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Marge Has Them Eating Out Of Her Hand

July 15, 1985
July 15, 1985

Table of Contents
July 15, 1985

Wimbledon
European Track
Pete Weber
Horse Racing
Football

Marge Has Them Eating Out Of Her Hand

Marge Schott, the Reds' spirited new boss, wins fans and influences people—as well as other animals

Marge Schott is tooling through downtown Cincinnati in her black two-door Buick Riviera with the monograms on either side and the MARGE license plates in front and back. She is talking a mile a minute, changing subjects as often as she changes lanes, steering with her left hand, rummaging in her purse for a cigarette with her right hand and noticing everything. "Hey, oh my gosh, look at that stuffed bear in the window there. Don't you love it? I wonder how much they want for it. You know I have a bear chair at home, and kids just love to sit in its lap when they come over. What do you think of this Schottzie hat? I had to look everywhere to get somebody who would make them here. Made in America, you know? I finally found someone in Vermont. You think the fans will pay $13 for it?"

This is an article from the July 15, 1985 issue Original Layout

She stops at a light and here comes some guy bopping across the street. He does a double take at the plates and then at her, and he yells, "Hey, aren't you Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds?" She nods and waves and says, "Yeah, hi, how're you doing?" She turns toward her passenger, rolls her eyes and mutters, "Don't you love it?"

Ten minutes later, a TV-network camera crew is setting up in Marge's office at Schottco, the holding company for her varied businesses, which include two car dealerships, a shopping center, a brick company, a concrete-products company and a landfill company. She walks, or rather whirlwinds, in. A photographer from a national magazine is already there, and the secretary announces another entry, a reporter from Newsday. The Today show, a German television crew and other assorted news people have come and gone in the last month or so. Schott, 56, loves the press, and isn't at all intimidated by lights, cameras or tape recorders. She has a husky, "Come up and see me sometime" kind of voice, which may or may not be caused by the fact that she smokes almost three packs of cigarettes a day. Her desk is piled with letters. She is speed-reading them and talking to the media simultaneously. "So what do you want me to do? What are we gonna do after this? You all want to come out to the house? My lawn needs mowing. Or do you want to go to the dealership first? You want me to just sit here and read my mail? My gosh, I haven't had time for my businesses at all, I've been so busy with this Reds thing."

This "Reds thing" is, of course, the Cincinnati Reds, and for Marge, it started in 1981 when she became a limited—but far from silent—partner in the ball club. At the time, the Reds were owned by the Williams brothers, William and James, both of whom gave new meaning to the word inaccessible. The team was going down the tubes. By 1983 attendance had plummeted to 1,190,419 from a peak of 2,629,708 in 1976.

Then came Marge Schott. A born promoter, she was and is Cincinnati's own P.T. Barnum—including the animals. You always knew where Marge stood. She wielded her lone share like a cannon, launching salvos at mismanagement. She would talk with fans about the team wherever she happened to be. In restaurants, on the street, in the grocery store. "I couldn't go into the store," she says, "without a little old lady saying, 'Why do this, why do that? When are you gonna bring Pete back?' "

So when Marge mouthed off to the press, she was speaking for the people. And for herself, of course. The Big Red Machine that did it all had become the little red putt-putt that couldn't do anything. And the owners wouldn't discuss it. But Marge would. "I was always lousy at 'No comment,' " she comments. In May of 1983, when the Phillies were in town with ex-Reds Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, she hired a plane to buzz the stadium trailing a banner that read, TONY, PETE, JOE, HELP. LOVE, MARGE. The fans loved it.

By mid-1984, the Williamses had decided to sell the team, which had lost an estimated $25 million since 1981, When they told the limited partners the team was up for sale, it was Marge who came up with enough cabbage to buy baseball's oldest franchise. She paid $13 million. Asked why she bought a team that had lost so much money, Schott said, "You reach a time in your life when you either do something you feel is extremely important—step up to the plate and take a shot—or you'll never do it. I couldn't stand the thought of the Reds moving someplace else."

It is Kazoo Night at Riverfront Stadium, and the Dodgers are in town for the first game of a three-game series. Marge is down on the field, signing autographs and keeping a rather apprehensive eye on her 170-pound Saint Bernard, Schottzie. She has been the team mascot since last December, when Marge brought the dog. Reds hat and all, to the press conference at which Marge announced her purchase of the club. "I don't know why I took her to the press conference," she says. "I guess I didn't want to go by myself. Schottzie's in the program, you know, along with the players. Don't you love it? Look, I figured there were enough chickens in the league. Am I right?"

Schottzie is wearing her Reds hat and a long-suffering look, which is the look Saint Bernards usually wear anyway. Marge reaches up to the kids hanging over the fence, taking programs and scraps of paper to sign. "What's your name honey? Isn't he darling? Look, I'm giving you Schottzie's autograph, too"—and she does. Under every "Love, Marge Schott," she draws a three-toed paw print with a nail sticking out of each toe.

Tommy Lasorda walks over and tries to put a Dodger hat on Schottzie. Then he grabs her leash and starts walking her over to the visitors' dugout. "Hey, wait a minute," Marge yells. She runs across the field after them. "Where are you taking her? Oh my God, I hope she doesn't bite anybody."

As it turns out, Schottzie is a trouper. The Dodgers are going crazy over her. Lasorda is talking to a reporter. "I told Mrs. Scott, uh, Mrs. Spott, uh, what's her name? Yeah, Schott, that I was looking forward to meeting her dog. Hey, take that Cincinnati hat off Schottzie, and put on Dodger Blue."

"She's a free agent," Marge says, "George [Steinbrenner] is trying to get her. And remember. Tommy, ladies first. I get to win tonight."

If there's anyone who doesn't need chivalry to win, it's Marge Schott. But she had to learn it the hard way. She was born Margaret Unnewehr in 1928, the second of Edward and Charlotte Unnewehr's five daughters. Her grandfather was the world's premier cigar-box manufacturer, and her father made a fortune in lumber, so that made her a really rich third-generation Cincinnati German Catholic.

Little Marge became the son her father never had, which is why he called her Butch. "My poor father," she says now, "he kept trying to have a son and he kept getting girls. People would say to him, 'What did you have?' and he'd say, 'A baby.' He wouldn't say a girl." He told her that if she would stay home, attend the University of Cincinnati and then go to work for him, he would buy her a white Packard Clipper. So she did—and he did. "I was the only one who would work for my father," she says. "When my family went into plywood and veneer, my daddy used to say I could run every machine in the place. I was Daddy's little girl." Then she met Charlie, and her life as a working woman ended—for a while.

The marriage of Margaret Unnewehr and Charles J. Schott took place in 1952. He was heir to an industrial fortune, he was German, he was Catholic and he was Cincinnati society. What more could a rich German Catholic girl ask for? Charlie bought Marge a 70-acre estate in the posh section of Cincinnati known as Indian Hills, and she settled quite nicely, thank you, into the life of a society matron while Charlie went out and, as she puts it, "beat the bushes." Marge threw fabulous parties, many of them charity benefits, and the biggest concerns of her life had to do with party decorations.

Until she found out they couldn't have children. Thai was the first blow. "I wanted to have boys, all boys, about a dozen of them," she says. It was a terrible heartache for her, and it explains, perhaps, her affinity for animals—and ball clubs. Once, when she and her mother went to Switzerland, they bought a Saint Bernard. "We got the dog back here," says Marge, "and in a week, we didn't have one Saint Bernard, we had 14, because she was, you know, a little bit pregnant. I tried to convince Charlie what a buy that was." Charlie also bought Marge an elephant, which they named Schottzie. They donated it to the Cincinnati zoo, and when it died, Marge bought the zoo another one—from the King and Queen of Denmark. That one is named Princess Schottzie.

Marge always had projects, which is what other people call hobbies. One year she made picture frames, covering them in leather to match the furniture in her husband's office. Then it was bees because she wanted honey. "Charlie said he figured that honey cost him about $500 bucks a bottle," she says. "Then I bought all steers, and if you're from the country, you know that means they're fixed. Well, the steers got the heifers pregnant. O.K., so somebody messed up. Charlie would just ignore all this. I would call him and ask him what do you think, and he would say. 'You know you're going to do what you want to anyway.' Oh, but I was so happy staying home."

Then in 1968, Charlie died. Boom, no warning, 42 years old and he dropped dead of a heart attack. "He was at work," Marge says. "When they called, it was a terrible experience. They said, 'Your husband's dead, we'll come out and get you.' By the time they got to the house I was hysterical."

She was 39, and that was the end of Marge Schott, happy homebody. It was also the beginning of Marge Schott, chairman of the board. Most of Charlie's businesses were out of town but what was in Cincinnati was the Schott Buick dealership, which never made money. She thought it might be kind of fun to run the business. Then she learned that the management at Schott Buick wanted to force her out. She had all the department heads fired, moved everybody who was left at the dealership up a notch and she was on her own. "My God," she says, "what I knew about the car business you could put in your left ear. I never bluffed so much in my life. But I did it with such conviction that everybody thought I knew what I was doing."

Well, not everybody. The boys at General Motors in Detroit refused to sign the franchise over to her because they figured a woman couldn't handle a job as important as a Buick dealership. Marge decided to stick it to them, and when the new Opel came out, instead of having it on show in the display room at the dealership, she had it delivered to her house and put it in the front hall. Says Marge, "The guys we used to get the car in the house looked like they had just come out of the drunk tank." When they finally got the car in place Marge had them pose for a picture and sent it to GM with a note that said, "These are my board members."

In less than three years, sales jumped 40% at Schott Buick, and GM waved the white flag. In 1980, she opened a second dealership and called this one Marge's Chevrolet.

She may or may not ever make the cover of Ms. magazine, but first she is going to have to learn to pronounce it. Ask Marge if she is a feminist, and she will say, "What's that? You mean a 'Mez'? I get mail addressed to me as 'Mez,' I throw it in the wastebasket. The women I admire most are the women who are wives and mothers. All I ever wanted to do was stay home and have kids—all boys."

And now we're back to why she bought a baseball team. "It's kind of fun, you know? You feel like a mother. It's like getting 25 big sons. An expensive mothering job, right?"

Marge was so happy when Pete Rose rejoined the team as the player-manager last August that she hired a plane to fly over the town trailing the message: NO MORE WOES, WE GOT ROSE. She figured she and Pete and Schottzie would bring the fans back. Right away, when she bought the team, she said they would attract two million to the stadium.

She is only the second woman in history to buy a baseball team—Joan Payson was the original owner of the Mets. Marge is determined to turn the Reds around financially, just as she did her car dealership. Nevertheless, she is the first to admit she doesn't know a great deal about baseball. "I don't know if baseball is that much of a mystery." she says. "A lot of things are made into mysteries, you know? Like when Charlie died, the brick business was a mystery, and the car business. I think my job is expenses—what's necessary and what's not necessary."

When she took over, one of the things she found not necessary was the cost of the fireworks set off after each Reds home run and home victory. She canceled them. The first night of the ban, the press box comedians were ready with signs that read BANG, BOOM and POP. And she got her first negative headlines. "Look." says Marge, "it was not a penny-pinching move. O.K.? It was not the $100-or $200-a-pop thing that concerned me, it was the liability. Our liability went from $8,000 to $42,000 a year. The newspapers did not get the true story." As it turned out, the ban was brief. Kroger, a national grocery chain based in Cincinnati, stepped forward and assumed the cost of the fire-works insurance. That was exactly the sort of thing Marge was hoping for: support and involvement from the business community.

There is a feeling in the Reds' front office, now that Bob Howsam Sr., president of the club, has retired, that Marge may clean house. It is making a lot of people nervous, and it should. The team has the same number of employees as it did when it was the relentlessly prosperous Big Red Machine. The paranoia is evident when Marge charges into the front offices and starts questioning expenditures. The staff treats her with elaborate politeness. "I don't know why everybody's so nervous." says Marge. "If they're doing their jobs, there's no reason for them to be. I just want to be sure we're running as sharp and as frugally as we can."

Marge Schott lives in a residence of the type that when she gives directions, she says don't take any turns off the driveway. In a word, it is palatial. She pulls her Buick into the circular brick courtyard and waves an arm at her castle. "A whole bunch of German stonemasons built this house. We're the second owners. What do you mean, how many rooms are there? I don't know. You sound like the IRS." She charges around to the back of the house. "This is actually the front of the house, like in Europe, you know? Oh, there are my cows. Hi, Bo," she calls out. "Wait a minute, did this one just have a baby? Or is that the bull? I'm up to 22 cows now. You can go out with a bucket and feed them, like puppy dogs."

Time for the house tour—downstairs only. Nobody is invited upstairs. Her three Saint Bernards come galumphing toward her. She greets them in a high baby-talk voice. "Hello, Elsa, come on, Schottzie, hi, Baby, come on, Elsa, come here to your mother. Oh, she kisses hello. She's a hello kisser, aren't you, Elsa? But you're not a star. Schottzie's a star."

She puts a Reds hat on Schottzie. "I can't get in the car without her hardly anymore," Marge says. "She wants to go down to the Reds. She loves Howsam's office. She's not a dumb dog. Do you think I should move into his office? We're thinking of putting a grass park in the stadium for Schottzie, 'cause there's no place for her to, you know, go to the john. And she doesn't understand AstroTurf, I don't think. She's been a real good image for the team though, she really has."

Is this woman crazy? Not really, even though she did once take a dancing bear to a formal dinner party. That happened when she was invited to Bill Williams's 60th birthday party at the Queen City Club. This is strictly a blue-chip club, all very la-di-da and upper crust. "I knew this guy who had a dancing bear," she recalls, "and I thought. Oh shoot, I'll take the bear to the party. Anyway, I told the guy to have the bear wear a black tie, you know, cause it was formal." She did clear it with the manager of the club. "We got there," Marge says, "and the trainer told me, 'You know, this isn't the dancing bear, this is a wrestling bear, and he's not as well trained as the other one.' " This didn't stop Marge and the evening went off without a serious hitch—or bear hug. "Everybody loved it," says Marge. When it was time to leave, the bear refused to get on the elevator, which created a small problem. "Well," says Marge, "you know the people who belong to this club are pretty old, so I thought, Shoot, we'll take it down the steps, and they'll think somebody got a new fur coat. We were lucky. The bear didn't kill anybody." And why did she take a bear to a formal party? "Well," says Marge, "it's pretty hard to get a date when you're a widow."

Marge Schott is a bluff, hearty woman who is easy to like. But there she lives, in this enormous house, most of which is closed off, with only her dogs for company. Sometimes it gets lonely. "It's sort of the story of my life since Charlie died," she says. "When he was alive I slept like a baby. But I sleep terrible now. I wake up every half hour and light a cigarette. I usually don't go to bed until three or four in the morning, and I'm exhausted. But you know, your mind spins."

Her mind has been racing especially hard since she bought the Reds. And it is one reason she asks everyone for advice. "I'm probably the first person, in God knows how many years, who has walked into the office and asked questions," Marge says. "They haven't had that for years and years. But in the end you have to make your own decisions. You're going to call a million people and ask their advice, but in the end, it just comes down to yourself."

The people of Cincinnati take baseball seriously. Some of them have told Marge that they'll never come back to the park because they're so bitter about the damage done to the Red Machine. She believes them, but she also believes she can change their attitude with a winning team. "I love those guys," she said a couple of weeks ago. "I went down to the dugout the other day, and Dave Concepcion said [she gives the Ohio version of a Spanish accent], 'Nobody ever come down, sit with us before.' You want to be really close to them, but you don't want to get hurt, if there's a strike and all."

But of all the players, Rose is the one who's really Marge's kind of guy—in spite of the fact that she and Rose don't agree on the strike situation. Cincinnati made them both, and they're both hams. At week's end he was 37 hits away from breaking Ty Cobb's record, but there's one thing Pete can't seem to make Marge understand: She keeps telling him that she wishes he would break the record on the last day of the season. Rose just shakes his head over this. "If I break it the last game of the year," he says, "if I only get 50 more hits in the next 90 games, this team ain't gonna win. And she's gonna lose money."

Whenever he gets it, Marge thinks her guys are playing like dynamite. Still they do trail the Padres by five games in the National League West, and as she says, "Pete and I are both disappointed in the attendance. We're up to 700,000, but we need two million."

She is always thinking of the team—at home, on the street, even at the zoo. Besides Princess Schottzie, the zoo has a yellow-naped Amazon parrot named Coco. The trainer of the parrot is holding the bird on one finger, and Marge is making kissy-kissy sounds to him.

"O.K., Coco," the trainer says, "Take...." And the parrot sings, "Take me out to the ball game...."

And Marge says, "Keep him singing that, and if he learns The Star-Spangled Banner, we'll take him to Riverfront to sing it before a game."

Don't you love it?

PHOTOTONY TOMSICSchott does have one thing in common with her players: a way with the old cowhide.TWO PHOTOSTONY TOMSICSchottzie gets an offer from the Dodgers; Marge consults with her star employee.PHOTOTONY TOMSICBehind the toys, a tough businesswoman who's able to lick her weight in paperwork.TWO PHOTOSTONY TOMSICShe mowed down the chauvinists at General Motors as handily as she mows the lawn of her estate.TWO PHOTOSTONY TOMSICMarge promises to take Coco out to the ball game; she and pitching coach Jim Kaat have a dugout tête-à-tête.PHOTOTONY TOMSICShe cheers Rose toward a record and her team toward first.FIVE PHOTOSTONY TOMSIC