Griffith, Clark Calvin

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GRIFFITH, Clark Calvin

(b. 20 November 1869 in Clear Creek, Missouri; d. 27 October 1955 in Washington, D.C.), baseball player, manager, and owner best known for his long association with the Washington Senators.

Griffith was one of five children born to Isaiah Griffith, a commercial hunter and trapper, and Sarah Wright. Not long after Griffith's birth, his father was killed in a deer-hunting accident, and his mother went to work with her sons on the family farm. As a youngster Griffith lived in a log cabin on the prairie in western Missouri. He became a professional trapper by age ten and shared work responsibilities on the family farm. When he was thirteen Griffith contracted malaria, and in search of a healthier climate, his mother moved the family to Bloomington, Illinois, in 1883, where she ran a boarding house. Due to his poor health in Missouri, Griffith missed much of his elementary schooling, but he attended Normal High School in Bloomington from 1883–1887.

In Bloomington, Griffith made the acquaintance of the pitching great Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourne, who shared his baseball expertise with the aspiring teenager. Griffith developed a six-pitch repertory, which he used with such acumen that he earned the nickname "the Old Fox" at an early stage of his professional career.

At age seventeen Griffith pitched for a local semiprofessional team, and he signed his first pro contract with Bloomington of the Central Interstate League in 1888. He then spent three years with Milwaukee of the Western League, from the second half of the 1888 season through 1890. In 1891 he jumped to the newly formed American Association, splitting the year with the St. Louis Browns and the Boston Reds. Griffith pitched for Tacoma, Washington, of the Pacific Northwest League in 1892. Joining the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in 1893, Griffith was 30–18, but he led a strike against the team owner for back pay. While on strike he worked as an actor in San Francisco's Barbary Coast district. Late in the season Cap Anson signed Griffith for the Chicago Colts of the National League.

Beginning in 1894 Griffith won more than twenty games for six straight seasons. The string was broken in 1900, when he led an uprising against the league, demanding an increase in the salary ceiling to $3,000. This provided players the opportunity to jump to the newly formed American League, and Griffith was among the first to go. As a reward for his assistance in getting some established players to move to the new league, Griffith's old friend Charles Comiskey appointed him playing manager of the Chicago White Stockings. Griffith responded immediately as he posted a 24–7 record, the league's top winning percentage, to lead the team to the inaugural American League pennant in 1901.

In 1903 Griffith was transferred to the New York Highlanders, a new franchise in a hostile New York Giants environment. But Griffith arranged for the chiefs of Tammany Hall, a political machine, to invest in his club, and these political connections helped him secure a foothold in the city. During his five seasons in New York, Griffith felt he was not treated fairly by the owners, press, or fans, the beginning of a lifelong enmity toward the franchise. In 1909 he began a three-year stint as manager of the Cincinnati Reds before he took the opportunity that determined the direction of the rest of his life.

In 1912 the Washington Senators, a troubled franchise, hired Griffith as manager. He mortgaged his Montana ranch, bought 10 percent of the Senators stock, and was elected to the board of directors. That season he invited President Taft to the pitcher's mound, and initiated the practice of inviting the president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of each new season.

In 1920 Griffith bought a controlling percentage of the franchise stock, resigned as manager, and became the club president, a post he held until he died. In 1924 and 1925 the Senators won successive pennants, capturing the World Series in 1924. The team's success on the field was not matched financially. Despite the monetary limitations, Griffith negotiated some astute trades and built another pennant winner in 1933. However, this was his last.

During the Senators' lean times, Griffith showed he was an innovator. He introduced the element of entertainment to the game when he used Al Schact and Nick Altrock as baseball comedians to attract larger crowds. Former ballplayers, the duo had developed various slapstick routines performed before games or between innings. Griffith also led the call for a rules change to ban the spitball to make the game safer. During both World War I and World War II, Griffith raised money to provide baseball equipment for servicemen overseas. He expanded the major league talent pool when he signed the first Cuban, Armando Marsans, in 1910. Griffith explored an even greater reservoir of baseball talent when he discussed with the Homestead Grays sluggers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard the possibility of playing for the Senators. If Gibson and Leonard had been signed to a major league contract, it would have opened the door to African Americans, before the era of Jackie Robinson. Griffith did not sign either of them in the end. The Old Fox received baseball's highest honor in 1946, when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York.

Griffith married Addie Ann Robertson on 12 December 1900. They had no children. When Addie's brother died, she and Griffith reared his seven children and informally adopted two, Calvin and Thelma, who officially changed their names to Griffith. Calvin Robertson Griffith, Sr., became a baseball executive and eventually replaced his adoptive father as president of the Washington Senators. Thelma Griffith married the Senators star Joe Cronin, who later managed the Senators and became president of the American League.

Griffith learned to use political connections to further his baseball endeavors. He was friends with eight presidents, and he became baseball's liaison to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His access to the White House was instrumental in ensuring that baseball continued through two world wars. When Griffith died of a massive stomach hemorrhage a few months short of his eighty-sixth birthday, he was considered one of the most influential men in Washington. Griffith kept a sign on his desk that read: "Long life. Sleep plenty, eat moderately, and keep your conscience clean." That was the credo by which he lived, and his life was the American dream come true. Beginning as an impoverished, fatherless boy and working his way up to become the owner of a major league ball club, he commanded the respect and admiration of those around him. His personal work ethic was a legacy to his family, and his pioneering presence, both as a player and an owner, helped baseball evolve for the better.

Calvin Robertson Griffith's authorized biography, Calvin: Baseball's Last Dinosaur (1990), provides some insight about his father. David Porter, ed., Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball (1987); Mike Shatzkin, ed., The Ballplayers (1990); and Lowell Reidenbough, Baseball's Hall of Fame: Cooperstown (1997), are helpful sources of information. Paul MacFarlane, ed., Daguerreotypes (1981), and John Thorn et al., eds., Total Baseball (1997), contain useful statistical data. A two-page article, "Baseball Man," appears in Sports Illustrated (7 Nov. 1955). "In His Debt" is brief obituary in Newsweek (7 Nov. 1955).

James A. Riley

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