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You are here: Home > News > Feature Articles > Clark Griffith "The Old Fox"

Monday, August 05, 2002
Clark Griffith "The Old Fox"

Clark Griffith, owner and president of the Washington Baseball Club
By Hank Thomas | "When I came in the old days and sunk my meager capital in the town, I was called a fool."

—Clark Griffith

"Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." It was the kind of joke that helped kill Vaudeville, in the observation of sportswriter Shirley Povich, who was around then and for most of the rest of the 20th Century. And for long-suffering Washington baseball fans, there was indeed more ugly truth than humor there. In their first 25 years of major-league status, from 1886 through 1911, the local professional club had never finished higher than sixth and had fallen to last place nine times. Then Clark Griffith showed up and everything changed. It would be 33 years before the name "Washington" appeared again at the bottom of the league standings.

By the time Clark Calvin Griffith took possession of the Washington Nationals (the ballclub's official name from 1905 through 1956, though the writers and fans always called them the Senators) in 1912 as manager and part-owner, he was already a legendary figure in the game, his future Hall-of-Fame status secure. Born on a pioneer farm in Missouri in 1869, Griffith grew up within a primitive and hardscrabble existence, made all the more precarious by the death of his father in a hunting accident. Not yet into their teenage years, Clark and his older brother Earl became the breadwinners for a family of five, hunting with rifles taller than they were and trapping to sell the furs at the nearest town 12 miles away. Though not a large person physically, no one would ever doubt Clark Griffith's toughness.

When he was 13 years old, Clark's mother Sarah sold the farm and moved her family to Bloomington, Indiana. There he played baseball for the first time and, although judged too small for his high school team, Clark became a respected pitcher in the sandlot games around town. He also had the good fortune to come under the tutelage of the greatest pitcher of the era, Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourne, who had won 60 games for Providence of the National League in 1884 and who happened to live in Bloomington. By the age of 16, Griffith was playing baseball for money, and in 1888 signed his first professional contract. He landed in the major leagues in 1891 with St. Louis of the American Association, and three years later became the star pitcher for the Chicago Colts of the National League, winning 20 or more games 6 years in a row. Not gifted with an overpowering fastball, the bantam (5'6" tall) pitcher instead employed his knowledge of batters' weaknesses and a bewildering array of other pitches, some legal and some not, including the screwball which he later claimed to have invented. While still in his twenties, Griffith picked up the nickname "The Old Fox" for his ability to outsmart opponents.

Clark's entrepreneurial side came to the fore in 1900, when, together with Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey of the minor Western League, he conspired to elevate that circuit into a second major-league—the American League. As one of the biggest stars in the National League and his position as vice-president of the players' union, Griffith was assigned the task of providing talent for the new league. Of forty National League stars targeted for recruitment, only one, Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner, failed to succumb to Griffith's powers of persuasion and his promise of greater salaries and benefits. For his efforts, Griffith was rewarded with the managership of Comisky's Chicago White Sox, whom he led to the inaugural American League pennant in 1901. It helped that he had on his pitching staff on of the top pitchers in the league, Clark Griffith, having his greatest season with 24 victories against 7 defeats.

Sent by Ban Johnson in 1903 to take over the New York Highlanders as competition for John McGraw's powerful New York Giants of the rival National League, Griffith came close to league championships in 1904 and 1906, but by the end of 1911 he had brought his clubs into the first division only once in the past five years and it seemed his grand career in the game might be coming to a close.

"Mr. Griff Comes to Washington"

While attending the 1911 World Series, Griffith was approached by a director of the Washington Nationals of the American League about becoming the team's manager. Although he couldn't have been terribly excited about taking over an outfit with a record of two last-place and three next-to-last finishes in the past five years, Griffith was intrigued by an offer of stock in the team and the chance to buy more if he wanted. He accepted then went about borrowing money to buy as much as he could at the depressed prices of the sadsack ballclub, becoming their largest single stockholder before he had managed a game. Griffith would recall with some relish in later years that many of his friends and associates thought he had lost hold of his senses for throwing everything he had into what seemed like a lost cause. But he was ready with an explanation and it came in the form of a name: Walter Johnson.

Phenoms Johnson and Milan
Griff's phenoms Walter Johnson and Clyde Milan

Since the day he had wandered into the Nation's Capital in late July of 1907, 19 years old and covered with dust and cinders accumulated during a four-day train ride from Weiser, Idaho, Walter Johnson had been the pride of Washington and, together with his best friend and roommate, Clyde Milan, another 19-year-old phenom who showed up from Kansas a couple of weeks later, the town's sole claim to major league status. Milan was a fleet-footed centerfielder and Johnson a pitcher, perhaps the best ever. Of his debut against the league-leading Detroit Tigers on August 7, 1907, the immortal Ty Cobb would reclaim in his autobiography, "every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."

Still just 24 years old when Griffith took over the Nationals, Johnson had already performed some mind boggling feats, like pitching 3 shutouts in four days against New York in 1908, and also learned how to win, racking up 25 wins in 1910 and again in 1911 for a team without a .300 hitter. Griffith's plan was to build a ballclub around the great young pitcher, and eventually to win a championship with him.

Upon taking the helm in 1912, Griffith tore into the club's roster, embarking on a youth movement that molded the team into his own image, small but quick, smart and fearless. There wasn't much hitting and no power, but defense, baserunning and pitching almost took them all the way. "My Little Ballclub," Griffith fondly called this aggregation in later years. He caused a sensation with his very first move, trading Gabby Street, famous for catching a ball thrown from the top of the Washington Monument, and the only receiver deemed capable of handling Johnson's fastball.

"Who'll catch Walter Johnson?" was the outcry, to which the manager shot back, "I'll catch him myself if I have to!"

That wasn't necessary however, and after a slow start which had the doubters already judging Griffith a flop with a 17-21 record and second division standing at the end of May, the team caught fire, winning 16 straight on the road (the league record until 1984). Johnson himself won a record 16 straight on the way to a sensational 33-12 record, which he followed up in 1913 with perhaps the greatest season ever by a pitcher, winning 36 games while losing only 7. The team finished second in both of those years and remained in the first division through 1915.

By the end of the decade, Griffith's first great Washington club had pretty much run its course. The penny-pinching, shoestring administration of the team's owners severely hamstrung his ability to renew talent as the original "little ballclub" faded and fell into seventh place in 1919. But just when his position might have seemed precarious, a financial angel came to the rescue. Connie Mack introduced Griffith to William Richardson, a wealthy Philadelphia grain dealer, and Richardson agreed to put up the money to buy control of the Nationals for himself and Griffith. A perfect partnership, apparently unmarred by a single disagreement in the 27 years before Richardson's death in 1946, was formed. Griffith ran the ballclub, Richardson took care of the finances and they both made lots of money.

Shedding his uniform as field boss after the 1920 season, the Old Fox had reached his final destiny as president of the Washington Nationals, embarking on the longest and most satisfying phase of his monumental 70-year career in the game. For years to come, his teams would be the equal of such powerful aggregations as the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, and the Athletics of Grove, Simmons, Cochrane and Foxx, winning three pennants, a World Championship and rarely leaving the first division. Griffith would also make a name for himself as the pioneer and most ardent practitioner of bringing Hispanic players into the game, the ramifications of which are only now being fully appreciated. Jewish ballplayers also found a welcome place in the Nationals dugout and coaching boxes, a situation not true everywhere at the time. Although not playing on his own teams, tragically, Griffith's ballpark was home for the perennial Negro League Champion Homestead Grays of Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and the rest.

On the personal side, a seemingly effortless transition saw Griffith transformed from a fiery, steely-eyed manager into a soft-spoken, distinguished white-haired gentleman and pillar of the community, a personal friend of many of the presidents passing through town.

"He was a wonderful man, always helpful and kind," recalled the great slugger Goose Goslin, who played outfield on all-three pennant winning teams.

"He wasn't like a boss, more like a father."

This sentiment was expressed often by Griffith's former players, employees and associates.

Although without great personal wealth of his own, he was known to be a tough negotiator in business matters. The stories of his generosity and kindness are legend. One of the best has to do with Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who rented Griffith Stadium for football games. As Shirley Povich remembered the incident, one day Marshal came to see his landlord with a complaint.

"It concerned the gateman at Griffith Stadium," Povich wrote. "You've seen them, white-haired old fellows for the most part, some of them old-time ballplaying pals of Clark Griffith. The old ballplayer always gets a job from the Nats owner. The pay isn't much, but they like their work, and Griffith likes to call them in for a game of pinochle on rainy days. His is an organization in which the president is one with the lowliest employee. Well, on day Marshall went into Griffith's office, screaming. The old gatemen weren't moving fans into the park fast enough. They moved too slowly, 'and we've got to have younger men on the gates,' demanded the football boss. Griffith simply shook his head.

"'Those old fellows are my friends,' he said. 'They'll have to stay on their jobs. They need the money.'

'But I'll pay for the extra help,' said Marshall, 'and it won't cost your old friends anything. After all, I've got some rights. I'm renting this park.'

But Griffith was adamant.

'Those old friends of mine will have to stay on their jobs,' he said. 'Nobody is going to tell them they're through. Don't you see, it would break their hearts?'"

—Henry W. Thomas, author of Walter Johnson: Washington's Big Train

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The feature articles are intended for public interest and debate, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Washington Baseball Club.