Racial justice for the Minnesota Twins: The forgotten battle

Calvin Griffith
Courtesy of MHS
Calvin Griffith

Twins owner Calvin Griffith was a few drinks in at a 1978 Lions Club function in Waseca when he started talking about why he chose Minnesota as a home for his ballclub. Minneapolis Tribune reporter Nick Coleman was in the room, and here’s what he scribbled in his notebook:

“It was when I found out you only had 15,000 black people 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 was on a roll that night, also calling Twins star Rod Carew “a damn fool” for signing a three-year contract with the team at $170,000. “He’s worth a lot more than that, but that’s what his agent asked for, so that’s what he gets.”

In October 1978, Jet magazine printed Carew’s response: “I’m not going to be another nigger on [Griffith’s] plantation. The days of Kunta Kinte are over.”

Griffith claimed Coleman got it all wrong and Carew said his words were twisted. All the same, by 1979 Carew was playing for the Angels.

Last week the Twins unveiled a statue of Griffith, placed in spitting distance of the Carew statue near Gate 29 at Target Field.

The Lions Club remarks haunted Griffith for decades. Less known but just as public in its time was the Minnesota State Commission on Discrimination complaint against the Twins in 1962. The Twins, having been in Minnesota for scarcely a year, were the only team in Major League Baseball still segregating black players during spring training in Florida.

The complaint launched a bitter and very public debate, with black players like catcher Earl Battey (who brought the issue to the state’s attention) and outfielder Len Green stuck in the middle.

Rod Carew Time Magazine cover

“They tell us one thing,” Griffith said of the team’s most vocal black players, “then they get up in front of the NAACP and say something entirely different.”

Calvin Walton, the head of the Human Rights Commission, came at the players from the other side. “I don’t have much sympathy with these ballplayers if they choose to go along with this damned system,” he told the Minneapolis Tribune. “Any negro male who occupies the position these men do and allows himself to be discriminated against is knifing the civil rights movement in the back.”

Griffith finally caved just before a scheduled public hearing on the issue in 1964, after two years of heavy pressure by the state, intense media scrutiny, and threats from civil rights organizations of picket lines outside Metropolitan Stadium.

In an editorial titled “At Last Our Twins Are Integrated,” the Minneapolis Tribune wrote: “The racial distinctions which were drawn in spring training were the snobbish relic of a baseball era now vanished. The Twins should be a better club because those distinctions have been erased. Come on, team, catch those Yankees!”

Media clippings and records of the state’s actions against Griffith and the Twins are stored deep in the state archives at the Minnesota Historical Society. We dug a few of them up for you to have a look.

Calvin Griffith vs. The State of Minnesota

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/08/2010 - 11:13 am.

    Calvin Griffith was an old-paradigm bonehead, who became obsolete in the era of free agency. Though he is a significant figure in the franchise’s history, there are others more worthy of being commemorated with a statue.

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/08/2010 - 01:06 pm.

    Griffith and his family were shrewd baseball people. Civil rights not so much.

  3. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 09/08/2010 - 02:05 pm.

    Carew’s “plantation” comment, emphasized with a disgusted spit onto the clubhouse floor, was reported by EVERYONE on the day the Waseca story appeared in the Sunday Tribune, on the final day of the 1978 season.
    Carew had gone back into the clubhouse and stripped off his Twins uniform after the pregame warm-ups when he saw the story (the Twins were in KC on that day). Although he was persuaded to dress again for the game, it was Carew’s last appearance in a Twins uniform until he chose to be inducted as a Twin into the Hall of Fame after his 1991 election.
    By the way, I think it is important to note that although Calvin often grumbled about the story and, at times, tried to deny it, he did, in fact apologize for his talk.
    I think he gets some forgiveness for that.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Severns Guntzel on 09/08/2010 - 03:11 pm.

    Thanks for that, Nick.

  5. Submitted by Bob Sebo on 09/08/2010 - 04:15 pm.

    I have always been under the impression thathe tried to make amends…to what degree I do not know. I would be interested to read the original story…does anyone have a link?

  6. Submitted by Eric Larson on 09/08/2010 - 07:35 pm.

    This April I was within a 20 feet of Rod Carew while he made some well prepared, thoughtful and kind remarks at the unveiling of his statue at Target Field. I can’t quote, and I’ll bet someone can find a youtube video, his words. But I was surprised by the kind comments he had for Calvin. I thought specifically to those articles in the paper that Nick wrote back then. The thought that popped into my head was “class act Rod”. He always was and still is a class act.

  7. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 09/08/2010 - 07:55 pm.

    Bob: Here’s a link to the 1978 story, which was put up on the StarTribune website earlier this year:

  8. Submitted by Jeff Severns Guntzel on 09/09/2010 - 08:51 am.

    Nick, I’m curious, in 1978 when all of this was going down was the 1962-64 integration story ever raised? I found press clippings from every paper in the city spanning two full years. Sid Hartman was involved too (behind the scenes), reaching out to Griffith himself in partnership with Rabbi Max Shapiro (a member of the commission). The controversy followed Griffith and the Twins for their first years in the state but it’s certainly not much a part of the Griffith narrative now. Was it then?

  9. Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/10/2010 - 12:01 pm.

    You have to remember the times to put this in context. A lot was covered up.

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