Calvin Griffith’s tenure as owner of the Minnesota Twins came to an end in 1984, the year he sold the team. But for all intents and purposes it really ended on Sept. 28, 1978, a date which will live in infamy for Twins fans. That’s when the old cherub shot off his mouth in the worst possible way, as I have written before, at a Lions Club meeting in Waseca, Minn. Unbeknownst to Griffith, a newspaper reporter also attended the same meeting.
My exposure and knowledge of that story has largely come via a Rod Carew autobiography that outlined Carew’s response to Griffith’s remarks, including the most offensive when Griffith said he had moved the team to Minnesota from Washington, D.C., because there were fewer Black people. I thought I had learned the worst of what was reported that day. It turns out I only knew the half of it, as they say. How did I discover the rest of the story? On the internet, of course. I was surfing the Minneapolis Star Tribune website for Twins news and there it was, trending at the time, a story headlined, “Griffith spares few targets in Waseca remarks.”
In short, I knew the story was bad, but I didn’t realize how bad until I read the whole thing. Not only is it racist, sexist and just plain idiotic, Griffith comes across as unhinged, leading one to wonder: was the old guy shitfaced? Did he have a couple of pops before or during dinner? More on that in a moment, but first a look at the story as reported by Nick Coleman. As offensive as Griffith’s comments about Black people were, I think this observation captured by Coleman is worse, suggesting that Griffith knew exactly what he was saying.
“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.”
Coleman also noted how some at the Lions Club meeting grew uncomfortable with Griffith’s comments. Oather Troldahl, publisher of the Waseca Daily Journal, tried to get the Twins owner to talk about native son and Twins second baseman, Jerry Terrell. Troldahl asked a softball question and Griffith swung and missed.
“Terrell came into my office in spring training and said he wanted a multiyear contract,” Griffith said. “I told him to turn your ass around and get out of there if that’s what he wanted.”
I was curious about how Coleman’s story played out in the paper, so I subscribed to Newspapers.com (a good site, by the way) and looked up clippings from what was then the Minneapolis Tribune. The Lions Club meeting was held on a Thursday, so I checked the Friday and Saturday editions of the paper, but no Coleman story was found. After a little more sleuthing, I discovered the story ran Sunday, Oct. 1, 1978. Why did it run three days after the service club meeting? There’s a chance that Coleman did some additional reporting, or the editors decided to hold the story for Sunday, typically the largest and most widely distributed paper of the week. But here’s what I think happened: The editors read Coleman’s story and crapped their pants in disbelief. Did Griffith really say these things? And if he did, we had better get a response from the man himself.
So Coleman’s story ran on the front page, but below the fold, along with a companion piece by Howard Sinker, who had the task of getting Griffith on the record about his comments. All Calvin really had to do was start apologizing. He did not. In fact, he started to dig a hole for himself, questioning why a reporter would even be at a service club meeting. And then Griffith jumped in that hole and began to bury himself in dirt.
“What the hell, racism is a thing of the past,” he said. “Why do we have colored ballplayers on our club? They are the best ones. If you don’t have them, you’re not going to win.”
On Monday, the story was still on the front page after Hall of Famer Carew announced he would not play for Griffith again — Carew was traded to the California Angels during the offseason — and then the paper’s lead editorial on Tuesday called on the owner to retire.
“Calvin Griffith’s repugnant remarks to the Waseca Lions club raise doubts about his competence as a businessman and indicate that he has outlived his usefulness to baseball in general and the Twins in particular.”
The following day the story was still front page news. This time Griffith was finally in apology mode after MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn publicly disavowed Griffith’s comments. Griffith said he “had a couple of drinks” and was “just trying to be funny.”
Letters to the editor also began to flow to the paper. Marshall and Gloria Clarke of Golden Valley, Minn., had this to say.
“Perhaps a more stinging indictment of the continued effects of racism is the fact that others in the Lions Club laughed with Griffith rather than walking out in disgust.”
Years later, as we now know all too well, Minneapolis became the flash point for race relations in this country, if not the world, after George Floyd died at the hands of a white police officer. In response, the Twins finally removed a statue of Griffith from Target Field.
And what happened to the Twins that week? The 1978 season ended on Oct. 1, a 1-0 defeat on the road at Kansas City. The Tribune didn’t even bother to staff the game, running instead a wire story about the loss that was buried on page 8C of the sports section.