-- Update at bottom --
In light of the furor Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling generated with racist remarks he made during a recent phone conversation with his girlfriend (listen to the audio here), it's worth noting that the Minnesota Twins once had a racist owner as well.
In 1978, Calvin Griffith, owner of the Twins from the franchise's inception until 1984, told members of the Waseca Lions Club that he moved the team from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota because there are relatively few black people here.
Griffith's comments were unearthed this week by veteran Twin Cities journalist Nick Coleman, who actually covered the September 1978 Lions Club meeting for the Minneapolis Star.
Asked during the meeting why he moved the Twins to Minnesota in 1961, Griffith uncorked a racist response suggesting he was unaware any journalists were in the audience.
"I'll tell you why we came to Minnesota," Griffith said, according to Coleman's report (read the whole thing here). "It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. 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. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking, white people here."
To give you a sense of how attitudes about racism have changed since then, consider that after those remarks were reported, Griffith continued to own the Twins for six more years. Conversely, within days of the Sterling audio hitting the internet, he was banned from the NBA for life.
It appears every single owner in the NBA supports Commissioner Adam Silver's decision to banish Griffith, including Glen Taylor.
"The Timberwolves stand firmly in full support of the swift and impactful action taken today by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver," Taylor said in a statement issued through the team yesterday. "His leadership and direction in this matter is completely appropriate and appreciated by the Timberwolves organization. We stand unified with Commissioner Silver today and reaffirm our organization's zero tolerance approach to the type of reprehensible behavior which caused this action."
Silver's decision to ban Sterling for life may have prevented dramatic scenes from unfolding at NBA arenas last night. For instance, the Golden State Warriors reportedly were planning to walk off the floor at the beginning of their playoff game against Sterling's Clippers if Silver decided upon anything less than the maximum punishment.
So while it's a bummer that there's still at least one racist owner of a major professional sports team in 2014, at least progress has been made insofar as society doesn't tolerate it anymore.
:::: UPDATE ::::
Lest people think racist comments like the ones Griffin made weren't a big deal back in 1978, Coleman, reached for comment this afternoon, says they generated "a media shitstorm" at the time.
Then a Rochester-based correspondent for the Star, Coleman says he was at the Waseca Lions Club meeting hanging out with personal connections, not on assignment as a reporter. He didn't even have a notebook with him. But as Griffin launched into his racist rant, Coleman started jotting down notes on a napkin.
Coleman says Griffin's comments obviously made other people at the meeting uncomfortable. His editor quickly green-lighted a story about Griffin's remarks when Coleman told him about them the next day.
The story ran in the Sunday paper on the last day of the Twins' disappointing 1978 season. Coleman says he remembers driving around that Sunday and hearing Twins radio broadcaster Herb Carneal talk about how some Twins players might boycott the team's final game in protest.
Rod Carew was one of them. Carew eventually changed his mind and played, but he signed with the California Angels that offseason and would never again suit up for the team.
Coleman recalls that Twins players weren't the only ones upset by Griffin's comments.
(For more, click to page two.)
The Minneapolis Star ran a front-page editorial calling for Griffin to sell the team, and the local NAACP called for a boycott of the Twins.
Griffin "was almost run out of town on a rail," Coleman says.
Coleman recalls that Griffin first denied he said what Coleman quoted him as saying, but that was a tough position to take since his comments appalled so many people at the Lions Club meeting. Griffin then said he'd been taken out of context. Finally, a few days later, Griffin outright apologized for the remarks, justifying himself by saying he'd been drinking before taking the podium. He maintained, however, he wasn't really a racist.
"Whether he was really racist or not, his comments played into a lot of the racial prejudices and stereotypes of the time," Coleman says.
Eventually, the controversy blew over to the extent that Griffin was able to continue owning the team for another six years. But Coleman says that shouldn't be interpreted as indicating his comments weren't widely decried back in the fall of 1978.
"To people who say, 'Everyone was racist back then,' well, I could say the same thing right now," Coleman says.