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Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #8: Marge Schott By Both Sides

Red menace: Marge Schott and Schottzie. [Photo credit: Allsport /Allsport via Getty Images]
Red menace: Marge Schott and Schottzie. [Photo credit: Allsport /Allsport via Getty Images]

I think she is the single worst person I've ever known. Spiteful, mean-spirited and evil."
-- Cincinnati Reds employee, 1996

There doesn't appear to be much of a background check involved in becoming the owner of a major-league team. As long as you can find someone willing to sell, and have the financial clout necessary (or create the illusion thereof, e.g. the McCourts), it's rare for baseball to step in. Unless you're Mark Cuban, anyway. But has there been anyone more singularly unsuited than Marge Schott, in particular to the PR aspects of owning and running a baseball-franchise?

Certainly, the Reds won their only World Series since the mid-70's during her tenure. But to describe Schott's tenure as owner of the Cincinnati Reds as an increasing embarrassment, both to the city and to baseball in general, would be putting it mildly. Here are five quotes which have been attributed to her. Four of them are real. One of them is fictitious. Can you spot the faux-Schottism?

  • "Some of the biggest problems in this city come from women wanting to leave the home and work."
  • "Sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike."
  • "Never hire another nigger. I'd rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger."
  • "Only fruits wear earrings."
  • "Everybody knows [Hitler] was good at the beginning, but he just went too far."

Oh, hang on - my mistake. All five are actually genuine, sentences that have allegedly come out of Schott's mouth. Now, some may have been overheard in off-guarded moments, perhaps: not that it's an excuse, but if there's anyone out there who hasn't expressed some off-color sentiments on occasion.. Well, let's just say, I thought Easter was last month. But the last was during an interview. With ESPN. If you don't guard your tongue under those circumstances, there's not much hope for you. One writer suggested she was stuck in the fifties, but I tend to think that could only be true if he meant the eighteen-fifties.

Schott was born in 1928, a third-generation German-American, with multiple cousins who fought for the Axis in World War II - which may explain some of her opinions. One of lumber magnate Frank Unnewehr's five daughters, he wanted a son as a heir, but instead took to Marge, nicknaming her "Butch". She married money too, becoming the wife of another industrialist, Charles Schott until he died, barely in his forties, supposedly in his mistress's bath. Schott was left childless - Jon Stewart sniped, "because sometimes God just knows what he's doing" - but rich, inheriting a collection of businesses that included car-dealerships and pig-iron plants.

Quite why she decided to up her interest in the Reds to a controlling one in 1984 is unclear, but it wasn't long before, as ESPN put it, "She started making baseball decisions, even though she didn't know the players' names." She tossed a coin to resolve a contract argument, and in another incident, she was approached by a woman introducing herself as Edd Roush's granddaughter. Schott replied, "That's nice, hon - what business is he in?" Roush was merely "the greatest player to wear a Reds uniform in the club's first century of existence," who drove in seven runs during the 1919 World Series.

Mere incompetence would probably not have been a problem, but after the departure of Pete Rose in 1989, and the Reds' run to become World Series champions in 1990, Schott's profile became higher. And in November 1992, the Reds former CFO, Tim Sabo filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, which is when things really got ugly. Another ex-employee, Charles "Cal" Levy, said in his deposition for Tim Sabo that he’d heard Schott call Reds outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker "million-dollar niggers." Sabo claimed his firing was also in part because he opposed the team's unwritten policy of not hiring African-Americans.

In February 1993, even baseball had had enough. Schott was fined $25,000, banned from baseball for a year, and ordered to attend multicultural training programs. The executive council running the game at that time found that she "commonly used language that is racially and ethnically insensitive,. offensive and intolerable," and that her behavior had "brought substantial disrepute and embarrassment to the game - and is not in the best interest of baseball." They still had to stop her from working in the front office, saying she could still attend games, but would have to buy a ticket - when Pete Rose heard this, he commented, "She'll probably wait for a $3 ticket night."

When Schott returned, she'd hardly mellowed, telling the Ohio County Treasurers Association in a speech that, "only fruits wear earrings." In 1995, she announced manager Davey Johnson would be fired at season's end, because she didn't approve of him living with his girlfriend before they were married. And another gaffe came on Opening Day 1996, when home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and died of a heart attack during the game in Cincinnati. Schott's reaction? "Snow this morning and now this... I feel cheated." Oh, and the bouquet she sent to his funeral was a regifted one.

It was the beginning of the end for Schott. The following month, she praised Hitler to ESPN, and after an ultimatum from MLB, gave up day-to-day control through 1998. At the end of that season, with more pressure being applied from the commissioner's office and another suspension looming, Schott agreed to divest herself of control in the franchise, the only recent sports owner railroaded in such a fashion for her opinions. But she wasn't done with the team, suing new CEO Carl Lindner in 2003, over the placement of her seats at Great America Ball Park. She died the following year, at age 75, leaving an estate valued at over $120 million.

Yes, there's plenty of evidence to support the opinion that Schott was, "the most idiotic owner in Major League history" - this marvelous Sports Illustrated piece by Rick Reilly is Exhibit A there. She was just as infamous for her miserly tendencies as her racist remarks. She disliked hiring scouts, claiming that "All they do is sit around and watch ball games." She stopped paying the $350/month bill for the out-of-town scoreboard at the park, saying "Why do they care about one game when they're watching another?" She closed the customer-service and community relations departments. That's just the start of it: here's another section from the article:

She has been known to rummage through the trash barrels to make sure scrap paper is written on both sides. She eliminated free tissues for employees. She keeps the lights off whenever possible, extinguishing them when you leave your office just to walk down the hall. The hallway carpeting is so old and tattered that the seams are held together with duct tape. Schott wants the heat turned down to 55° at five o'clock... No wonder, according to Bass, that male employees of Schott's occasionally ask her to sign a publicity shot for a "niece," then take it into the men's room, place it in the urinal and fire away.

And yet... Despite her obvious, woeful flaws, even her detractors would have to admit her love for, and generosity toward, children and animals were almost unbounded. Occasionally, even that would go too far: her beloved St. Bernard, Schottzie, had free reign of the park, occasionally leaving "presents" on the Astroturf for players to dodge. But Bill Heckman, president of the Children's Heart Association, said after her death, "Marge has done more than any other citizen to improve the quality of life in Cincinnati." And broadcaster Marty Brennaman added, "She has never gotten enough credit for all of the money she's donated to causes in this city."

There hasn't been a woman owner in the majors since her death, which is an undeniable shame, and I doubt there ever will be anyone else like her, which probably isn't. If she'd stuck to car-dealerships and charitable contributions, no-one would probably have noticed her outside the city. But owning a baseball franchise makes you a public figure, subject to scrutiny because of your involvement in our national pastime. As with Cobb, I have a certain "anti-respect" for Marge, and her unfettered, absolute disregard for political correctness. And I've a sneaking feeling her opinions, while highly-dubious, are probably rather more widely held in baseball than anyone will ever admit.