Baseball makes sure its owners have assets other than money

John Steadman

June 19, 1991|By John Steadman

Being the owner of a major-league baseball franchise is a privilege, a matter of public trust and not always a genuine pleasure because of the controversy that comes with the final result -- a team winning and losing. It also carries a momentous responsibility.

An owner who makes application to buy into the National or American leagues must undergo an extensive personal background check. It can, at times, become embarrassing. Not as probing as when a man or woman endeavors to enter the FBI, perhaps, but nonetheless extensive.

Potential owners with gambling records or problems of moral turpitude are not summarily rejected. But, in time, they are quietly discouraged. In fact, a man who scalped tickets to a game in Baltimore wanted to join a group that planned to buy a team. He later had "second thoughts" and decided he wasn't interested.

George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, was asked to remove him self as chief officer after charges surfaced he made a deal with an alleged blackmailer. Pete Rose, after a glorious career primarily with the Cincinnati Reds, was suspended for involvement with gambling.

Under the commissionership of Bowie Kuhn, two of the sport's most renowned performers, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, were not allowed to represent a casino, even though they were merely shaking hands with guests. They held part-time coaching jobs but Kuhn, admitting he admired them, insisted it had to be one or the other -- either baseball or working for a casino but it couldn't be both simultaneously.

Kuhn explained he was upholding the integrity of the sport. His replacement in the commissioner's chair, one Peter Ueberroth, decided Kuhn was wrong and reinstated Mantle and Mays after entering into an agreement with a national magazine that put all three on the cover. It had all the signs of a political move, motivated by self-promotion.

There can't be two sets of rules, one for players and another for owners. It's why baseball is careful not to encourage men and women with gambling habits or weak moral fiber. Admittedly, it's a subjective study and, therefore, its validity remains open to question.

In 1944, Bill Cox, owner of the Philadelphia Blue Jays (before and after known as the Phillies), was charged with gambling on baseball and told he must resign. He had to divest himself of the property -- which was a grand opportunity for Philadelphia because it brought in the ownership of Bob Carpenter, a superb sportsman/gentleman.

Baseball, despite its "pure-as-the-driven-snow" attitude, has been guilty of double standards, as when Al Kaline, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, was told he couldn't be part-owner of a horse racing stable. However, Steinbrenner and John Galbreath, one-time owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had horses running under their colors.

What was good enough for the owners didn't apply to an upstanding and respected player in Kaline. An example of classic ambiguity. Baseball, to be sure, is more than slightly paranoid.

Maybe it all goes back to the 1919 World Series, when gamblers got to some players on the Chicago White Sox and had them throw the championship. It was a "fix" that almost fixed baseball. The game, at that moment, was in the gutter and lost respect of the American public.

Then two things happened: A tough commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge, was given the job of administering the cleanup. The arrival of Babe Ruth as a home run hitter and a beyond-compare personality in the history of American sports was the magnet for selling tickets all across the land and, fortunately, for making the public forget the sordid past.

Ruth's deeds were the catharsis for restoring respect to the national pastime. So baseball, except for the Cox incident in Philadelphia, has kept its guard up when owners making application admitted they had gambled. Pertinent, too, is the fact that a man who failed the baseball criteria for an owner soon thereafter bought a National Football League club.

There is an "ownership policy" in baseball. It doesn't publicize the fact nor does it comment on specific acceptances and rejections. It's merely a preliminary ground rule it brings into play.

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