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Rambling about 60 Seasons of the “Griffs”

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May 12, 2020


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This year we are supposed to be celebrating the 60th season of the “Minnepaul Griffs.”

“Minnepaul Griffs?” Let’s explain.

The American League’s Washington Senators received permission to relocate to Minnesota in the fall of 1960. In the early weeks of the transition, the Twin Cities “think tank” of media and fans speculated about what to name their new Major League Baseball franchise. It was certainly clear that Senators wasn’t a fit as part of the name in Minnesota.

Minnepaul drew some “votes,” even if it was an awkward way of combining Minneapolis and St. Paul. Griffs was a better offering, nicknaming the club for the Griffith family that owned the franchise moving from its longtime home in the District of Columbia.

Minnesota Twins won out in the name-that-team derby, although an early legal document involving the Griffith’s franchise referred to the Minneapolis baseball club. There was also early memorabilia with the Minneapolis name—not Minnesota.

While the Griffiths were advised not to slight St. Paul, it was Minneapolis powerbrokers who had been trying to tantalize big league franchises like the Cleveland Indians, New York Giants and the Senators to relocate here in the 1950s. Also, the national sports media and fans knew this area from the fame of the five-time NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has so far delayed the 2020 MLB season, but it can’t stop this writer from being optimistic the “Boys of Summer” will take the field sometime in the weeks ahead. If so, the Twins will celebrate their 60th season in Minnesota.

I like to be first to a party, so let me offer further history lessons and reminiscing about the baseball franchise that has been entertaining us in the Upper Midwest since 1961.

The arrival of MLB was a big deal, and sadly, much more important to the public than the departure of the Lakers for Los Angeles after the 1959-1960 NBA season. The Vikings, an NFL expansion franchise that also took the field in 1961, were greeted with interest but nothing like the Twins because decades ago it was baseball that was the “national pastime” and not football.

Back in the early 1960s, drawing over 1 million fans through the gate was a financial sign of success in the bigs and a statement that your town supported baseball. The Twins announced total attendance of 1,256,723 fans their first season. Then they cruised through nine more seasons of passing the 1 million mark in attendance, as fans came from near and far including by private airplanes. The financial windfall was important to the Griffith family whose personal wealth would not be confused with the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or even the Pohlads.

Team president Calvin Griffith was tight with a buck, with at least one player quipping the Twins boss threw nickels around as if they were manhole covers. Griffith found a money machine in Minnesota in the early years, and he seemed to like living here. His lifestyle included fishing near his home on Lake Minnetonka. Lore has it, though, that he didn’t care so much that an exclusive suburban Minneapolis golf club didn’t want him as a member.

Griffith was a character and no one, including Calvin, knew for sure what words might come out of his mouth. I never saw the man smile, although he always treated me with respect. I can’t recall his ever turning me down for an interview. He might waive me into his Metropolitan Stadium office and say, “Shama, sit down.”

Tony Oliva

Griffith was certainly not a high society elite, but he knew baseball. Even before he moved his franchise to Minnesota, he and his aides were building a promising talent pool that included players from Cuba. American players like Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison and Jim Kaat, and Cubans Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles and Camilo Pascual, formed the core of a Twins team that won the American League pennant in 1965, and then lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

There was no better way to spend summer days and evenings in the 1960s than at Metropolitan Stadium—and get paid for it. My dad bought primo seats for a dozen or more games per season, but I also was part of the crew that prepared food for the vendors who sold hot dogs, soda and popcorn in the stadium stands. I was paid something like $7 per game but would have worked pro bono (if I knew then what that meant).

There were about eight of us working in one of the stadium’s side rooms used for preparing items for the vendors. We became friends and we were constantly doing what teenage boys do—verbally baiting one another and occasionally exchanging punches. We also found time to experiment with the cuisine including boiling the hot dogs to twice their normal size. Coca Cola found a new partner when we mixed the famous soft drink with orange soda.

Although we had an open invite to drink and eat as much as we liked, my favorite activity was leaving the room to watch the game. No more than a couple of us were supposed to leave at any time and go watch the Twins for a few minutes, but we played fast with the work rules. By the seventh inning we could start putting the food into storage and mopping the floor to close up the facility. The best scenario was for the game to be moving slowly in the late innings so that by the eighth and ninth I could watch the game without being sidetracked by my job.

The Twins played their last game at Metropolitan Stadium September 30, 1981. I had covered the team for a wire service in the 1970s but on that September day I sat in the stands as part of a small gathering of 15,900 fans. The Twins had fallen on hard times at the gate and on the field. The Metrodome awaited with better days coming at the box office and in the standings.

From the time the dome opened until its last season in 2009, the facility was belittled, but legions of Twins fans will insist that without its home field advantage their favorite team never would have been a combined 8-0 in World Series home games that ended in championships in 1987 and 1991. The stadium of the “Homer Hanky” was an inspiring place for the Twins to play and a nightmare for the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

After the 1970s I didn’t return to covering the Twins as a journalist until 2006. In the old days I found Killebrew to be the most approachable Twin I could imagine. In the 2000s I found players more difficult to talk with, except for Torii Hunter who made you feel like the editor of Sports Illustrated. Among managers and coaches, there have been none more likeable this millennium than Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson.

I can’t let this piece go without listing my all-time Twins team. With apologies to Gardy, I have to make Tom Kelly the manager. The man could be a professor of baseball and its managerial situations at an Ivy League institution. Here’s how I fill out T.K.’s batting order for a 60th anniversary season team:

Leading off the second baseman, Rod Carew. Batting second, the catcher Joe Mauer. Hitting third, the center fielder, Kirby Puckett. The cleanup hitter and third baseman? “The Killer,” of course. Batting fifth, right fielder Tony Oliva. Hitting sixth and seventh are first baseman Justin Morneau and left fielder Torii Hunter. Batting eighth is DH Kent Hrbek and ninth is shortstop Zoilo Versalles.

If T.K. has to win one game for the ages I am giving him Jack Morris, the right-handed hero who pitched 10 brilliant innings in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series that made Minnesota the baseball capital of the universe that year. (Morris was 2-0 in the series with a 1.17 ERA). If Jack needed help in the ninth, it’s Joe Nathan to the rescue.

Scott, Hall & Carneal

Calling the action on local radio and TV would be the broadcast team of Herb Carneal, Halsey Hall and Ray Scott. They were both reporters and entertainers who charmed these parts decades ago. None more so than Halsey who had so many sidesplitting stories he could make a rain delay better than the ball game.

Hall had been a newspaper man for a long time before the Twins arrived. He loved having a big league ball club in Minnesota. His emotions about the hometown team could go to extreme. Once on the broadcast of a nail-biting game Scott quipped, “Halsey get up off the floor. You’re paid to watch.”

The 2020 Twins have yet to take the field, but for this writer the 60 seasons celebration starts today.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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