Like a lot of other New Englanders, what Haywood Sullivan and Buddy LeRoux wanted more than anything in the world was to own the Boston Red Sox. Their story was a chapter out of the American Dream. Sullivan, a former backup catcher, and LeRoux, an ex-trainer, had a deal all set to purchase the club for which they once worked. Their dream was about to come true because Sullivan is a close friend of Jean Yawkey, the widow of the late Boston owner, and because LeRoux had figured out a way that the two of them could put up $200,000 of a $15 million price and get 52% of the franchise.
But by the time last week's dates for signing the final papers and obtaining American League approval of the sale had passed, Sullivan's and LeRoux' dream was semi-shattered. They were running the Red Sox but they did not own them. Jean Yawkey still does—and probably will for some time. A lawsuit by Ohio-based A-T-0 Inc., the high bidder in September's unusual public auction of the club, postponed the request for approval from the league's 13 other owners. But even without the suit, indications were that Sullivan and LeRoux would not have received the O.K.
"This isn't Cleveland, it's Boston," says Milwaukee President Bud Selig, chairman of the league finance committee. "This is the most important franchise in the American League, and we can't afford to let it be underfinanced or second rate. The situation is a mess. It seems inconceivable that what Tom Yawkey built could come to this."
This included A-T-O's attempt to gain control of the Red Sox in court, public derision of the Sullivan-LeRoux financial arrangements (one newspaper described them as a "48-month car loan") and a power struggle that could be traced back to office politics under Tom Yawkey. This also included New England's reaction to what was perceived as a threat to the region's most beloved institution, the Red Sox.
There were SAVE OUR SOX bumper stickers and a radio program called Boston Red Sox, Boston Red Sox that reviewed the daily travails of Haywood and Buddy. Boston's two papers, the Herald American and Globe, staged an old-fashioned news war, deploying political, sports and financial columnists to analyze the sale; cartoonists to lampoon the staid State Street Bank and Trust Company, which was to provide financing for the Sullivan-LeRoux deal; and Woodward-Bernstein types to dig up dirt on the various principals. One undercover group, the Globe's Spotlight Team, pointed out that one of Sullivan's and LeRoux' 11 general partners had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury regarding a murder and a bankruptcy and charged another with conflict of interest in the appropriation of state funds for handicapped children. A third partner had previously been accused of another conflict of interest in a kickback scandal.
Amid all this, politicians, including House Speaker Tip O'Neill, jumped into the debate, as did Players Association director Marvin Miller and Ralph Nader. "If nuclear war were to break out, it would only make page two in Boston," said Red Sox Publicist Bill Crowley.
When Yawkey died in July 1976, the Red Sox became part of his estate. In effect, the executors of the Yawkey will—his wife and his two lawyers, Joseph LaCour of New York and James Curran of Palo Alto, Calif.—were now the team's owners. Mrs. Yawkey reportedly wanted to keep the Sox, but advisers felt that, should she die soon—she is in her mid-60s—the estate and team would be ravaged by taxes. So, in April, the executors let it be known that the estate would entertain bids for the Red Sox.
Throughout the past summer they interviewed prospective bidders, discouraging most of them, and on Sept. 1 offers were submitted. A-T-O, which owns Rawlings Sporting Goods, was high bidder at $18.75 million. Two Boston businessmen, Marty Stone and Jack Satter, offered some $16 million apiece, while Sullivan and LeRoux reportedly bid about $15 million.
On Sept. 29 the executors announced that the Sullivan-LeRoux group had been awarded the team. For their $200,000, the two managing partners would receive 52% of the club. Among the limited partners were concessionaire H. M. Stevens Inc. and Mrs. Yawkey. Except for a few questions raised by other owners, very little was said about the sale for the next three weeks.
Then, on Oct. 24, just 10 days before the scheduled meeting for league approval, the Sullivan-LeRoux dream suddenly became a nightmare. To "clear the way for Sullivan and LeRoux," the executors fired General Manager Dick O'Connell and his two lieutenants. Assistant GM John Claiborne and Vice-President Gene Kirby. Says LeRoux, "As Dick was leaving, he turned and said, 'Are you prepared for this?' I didn't understand what he meant. I do now. We weren't."
The firing had long been rumored, but when it happened, it focused attention on O'Connell's accomplishments. When he moved up to general manager in 1965, the Red Sox had not played .500 ball in seven years or drawn a million fans since Ted Williams had retired in 1960. In the last 11 seasons under O'Connell, the Sox averaged 88 victories and 1.72 million customers a season.
Obviously, the firing of O'Connell and his subalterns was not for incompetence. By the time Yawkey died, it was clear that either O'Connell or Sullivan—but not the two together—was going to run the team. Neither O'Connell nor Sullivan remembers how it happened, but their once friendly relationship deteriorated until, in 1974, Sullivan, who had been vice-president for player personnel of the Sox, was kicked downstairs from the third-floor executive suite to the second-floor office of the scouting director. While Yawkey was alive, O'Connell acted as the club's chief executive. He held the power. But O'Connell's relationship with Mrs. Yawkey was not friendly. Of late the two had communicated only by notes, most of them cryptic.
O'Connell had made many friends during his 31 years in the Boston organization. Some, like Tip O'Neill, reportedly, called on Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to take a close look at the Sullivan-LeRoux deal. Rumors and innuendos about LeRoux and some of his business friends were rife. O'Connell said, "It's ironic that LeRoux is getting the team, because he was personally fired by Mr. Yawkey." Others, including LeRoux, dispute that, saying that LeRoux left the Sox to pursue business interests. Sullivan then recalled a time Yawkey tried to fire O'Connell. It became public knowledge that, since Yawkey's death, the executors had prevented O'Connell from making any major capital expenditures, thereby effectively blocking a spring-training deal for Pitcher Mike Torrez. Even the least sophisticated of Boston's maniacal fans were quick to figure out that, had Torrez' arm been in Boston rather than in New York, this year's American League East race might well have turned out differently. Soon O'Connell came to be seen as a hero who was being victimized by Sullivan and his friend, Mrs. Yawkey, and the SAVE OUR sox bumper stickers began appearing.
In his column in The New York Times two days after O'Connell's firing, Red Smith coined the name State Street Sox. He had obtained a copy of the Sullivan-LeRoux loan draft and revealed terms that included an $8 million ceiling on aggregate salaries, a 10% limit on raises for players and a right of approval for the bank on all major transactions. Suddenly one of baseball's wealthiest franchises seemed about to have its hands tied by a document full of ominous terms like default, insolvency, bankruptcy and failure to pay.
Financial writers for both Boston newspapers concluded that one bad year could, indeed, turn the team into the State Street Sox. Marvin Miller said the salary restrictions violated the contract between players and owners. Nader's FANS organization demanded that the sale be stopped. The Globe Spotlight Team then impugned the reputation of LeRoux and two limited partners and next cast doubt on LeRoux' net-worth statement, in which he claimed assets of $4.7 million.
"I've never seen so many people attacked, convicted and hurt by innuendo in such a short time," says Sullivan. "Murders, retarded kids? This is supposed to be baseball. This package is no joke. We have the money. We have all the extra cash we need. We've been made to sound like carpetbaggers. It's just the opposite. We're not in this to steal money. We're in it because we feel as strongly about the Red Sox as the most loyal fans. Do they want an outsider? A big corporation?"
It seems the American League's other owners might want just that. "There are too many good, strong potential buyers who'd love to have the Red Sox," says Selig. "A couple of owners have asked if this group realizes how unstable this business is, how much cash you often suddenly have to have. There's a survey that says Fenway must be rebuilt in five years. Can they afford that?"
Cleveland President Ted Bonda says the league vote would have been 13-0 against Sullivan and LeRoux. White Sox Board Chairman Bill DeWitt adds, "A lot of people are unhappy about the way the O'Connell thing was handled. He has a lot of friends."
"Maybe the delay is for the best," LaCour says now. "Things need to be dealt with more rationally." So, for the moment, Sullivan is the Sox general manager, LeRoux is the vice-president in charge of administration and Mrs. Yawkey is footing the bills. As general manager, Sullivan may be able to gain credibility. And now LeRoux will have a chance to convince the league that the deal he cooked up was not something off a Bert Lance scratch pad.
LaCour talks bravely of getting the A-T-O suit dismissed, but admits the Yawkey will could be tied up in probate court for months. A-T-O is trying to prove that the estate should have sold the Sox to the highest bidder, and even if it can't find a beneficiary—perhaps a nephew—to file a damage suit, it could force Mrs. Yawkey to go to court to protect her right to sell to whomever she pleases. Another possibility is that yet another buyer would purchase the club, give Sullivan 33% and make him general manager. Or Mrs. Yawkey can hold onto the franchise as long as she dares.
Meanwhile, all the upheaval has been as horrifying to Boston fans as if someone had tried to turn all of Cape Cod into one elongated Atlantic City. "Tom Yawkey made it the institution it is," says one American League club owner, "so in a way he created all this furor. But he must be rolling over in his grave."