Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball
By Ted Leavengood
List Price: $29.95
Fans entering Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., through the center field entrance are greeted by statues honoring three of the area’s greatest players, Walter Johnson, Frank Howard, and Josh Gibson. The Big Train is an easy choice as the face of Washington baseball, having spent his entire 21-year career in the nation’s capital. Howard crushed 237 home runs in his seven seasons with the Senators, topping 40 three consecutive years, from 1968-70. While Gibson’s ties to Washington aren’t nearly as deep, his legendary achievements in the Negro Leagues earned him a spot among game’s all-time greats.
Miles away, a long-forgotten hero stands sentry outside RFK Stadium, the Nationals’ former temporary park. This memorial to Clark Griffith, longtime owner and manager of Washington’s team, was erected in 1956, one year after the Old Fox died and four years before his nephew Calvin moved the team he so loved to Minnesota.
Ted Leavengood, managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com website, is waging a one-man campaign to return Griffith to a place of prominence in the city for which he did so much for so long. His biography, “Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” tells the story of a baseball lifer, who literally mortgaged his own home to invest in his dream of bringing a title to D.C.
As a boy in Normal, Illinois, Griffith blossomed into a star pitcher, exhibiting brilliant control on the mound. He cited Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, from nearby Bloomington, as his first mentor, and learned about the game on and off the field from the future Hall of Famer. Griffith established himself as a major leaguer under another legend, Cap Anson, who managed the Chicago Colts when the young hurler arrived in 1893 with a season in the then-major league American Association under his belt.
Griffith put in six 20-win seasons with Chicago’s National League entry before bolting in 1901 to help transform Ban Johnson’s American League into a true major league circuit. One of the game’s foremost labor leaders, Griffith helped lure talent away from the NL, personally meeting with and recruiting 39 established players to fill spots spread across all eight AL rosters.
Chicago White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey tabbed Griffith to skipper his club that year, and the player-manager led the Sox to the AL’s first pennant. Two years later he moved on to New York, where he was never able to reproduce that magic in six seasons with the Highlanders. From 1909-11 he piloted the Cincinnati Reds over in the NL, never finishing higher than fourth while growing frustrated with ownership’s unwillingness to spend what it took to acquire the pieces he needed to compete.
Griffith, who had been looking for an opportunity to buy into a team of his own for a decade, found his opportunity in Washington, where the moribund Nationals (Leavengood cites a historical preference for Nationals as the team name over the more commonly used Senators) were desperate for a cash infusion to rebuild their home park in the wake of a fire. Griffith went all in, selling off all the livestock on his Montana ranch and mortgaging the property itself to raise a $27,000 stake in the team, knowing he could make it back in time if allowed a free hand to build a competitive roster.
Suddenly, Washington was a factor in the AL, finishing second in both 1912 and ’13. But the club slowly sank in the standings as the decade progressed, and Griffith finally stepped down as field manager after the 1920 season to focus on building the team from the owner’s office. After working through a trio of managers, he anointed young Bucky Harris to lead the squad in 1924. The local press referred to his hire as “Griffith’s Folly,” but the 27-year-old second baseman proved to be the right choice, leading the Nationals to their first—and only—World Series title that year. Proving it was no fluke, the Nats captured the AL pennant again in 1925, but lost to the Pirates that October.
Griffith had a great eye for talent, bringing such players as Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Joe Cronin, and Cecil Travis to Washington. But the game eventually grew bigger than his budget, relegating his club to second-division status. The team was in financial straits long before he died, though he made every effort to keep it in Washington. His nephew Calvin, who moved in with Clark in 1922 and later took his last name, inherited the cash-strapped club when Clark died in October 1955.
Leavengood believes history has blurred which Griffith was to blame for the team’s move to Minneapolis after the 1960 season. This well-researched biography of a man who spent nearly five decades guiding the Nationals in Washington should help clarify that Clark had no role in the club’s departure. Will it be enough for the new Nationals to honor the only man to ever raise a flag in the nation’s capital? Only time will tell.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at [email protected].