A native of the prairie, Griffith was a professional trapper at age ten, emulating his father, a commercial hunter. When the Griffiths relocated to Bloomington, IL, young Clark discovered organized baseball. He signed his first pro contract in 1888 with Milwaukee of the Western League, and jumped to the American Association, pitching for both St. Louis and Boston in 1891 before the league collapsed.
In 1893 Griffith assembled a 30-18 record for the Oakland Oaks (Pacific Coast League). When the Oaks’ owners, in mid-season, did not come up with back pay owed the players, Griffith organized his teammates to strike. Needing employment, several of them, including Griffith, audaciously found work as itinerant vaudevillians in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district. When the owners found enough money, the greasepaint was abandoned and the season was completed.
Griffith was signed by Cap Anson for his NL Chicago Colts (later Cubs) in 1893. Griffith’s eight years in Chicago were the high point of his playing career, and Anson’s tutelage added a dimension to his ambitious personality. The Old Fox earned his nickname by utilizing a six-pitch arsenal, including the screwball (which he claimed to have invented), a silencing quick-pitch delivery, and the ruse of hiding the ball in the plane of his body before delivering. Griffith scuffed, scratched, cut, and spit upon nearly every pitch without hesitation, yet when the call came to make these tactics illegal in 1920, Griffith led that bandwagon. Young Clark claimed it was bad luck to pitch a shutout, and avoided doing so until 1897.
Griffith served as vice president of the League Protective Players’ Association, and in 1900, he led the members in baseball’s first universal strike. The players wanted the minimum salary raised to $3,000 and their uniforms paid for by the owners. Honorable demands aside, The Old Fox had the ulterior motive of helping old friend Ban Johnson establish his rival American League. He contrived to get every player to pledge not to sign a new contract without LPPA approval. This tactic crippled NL owners. Griffith persuaded 39 NL stars to jump to the AL; for his efforts, he was rewarded with the player/managership of the new Chicago franchise in 1901 and 1902, before moving on to the same duties with the newborn New York Highlanders (later Yankees) from 1903 to 1908. A tremendous animosity grew between Griffith and the New York owners. Oddly enough, the NL took him back with open arms to manage the Cincinnati Reds from 1909 to 1911. But when Johnson convinced him to rebuild the ailing franchise in Washington, Griffith had a home for life.
Placing himself in debt (a position from which he never strayed far), Griffith purchased control of the lackluster Senators over the years 1912-20. His financial ills forever kept him at odds with his players. It was probably an economic motivation that brought about a change in his racial views. As early as 1911, with the Reds, Griffith began signing Cuban ballplayers, the first to do so. The often-broke Griffith sometimes combined sentimentality with a nose for box-office attractions. During the Depression, Griffith sold star outfielder Goose Goslin to Detroit, asserting he could no longer afford him. But when the aging Goslin was released by the Tigers some years later, Griffith found a spot for him on the Senators’ roster. War hero Bert Shepard had potential as a pitcher, but lost a leg in combat. Griffith signed him anyway. Wartime blackout restrictions did not prevent him from obtaining government approval to hold more night games than other franchises in order to provide more “R-and-R” for the dayworkers of the Washington bureaucracy. The ex-vaudevillian always knew what drew a crowd. In 1946 he installed the first device to record pitch speed (borrowed from the U.S. Army) so that visiting flamethrower Bob Feller could give the fans a pre-game thrill.
Griffith’s major strategic contribution to the game was the development of the relief pitcher. While in New York, he yielded to the pressures from his Tammany Hall owners and pitched his two premier starters, Jack Chesbro and Jack Powell, a staggering 845 combined innings in 1904. In 1905 both were markedly less effective, and completed many fewer games. The Old Fox finished many games for them personally, making a career-high 18 relief appearances that season. Along with John McGraw, Griffith revolutionized baseball with his reliance on the bullpen. He subsequently developed the first great relievers, Allan Russell and Fred Marberry. He turned relief strategy into a weapon against McGraw’s Giants in the 1924 World Series. In Game Seven, Griffith sent in a succession of relief pitchers that led McGraw, committed to the lefty-righty percentages, to remove star first baseman Bill Terry from the game. When Griffith finished up with the great Walter Johnson, the Senators went on to win the Series with a 12-inning triumph.