Primary Sources: everybody's favorite racist

Last week, this column took a look at baseball’s racist response to free agency. There was some obvious unease surrounding the new flow of money to star players — especially star players of color, like Reggie Jackson. But just as notably, Jerry Green, the Hall of Fame sportswriter from Detroit, seemed particularly perturbed by the newly rough financial fates of the owners — owners who were among the richest men in America, as financially secure as was possible in America in the 1970s.

One of the oddest parts to me, reading Green’s piece, was the sympathy the reader was apparently supposed to feel for Calvin Griffith, the Twins owner. Rod Carew was an impending free agent, and in one of the first deals of its kind, the Twins sent Carew to the Angels for four lesser players. Carew eventually signed a five-year, $4 million contract with the club. Multiple other Twins had recently left in free agency for bigger paydays. Here’s how Green paints the situation:

Calvin Griffith dumped Carew because the Twins no longer could afford his salary. The four new players won’t cost the Twins as much. That is the way it works in baseball now. But Calvin Griffith felt rooked. Bowie Kuhn refused to allow Griffith to accept any cash, a supposed outlay of $400,000 from the Angels. Griffith complained:

“It was very, very unusual since Brad Corbett said he had to sell players to raise $800,000 to pay the bills. Here I am, the only owner left in baseball solely dependent on baseball, and I can’t get money for players.”

Some backstory on Griffith: he was born Calvin Robertson, but was raised by his uncle Clark Griffith following the early death of his father and eventually took his name. Clark Griffith was the owner of the Washington Senators, and Calvin effectively inherited the team upon Clark’s death in 1955.

Griffith swiftly moved the team to Minnesota, where they remain as the Twins. At a team event in October 1978 — months before Green’s article — Griffith explained why he moved the club:

“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.”

Griffith refused to take responsibility. In a story disseminated by wire service United Press International two days later, Griffith said, “I didn’t say anything that calls for an apology, and I’m not going to apologize — at the present. We’re hoping to get this all straightened out.” Additionally, he blamed his actions on alcohol: “I had a couple of drinks and, in answering questions from the group, I was trying to be funny (which is a bad combination) but I honestly did not intend to hurt anyone. I was appearing at what was to have been an informal gathering and my remarks were geared to the spirit of the occasion.”

Carew and Dan Ford each requested trades within days of the incident. Green’s story, published the next spring, presents the Carew situation as follows:

“Calvin Griffith, the owner, could not pay Carew what he deserved. But Griffith, too, had seen the lateLyman Bostock and Larry Hisle and Bill Campbell jump from his team as free agents to become rich elsewhere.

Carew would do the same — unless Calvin traded him. So Calvin did — to the Angels.”

No mention of Griffith’s remarks. Not just the racist remarks, mind you, but remarks that Carew was a “fool” to sign his most recent contract. From the Minneapolis Tribune report from the team event:

First baseman Rod Carew, last year’s American League Most Valuable Player, is one such victim of multiyear contracts, Griffith said. Carew, whose relationship with Griffith is stormy, is paid $170,000 a year under a three-year contract that expires next season.

“Carew was a damn fool to sign that contract,” Griffith said. “He only gets $170,000 and we all know damn well that he’s worth a lot more than that, but that’s what his agent asked for, so that’s what he gets. Last year, I thought I was generous and gave him an extra 100 grand, but this year I’m not making any money so he gets 170 — that’s it.”

Nor does Green mention Carew’s loud and clear response, printed in Jet Magazine later that month: “I’m not going to be another nigger on his plantation. The days of Kunta Kinte are over.” But no, in Green’s world, it is not Carew we should be concerned about. We shouldn’t be concerned about why he moved the team, we shouldn’t be concerned about the humanity of the players he is signing and disparaging. It’s the Calvin Griffiths of the world we should be concerned about, as the salary requests of the Carews, Jacksons and Jim Rices of the world set the stage for a world in which “Only the Arabs and Japanese will be able to afford to own a major league baseball franchise.”

Just under three years later, this was the cover of the Atlantic Monthly:

The last of the pure baseball men was Griffith, of course. According to the Atlantic, Griffith was “a holdout against the forces of change.” After nearly 7,000 words romanticizing the life and family of Calvin Griffith, the profile finally addresses his fateful 1978 remarks. According to the Atlantic, “Griffith has been explaining and apologizing for those remarks ever since,” which hardly meshes with the United Press International story noted above.

Michael Lenehan, the author of the profile, attempted to shift the blame onto Carew, painting him as a waffling, unsure man.

“Just a few days later, however, Carew said, “Everybody is trying to get me to rap Calvin…I’m through talking about the incident.” And in January of 1979, when his contract was being negotiated, Joe Soucheray of the Minneapolis Tribune quoted him as saying, “I’m not trying to be another Pete Rose[referring to Rose's recent $800,000-a year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies]. I’ve been underpaid for so many years now that it no longer bothers me…I’ve been willing to make concessions. I’ve been willing to take less money than people think.” It seemed to Soucheray and to at least one other local sportswriter that Carew was beginning to regret the prospect of leaving. Soucheray asked, “What are we to make of Carew’s sentimental wavering? Carew is practically crying out for Griffith to take advantage of him.” In the end, Carew was traded to California, where he reportedly signed a five-year contract for $4 million.

Lenehan eventually talked to Carew, but it was clear whose side he was on:

On a wet Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, I approached Rod Carew to ask him about the incident. I couldn’t claim to know Calvin Griffith well, but I found myself agreeing with the disinterested onlookers who had told me that he couldn’t possibly have meant any harm by the things he was supposed to have said — although knowing Calvin, all agreed, it was entirely possible that he had said them. I wondered if Carew could have meant the things that he was supposed to have said. I had in mind his ambivalence about leaving Minnesota, and I suppose I was speculating that it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding, aggravated into significance by the press and by the contradictory feelings that might pass between a now-mature player and the man he had called his second father. Carew was not very expansive on the subject. “I don’t care to talk about the Twins organization,” he said. “For some reason everything I say about it gets twisted and turned.”

And that, for Lenehan, is that. No further questioning of Griffith. Only another 1400 words lamenting Griffith’s unfortunate financial situation, ruined by free agency, and some poetic waxing on how great his family is. Griffith, as it happened, remained owner until 1984, when he sold the team for $32 million to Carl Pohlad, whose family still owns the club today.

“It gets twisted and turned,” Carew said. But in the minds of the Greens and Lenehans of the world, it was not Carew’s words but Griffith’s racist invective that was being twisted and turned against him.

Just like history is written by the victors, as the famous Churchill quote goes, the present is so often written by the powerful. Writers like Green and Lenehan were so deep into the pocket of the owners, so reliant on them for stories and access, so embedded in the world of powerful white businessmen, that they did not — would not, perhaps could not — question this authority. Their world began with an assumption: Griffith and his owner colleagues were the authorities, proper and correct. Everything else was then molded to fit that worldview.

This was 35 years ago. I was not alive then, but my older brother was, my parents were, a large portion of my extended family was. A plurality of the people reading this post, I assume, were alive then. Most of the people who read that Atlantic Monthly story, 32 years ago, are probably still alive now, and most of the people who read that Atlantic Monthly story likely came away thinking Carew was the crazy one, and Griffith was just an old man getting screwed by the changing times. These people have children, maybe grandchildren, and are ever passing their ideas on to the next generation.

Look at the current sports news cycle. Look at the Richie Incognito story. Racism in sports — just another window into racism in our society in general — is still alive and well. It is alive and well because these ideas — that what Calvin Griffith said to a Lion’s Club meeting in 1978 wasn’t important, wasn’t racist, and the money flowing from owners to players was the real problem — did not die in 1865 won the North won the Civil War, and they didn’t die in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and they haven’t died yet.

This is why we need to be critical — critical of what we read, when we read it, and who the source is. Critical of what side of the story is being told, and critical of who holds the power. Because without thinking critically, readers come away thinking the problem of free agency is the Arabs, or the Japanese, or Rod Carew, not that Calvin Griffith continued to hold a position of great power in the Minneapolis community for years after outing himself as an outright racist.

Primary Sources: everybody's favorite racist
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