BLOOMINGTON - Clark Griffith, who spent his teenage years in Bloomington-Normal, ranks as one of the most influential figures in the history of the national pastime.
Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, he was one of the finest pitchers of the 19th century, a principal organizer of the American League, the first manager of the Chicago White Sox, and the longtime owner of the Washington Senators.
Simply put, he was a Hall of Fame-caliber player, manager, and owner, and before he passed away in 1955, veteran baseball men claimed "Grif" had seen more ballgames than any man alive.
Griffith was born in 1869 in rural Missouri. A hunting accident took the life of his hardscrabble father.
His mother later relocated the family to Normal, where she ran a boardinghouse and took in washing.
In his youth, Griffith never boasted a strong throwing arm, and it was said his fastball couldn't break a window.
Instead, he relied on a wide array of trick pitches, delaying tactics, and profanity-laced hectoring to gain tactical and psychological advantage over his opponents. By the age of 25, this exasperating pitching style had earned Griffith the nickname "Old Fox."
In 1887, Griffith signed on with Bloomington Reds, the city's first truly professional team, which played in the short-lived Inter-State minor league that included clubs from Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.
In 1888, Bloomington staged an exhibition game with Milwaukee at the old South Hill diamond.
Impressed with Griffith's mound work, Milwaukee manager Jimmy Hart purchased the teenager's contract on the spot.
As a ballplayer, Griffith was known as a red-eyed radical when it came to his player-owner relations. He had no qualms about "jumping" to another team or league. He left Milwaukee for the Charles Comiskey-managed St. Louis Browns of the American Association. After that league collapsed, he found himself, at 22, as a player-manager for Missoula of the Montana State League.
"Scandalous," Griffith once said, recalling his ball playing days during the twilight of the Wild West era. "Women, whiskey, wide-open gambling. Everything. But what money!"
He broke into the National League in 1893, winning 151 games for the Chicago Colts and Orphans (as the Cubs were then known) over seven seasons.
In 1901, Comiskey, Ban Johnson and Griffith organized the American League to combat the monopoly of the National League. The Old Fox, by means both legal and illegal, cajoled dozens of N.L. stars to jump to the junior circuit.
As reward, Comiskey gave Griffith the managerial reigns of his new Chicago club, the White Sox.
Two years later, the Old Fox headed to Gotham to establish an A.L. counterweight to the N.L. Giants.
The New York Highlanders (they were renamed the Yankees a decade later) had spent the previous two seasons in Baltimore, making Griffith the storied franchise's first New York manager.
By 1912, Griffith was in the nation's capital, first as manager of the Senators and seven years later as part owner with controlling interest in the organization.
In little more than three decades, the crafty, weak-armed pitcher from Normal had risen to the venerated rank of baseball magnate.
Baseball scribe Charley Dryden once quipped: "Washington: First in peace, first in war, and last in the America League."
Be that as it may, the 1924 Senators, led by aging hurler Walter Johnson, were crowned World Series champions after besting the New York Giants in a titanic seven-game contest.
Griffith passed away Oct. 27, 1955, after 66 years in professional baseball - 35 as president and owner of his beloved Senators.
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