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Controversy over NBA's Sterling recalls twice-suspended late Reds owner Schott

Marge Schott, Cincinnati Reds Marge Schott (Bill Frakes/SI)

The controversy over the Donald Sterling audiotape and the extent to which NBA commissioner Adam Silver can discipline the Clippers owner for his racially insensitive remarks has brought the long saga of former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott back into the public mind. The first woman to purchase a controlling share of a Major League Baseball team, Schott's status as a pioneer was buried amid her limitless capacity to offend, which eventually led acting commissioner Bud Selig to suspend her not once but twice in the 1990s, and ultimately, to force her from the game.

Long before she was suspended, Schott gained notoriety for her eccentricity, her frugality and her mistreatment of team employees, including the manager and general manager who oversaw her only championship team. Selig couldn't suspend her for any of that, but when allegations of her discriminatory hiring practices and numerous prejudices -- including racist and anti-Semitic statements -- were exposed via a wrongful termination suit filed by a former Reds employee, her downfall began.

Schott was born in Cincinnati in 1928 as Margaret Unnewehr. Her father was a lumber baron and a a fifth-generation Cincinnatian, while her mother was a conservatory musician who emigrated from Germany, where her sister bore five sons who fought for the Nazis in World War II. After attending parochial schools and graduating from Sacred Heart Academy in Cincinnati, Unnewehr wed wealthy businessman Charles Schott in 1952. When he died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 42, she inherited his empire of automobile dealerships and interests in insurance and construction materials.

In 1981, Schott purchased a minority share of the Reds for $1.1 million, joining a group of investors headed by brothers William and James Williams, who had previously been minority shareholders in the team; William Williams was part owner of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals as well. In December 1984, with the team in financial trouble, Schott purchased a controlling interest for $24 million; she did so out of concern for the possibility that the Williamses would sell to an out-of-city group. In buying the team, she set herself apart from other women owners, including the Mets' Joan Payson, the Padres' Joan Kroc and the Red Sox' Jean Yawkey, all of whom had inherited their respective teams when their husbands passed away. In 1985, she became president and CEO of the Reds, and she soon emerged as one of baseball's most visible owners.

The team had fallen into a funk when free agency forced the dismantlement of their 1970s Big Red Machine dynasty, but in late 1984, general manager Bob Howsam had reacquired Pete Rose from the Expos and promoted him to player/manager as he chased Ty Cobb's all-time hits record. From 1985-1988 under Rose, the Reds were competitive, finishing second in the NL West each year with between 84 and 89 wins. They slipped to 75 wins during the 1989 season, amid which Rose agreed to a lifetime ban due to gambling, but in 1990, under new manager Lou Piniella, they swept the World Series from the A's to win their first world championship since 1976.

By that point, Schott had established a reputation as an eccentric — largely via the on-field presence of her St. Bernard Schottzie, who did his business on the Riverfront Stadium Field as he pleased, much to the annoyance of players — and a cheapskate. The Reds employed fewer scouts and front office personnel than any other team, and Schott insisted upon signing any check for more than $50. While she prided herself at keeping prices affordable for fans, her penny-pinching extended even to her star players. When Eric Davis suffered a lacerated kidney during the 1990 World Series, he was forced to pay his own way back to Cincinnati after being released from an Oakland hospital. Schott didn't even throw a party for the 1990 team. She also charged Piniella for donating three Reds bats to charity and made general manager Bob Quinn, the architect of the 1990 champions, pay his own way to the All-Star Game. Piniella resigned after the 1992 season, while Quinn was fired two days later, via a message from Schott's lawyer; the owner conceded "I can't fire people face to face… I'm a wimp about it."

Schott's real problems started in late 1992, when a wrongful-firing lawsuit by Tim Sabo, the team's chief financial officer in the late 1980s, brought some of her inflammatory comments and actions to light. From a 1998 summary in The Cincinnati Enquirer:

Documents filed with the court claimed that Mrs. Schott called former Reds outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker her "million-dollar [n-----s]" and that she showed racial bias running the Reds' front office.

Depositions from Roger Blaemire, former Reds vice president of business operations, and Cal Levy, former Reds director of marketing and now the club's marketing consultant, alleged that Mrs. Schott had said "sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike," that she could not understand why keeping a Nazi swastika in her home was not offensive to some, and that she did not encourage minorities working in the day-to-day operation.

In attempting to explain the presence of the swastika armband in her home, Schott told the New York Times that it was a gift from a worker at one of her car dealerships and that "Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far." Almost immediately after her Hitler comments, Selig opened an investigation into Schott's actions.

On Feb. 1, 1993, with the backing of a committee of owners, Selig suspended her for the 1993 season, fined her $25,000 [many recent recaps say $250,000, but accounts at the time use the smaller figure], and ordered her to "attend and complete multi-cultural training programs" while she was barred from making baseball or business decisions affecting the Reds; those would be made by 31-year-old general manager Jim Bowden. Before the suspension took effect, Schott tried to clean up her act by increasing the minority presence in the Reds front office from one in 44 to five out of 46, a count that included new manager Tony Perez, though he would last just 44 games before being fired in favor of Davey Johnson. She also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to minority causes in the Cincinnati area and apologized "for my insensitivity." She claimed that she thought her course language might help her gain acceptance in the male-dominated industry.

Schott was reinstated on Nov. 1, 1993, and soon began working her inimitable charms again. In Sports Illustrated's 1994 baseball preview issue, Steve Wulf reported that she had forced front office personnel to drive from Cincinnati to Florida to save on airline and rental car expenses. In May 1994, she complained to the Ohio County Treasurers Association that "only fruits wear earrings," in reference to the growing trend of baseball players wearing jewelry.

Schott made a bigger ass of herself on April 1, 1996. Seven pitches into the Opening Day game at Riverfront Stadium, umpire John McSherry collapsed at home plate and died of a heart attack. Schott was caught on tape complaining, "Snow this morning and now this. I don't believe it. I feel cheated." She was said to have re-gifted a basket of flowers that had been given to her that day by the team's television affiliate, sending it to the umpires' dressing room the next day.

In May 1996, Schott again praised Hitler in a televised interview with ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, who asked her about the swastika armband. Via the New York Times:

"Everything you read, when he came in, he was good. They built tremendous highways and got all the factories going. He went nuts, he went berserk. I think his own generals tried to kill him, didn't they? Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far."

In tallying the damage to date in a May 20, 1996 feature for Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly reported her using a cartoonish accent when she met Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa in 1991, registering her disapproval at a passing group of Asian-American high-schoolers ("I don't like when they come here, honey, and stay so long and then outdo our kids. That's not right") and expressing a dim view of women in the workplace:

For years she has made it known that she would prefer that the Reds not hire women of child-bearing age. Women in the workplace is not a cause Schott champions, despite the fact that she is one herself… "I'll tell you something, honey," she says. "Some of the biggest problems in this city come from women wanting to leave the home to work." And: "Why do these girl reporters have to come into the locker room? Why can't they wait outside?" And: "I don't really think baseball is a woman's place, honey. I really don't. I think it should be left to the boys."

In June, again with widespread backing from his fellow owners Selig suspended Schott, this time through the 1998 season, a ban of two and a half years. The suspension built on the previous one, as she had been "sternly warned not to engage in such conduct in the future." While the acting commissioner allowed her to retain final approval over the Reds' operating budgets and to consult during negotiations for what would become Great American Ballpark, he vowed that further instances of offensive comments or interference in the team's operations would lead "to something far more serious than what you will have tonight."

The controversies took a toll on the Reds, particularly at the gate. After ranking sixth in the NL in attendance in 1995, their last playoff appearance under Schott, they sank to 12th out of 16 teams in 1998 and would rise no higher than 10th — even while winning as many as 96 games — before Great American Ballpark opened in 2003.

Once MLB had Schott on the ropes, the league didn't relent. While her suspension ended upon the completion of the 1998 World Series, the league pushed her to sell her controlling share of the Reds by threatening to extend the ban. In April 1999, she agreed to sell 5 1/2 of her 6 1/2 shares for $67 million to a group headed by Carl Lindner; the deal was completed in September of that year. Save for a suit she filed against Lindner over her seat allocation in Great American Ballpark in 2003, baseball was finally rid of her. She died in 2004 at the age of 75.

Whether Schott's long litany of poorly chosen words and misdeeds were worse than those of Sterling is a matter of taste — or distaste. The Reds certainly had more success on her watch than the Clippers did under Sterling, but Schott did mismanage them, particularly by starving their player development system. It wasn't her baseball mistakes that drove her from the game, or even her discriminatory practices, which by themselves weren't all that different from other owners except in volume of documentation. When the combination of those and her offensive comments achieved critical mass enough to cause the league widespread embarrassment, she was disciplined.

While MLB and the NBA are run by different sets of individuals under different sets of rules, the point is that baseball found ways to punish Schott for her repugnant statements and eventually drove her from the game, but it didn't happen overnight. Here's hoping the NBA can muster the muscle to do the same to Sterling on a quicker timetable, for he is just as surely a blight on his sport as Schott was on hers.

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