Today marks the 68th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's barrier-shattering Major League debut. As it does every year, Major League Baseball will celebrate the occasion with ceremonies at ballparks across the league. Every single player, coach, and uniformed official will don Robinson's 42—now fully retired following Mariano Rivera's exit from baseball last year—and black players from throughout baseball's history, from the Negro Leagues to the post-color barrier pioneers, will be honored.
The Twins will host the Royals at Target Field tonight as one of the 15 Jackie Robinson Day games. When Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Twins were still in Washington, playing as the Senators. The franchise proved resistant to the message. It was seven years before the Senators integrated and Carlos Paula became the franchise's first black player on September 6th, 1954—only the Yankees, Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox took longer to integrate. Shortly after owner Calvin Griffith moved the team to Minneapolis in 1961, the club was accused of discriminatory practices by the Minnesota State Commission on Discrimination. It was discovered Griffith's Twins were the only franchise still segregating their players by race at Spring Training and on road trips through the south.
Anybody following the Senators and later the Twins and their racial practices could have inferred Griffith was a racist. In 1978, after a few cocktails at a Lions Club in Waseca, a small town 70 miles south of Minneapolis, Griffith opened his mouth and removed all doubt. Griffith was asked why he chose to bring his team from Washington D.C. to smaller, colder Minneapolis. Nick Coleman, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter who attended the Lions Club event on his own time and wound up keeping notes on banquet napkins, documented Griffith's answer in the next day's paper.
"I'll tell you why we came to Minnesota," Griffith said. "It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don't go to ball games, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking, white people here."
Griffith's attempts to dodge controversy were weak. "When you go to a Lions Club, there's nothing to be quoted, from what I hear," Griffith claimed when the Star-Tribune reached him for comment. He also claimed he intended no racism with his comments but was merely stating a fact of the baseball business. "What the hell, racism is a thing of the past," Griffith said. "Why do we have colored ballplayers on our club? They are the best ones. If you don't have them, you're not going to win."
As Twins fans file into Target Field tonight, many will walk by a life-size bronze statue of Calvin Griffith standing confidently in a suit, jacket draped over his left arm and a baseball in his right hand. Target Field was built just six years ago. Griffith died in 1999 and hadn't been involved with the Twins since 1984, when he sold the team to Carl Pohlad, a Minnesota banker who made his first bucks foreclosing on farms during the Great Depression. Griffith left town hated by most of his players. Rod Carew was incensed by Griffith's racist comments and was traded to the California Angels before the 1979 season. Many others left town as soon as they became free agents, driven away by some combination of Griffith's lack of respect and his stinginess with the checkbook.
The sentiments behind today's ceremonies are noble. "Because of it, every kid who's in every ballpark will ask about Jackie Robinson," MLB president Bob DuPuy said in 2009, "and so, those memories and stories will carry on from generation to generation." But it will be hard to listen to the Twins claim to honor Jackie Robinson's legacy for one night as they continue to honor Calvin Griffith's legacy on a daily basis.
"I believe in the goodness of a free society," Robinson wrote, "And I believe that society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it — and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist." If the Twins want to honor Jackie Robinson and his legacy today, they should heed his words. Maintaining a statue of a man like Calvin Griffith—a man who maintained segregation in baseball well after Robinson's debut, a man who admitted his racism in front of a room of hundreds of people—stands against everything Robinson stood for.
There was no good reason to construct Griffith's statue when Target Field was built in 2009. There is no good reason why it still stands in front of the park. If the Twins want to do something in the spirit of Jackie Robinson Day this year, they should start by tearing Calvin Griffith's statue to the ground.