Griffith was born in Clear Creek, Missouri to Isaiah and Sarah Anne Griffith. His parents were of Welsh ancestry. They had lived in Illinois prior to Clark Griffith's birth. The family took a covered wagon west toward the Oklahoma Territory. Along the way, the family encountered hungry and disenchanted people returning from the Oklahoma Territory, so they decided to settle in Missouri. Griffith grew up with five siblings, four of them older. At the age of seventeen, Griffith had made ten dollars pitching in a local baseball game in Hoopeston, Illinois.
After becoming widely known in baseball, Griffith recalled the childhood incident that taught him about the money side to baseball. When he was 13, Griffith and a few other young boys had raised $1.25 to buy a baseball. They sent one of the boys 12 miles on horseback to make the purchase. The ball burst on the second time that it was struck. Griffith later found out that the boy who purchased the ball only spent a quarter, keeping the leftover dollar.
Griffith entered the American Association in 1891, pitching 2261⁄3 innings and winning 14 games for the St. Louis Browns and Boston Reds. He began the following season with the Chicago Colts, and in 1894 began a string of six consecutive seasons with 20 or more victories, compiling a 21–14 record and 4.92 ERA. Griffith lowered his ERA over the following years to a low of 1.88 in 1898, the lowest mark in the league. As a pitcher, Griffith was known for doctoring the ball; he frequently threw spitballs, cut balls and scuff balls. He also claimed to have invented the screwball.
Griffith in 1903
When Ban Johnson, a longtime friend, announced plans to form the American League, Griffith was one of the ringleaders in getting National League players to jump ship. Using the cover of his post as vice president of the League Protective Players' Association (a nascent players' union), Griffith persuaded 39 players to sign on with the new league for the 1901 season. Griffith himself signed on with the Chicago White Stockings as player-manager. He won 20 games for the final time in his career and led the White Stockings to the first AL pennant with an 83–53 record.
At Johnson's suggestion, Griffith left Chicago in 1903 to take over as manager of the New York Highlanders. The Highlanders had just moved from Baltimore, and Johnson knew that for the league to be successful, it needed a strong franchise in the nation's biggest city. Griffith retired as a player in 1907, though he made brief appearances as a player for the Reds (1909-1910) and Senators (1912, 1913 and 1914). After a falling-out with the Highlanders' ownership, Griffith was fired during the 1908 season. The team had started strong, but the team's pitching faltered as the season progressed and Griffith was criticized for trading away Jimmy Williams in exchange for a disappointing prospect.
Griffith returned to the National League as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1909. In 1912, again at Johnson's suggestion, he returned to the American League as manager of the Washington Senators. When Griffith took over as manager of the Senators, he also bought a 10 percent interest in the team. At the time, the franchise had little going for it other than star pitcher Walter Johnson. In the American League's first 12 years, the Senators had never had a winning record or finished higher than sixth.
To entertain the fans, Griffith hired Nick Altrock as a first base coach in his first season with Washington. Described as a "natural buffoon", Altrock engaged in lighthearted fun while coaching first base. He wrestled with himself, copied the motions of the pitcher and made the fans laugh with other antics. Griffith also engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in major league history, leading the Senators to second place. In nine years, his Washington teams only twice finished below fifth in the eight-team league.
In 1919, Griffith joined forces with Philadelphia grain broker William Richardson to buy controlling interest in the Senators. Griffith boosted his share to 19 percent, while Richardson bought a 40 percent interest. Richardson and Griffith quickly came to an agreement that allowed Griffith to vote Richardson's shares as well. This all but assured his election as team president that November. At the same time, the Senators' home park, National Park, was renamed Griffith Stadium.
Griffith stepped down as manager after the 1920 season to devote all his energy to the front office. He finished his managerial career with a 1491–1367 record. His 1491 wins ranked 19th all-time as of 2005. During his managing tenure, Griffith had a tradition of treating the fans to a farce game as the final game of the season. This tradition is a factor in the inflation of Walter Johnson's minuscule ERA (from 1.09 to 1.14) in 1913.
Griffith presents U.S. President Harry Truman with game tickets
Griffith was known for running the Senators on a shoestring. This was almost out of necessity; even with Richardson's assistance, he was forced to mortgage his Montana ranch to raise the money he needed to buy control of the team. Unlike most other owners, he had no income other than the Senators and Griffith Stadium. However, the Washington Redskins and other tenants enabled him to turn a profit for 21 years in a row.
He was known for his faith in young players. He twice entrusted 27-year-old players to manage his teams—Bucky Harris in 1924 and Joe Cronin in 1933. Griffith's wagers appeared to pay off, as the Senators won the pennant in both years under their new youthful managers. In Harris' case, they won the 1924 World Series. Cronin came to the team as a player when Griffith's friend Joe Engel was placed in charge of the Chattanooga Lookouts at Engel Stadium. Engel was the first to scout Cronin for the club and said, "I knew I was watching a great player. I bought Cronin at a time he was hitting .221. When I told Clark Griffith what I had done, he screamed, "You paid $7,500 for that bum? Well, you didn't buy him for me. You bought him for yourself. He's not my ballplayer - he's yours. You keep him and don't either you or Cronin show up at the ballpark." Cronin later married Griffith's niece, Mildred June Robertson.
In 1949, after a string of mostly humdrum seasons, Griffith almost lost control of the team when the Richardson estate sold its stake to John Jachym, who in turn sold his shares six months later to H. Gabriel Murphy when he could not obtain a voice in the team's affairs. Griffith was reelected team president, but it was understood that unless the team improved, the next vote would go against him. Griffith proceeded to buy stock from Murphy until he owned 52 percent of the club.
Clark Griffith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. In October 1955, Griffith was in the hospital with neuritis when he suffered a stomach hemorrhage. Griffith died a few days later at the age of 85. After Griffith's death, league president Will Harridge called Griffith "one of the game's all-time great figures." Ownership of the club passed into the hands of his adopted son, Calvin Griffith, who led the charge to have the club moved to Minnesota and become the Twins.
A monument was erected in honor of Griffith at Griffith Stadium. After the stadium was demolished in 1964, the obelisk was moved to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the Washington Nationals played between 2005 and 2007. A collegiate baseball league, the National Capital City Junior League, was renamed in honor of Griffith after his death. The league suspended operations in 2010.