April 10, 2020
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The history of the Griffin Club, which saw ‘everybody but Larry Bird’

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Ted Williams drank here. Dave Cowens, Jim Rice and Luis Tiant did, too. The walls, painted Celtic green and covered in wood paneling, hold photos of a host of Boston sports greats that made their way to the Griffin Club in the last half century.

Dining on lobster and swilling beer here, their memories saturate every nook and inch of this community tavern.

“Everyone but Larry Bird came in here,” said Scott Parker, the owner of this well-loved, well-worn South Portland pub that celebrates its namesake founder, Eddie Griffin, on June 25 with an all-day party.

“Everybody wanted to hang out with the guy,” said Parker of the kind-hearted sports promoter and local legend Griffin, who passed away in 1993 from cancer. “Even nowadays I get hundreds of people who come in and say, ‘Oh yeah, Eddie Griffin and I were best friends.’”

The bar owner and communitarian opened The Dug Out, another now-shuttered Knightville watering hole, 50 years ago. Three years later, he opened the Griffin Club a block west on Ocean Street.

“As a South Portland bar owner, he would’ve been [celebrating] 50 [years of business] this year,” said Parker, who is celebrating his large legacy.

“He was a great man that would give to charity. He liked sports. But if you lost, we wasn’t too happy about that. He liked the winning team,” said Parker. “The bar was just Eddie.”

Anyone who called got a donation. Volunteer fire departments still call.

“There are so many plaques I don’t have enough room for them,” said Parker, a South Portland native, who remembers going into the Boston Garden on a Griffin-backed trip, meeting the Celtics Dream Team and stopping at Burger King when he was 10. “We grew up poor, and Eddie would always make sure we stopped for burgers.”

He ran sports leagues, brought players to Portland and held court in the Irish pub, marked with photos of the thatched roof village he hailed from.

Back then it was “a man’s bar,” said Parker. “Ladies were served at tables in the back and men stood. There were no stools.”

If a fight broke out, Griffin, who excelled in boxing and basketball, would keep the peace by sending the duelers into the basement’s boxing ring.

“Knock it off and put on the gloves,” he would bark.

From the creaky floors to family photos embedded in the bar to the relaxed clubhouse vibe, not much has changed. You can plunk down $2 for a pint, cry on someone’s shoulder and select a song on the jukebox while perusing the sports wall of fame. And in this changing neighborhood across the bridge from Portland, that’s comforting.

“It’s become a museum, a historical society. Kids can come in and check things out,” said Parker, pointing to a pair of Golden Gloves from Joey Gamache behind glass.

“Everyone is here to have a good drink, have a good time, talk, shoot the crap. There are too many of these chain restaurants now … you are not going to walk into Wild Wings and talk about your problems,” said Parker. “Here you can get a 22-year-old’s opinion or a 55-year-old that’s been married twice. It’s much closer. We will miss these places if they start disappearing.”

It takes several trips to take it all in.

“I’ve been coming here 20 years playing pool in the pool league and I’ve never seen that bat,” said Scott Leighton of Westbrook, pointing to a case on the rafter above his head. “It’s signed by Jim Rice and I’m a Carl Yastrzemski fan.”

Don’t call it a dive bar

“A dive bar wasn’t a place you went into,” said Parker, who knows the term is hot with millennials, but doesn’t think it fits.

“We have a nice atmosphere and good people. Sit down and have some great conversation. You can probably walk in and see someone you haven’t seen in awhile,” said Parker, who purchased the pub in 2008 and has kept it local and loose.

Camaraderie and friendship is the lingua franca. If a regular loses power during a storm, they seek shelter here. The club opens at 9 a.m. to give third shifters a place to unwind. Advice is given freely.

“This is a public house, the old word from Ireland meaning anyone can come in have a drink, have a soda, bring your kids during the day. So they can see some history,” said Parker.

And the no-frills house that was a mom-and-pop grocery store and barber shop in the ’30s and ’40s has a religious history.

In the late 1800s the co-founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church saw God in the apartment above. Bus tours still pull up to this day, and though adherents don’t drink, the owner jokes: “If you want to see some visions, come in and I’ll make you some spirits.”

After 50 years the Irish sports bar is still tight-knit. Though this neighborhood is changing, Griffin Club feels like a marker from another time, better than Cheers because it’s real.

 


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