Clark Griffith (1869-1955)
Clark Griffith in 1911, near the end of his career as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. (Library of Congress LC-DIG-ggbain-06462.)
Remembered mainly as the tight-fisted owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith spent over 60 years in baseball as a pitcher, manager and owner, as well as owning several minor-league affiliates. In 1891 he began his career as a pitcher in the American Association, compiling an 11-8 record for the St. Louis Browns and a 3-1 mark for the Boston Red Stockings. He then latched on with the Chicago Colts and the Chicago Orphans from 1892 through 1900 before jumping over to Charlie Comiskey's Chicago White Stockings in 1901, compiling a 24-7 record and limiting opponents to a 2.67 ERA. He was the first star of the National League to jump over to the upstart American League, credited in his lifetime for being a key player in the league's early days. Also serving as manager, Griffith led the White Stockings to a 83-53 record and the pennant.
He then managed the New York Highlanders (the predecessor to the Yankees) to a 419-370 record between 1903 and 1908, never finishing higher than second and basically retiring as a active pitcher after the 1906 season. After managing the Cincinnati Reds to three mediocre finishes, Griffith was hired as manager of the Washington Nationals (also known as the Senators) for the 1912 season. Despite having a mediocre record (693-646) as manager, Griffith positioned himself to buy 10 percent of the Nationals in 1920 after mortgaging his farm, eventually controlling the rest of the team with other owners.
It's debatable whether the Nationals were a good investment, however. The team probably wasn't as bad as the old "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" line would indicate: rather, the team was consistently mediocre, with Griffith selling talent to other teams to bolster his team's bottom line. "The Old Fox" was known for having a sharp eye for talent -- and the will to trade or sell the talent if the price was right.
That wasn't always true, however. Griffith owned the team for 35 years, and you can divide his teams into two eras: the early era where the Senators were always competitive and the later era where the teams stunk and attendance consistently lagged in the American League.
Emblematic of the first era was Walter "Big Train" Johnson, one of the most dominant pitchers of his era and a two-time MVP. Johnson spent his whole 21-year career with the Senators, winning 417 games and striking out 3,509 batters while compiling a 2.17 ERA. He also led the Sens to their only World Series victory, winning 23 games and winning the decisive Game Seven with four innings of no-run relief. (The Senators lost the World Series the following year, though Johnson pitched in three games and won two of them.)
Griffith hired Johnson as manager in 1929, and over the course of four seasons Johnson led the team to a 350-264 record, never finishing higher than second but never finishing lower than fifth. Johnson's teams were potent on offense -- his 1930 team featured Joe Cronin, Sam Rice, Sam West, Heinie Manush, Buddy Myer, Joe Judge, Ossie Bluege -- and the pitching staffs were solid, but the Senators just could not complete with the likes of the New York Yankees and Philadelphia A's in that era, winning 90+ games three out of four years Johnson was in charge.
There was a dark side to both eras: while Griffith ran a tight operation, he also made good money renting Griffith Stadium to the Homestead Grays and refused to sign a black player to a team playing in the middle of a thriving black middle-class neighborhood. Griffith told sportswriter Sam Lacy it would kill the Negro Leagues for MLB to sign black ballplayers (he was right), and in that instance Griffith chose the sure paycheck from the Grays over the chance to be a pioneering team owner -- a reversal of the pioneering spirit he showed when jumping to the nascent American League. Lacy and others insist a black star would have eventually saved the Senators, but that's debatable: the Dodgers did indeed move out of Brooklyn despite the signing of Jackie Robinson, so attracting a racially equal clientele was not an assurance of business success. (Though, in Lacy's defense, D.C. had a thriving middle class that looked to baseball for entertainment.) It took Griffith a few years after the integration of baseball to sign a black ballplayer, and in tempo with his timid nature the first black player for the Senators was a Cuban, Carlos Paula, not one of the Negro Leagues stars who drew large crowds to Griffith Stadium. Paula didn't make his Senators debut until September 6, 1954, long after most MLB teams had racially integrated. (Although, interestingly enough, the Senators were integrated before the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.)
The first era ended in 1945, when Ossie Bluege squeezed a 87-67 record out of a team with a weak offense and three good pitchers (Roger Wolff, Dutch Leonard and Mickey Haefner). After that, the Senators were consistently a cellar dweller, and things didn't get better until nephew Calvin Griffith became more involved and started nurturing the farm system, signing players like Roy Sievers, Harmon Killerbrew, Jim Allison, Jim Kaat and Jim (Mudcat) Grant. When Clark Griffith died, he reportedly left little to nephew Calvin except the team, the ballpark, a small balance in the bank and a loan.
An early baseball card featuring Clark Griffith.
Clark Griffith as player/manager of the Cincinnati Reds. (Library of Congress LC-USZ62-97862.)