Owning a professional sports team is the billionaire equivalent of a fancy car. Most owners are decent people, treating the fans and players well. But there are a select few who do things that would make even the cruelest banana republic dictator blush.
Most Yankee fans welcomed a change in ownership when Cleveland ship building magnate George Steinbrenner purchased the New York Yankees from the CBS Network in 1973. By that time the once proud Bronx Bombers had become a laughingstock, not making the post season or finishing higher than 3rd the previous eight seasons. George turned that all around. In his first eight seasons of ownership the Yankees made the playoffs five times and won two World Series. He did it by some shrewd trades and free agent signings like Reggie Jackson and Jim “Catfish” Hunter. So sure that he was a baseball genius, he basically ignored the advice of his general managers and started decimating the minor leagues by trading away young talent and bringing in overpriced and underperforming players. Oh yes, and he wasn’t too fond of managers who didn’t win, going through no fewer than 16 in an 11 year span (1979-1990). This included the firing of Yankee legend Yogi Berra only 15 games in to the 1985 season. Berra was so disgusted he vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium again (a vow he kept for 13 years until Steinbrenner apologized in 1998). Only his suspension from baseball for his dealings with a sleazy investigator Howie Spira, who he hired to dig up dirt on his star outfielder Dave Winfield, in 1990, saved the Yankees from his destructive reign. In the three years he was out, the Yankees rebuilt their farm system and maintained stability, so much so that the Yankees managed a 12 post season appearance run and won five more World Series championships before Steinbrenner’s death in 2010.
A broadcaster turned new owner, Harry Wismer wasn’t so much a bad owner as an incompetent one. As one of the initial owners in the new American Football League in 1960, Wismer seemed to have everything going for him; he had some ownership experience as a partial NFL owner before and was granted a team in the most popular sports city and largest media market in the US, New York. But even before they played their first game, the Titans began losing money. It seems having the business acumen of a broadcaster wasn’t helpful to Wismer. He could only afford to have the lines on the field on the Polo Grounds marked, letting the field become so torn up it was considered one of the more hazardous in the league. His entire scouting department consisted of a single copy of Street & Smith’s College Football magazine. And in scene out of the Keystone Kops, paydays for players were rather entertaining. Only one teller at one bank was authorized to cash Wismer’s checks, and when his account balance reached zero, no more checks were cashed. So after practice on payday, Titan players would throw on hats and coats over their uniforms jump in their cars and make a mad dash to the bank before the money ran out. Finally, facing massive bankruptcy, Wismer sold the team in 1963 for an even then meager sum of $430,000 to Sonny Werblin who renamed them the Jets.
It’s one thing to be lacking in business sense, it’s quite another to be outright cheap. Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey falls in to the latter category. As owner of the White Sox from 1901 to 1931, he made Ebenezer Scrooge look like a philanthropist. Now it would be understandable for an owner to cut corners on a bad team that drew few fans, but for the first twenty years of his reign the White Sox were extremely successful, winning two World Series, constantly challenging for the American League pennant and drawing huge crowds. No, Comiskey was simply a miser. He would force players to play in dirty uniforms to save a few cents on laundry, give the players $2 a day meal money instead of the league minimum of $3. But he saved his real cheapness for big ticket expenses. He would make-up fines for star players to the point they almost owed him money and he would force his manager to sit players so they wouldn’t reach statistical marks that guaranteed cash bonuses. Many point to these actions as the main reason for the Black Sox Scandal that caused eight players to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Comiskey immediately ordered an investigation and the hiring of the first baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis who quickly banned all eight players for life (even though they were all acquitted in court). Comiskey also made sure that Landis never investigated any of his penny pinching actions.
It’s true that most owners can never be considered the warm and fuzzy type, but Baltimore (and later Indianapolis) Colts owner Robert Irsay seemed to think being a complete jerk was a resume enhancement. The Colts were one of the premier teams of the NFL, winning 2 NFL championships and a Super Bowl in the first 20 years of existence (1953-1972) until Mr. Irsay came along. Trading his recently purchased Los Angeles (now St. Louis) Rams to Carol Rosenbloom for the Colts, he let all Colts fans know that this was his team and he could do damn well what he pleased with it. He would constantly call down to coaches, during games mind you, and give them ridiculous instructions, which, during one game, included switching quarterbacks on every play. Most of his coaches politely told him to put a football in a medically impossible place, and even those who followed his orders to the letter didn’t have much job security as few of the coaches during his 25 year reign of terror lasted more than two years. But he saved his biggest “middle finger” for the city of Baltimore. Fearing the city would take control of the Colts under eminent domain, in the middle of the night of March 29, 1984 he packed every piece of equipment up and moved the team to Indianapolis, with whom he had been negotiations with for more than a year. So how did he treat his new hosts? At the first press conference one reporter asked Irsay what the fans should expect from their new team to which he replied: “This isn’t the fans team, it’s my team, I bought it!”
In the sports rich city of Los Angeles, the LA Kings hockey team was always an afterthought. Then, after buying majority ownership of the Kings over a two year span, movie producer and rare coin dealer Bruce McNall went to work making them the toast of the town. He changed their uniforms from gold and purple to silver and black and in 1988 orchestrated one of the biggest trades in sports history; bringing the greatest player ever, Wayne Gretzky, to LA. In a short time, the Kings became a legitimate team, making numerous playoff appearances and their first Stanley Cup Finals in 1993. McNall became a bit of a celebrity, being put on the NHL’s Board of Governors, and being seen at all the trendy LA hot spots. There was just one teensey wincey little problem; McNall, for lack of a better word, was a crook. Most of his rare coins had been smuggled in to the U.S., and to make all the improvements he did to the Kings he acquired $236 million in fraudulent bank loans. Even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t immune. He and McNall became partners on numerous business deals, including race horses, and when the creditors came around asking for payment, Gretzky was left in the lurch, personally losing $7-10 million. McNall was forced to sell the team, spent six years in federal prison, and earned the reputation of checking to see if you still had your watch on your wrist after shaking his hand.
By John Bertrand