Create a strong lineage and your legacy will last forever. Following in the footsteps of Stan Musial, Ken Griffey left the small town Donora, Pennsylvania in search of a career that would be more exciting than a life working in the steel mills.
Two World Series championships and an unprecedented father-son combination later, the Griffey name became synonymous with excellence in baseball. On Tuesday July 15, 2014, Griffey appeared with co-author Phil Pepe at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan to discuss their new book, “Big Red” (Triumph, 2014).
A four-sport start at Donora High School, the locals though Griffey was destined for stardom … in football.
“A lot of folks in Donora were surprised and – since that was and still is football country – disappointed when I chose baseball over football,” Griffey said. “What the people of Donora didn’t consider, and the major league scouts had no way of knowing, was that I was forced into signing a professional baseball contract because I needed the money.”
At 19 with his first child (Craig) on the way, a good chunk of the $500 monthly salary Griffey earned when he started in pro ball in 1969 went home to his mom and his girlfriend.
“I had no choice,” he said. “I had to succeed in baseball because I needed the money, so I worked my butt off.”
Griffey carried that drive throughout his minor league career, knowing that he was one misstep away from a return to the steel mills. A few years later, his diligence paid off when the Reds called him up towards the end of the 1973 season. He encountered a manager in Sparky Anderson who was less than giving with praise and attention for his youngsters.
“It seemed that Sparky only bragged on four players,” he said. “They were the only ones he talked about. It was as if the rest of the team didn’t exist. … The rest of us were satellites.”
Despite the lack of interaction with his manager, Griffey cemented his place in the Reds lineup by 1975 as their number two batter, hitting in between Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. He responded with a .305 average en route to a World Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox.
Many remember the 1975 World Series for Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six, but it was Griffey who scored the winning run in Game Seven to give the Reds the championship.
“We never worried about the situation,” he said, “but we figured we’d win out in the end.”
Griffey followed up his breakout season with an even better performance in 1976, batting .336, placing him runner-up to Bill Madlock. The Reds easily defeated the New York Yankees in the 1976 World Series, but it sadly marked the last time the Big Red Machine was in full effect. First baseman Tony Perez was traded to the Expos, marking the beginning of the end of a classic era in Reds history.
“It was a mistake and injustice to [Dan] Driessen,” he said. “Sparky hardly played him. For four years he mostly sat and now was being asked to replace a star and future Hall of Famer. It wasn’t fair to Danny.”
By 1981, only Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, George Foster and Griffey remained as holdovers from the Big Red Machine’s lineup. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the emerging free-agent market, Griffey gave the Reds 72 hours after the season to be traded, or he would test the waters. Cincinnati obliged, trading him to the New York Yankees. He signed a six-year contract for $6.25 million on his way to the bright lights of New York City.
“I soon discovered that George Steinbrenner was a charmer, someone who would tell you whatever you wanted to hear and who could be very persuasive,” he said.
Griffey encountered the constant whirlwind that surrounded Steinbrenner’s organization. There was a revolving door of players and managers that created further instability on the playing field. This uncertainty even trickled down to Griffey who was getting shuffled between the outfield and first base, a position he never played as a professional.
Even more ridiculous was Billy Martin’s insistence that Griffey play first base in 1983, relegating Don Mattingly to the outfield. He pleaded with Martin to switch positions with the future Gold Glover, but it fell on deaf ears.
“There was no logic and nothing made sense in the Bronx Zoo, so Mattingly stayed in the outfield and I remained the first baseman,” he said.
This was the first of several encounters with Martin, who Griffey felt resented him from his presence on the 1976 team. It came to a head when Martin singled out Griffey’s children at the ballpark.
Apparently Griffey’s two sons, Craig and Ken Jr. were playing by the batting cages too loud for Martin’s tastes. Nick Priore, the Yankees clubhouse man, relayed an indirect message from Martin to tell Griffey to quiet his kids. An incensed Griffey, who saw the other players children frolic in the same place without reprimand, expressed his dissent right in front of the manager’s office, having to be held back by Yankees coaches.
It was an event that stayed with Junior Griffey, and was the reason why he never signed with the Yankees.
“Junior never forgot Billy’s slight, and he held the grudge all through his career,” he said. “I believe that when Junior was eligible for free agency, he was quoted as saying the one team he wouldn’t play for was the Yankees. … I believe psychologically that was his way of getting back at Billy Martin for dissing him when he was a kid.”
Griffey spent five tumultuous seasons with the Yankees, struggling through their growing pains and managerial changes, including a cold shoulder from his former teammate Lou Piniella, who told Griffey he didn’t have a job when he replaced Martin as manager in 1986. Shortly thereafter, he was traded to the Braves.
He played a reserve role with the Braves and Reds until he was released in 1990, again by Piniella. Griffey was content with being retired, contemplating what he would do with the next stage of his career. A call from the Seattle Mariners quickly settled his plans.
“Up until that time, I had never even though about playing on the same team with Junior,” he said. “I just figured I’d stay with the Reds and end the season with them and then probably retire.”
Griffey was able to play the rest of 1990 and part of the 1991 season alongside his son, setting a record by being the only father-son combination to hit back-to-back home runs in a game on September 14, 1990, when they connected for blasts against Kirk McCaskill of the California Angels.
“I was trying my best to keep my emotions in check, knowing it was the first time in baseball history (and probably the last) that father and son hit back-to-back home runs in a major league game,” he said.
His son’s exploits are well documented and will soon make for his own excellent odyssey, but his own story is one of perseverance and fatherhood that Pepe documents well enough for a captivating ride.