Calvin Griffith

GriffithCalvin
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.

Pursuit

Charles Oscar Finley

Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices).  This guy does not qualify for our Top 25, because we chose to not include people who also owned the team.  Had we not made this (somewhat arbitrary) decision, he would certainly have been included.

FinleyCharlie

In his early years owning the Kansas City Athletics, there seemed to be no promotion beneath the dignity of Charles Oscar Finley.  Cow-milking contests, greased pig contests, mechanical rabbits handing balls to the umpire, a mule (named “Charlie O.), colored bases and foul poles, dozens more … Finley seemed to have an idea like this every day.  But none of it worked.  He had terrible attendance in Kansas City (worse than it was before he arrived, and much worse than the Royals had after the A’s moved to Oakland) and he had terrible attendance in Oakland with great teams.  After he sold the club, the very next year Oakland crushed their previous attendance high despite missing a third of the season to the player’s strike.

But while Finley was distracting us with all the nonsense, angering his fellow owners, managers, and players, he also built a great team.  And give the rascal his due — he did most of the work himself — he decided who to draft, made trades, designed the uniforms, suggested lineups, wrote the yearbook copy, made out song lists for the organist.  Not every day, but often enough.  He employed general managers in the KC years, but after the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 he dispensed with most of the front office other than his wife, cousin and other assorted relatives.  By the time he was winning the World Series, he was the biggest star of the team, the center of attention, on the cover of national magazines.

Finley’s teams won almost entirely with players that his organization signed and developed.  The Athletics were built precisely the way we imagine that a great team ought to be built: they signed or drafted dozens of quality players, sifted through them for a few years until several developed, made a couple of key trades to redistribute the talent, and provided depth with veteran role players.  It worked splendidly, and likely would have continued to work splendidly had the game’s labor system not changed.  Once the players had to be treated on nearly equal ground, Finley’s abrasive and domineering style was no longer successful.  For this, Finley has himself to blame, for no one did more to incite the player revolution than he.

Finley bought the struggling Kansas City A’s in late 1960.  After a few years of impatience, in 1964 the A’s outscouted and outspent their competition, signing Jim Hunter, John Odom, Dave Duncan, and Joe Rudi.  With the advent of the draft in 1965, the A’s nabbed Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue in the first three years.  By 1968 they were in Oakland, and by 1969 all of these guys were in the major leagues and contending.

Meanwhile, with his baseball club gradually improving, Finley worked equally hard to keep them from getting his money.  He went through very public and openly hostile holdouts with Reggie Jackson (in 1970) and Vida Blue (1972), both times using humiliation and degradation to get his stars to come to terms.  In both cases, commissioner Bowie Kuhn, rarely considered friendly to the interests of players, intervened to get things settled.  Finley’s attitude toward his players is perhaps best summarized in something he once told writer Bill Libby: “We have not won a pennant, but we will win one, we will win more than one with these players who are like my own sons, and I am only sad when they will not accept my counsel, the counsel of a man who is older and wiser than they.”

Led by Blue, the A’s won 101 games in 1971 and the division by 16 games.  The team fell short in the playoffs, but the core of this team remained nearly intact for five straight division titles.  Bando, Campaneris, Green, Jackson and Rudi held down five of the eight regular lineup spots.  Hunter, Blue and Fingers starred on the pitcher’s mound.

Finley made two great trades that solidified the dynasty.  After the 1971 season he traded Rick Monday to the Cubs for left-handed pitcher Ken Holtzman.  A year later, now realizing that he needed a center fielder, Finley traded Bob Locker to the Cubs for Billy North.  North anchored center field for the A’s for the next several seasons.

With his great young team in place, Finley constantly tinkered with the depth of his club, making trade after trade, either to fill in the gaps or because he liked making deals.  Finley imported a steady stream of veterans to play a role during the five-year string of division titles — Denny McLain, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams, all three Alou brothers, etc. He outworked the other general managers during most of his twenty-year career as owner, but he pushed himself even harder once he realized how good his team had become.  In 1972 alone he made 19 trades, many of them during the season.  After the team won the World Series, The Sporting News named Finley its “Man of the Year.”

The team won again in 1973 and 1974, with more unseemly player drama.  Finley took over the 1973 World Series when, after reserve infielder Mike Andrews misplayed a couple of balls in the second game, Finley demanded that Andrews fake an injury to get himself off the team.  Finley was roundly criticized, but it didn’t really seem to faze him.  After their Series triumph manager Dick Williams resigned, and the jealous players dreamed of leaving themselves.  They would not have to wait long.

Catfish Hunter was the first to get out when Finley mishandled the payment terms in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator freed the star pitcher after the 1974 season.  Hunter signed a record contract with Yankees a couple of weeks later.  In December 1975 the same arbitrator ruled against baseball in the Messersmith case, putting an end to the effects of baseball’s reserve clause, which had bound a player to his team in perpetuity.

Finley’s great team was effectively finished by this decision.  His woefully underpaid players hated him and had seen their teammate Hunter go on to happiness and wealth in another city, leaving little doubt what they were going to do with their freedom.  Finley traded Jackson and Ken Holtzman during spring training in 1976.  Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi (along with Jackson, now an Oriole) became free agents that fall.  By 1977 the Athletics were in last place, behind even the first-year Seattle Mariners.

In June 1976, Finley (who was usually one step ahead of his fellow owners) attempted to make the best of a bad situation by selling Blue to the Yankees and Fingers and Rudi to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million.  Because he was about to lose all three at the end of the year anyway, it seemed like a wise idea.  Bowie Kuhn voided the sales, claiming they were not “in the best interests of baseball.”  Finley unsuccessfully sued Kuhn for restraint of trade.  Even with the passage of time, it is hard to find justification for Kuhn’s action, other than trying to destroy Finley.

In 1980 Finley sold the club, just as it was about to get back on its feet again.  A’s scouts had signed Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Mike Norris and others over the past few years, and got back to the playoffs in 1981.

Finley is a challenge for historians.  He seems to have been disliked by everyone, and his style could only work at a time when the players had no ability to choose their employer.  But he built a heck of a team and won five consecutive division titles and three World Series.  His record as a team builder cannot be denied.

— Mark

(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.

Pursuit