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Twins owner Calvin Griffith survived racist remarks in ’78

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Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from NBA games or practices and fined $2.5 million by the NBA for his racist comments in a recently recorded conversation.

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Reusse: Outrage over Sterling a good sign

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
  • Star Tribune
  • April 30, 2014 - 11:54 AM

Twins owner Calvin Griffith was only 66 and yet the world had raced past him in September 1978. The sophistication required to operate a baseball business had changed greatly with the arrival of free agency, and sophistication always had been near the bottom of any listing of Calvin’s qualities.

As a reporter, you could count on Mr. Griffith to say dang near anything, and throw in a couple of cocktails, the old gent’s governor left him completely.

Calvin showed up that autumn evening in Waseca as a favor to friends to speak at a Lions Club dinner. The accounts I’ve heard suggest that Calvin started with a couple of impolitic remarks, drew laughs, and thus inspired, kept on rolling.

A Minneapolis Tribune reporter was in the crowd by happenstance, made mental notes and produced a story that was a blockbuster. You can find the quotes if you choose, but here’s the bottom line:

If it had been a decade later, there would’ve been no chance for Griffith to survive as owner with the racial disparagement in these remarks.

In 1978, there were Twin Cities editorialists calling for Calvin to step down as president of the Twins, and there were more than a few columnists around the country calling for the same, but national outcry?

Not really.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said that Calvin’s comments “in a no way reflect the view of professional baseball’’ but didn’t much involve himself. The brouhaha slid away and Calvin lasted six more years as owner before completing the sale of the Twins to Carl Pohlad in September 1984.

Three years later, on April 6, 1987, baseball was marking the 40th anniversary season of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport’s racial barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Al Campanis, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a guest with ABC’s Ted Koppel on “Nightline.’’

Campanis thought he was there to talk about the greatness of Robinson, his former teammate.

When Koppel asked him to explain the current whiteness of baseball management, Campanis (another non-sophisticate) stumbled through a few asinine comments.

Everything changed that night. Campanis resigned under pressure. And commissioners, owners, club officials, managers, coaches, TV personalities and reporters got their final notice to get a hold on racial awareness.

The strides that have been made in sports and race in the 27 years since Campanis’ network-TV bumbling have been impressive. One by one, the old thinkers are being weeded out, replaced by modern decision-makers, to the point there’s now an African-American as the head football coach for the Texas Longhorns.

I made note of this in the limited characters of tweetland a couple of days ago, and immediately was disparaged for suggesting the hiring of one football coach was a sign that racism was dead in American sports.

Racism is not dead in any inhabited place on the globe, and never will be. The best we can do is to much reduce the percentages, and in sports, that unquestionably has happened.

Charlie Strong is coaching the Texas Longhorns … and for me, that’s more instructive about America’s sports environment in 2014 than the ramblings of a goofy 81-year-old billionaire to his 31-year-old female companion.

Right there, we know Donald Sterling is missing a few marbles, comically parading himself about with his bad hairpiece and a woman of granddaughter’s age.

So, is it really a surprise that, even as Sterling gets his kick as an owner of a franchise in a league made immensely popular through the greatness of black athletes, he has a pathetic view of black people in general?

The Sterling tapes released this week were not a sad reflection on America. They were a sad reflection on an octogenarian fool, and perhaps on a young woman who might be a thief.

What happened in the aftermath was an excellent reflection on America. The outrage was immediate — thanks to the instant availability of information in 2014 compared with 1978, but more so because a much larger percentage of us now have a hold on racial awareness and a belief in equality.

The players, the media and the fans shouted for Adam Silver to take decisive action against Sterling, and within 48 hours, the new NBA commissioner threw him out of the league.

American sports struck a mighty blow against racism on Tuesday. And it has landed many of those in the past quarter-century.

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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