. "It is extremely difficult to find a community where a major league baseball team can survive," he says. No major league team has relocated since 1972, and Griffith argues that that's because earlier moves and league expansion have pretty much saturated the urban markets with populations sufficient to support a team.

"You can take football and plop it down in a city region of 600,000 and expect success because it is once a week, eight to ten times a year, and the same people will make the trip--sometimes from great distances--to see the game: It's a ritual," he says. "The same thing with basketball and hockey--there are 40 dates with 15,000-16,000 people and a lot of them go every time. But baseball," Clark continues, reaching for a legal notepad and scribbling out some figures, "is different. Say you need to draw 2.43 million people for a season--that's not a very high figure, but it could be a profitable figure. To get there, you need to draw 30,000 people for every one of the 81 home games you play. Now, say you have a 10-game homestand; to draw the 300,000 you need to average 30,000, you are probably going to have to bring 250,000 different people into the ballpark, because not that many people are going to go to more than one or two games. So you better live in a place it is convenient for a lot of people to get to the park. You don't get that dynamic in a community of, say, a million people, not unless you have a very strong secondary market a half-hour or so away.  

"I happen to think this market is one of the best in the country. This kind of population [concentration] is perfect. Look," Clark says, sweeping his hand toward the vista beyond his office window. "As far as you can see in all directions, you've got people. That last ridge out there in the distance, I have clients out there. It's only a half-hour into the city."

Yet the last time Pohlad drew as many as 2.43 million people was 1992, when the Twins were defending world champions. Now Pohlad is saying that the Twins can't make it here without a new stadium. Clark concedes that passage of funding for a new stadium would doom his bid to buy the Twins, but so far that still appears unlikely.

Griffith admits the Twins will need a new stadium someday, but he maintains that that day has not come. How would he make a go of it in the Metrodome? By building the kind of organization top to bottom that develops talent, he says, and by managing well. That's a long-haul strategy, though, and it isn't hard to imagine that impatient fans might develop an ugly sense of déjà vu in the meantime. Griffith denies it--he would spend money to keep the team respectable, he insists--but father Calvin is dubious. "People wouldn't like it. They'd say, 'Like father, like son.'"

But Clark is undeterred; he preaches the virtue of patience. "A new stadium is important, but you have to be careful. All things become ripe in time and if you bludgeon people into giving you something before the time is ripe, they remember that, and they can stay mad at the team. I've had people say that in Milwaukee, the arm-breaking tactics it took to get Miller Field passed have gotten fans mad, and that Brewer attendance may never recover. The problem is, when people turn off of you, it is almost impossible to get them back.

"I remember reading about Chiang Kai-shek and the loss of China. He had a billion people on his side and then all of sudden Mao was up in the hills and Mao makes a long march to escape and the next thing you know, Mao wins and everyone wonders what happened to Chiang Kai-shek. And I say it is simple: He lost the mandate of heaven. I have seen this happen around baseball teams. It's sort of like what is happening here now."

The recurring question, of course, is why in the world would Carl Pohlad be inclined to sell the Twins back to the Griffith family? It had to have rankled Pohlad some when Calvin was quoted some years back as saying of him, "He never keeps his word. He can't keep his word." The Griffiths made no secret of their belief that they handed Pohlad a championship-caliber team on a silver platter. For his part, Pohlad hired the one man Clark Griffith would probably rate as his mortal enemy--Howard Fox--to sweep the Griffiths out of the franchise. Certainly there must be just the slightest bit of tension between the Pohlads and the Griffiths.

"With Carl? Carl and I have become great friends," Clark protests with a straight face. "I met him back in '91 or '92, after there was a question of whether the sale price should be reviewed because of the action by the seller regarding a player named Chris Speier. It was typical business stuff. The meeting started a little icy and then it got kind of cordial. And we started the relationship because of it, talking about any number of things--management issues, Twins issues, all kinds of things."  

That's a rosy way to put it. The "typical business stuff" actually involved Pohlad withholding a $100,000 interest payment to the Griffiths, claiming it was "wrongful conduct" to sign Speier to a contract between the June 1984 agreement that Pohlad would purchase the team and the actual sale three months later. As for the Griffith-Pohlad friendship, Clark's good friend and fellow attorney Ralph Strangis says, "I don't know many people who are friendly with Carl Pohlad. They are neutral toward each other, I'd put it that way."

Clark insists otherwise. "I gave Carl a birthday present when he turned 80." He reaches over and hefts his leather valise from his desk. "Like this, only much better. Let me show you..." He spends the next two or three minutes digging through a pile of papers, finds a small catalog, and flips it to the appropriate page. "See, this one here," he says, pointing to an elegant bag over a $225 price tag. "Carl accused me of calling his secretaries to find out what he needed," Clark says, beaming. "I said, 'No Carl, it was just a nice thing and I thought of you when I saw it.'" Later, he says a couple of people tell him he and Pohlad have a lot in common: a love of reading, a penchant for walking around ballparks checking the sight lines.

But there are also many things the two men obviously don't have in common. Carl Pohlad would not rummage up a catalog to prove that a valise he bought for a business friend was superior to the one he himself used. He wouldn't discuss with a reporter his hopes and fears regarding a huge business deal as he was in the process of putting it together. There is about Clark Griffith a compelling combination of ego and insecurity that makes him a charming human being and a less than ruthless businessman.

Carl Pohlad is a ruthless businessman. Currently he is interviewing investment bankers to determine which one is best suited to explore his options vis à vis the Twins. "I suppose selling the team is one of those options, but primarily what we are interested in is focusing on other cities in order to move the team," says Carl's son, Bob Pohlad, the primary spokesperson on Twins-related matters while his father recuperates from back surgery. "[The bankers] will not be hired to entertain offers from people trying to buy the team, although we suspect that different groups such as Clark's might use them for that purpose," adds Bob Pohlad. And what if the bids reached $110, $120 million? "We'd listen," he says.

Why would Carl Pohlad sell the Twins back to the Griffiths? Because and only because it was the best possible business decision.

And why would Clark want to buy the team--because it was the best possible business decision? "Well it has to make sense business-wise, certainly," he says. Later, pointing to a wall full of plaques and diplomas in his office, he says, "I have nothing to prove. Maybe in the '70s. But not now." But nearly everyone close to him agrees that it is the missing link in his life, and Clark himself says that operating a baseball team is the job he is most qualified to do. Press him on the contours of his proposal and you hear a man willing to negotiate to make something happen: Right now, for example, the partnership shares are limited to $10 million or $5 million, but he is not foreclosing the possibility that a Vance Opperman may eventually wind up with more than that. For the record, however, he is firm on the $80 million purchase bid, calling it "very fair, considering the low attendance, the broadcast-rights issues, and the fact that players like Meares and Radke can soon become free agents.

"There is still a lot of risk in this," he says with a sigh. "I'd rather be totally naive and optimistic, a new owner coming in who thinks he can work the same magic with a baseball team that he had making widgets for a gazillion dollars. But I'm not. I waver between knowing enough about the situation to be confident and then knowing enough about the situation to think I'm insane. And you know," he says with another chortle, "the truth is probably right in there somewhere. I'm confidently insane."

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