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The Most Shameful Statue in Baseball

By Craig Calcaterra, November 13, 2016
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

There are many men who have been honored by Major League Baseball—many of whom were even inducted into the Hall of Fame—whose moral and ethical worth was ultimately revealed to be lacking. In their day, these figures were considered “men of their time,” but by today’s standards, they are less than role models, to say the least.

One category of these less-than-admirable men involves skinflints. Baseball’s ownership class has always included a great many of those, including White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey. His name graced the ballparks in which the Sox played for decades. His cheapness, or so the story goes, inspired the 1919 White Sox to throw the World Series so they could get some much-needed money. It was somewhat more complicated than that of course—gamblers managed to get even well-paid players to fix games—but that’s Comiskey’s legacy for better or worse. And not undeservedly, apart from the Black Sox. As another story goes, Comiskey promised White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte a $10,000 bonus for winning 30 games in 1917. As he approached that benchmark, it is said that Comiskey benched Cicotte rather than be forced to come up with the money. 

More troubling than the cheap owners were the racist ones. And there were many. If there hadn’t been, baseball would’ve integrated long before 1947. While some historical accounts have old-line owners claiming they did not believe black players had the talent to make it in Major League Baseball, the fact that baseball men rented out their parks to Negro League teams meant that everyone (the general public as well as franchise owners) had the chance to see the high quality of black players. Owners simply didn’t want black players in their clubs or black fans in their ballparks.

Perhaps the most notably racist owner, prior to and immediately after integration in 1947, was Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. While Comiskey may have been in good company with his cheapness, and many owners were racists, Yawkey was bad even by the standards of his day. He was certainly bad over a longer period of time.

Prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Dodgers, Boston City Councilman Isadore Mushnick, a man who was keen on advancing social justice, strongly urged Yawkey to hold a tryout for a black player—holding over the owner’s head the need of the Red Sox for a variance to the local blue laws in order to play games on Sunday. Yawkey arranged a tryout for Robinson, but it was a total sham, and Robinson knew it the moment he stepped on the field. Robinson’s tryout ended in less than 90 minutes, and racial epithets were heard coming from the dugout, which some attributed to Yawkey himself.

Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox—the last major league baseball team to integrate—is shown here with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

As the ’40s and ’50s wore on, the Sox’s racist ways continued. Boston baseball writer Al Hirschberg once recalled Red Sox Manager Pinky Higgins saying, “There’ll be no ni*****s on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.” The thing is, he didn’t have much to say about it. The roster was set by Yawkey and his lieutenants in the front office. As a result of that top-down policymaking, the Red Sox did not integrate until 1959 when Pumpsie Green made his debut. They were the last team to integrate, almost certainly because of Yawkey.

But even if Yawkey and the Red Sox were late to the party, one could still argue that, in some respects, they were merely reflecting a certain segment of society rather than standing athwart history. In 1959, the civil rights movement had not yet achieved what it had set out to achieve legislatively or judicially. It would be several years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and, in some cases, decades before schools were fully integrated. It’s not as though Yawkey continued to implement racist policies in baseball in the 1960s and 1970s. At least publicly, he had reformed business policies by the time he died in 1976.

But what can we make of an owner who spouted openly racist sentiment after 1976? How about, say, 1978?

Calvin Griffith owned the Washington Senators and then—after moving them out of D.C. in 1961—the Minnesota Twins until the early 1980s. Griffith was something of a throwback as an owner. He was one of the last of the owner/general managers who ran both his club’s business and baseball operations. He had some savvy when it came to baseball ops, but by the time the 1960s and especially the 1970s rolled around, the job was just too big for one guy, and it led to a lot of trouble for the Twins eventually. The game had, in some important ways, passed Griffith by.

As had the times, perhaps. How else to explain Griffith’s comments before a local Lions Club meeting in September of 1978? It was at that meeting that he was asked why he moved the Senators to Minnesota in 1960 as opposed to some other places such as New Orleans, which was then a popular relocation city. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported:

They’ve got all the ink and all the typewriters but they don’t have all the truth,” Griffith said. There’s no damn place in the country worth moving to. They talk about New Orleans, but what’s wrong with that is . . .”

At that point, Griffith interrupted himself, lowered his voice and asked if there were any blacks around. After he looked around the room and assured himself that his audience was white, Griffith resumed his answer.

I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” he said. 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.”

Remember, this was 1978—not 1950.

There’s frequent talk of the Red Sox changing the name of Yawkey Way outside Fenway Park to minimize the celebration of a man whose views are now more properly the stuff of shame than honor. Meanwhile, outside Target Field in Minneapolis, there stands a statue, installed just a few short years ago, of Calvin Griffith—the man who made Major League Baseball in Minnesota possible, inspired as he was by a passionate desire to keep black people out of his ballpark.

He didn’t make Cooperstown, but Griffith is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the legacy of the man whose innovations essentially caused the game to pass Griffith by—Marvin Miller—can’t get the time of day.

This photo shows a fan being pictured with the statue of Calvin Griffith outside of Minnesota’s Target Field. It is hard to believe in today’s world that someone so notable for his racist beliefs would receive such an honor.
Credit:
Jeramey Jannene on Flickr

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Dang, I hate to become any kind of apologist for someone who said what Griffith said in Waseca in 1978, but I guess the beginning of that sentence signals that this is exactly what I'm going to do. I grew up with the Twins under Griffith..Griffith's attitudes are more complicated (or, to use a trendier term, nuanced) than the one incident. I didn't understand the second paragraph, either it's relevance or why he chose to twice make claims with "as the story goes." Dan Levitt has pointed out that Comiskey was about the same as other owners in cheapness, and, as we know, the Cicotte story isn't true. Carew, of course, was outraged by the comments, although he likely was going to be traded anyway as Griffith didn't adjust well to free agency. But Carew continued to have a good relationship with Griffith and, I believe, has often talked about the patience and kindness Griffith demonstrated in Carew's early years with the Twins. I'd be more interested in hearing Carew's comments today about Griffith. Yeah, they'd probably be tempered by time and perhaps a reluctance to rip into anyone, but I've always had the impression there are genuine good feelings he has toward Griffith.

Stew Thornley

posted 01.07.2017