July 15, 2024

The Clark Griffith Monument

June 30, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

In 1956 a monument was dedicated to Clark Griffith outside old Griffith Stadium just months after the former owner of the team and stadium died.  His passing was marked by every major newspaper, his funeral attended by every official of the game.  He was recognized as a giant of the game whose place in Cooperstown was richly deserved, based on an amazing lifetime of toil dedicated to making baseball the “National Pastime.”

Yet today that same Clark Griffith monument sits outside RFK Stadium where baseball has not been played for the past four seasons.  When old Griffith Stadium–near Howard University–was torn down, rather than load the monument in the truck taking his team to Minneapolis, the monument was aptly moved to RFK Stadium where the new professional baseball team, the expansion Washington Senators, played their games in 1961.

It was fitting for Clark Griffith’s monument to stay because Washington, DC was his home. His widow Addie Griffith said of her husband in 1957 when rumors about the possible move of the team first surfaced, “He would never have moved the team. He put every dollar he had into the team. He mortgaged and borrowed, but he kept baseball in Washington, DC.” Indeed, Griffith’s estate was valued at only $250,000 after his debts were paid. His business was baseball, winning baseball, and though he failed to deliver a winner for the last 21 years of his tenure in DC, he never quit spending every nickel–including money he did not really have–to field a winner.

So it is regrettable to see the old monument still at RFK, to witness the kind of disrepair and isolation in which the monument sits now, the sidewalks cracked and grass growing through the pavement as nature tries to take back what is hers.

By contrast, there are three brand new statues that were commissioned for the new Nationals Park and they greet fans as they come through the main gate in center field. Walter Johnson is there–the Big Train whose career reached the heights after Clark Griffith became his manager in 1912. Griff made Walter Johnson the leader of a winning team, not the best player on a perennial loser. He led him to a World Championship and two American League pennants.

The other two statues are of Frank Howard and Josh Gibson. Howard is a sentimental favorite in Washington. He was the last hero, the warm and personable home run leader who was still playing when Bob Short moved the team a second time.  Josh Gibson played in Washington only briefly at the end of his amazing career, just a few seasons before his tragic death.

Brad Snyder, in his book, The Homestead Grays, Playing in the Shadow of the Senators, said that Griffith could have signed Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard in 1943 and changed the course of baseball history, made winners of the Washington Nationals in Griffith’s last years.  It is a sentimental view of a deeply complex period in our nation’s history.  While I have great respect for Snyder and believe his book on Curt Floot to be one of the best books on baseball, I believe his book on the Grays has done a great disservice to Clark Griffith.

Snyder said in his book on the Homestead Grays that “Griffith’s opposition to integration was rooted in both prejudice and greed.”  In the book, Clark Griffith is made the bad guy. Branch Rickey is the hero. As a fan I cannot help but believe those who determine which statues are placed at Nationals Park see history in similarly simplistic terms. They are saying, ‘We would have signed Josh Gibson. We are not Clark Griffith.’

President John F. Kennedy famously characterized Washington, DC as two cities, one the sleepy southern town, the other the home to the Nation’s capitol and the federal workforce. African Americans were blessed to have the latter because it provided equal employment opportunities that would not have existed otherwise. Clark Griffith was yoked by the former.

In 1937 Clark Griffith gave an interview to Sam Lacy, one of the most outspoken African American journalists of his day and an unceasing advocate for integration of the game. Griffith told Lacy, “the time is not far off when colored players will take their place beside those of other races in the major leagues.” The words proved prescient, and like everything else Griffith said, they reveal no prejudice in his heart. Yet Clark Griffith did not integrate the Washington Nationals until 1954 and even then it was a halfway measure.

For all of his fine research, I believe Brad Snyder is wrong in his characterization of Griffith both as a greedy owner and a racist. Clark Griffith did not integrate his team for the same reasons that he refused night games, beer sales, and many other things that became standard fare at other stadiums long before the Old Fox acceded to them at Griffith Stadium. Change was a risky business for an old man whose tiny stadium was in disrepair, and whose business was operating on a shoe string.

Snyder characterizes Griffith not within the context of baseball in the 1940’s and ’50’s, but uses the modern baseball economy to insinuate that Griffith paid salaries to his entire family to mask the hefty profits being raked in by renting the stadium to the Negro League team, the Grays. He is wrong on the money being made and the nature of the family business. Snyder’s inference is that the salaries were akin to modern accounting gimmicks used by owners to hide profits. It is deeply unfair.

Griffith’s family were all Robertsons, related only to his wife, affectionately known as Aunt Addie. He had no children of his own. The Robertson boys ran the farm system and the concessions while the girls manned the executive offices. The did it all except perhaps the score board–where Bowie Kuhn and Ted Lerner learned the game.

It was a family business in the oldest and best use of the term. Everyone pitched in to make it work. There was no greed involved, just hard work.

I interviewed Hal Keller who played for the Nationals in the late 1940’s and early 50’s and went on to work in the organization for two decades, running the minor league organization for the expansion Senators before he became GM for the Seattle Mariners. He remembered the family business in very warm terms, recalling how all of them ate lunch together around a common table beneath the stadium.

Shirley Povich shared that view. He said Clark Griffth, “expected Calvin (his nephew and heir) to work and Calvin did work. In the same manner he did so by his brothers. While they were privileged, there was always the sense that there was work to do. Nobody had a free ride.” Povich knew Clark Griffith better than anyone and he was consistent in portraying Griffith’s team as a “Mom and Pop” operation that could not compete in the modern business world. Rather than a ruse to hide money, the family aspect of the business seems more like a way to stretch a dime than a way to hide profits that in the end are impossible to find.

Snyder does not address the racial climate of Washington, DC during the last years of Clark Griffith’s life. Washington was not completely engulfed by the deep South of my childhood, but there was plenty of it for everyone to see. Arch McDonald was the announcer for both the Washington Redskins and Nationals and he was openly and loudly a racist, barely keeping his ugly opinions off the air.

George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Redskins, vowed never to have an African American on his team. Both McDonald and Marshall were very popular figures on the local sports scene in DC. It was a risky venture to stand against prejudice and it is all too easy to make judgments from the safe distance of time. Washington was not the Deep South, but it was not Brooklyn either.

Could the white southern fan base in DC have embraced Larry Doby without any falloff in attendance? Perhaps so. But if an 80-year old owner without deep pockets did not want to find out does that make him a racist?

Few want to talk about those days. It is easier to forget, certainly easier to find a  scapegoat and blame the whole mess  on him.  But why Clark Griffith? He never said  an unkind word about  members of other races  at a time when it was  not only allowable to do  so, but it was  actually popular in far too many circles.

There is so much more to Clark Griffith than  questions about his final decade in  Washington. There is more than 40 years of baseball history to celebrate. This fall will  mark 100 years since Clark Griffith first negotiated with Tom Noyes about the managerial position with the Washington Nationals–the name of the team officially declared in 1905 and now restored. When the 1912 season begins next spring it will be a century since the Old Fox first walked onto a baseball field in this town and turned a perennial loser into one of the most consistent winners in the American League. The ones who beat the “Damn Yankees.”

It is time to re-furbish the Clark Griffith monument, to bring the Old Fox home to where serious baseball is being played. He was a giant of a man and for that he deserves not to be forgotten and left in the crumbling ruins of yesterday. Nationals Park should have a statue of Clark Griffith, the Old Fox, welcoming fans. He was celebrated rightly as a warm and generous man and the monument at RFK rightly celebrates the humanitarian. He was a gritty competitor who fought against the odds to craft the only World Champions ever in DC. Washington should remember that 100 years after the Old Fox came to town.

Quotes in this article are from John Kerr’s book, Calvin, Baseball’s Last Dinosaur, Snyder’s book mentioned above, and my new book, Clark Griffith, the Old Fox of Washington Baseball. The book will be discussed with Philip Hochberg, former Senators’ announcer during the 1960’s on the “Outta the Parkway” podcast, Friday, July 8 at 7pm.


4 Responses to “The Clark Griffith Monument”
  1. Austin says:

    Excellent article, Ted. Too many people out there want to engage in retrospective judgment and political correctness as they have run out of present situations in which to stick their upturned noses. Your passion for the subject is certainly evident.

  2. Bill Lee says:

    A great article. We’re losing much of our history, and what remains is so grossly misrepresented that it’s downright criminal. Here today, gone tomorrow and retold full of lies the next. I sure appreciate your effort to set things straight. They should move the monument before it becomes lost like so much of our history.

    Bill Lee, The Baseball Undertaker

  3. Thank you both. On Austin’s point, I would like to say it is not a matter of political correctness but of historical correctness. It is the historical record that I am urging be re-examined, that the facts on the ground have been viewed improperly and should be re-evaluated in light of the very negative conclusions reached. Norman Macht’s book on Connie Mack credits Mack with the role that Griffith played in the founding of the American League. Brad Snyder prosecutes Griffith for crimes he did not commit. As Bill Lee says, the record of history grows colder with time and so much is lost that need not be. I am merely arguing for a representation of a great baseball man that is balanced, that washes back against representations the facts do little to support. Hopefully it will restore some luster to his legacy in his home town.

  4. Dennis Corcoran says:

    I enjoyed the article and especially the line “easy to make judgements from the safe distance of time.”

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