BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TO BOB

The beleaguered owner of the Washington Senators has a thing about stormy petrels. He expects them to get him out of trouble
November 02, 1970

Robert Short, hard-pressed but irrepressible trucker, hotelier, owner of the professedly all-but-bankrupt Washington Senators and recent acquirer of officially bankrupt Organist-Pilot-Pitcher Denny McLain, was in New York last weekend. Short was trying to sign Curt Flood, the unemployed outfielder who is suing Short (along with all the other major league owners) for $1 million and who flew in from Copenhagen where he had been trying to establish residency so he could get a liquor license and open a discoth√®que. Flood's attorney in his suit against baseball's reserve clause is Arthur Goldberg, with whom Short should be able to deal because Short is a big Democrat himself—in fact, he once ran the party into a $6 million debt. But the weekend negotiations were complicated by the fact that Goldberg was busy running for governor of New York. Short would be running for governor of Minnesota if it were up to Duluth, Minn. pizza and chow mein tycoon Jeno Paulucci, who, incidentally, was supposed to help Short buy the Senators two years ago but got cold feet.

No wonder some of the more conventional people in baseball complained that Short had ruined their World Series for them. Just as they were settling in to watch such solid investments as Johnny Bench and Brooks Robinson play sound, lucrative ball, along came Short with a series of confounding announcements. He was going after the rebellious Flood, he had traded the left side of his infield and two pitchers for the scandalous McLain and three throw-ins, and if the Federal Government did not give him a better lease on Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, he said, he would be totally unable to keep the national pastime afloat in the national capital.

"Two balmy bankrupts," wrote a Mr. Bob Sellers in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, "now conjoin to drive the last stake into Senator ticket buyers. It is now starkly apparent that there is a curse upon this city.... One can only envision with passionate relish Mr. Short, Mr. McLain and Frank Howard picnicking in the outfield as 34 teen-agers (who have paid $12.50 each on garter-belt night) cheer them on." (The Senators do have panty-hose nights and ticket prices are the highest in baseball—$2.25 general admission, which "is cheaper," Short says, "than the movies.")

Even Short's manager, Ted Williams, was disgruntled. It was two years ago that Short, having just bought the Senators, amazed the baseball world favorably by signing Williams, who had apparently permanently abandoned the game for goin' fishin' and had declined even to return Short's telephone calls until Short tricked him by leaving American League President Joe Cronin's name and his own phone number. The '69 Senators finished over .500, their attendance increased to nearly 900,000 from just over 500,000 the year before, Williams was Manager of the Year—and Short lost $600,000. This year the Senators subsided to last place and Short declared a loss of $1 million. Williams did not attend this year's Series, but he conveyed the impression that the McLain trade almost ruined his salmon trip to Canada.

The trade was Aurelio Rodriguez, Eddie Brinkman, Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan to the Tigers for McLain, Don Wert, Elliott Maddox and Norm McRae. Williams wanted McLain, Maddox and McRae and did not mind losing Coleman, a potential 20-game winner who, Short says, "has a father-figure problem" with Williams. But Rodriguez is a 22-year-old third baseman of tremendous defensive gifts who became a home-run hitter under Williams. Brinkman was an obscure good-field-no-hit shortstop until 1969, when Williams' coaching raised his batting average some 80 points. Understandably, Williams had taken both of them to his heart.

"When we sent Ken McMullen to the Angels for Rick Reichardt and Rodriguez," Williams grumbled to his friend Bud Leavitt of Maine, "Short, a terrific man, didn't want to make the deal. I did. He said, "Go ahead, but you gotta live with it.' I slammed down the phone and made the deal. Well, the way it turned out, I called it the best deal of the year in the league.

"The other day Short called me and said, 'We can get Denny McLain." I said O.K., but for who. He said Detroit wanted Rodriguez and Brinkman and I said hell, no. He said, 'You made one last summer....'

"Any way you cut it, I lost the next best third baseman to Brooksie Robinson and I hated terribly to lose that little guy Brinkman, he's an all-out ballplayer. Short could be right and I could be wrong, but I still don't think it was a good deal for our club. Yeah, he's trying to get Flood. I'll take Flood, but I don't wish to give away Frank Howard, Mike Epstein and the Washington Monument. I got to get to Washington in a hurry and put a choke chain on that man, he's too damn enthusiastic...."

David Eisenhower worked for the Senators this past summer as a statistician. When someone from Short's office called David to see if he'd like to go to the Series, says Short, "Julie answered the phone and said, 'Gee, David sure is disappointed about that trade.' You know what that means—the old man's disappointed about the trade. What can I say? There is no way you can justify that trade to a baseball man."

Obviously Short considers himself more than just a baseball man. He is a baseball man who says he is in danger of going broke, for one thing, and also a baseball man who says, "I kind of like stormy petrels." Short has known lean times in sports before, he has dealt with at least his share of stormy petrels and, what is more, he has learned the value of a big name to a failing franchise. He was in the trucking business in his home town, Minneapolis, dealing with no one any more difficult than Jimmy Hoffa (of whom he retains a high opinion), when the plight of the Lakers stirred him to get together 117 civic-minded Minneapolitans and buy the team. His own initial investment was only $5,000, but over the next few years he bought up most of the other shares at 10¢ on the dollar, eventually paying back the other 90¢ although, he says, he was not obligated to. He also sold one of his stars in order to raise payroll money, presented Ingemar Johansson—singing, not boxing—as a spectacularly unsuccessful halftime gate attraction and moved the team to Los Angeles. Nothing improved the Lakers' credit until he signed Elgin Baylor.

As the worst team in professional basketball hands down, the Lakers had first draft choice in 1958, but Baylor had another year of college eligibility left and he had announced he wanted to stay in school. Short flew to "a cold-water flat" in southeast Washington and talked to Elgin and his mother and his father and his sister and his girl friend Ruby, who is now married to Baylor. He got nowhere. Baylor returned to college in Seattle, and Short pursued him there. He finally got his man. Seven years later, in 1965, Short sold the Lakers to Jack Kent Cooke for the astounding sum of $5,175,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a basketball franchise.

"I didn't want to sell," Short says, "but when the price got so high Walter O'Malley said, 'Hell, take it, you can get into baseball for that.' I'd always liked baseball best, and it looked like the Senators might be available for about that much then, so I took it. But I had to wait until 1968 before I could buy the Senators and by then they cost $9.4 million." And when Paulucci backed out at the last minute, Short had to borrow a lot of money at high interest.

"If something is a good thing," Short observes, "it probably wouldn't come down to me. My name's not Rockefeller—these other characters get the good things. The Lakers were bad, that's why I got them. The same with my hotels and the Senators. Some of them are bad now, but all of them have been good at some point or another under my management. This is not a healthy period for any of my businesses, and if things keep going the way they are I could lose all of them. But I didn't have anything to start with. You can only eat three times a day, drive a car and dress, and you're here a shorter time than most people plan on."

Short is not so fatalistic, however, that he has failed to come up with a few ideas for saving the Senators, at least, from ruin. Fortunately he is no stranger to politics. In 1966 he ran, unsuccessfully, as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota, and this year he was considered by his friend Paulucci to have an outside shot at the gubernatorial nomination. ("Not really," Short says now. "I didn't have a chance in the first place.") He has known Hubert Humphrey since their college days and ran Humphrey's vice-presidential campaign in 1964. In '68 he was prevailed upon to become the party's national treasurer. "I raised the money they needed," he recalls, "and I declared every bit of it, much to the consternation of the Democrats. After the election everybody was talking about how hard it was going to be to pay off the $6 million debt. I said, 'Forget it. Think how hard it was to legally borrow that much.' It was a pretty good trick."

Short also did some work for Lyndon Johnson, serving as chairman of Discover America, Inc., a see-America-first tourism effort. And now he has Richard Nixon on the cover of the Senators' program as the team's "No. 1 Fan." "He gives me advice from time to time on trades," says Short. "But I wouldn't say the McLain trade was his."

All those associations will do Short no harm in his campaign to negotiate a new lease and a new landlord for the Senators. He has been before a congressional committee asking that he, like the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, pay only $1 rent for the first million in attendance (Short paid $149,000 this year), that he get all the proceeds from concessions and parking, and that he not have to pay for stadium police and ground crew. Altogether he figures he was deprived this year of $700,000 that most owners (certainly those owners who have been lured into expansion cities by juicy deals) would have received or would not have had to pay. He also wants control of the stadium shifted from the District of Columbia Armory Board to the Department of Interior, so that the federal taxpayers, rather than Short and the District (which has forked over $400,000 in interest on the stadium bonds each year), can pick up the deficit.

"A stadium," Short says, "if not quite like a courthouse or a public school, still is something the public is going to have to subsidize. Cities are in the business of attracting people." A baseball team, if its owner knows his legal footing, can provide a capitalist with a great little subsidy, since the player-contract depreciation writeoff can free an owner, for five years after he buys the club, from paying taxes on his other businesses. But Short's other businesses are in the red, too, he says, so tax loopholes do him no good. He has had to pay the $1.6 million losses of the last two years out of his pocket. "That's when you start taking money from your wife, or something," he says.

Short would also like to see $2 million in improvements made on the interior of the stadium. "There's no gas in it. You have to have gas to serve hot hot dogs. One of my problems is cold hot dogs. There's not enough refrigeration. One of my problems is warm beer. There should be a plush restaurant—we had the Prince of Wales and had to buy him a cold hot dog from the booth!"

The Senators' TV-radio contract for the past year was the poorest in baseball, says Short—$325,000 as opposed to the Dodgers' $1,750,000, for example. "Even Seattle was getting $800,000," he says, "and it went broke. The Orioles get $800,000. I told Hoffberger [the Baltimore owner], if I had your team I'd make $2 million."

Lacking any Orioles, he does have Howard and McLain and maybe Flood. Perhaps they will do for the Senators what Baylor did for the Lakers, or maybe they will just be stormy petrels. "Flood is not a hard-to-handle player," says Short. "As far as the legal issue goes, he's made his point, the case has been heard and the appeal courts won't go into additional facts now, such as his signing a contract with me. I went after Flood because I thought, 'Here's a player who can hit, and he's not playing. I see a lot of players who are playing and can't hit.' "

But how about McLain? "As a lawyer I prosecuted people in my day," says Short, "and even though after a long prosecution a man is acquitted, you'll find it takes him a long time to resume normal life. He has all kinds of emotional hang-ups. But the kid can come back because America loves an underdog.

"I told McLain I'd paid a hell of a price to get him, I had my reputation on the line for him. He said, 'I'll do anything to prove to you and the world that I know my business.' "

Short has been coveting McLain ever since Denny played the organ at a Minnesota banquet in Short's Leamington Hotel. He says he was not about to let the man he considers "the premier pitcher in all baseball" get away from him. "I learned my lesson with Hot Rod Hundley on the Lakers," he says. "I fined him $1,000, 10% of his salary, for partying and running around, and now that I look back at it I wish I'd let him be a natural Hundley, because I sure wasn't going to change him.

"Williams and I will try to give McLain more guidance than he got at Detroit, but I don't want to remake McLain. I didn't hire him as a priest. He may throw water on sportswriters to relax, the way somebody else sits there drinking beer. I want to get away from the whole concept of mediocrity on the Senators. When people in Washington talk about pitching they have to go back to Walter Johnson."

Will Williams and McLain get along? "I think Williams and McLain have more in common than Williams and anybody else—Williams' comment when he heard about the water-throwing incident was 'Jeez, I wish I'd thought of that.' "

Will relations between Short and Williams be strained? "Not any more than they were before the trade," says Short. "We are both easier to work with when we're winning. Last year we lost, what, 33 one-run games? I have to stay around Ted to keep reminding him how wonderful it was of me to get him back into this horse-manure business."

Williams, after all, has an option to buy 10% of the club at the price Short paid for it, and somehow in spite of all that impending bankruptcy Short has been able to sell 10% back to James Lemon—one of the men he bought the team from—at a nice paper profit. The whole business is all too confusing for anyone but a stormy petrel.

TWO PHOTOSCurt Flood stirred a storm with Lawyer Arthur Goldberg over baseball's reserve clause. Denny McLain, meeting President, was the calm before. PHOTOBob Short, in New York dealing for Flood, could still smile despite big Washington losses. PHOTOThe one who got away, slick-fielding Aurelio Rodriguez, blossomed as a hitter under Williams.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)