In the spring of 2014, a team owner in one of America's four major professional sports leagues caused a major controversy with some highly offensive comments. Before the summer was over, the NBA had forced Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers. That was a far faster pace than Major League Baseball was able to finally rid itself of longtime Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott almost two decades earlier when she caused multiple significant controversies of her own.
In 1992, Scott was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Adolf Hitler was "good in the beginning, but he went too far." That, along with a lawsuit filed that same year by a former Reds employee that exposed even more of her hateful comments, helped prompt an investigation by Major League Baseball that led to Schott being suspended for the 1993 season. She returned that November, but in May of 1996, she said the same thing about Hitler to ESPN.
That was the worst in a series of missteps that spring for Schott, and more were brought to light when Sports Illustrated published Rick Reilly's damaging portrait of her, "Heaven Help Marge Schott," in its May 20 issue. That June, Major League Baseball suspended Schott through the 1998 season, and the league pressured her to sell her majority stake in the team shortly after her reinstatement in 1999.
Schott died five years later, but she remains one of the most controversial figures in recent sports history. I talked with Reilly about her, his story and some of the even more bizarre escapades that never made it to publication.
SI: Looking back at it now, what stands out to you most about that story?
REILLY: I remember how people couldn’t wait to tell me things. They couldn’t wait to tell all their stories about how cheap and how despicable and how clueless this woman was. It was just coming in from everywhere. All you had to do was say, “Do you have any Marge Schott stories?”
SI: Did she have any redeeming qualities?
REILLY: I kept trying to find some way to balance it out and it was really hard. The thing I remember after reading it is, and I realized I didn’t put in there, I told her I have an Asian adopted daughter, who at that time was maybe two years old. We’re at this rib place and she says, “That's not right.” “What?” “Those Asian kids. I don’t like when they come here, honey, and then stay so long and outdo our kids. That's not right."
I said, “Mrs. Schott, I told you I have an Asian daughter.”
She said, “Oh not yours, honey.”
It was just so rich. It was like a starving man at an endless buffet. She was so lonely she wanted me to do something every day for a week. One day she picks me up at my hotel. “Where are we going Mrs. Schott?”
“We’re going to a pro-tobacco rally.”
“OK. You know I’m a reporter right?”
It’s like 10 in the morning and she’s got one of her Buicks and she’s so short she doesn’t see over the steering wheel. She’s got two cigarettes going, smoke fogging up the window, Schottzie is in the front seat, I think he's got a cigarette going, I’m in the back seat, she’s got vodka in the Dixie cup in the cup holder, I think she’s half in the bag. She starts veering to the right pushing this white Ford Tempo out of his lane and into the retaining wall! The guy’s looking at her and honking and she rolls down Schottzie’s window because she thinks she’s being recognized by the guy, and she goes, “Go Reds, honey, Go Reds!”
SI: Why didn’t that make it in the story?
REILLY: I don’t even know!
SI: Reporting stories like this can’t always be this easy.
REILLY: Frank Deford taught me that when I first got to SI. He said, “All they care about is you getting great stuff. It doesn’t matter how great a writer you are. You can’t tap dance around this stuff. You have to get material and then you can make it sing.”
[Former SI writer] Leigh Montville used to say, “You know how they send you out on these stories and they say, ‘We don’t know whether it’s going to be a four-pager or a 10-page bonus’? I’d always say, ‘Look if you send me out to build a house you gotta tell me whether it’s a utility shed or a mansion. I gotta gather the lumber.” So every time we’d see an SI writer on the road we’d say, “How much lumber do you have to gather?”
You know the whole country is going to read it, and you’ve got to have stuff nobody else has. It’s got to be really engaging in a fun way and it’s got to advance the whole story in a way it’s never been taken. It’s just hard.
SI: Schott was in the news a lot in that spring of 1996, which you detail in the story. Was that why you wrote the piece?
REILLY: I was friends with the guy who wrote the book about her, Mike Bass, and he said, “You have to come write about this woman, she’s insane.” That’s where it got going.
The players hated her. Oh, they just hated her. Off the record they’d say, “If I have to say hello to that f------ dog one more time...” It was once-in-a-lifetime, that story. But at the same time you kind of felt sorry for her. I’ll never forget she wanted us to take a picture of her praying. That was the opening picture. You know how people are scared of things? I’m not scared of anything anymore because I saw Marge Schott come out of the bathroom in a nightgown. I thought maybe she’d want me to spoon. It was terrible.
Bill Frakes was the photographer, and when we were doing portrait shots of her, he said, “I want to take your portrait.” She says, “OK, but I’m not going to stop smoking.” That’s how we got that amazing shot of her on the cover.
SI: How did the part about the Nazis and the armband she had in her house come out?
REILLY: I was getting too much time with her. She had this huge, huge house – it had to be 70 rooms – and I’d be like, “Mrs. Schott, don’t you have any help?”
“Oh no, I fired them all.”
“They steal, honey.”
I remember pulling out a china hutch and she pulled out the drawer and there it was. I remember her showing it to me willfully, like Look what I have. She literally said it with pride. I’m like, “Mrs. Schott, I don’t think you should be showing that to a reporter.” She goes, “He wasn’t all bad, he made the trains run on time.”
SI: There were other parts about the story that, while less controversial, also got her in trouble, right?
REILLY: I remembering being in the press box and this guy comes up to me and goes, “I used to work for Marge Schott. Now I’m getting all this info about a car I never bought. They’re asking me to fill out surveys and telling me when my next tuneup is. I think she’s faking sales.”
I asked him to bring the info he was getting in the mail to me the next day. He did, and sure enough it had the VIN number. So on Sunday when the lot was closed, Frakes and I went to the lot to look for the car with that VIN number and sure enough, there it was. She had never sold the car. We reported it and she lost her dealership for two years.
SI: Do you miss writing stories like that?
REILLY: People ask me, “Why are you quitting sportswriting?” and one of the things I say is, “There’s only seven stories and one of them is the old, despicable, racist owner. The Donald Sterling thing, I say he’s just Marge Schott with bigger breasts. That’s all he is.