Coming Soon: The Paperback! (And another ranking!)

In April 2018, In Pursuit of Pennants will be available in paperback!  The University of Nebraska Press is currently taking pre-orders, and I am sure your favorite on-line retailer will have the book at a much lower price when the time comes.

In the meantime, we plan to do some blogging here to get people ready for the launch.  Three years ago we counted down the list of the Top 25 GMs in history, one blog post at a time.  We have since revised this list, and it will appear in the paperback.

This time we will be counting down the 25 Most Important Dates in Team-Building History.  Coming soon!  In the meantime, enjoy the holidays.

— Mark and Dan

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Calvin Griffith

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Photo credit: Rick Prescott, BallparkMagic.com

When Calvin Griffith formally took over the Washington Senators in late 1955 after the death of his uncle Clark, he became the last of the family owners to act as his own general manager.  After more than half a century, many writers have a tendency to wax nostalgic on these owner-operators.  In fact, these men, who had no outside source of income, often ran their clubs on a shoestring budget and spent much less on scouting and minor league operations than the wealthier franchises.  By the early 1950s some of these teams were spectacularly unsuccessful.  Somewhat astonishingly, Griffith proved an exception—at least for a while.  During the 1960s the Twins were one of the American League’s best clubs and led the league in attendance over the decade.

The organization that Calvin inherited evolved into an extended family operation. Brothers Sherry, Jimmy and Billy Robertson and brother-in-law Joe Haynes all held down key executive positions within the system.  And all had grown up around baseball and were competent at their jobs.

But Griffith was very much in charge and immersed himself in all aspects of the team.  Until the travel got to be too much, he personally saw in action nearly all the players receiving large amateur bonuses or acquired by trade. When he felt his managers were not being aggressive enough getting his young phenoms into the lineup, he forced the issue with future stars such as Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Rod Carew.  Another time, when he thought the coaching was subpar, he kept his manager but revamped his on-field staff with expensive, big-name coaches.  Because Griffith spent most of his energy concentrating on the baseball side of the operation, he neglected expanding or pursuing additional revenue sources, a shortcoming that exacerbated his lack of non-baseball resources.

Griffith was a unique blend of bluster, naiveté, and baseball smarts.  Before formally joining the Senator organization in 1942, he had honed his craft working in the minors as both a manager and front office executive, and by the early 1950s was helping his aging uncle run the team.  During his long apprenticeship Griffith had learned the baseball business but could never generalize beyond the lessons of the time and place in which he learned them.  Once the environment changed, Griffith was lost. He also remained surprisingly unpolished, which caused further difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s as he was forced to deal with increasingly sophisticated fellow owners, players, agents, and press.

By the late 1950s Washington was finishing last in American League attendance every year, usually by quite a distance.  When Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul came calling to entice a move, Griffith was more than ready to listen, and the Senators moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season, causing the AL to put a new expansion team in Washington

The Twins had jumped to fifth in 1960 after three consecutive last place finishes, and the franchise Griffith brought to Minnesota was laden with talent.  Many of the players had been signed as amateurs: Harmon Killebrew as a bonus baby (1954), Bob Allison (1955), Jimmie Hall, Jim Kaat (1957), and Rich Rollins (1960). The Senators organization was also at the forefront of signing Latin American–particularly Cuban– players, a talent source that was especially attractive to the Griffiths because it was inexpensive.  Legendary scout Joe Cambria helped deliver several extremely talented Cuban ballplayers to the franchise, including Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Zoilo Versalles, and Tony Oliva.

Just before the start of the 1960 season, Griffith made a great trade with Bill Veeck and the White Sox.  He dealt 32-year-old Roy Sievers for two young players, Earl Battey and Don Mincher, plus $150,000.  Over the next five years, as the youngsters matured Griffith shrewdly reinforced his team.  He traded for key pitchers Jim Perry and Jim “Mudcat” Grant (forking over about $25,000 in the latter deal) and purchased two veteran relievers, Al Worthington and Johnny Klippstein. Griffith wouldn’t spend beyond his relatively meager means to build a winner, but he wasn’t looking to pull money out of the franchise—he wanted to win and would do everything he could within his financial wherewithal.

In 1965 the Twins won 102 games and the American League pennant.  After losing a seven-game World Series to the Dodgers, the young and talented Twins appeared poised for many years of pennant contention. To Griffith’s credit, he had also assembled one of baseball’s more racially mixed teams.  Many of the team’s stars were African-Americans or dark-skinned Cubans.

Nevertheless, the Twins failed to capture a winnable American League over the next three years, principally because of a dramatic and unexpected drop-off of some of the team’s top position players.  Griffith did his best to compensate, promoting Rod Carew in 1967 and trading for Dean Chance.  The Twins won the new AL West in 1969 under manager Billy Martin, but lost to the Orioles in the ALCS.  Griffith fired the mercurial Martin, and helped by a 19-year-old Bert Blyleven, the Twins won the division title again the next year.

As the core of the team aged, however, Griffith could not replace his stars.  And while he smartly traded for Larry Hisle in 1972 and stole Lyman Bostock as a late round amateur draft pick that same year, Griffith’s scouting and player development machine was only slowly recovering from the death of Haynes in 1967 and Sherry Robertson in 1970.

The team played roughly .500 ball over the five years from 1971 through 1975, but attendance fell off significantly—from third in the league in 1971 to last by 1974–and Griffith lost around $2 million.  When free agency came in 1976, Griffith was ill prepared to meet it, both financially and because he had a league leading 22 unsigned players.

In the first few years of free agency the Twins lost Bill Campbell, Eric Solderholm, Larry Hisle, Lyman Bostock, and Tom Burgmeier.  Griffith was also forced to trade Blyleven and Carew before they became free agents, though he engineered a nice return for both (including $250,000 in the Blyleven deal). Griffith slashed his payroll to the league’s basement, so when the team flirted at the edges of contention in 1976 and 1977 Griffith could claim a profit. Nonetheless, Griffith had little chance of competing without outside resources, a more enlightened approach to additional revenue sources, or a rebound in attendance.

The opening of the Metrodome in 1982 did little to help. The Twins again finished last at the gate and bottomed out on the field with a record of 60-102.  After continued financial struggles and flirting with moving the franchise, Griffith finally gave up and sold the team in 1984.  He left behind the nucleus of the 1987 world championship squad, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Greg Gagne.

In September 1978 Griffith’s legacy was marred by his appearance at the Lions Club in Waseca, Minnesota.  In what he thought were off the record comments, Griffith disparaged nearly everyone, but most incendiary were his racist comments regarding the reasons for moving the franchise to Minnesota.  Griffith may have put together an integrated team, but he was also the product of a franchise and era that for many years had segregated seating in Washington’s Griffith Stadium and was the last team to desegregate its spring training accommodations in Florida.

In his first 15-years at the helm Griffith masterminded the turnaround of one of baseball’s most hapless franchises and oversaw one the American League’s better teams of the 1960s. When Minnesota initially proved to be the financial bonanza he had hoped for, Griffith spent the additional revenues building a pennant winner.  He purchased players, included money in trades, and paid top salaries to his stars.  But as the economics of the game changed, Griffith had little to fall back on except his baseball intelligence, which left him and the Twins constantly struggling on the field and at the gate.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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Coming next week …

Beginning next week (Monday, January 12) Dan and I are going to be counting down the top 25 general managers in history.  One GM per day (Monday through Friday) for 25 days.  We will explain our criteria in this space as well.  Although we give these rankings a fair bit of thought, we primarily hope to provoke discussion about the role of the GM through the years, and shine a light on a lot of people who did a great job building teams over the years.

— Mark