After wallowing in George Steinbrenner nostalgia the last 48 hours (and I must admit after hearing about all of George’s heretofore unpublicized charitable largesse I am inclined to think more kindly of him than I had previously), I found myself disturbed by the insistence of talking haircuts not even born when Steinbrenner bought the Yankees anointing him the greatest baseball or sports owner ever. Even though it’s difficult in this uninformed (or conveniently short-memoried) backwash of hagiography, we ought to maintain some sense of baseball historical objectivity.
Not only wasn’t Steinbrenner the greatest sports/baseball owner ever, he may not even be the greatest Yankees owner ever. Since I know baseball more than I know any other pro sport, I want to explore some of the greatest baseball owners of all time, in rough chronological order, leaving discussions of George Halas, Jack Kent Cooke, Al Davis and others to others.
I have three criteria for ownership greatness: winning at least one championship, building a stadium (the second of which eliminates Bill Veeck and both of which eliminate Branch Rickey, who owned a quarter share of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1942-1950, Cubs owner Phil Wrigley Jr., and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey from consideration), and some sort of innovation or achievement of lasting import. I also didn’t consider any owner who was so cheap, his team thought it more personally profitable to throw a World Series rather than win it.
Connie Mack: Yeah, maybe Connie should have fired himself as manager after he broke up his 1930′s championship teams, but the guy wrote the book the Florida Marlins seem to treat as a bible â€“ win a championship, sell off your stars, rebuild, win again. After winning four pennants and three World Series between 1910-14, he sold off his $100,000 infield (how quaint!) and rebuilt the team in the late 1920s on the bats of Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons and the left arm of Lefty Grove. But Mack’s dismantled teams also were often the worst in the league (his 1916 team had a still-record low .235 winning percentage; the 1962 Mets had a comparatively lofty .250 WP). Mack was more of a baseball man than a business man â€“ Shibe Park, later renamed Connie Mack Stadium, was built by his first A’s ownership partner, Ben Shibe. But Mr. Mack was a starched-collared regal presence in MLB dugouts for 54 years, so deserves at least a mention. (Mack’s penchant for managing in street clothes begs the eternal question of why baseball is the only sport whose managers and coaches wear players’ uniforms.)
Jacob Ruppert: My nominee as greatest Yankee owner. When Ruppert bought the team, they’d only been the Yankees for two seasons (they were the Hilltoppers until 1913). Ruppert, along with part-time partner Cap Houston, bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, signed Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, built Yankee Stadium, and created the greatest dynasty in American sports history out of, well, nearly nothing. In his 24 years as Yankee owner, Ruppert won 10 pennants and seven World Series (the team also won the World Series after he died in 1939, so maybe those numbers should be 11 and eight) with only THREE managerial changes â€“ and the reason for one switch was because Miller Huggins died (Huggins and Joe McCarthy were Yankee managers for 20 of Ruppert’s ownership years). In 1945, the Ruppert estate sold the Yankees to Dan Topping, Del Webb and Lee MacPhail who became the winningest owners in MLB history (15 pennants, 11 World Series winner in 21 years). But it took a pair (MacPhail sold out in 1947) to maintain what Ruppert built.
August Busch Jr.: Baseball and beer was a precipitous pairing, and the third-generation beer baron perfected the marriage when Budweiser and Augie Busch bought the Cardinals in 1953. Over the next 36 years, the Cardinals won six pennants and three World Series and became the favorite team throughout the midwest and south, arguably the largest geographic fan base in baseball history. He also sort-of built two stadiums â€“ he remodeled Sportsman’s Park to create the first Busch Stadium, then built his own Busch Stadium in 1966, and made beer sponsorship of baseball â€“ in fact, all sports â€“ commonplace, for better or for worse.
Walter O’Malley: I’m tired of O’Malley being mentioned in the same breath as Hitler and Stalin (as Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield once did) for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn â€“ that was mostly the fault of master builder Robert Moses. O’Malley had the money to build a new stadium in Brooklyn and only wanted the land, exactly the deal he got in Los Angeles. (Ironically, the Nets new basketball arena is being built on the same spot O’Malley wanted to build a new Ebbets Field.) Brooklynites may hate him, but O’Malley was sole owner of the Dodgers when da Bums won the franchise’s first and only championship in Brooklyn in 1955, then he won three more World Series in four tries in Los Angeles between 1959 and 1970 when he handed off the franchise to his son, Peter. O’Malley, who treasured loyalty on both ends of the relationship, accomplished all of this, like Ruppert, without constantly shifting managers â€“ under his tenure it was primarily Walter Alston. Perhaps most importantly, O’Malley dragged baseball to the west coast (he convinced Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham â€“ who wanted to move his team to Minneapolis â€“ to follow him to California), arguably the most important business innovation in sports history. He also hired Vin Scully, arguably the greatest baseball broadcaster ever, was the first owner to try pay TV, built the still gorgeous Dodger Stadium, now the third-oldest ballpark in the majors, and during his tenure was considered more powerful than the commissioner.
Joan Payson: I list Mrs. Payson not just because she owned the Mets (which should be reason enough around here). She must be included because she brought National League baseball back to New York. A minority owner of the New York Giants who voted against the team’s move to San Francisco, Payson was the first woman to buy a controlling interest in a Major League baseball team when she co-founded the Mets in 1961. But Payson seriously belongs in any discussion of great owners regardless of gender. She was active in the day-to-day management of the team until her death after the 1975 season. Under her watch, both Shea Stadium and a stunning World’s Championship team were built. She’s certainly been the Mets’ best owner. When’dya ever see any of the Wilpon’s sitting with the rest of us cheering their team on?
George Steinbrenner: This is more an argument against media whore Steinbrenner than for. A brilliant business man certainly â€“ he turned an $8.7 million investment (his own personal investment was just $168,000) into a $1 billion-plus behemoth and the most valuable sports franchise on the planet â€“ but he was not a great baseball man by any stretch of the imagination. Among the stats recently cited to build his baseball resume is the Yankees having the best record in the majors during his tenure. Great, but the Yankees already (I’m pretty sure) had the best record in the majors before he took over, and his record of pennants and World Series victories was tied or topped by two other Yankee owners (Ruppert, Topping) in shorter periods of time. Following his initial success with high-priced free agents in the mid-1970s, the Yankees didn’t build a consistent winner until the 1990s (remember, the Yankees suffered a World Series appearance drought from 1982-1995 â€“ exactly the tenure of poor Don Mattingly â€“ the longest absence in “Yankee” history) â€“ until he was suspended. Baseball minds such as Gene Michael then Brian Cashman were finally allowed to make the baseball decisions without interference from the blustering Boss. Meanwhile, Steinbrenner was convicted of a crime, suspended twice, destroyed the magnificent Yankee Stadium twice, once the mid-1970s “remodeling” and the recent final destruction, and was largely responsible for players’ salaries rising to the heavens along with revenues â€“ and ticket prices â€“ with them. Steinbrenner was entertaining, a great owner financially for the players, other owners and the league, but hardly great for the every day fan who now has to pay triple digits for a decent seat.
Taking into account business innovation, baseball acumen, team success, longevity and lasting innovative impact, I’d say overall that Jacob Ruppert was baseball’s greatest owner ever, with Walter O’Malley a close second.