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Better Red than Steinbrenner; why fans should own their teams.


When Robert Short ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota in 1978, baseball fans finally had a chance for revenge. Short had spurned the city of Washington just seven years earlier by moving the Washington Senators to Texas. The fans were so angry at the time that they stormed onto the field in the ninth inning of the final home game, uprooting bases and tearing up turf.

Short's Senate race raised the possibility that he might return to the city that, in the eyes of local fans, he had so callously deserted. A group of these fans, led by one "Baseball Bill' Holdforth, a Capitol Hill bartender of ample girth who was rarely seen without his baseball cap, formed a "Committee to Keep Bob Short Out of Washington.' They held beer bashes to raise money for Short's opponents and took out ads in the Minneapolis newspapers presenting to the voters of that state their view of the man who was seeking their vote. "We're simply going to the people of Minnesota and asking them if they think Bob Short is in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey, Fritz Mondale and Gene McCarthy,' Holdforth told a local newspaper. Short suffered a humiliating defeat, and while Baseball Bill's campaign was admittedly a minor factor, Washington fans could gloat nevertheless. Millions of abandoned sports fans, from Brooklyn to Baltimore to Oakland, would have relished a similar opportunity for vengeance.

But while Washington has had its revenge, it still doesn't have a team. By economic arrangements that will, in some far decade, seem barbarous and benighted, that repository of local identity and loyalty called a baseball team is deemed the exclusive property of a single individual called an "owner,' who can move it to another city as though it were his body and fender shop. Washington has learned that twice. Only ten years before Short ditched the city, Clark Griffith had moved the original Washington Senators to Minneapolis. The Supreme Court, moreover, ruled many years ago that although baseball looks like a business, acts like a business and certainly uses tax subsidies like a business, it is not a business, and therefore is exempt from antitrust laws. The U.S. Congress has let that decision stand. Washington does not have baseball because a group of owners from other parts of the country have gotten together and decided, at least up until now, that it won't.

Pat Buchanan, left tackle

Big league baseball would be good for Washington. Baseball, with its attendant summer leagues, would provide an outlet for young energies (sandlot baseball has just about disappeared, and the departure of the big leaguers is one reason why). It would be evening entertainment for the tourist hordes, most of whom cannot afford seats at the Kennedy Center even if they are so inclined. With its 162-game system, baseball does not belong to the season ticket holders the way professional football does. You can actually get a seat to the game. The ceremonial possibilities alone justify having a team; throwing out the first ball is the sort of thing our president does best, and isn't it a shame we make him go all the way to Baltimore to do it?

With all its ideological hit men and gangtackling PACs, Washington today is not a very pleasant place. Not surprisingly, the leading professional sport in town is football, which is played only a mile or so east of the Capitol building. The most memorable moment of the last season at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium was when Lawrence Taylor, a 240-pound linebacket with the New York Giants, crashed into Joe Theismann, the Redskins quarterback, with such ferocity that he split Theismann's leg in two. The game represents much that is regrettable about the temper of Washington today. A recent column by Patrick Buchanan in The Washington Post accusing Democrats who don't support military aid to the contras of being "with Moscow, co-guarantors of the Brezhnev doctrine' could be seen as a verbal rendering of Lawrence Taylor's tackle.

The quality most lacking in Washington today is civility, and baseball, as has often been noted, is among our most civil of sports. The evening House Democrats and Republicans play their annual baseball game is one on which the more virulent partisan animosities are held in check; if they were playing tackle football, the mood might not be so benign. Baseball is not without its moments of violence: the baserunner breaking up the double play at second, the brush-back pitch, the enraged hitter charging the mound. But these stand out by their very brevity. The central act of the game, hitting a ball thrown at 90 mph or more from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches, is so difficult that a player who fails in only 70 out of 100 attempts is considered among the very best. Baseball is still a game of strategy and skill.

Baseball is also a calm, deliberate game. Its "problem' from a marketing standpoint--it's made for lazy summer afternoons rather than the frantic urgencies of television--is exactly why Washington needs it so much. Of our major team sports, it is the only one not governed by a clock, which makes it also blessedly unlike the lives of 99 percent of the people who spend their days within a three-mile radius of the White House. The dominant game clock in Washington--the cycle of elections--has speeded up to an inhuman pace, as the demands of fundraising require that presidential candidates and even sitting congressmen never stop. Nothing would do this city better than an occasional afternoon at the ball-park. Baseball, moreover, is a game in which each side and each player gets a fair turn at bar, making it a refreshing counterpoint to the access game lobbyists play on Capitol Hill.

If you live in Washington, then you know that I am hardly the first to propose bringing baseball back to the city. There have been stirrings ever since Short departed. More recently, the city council established a commission to conduct these efforts in earnest. Unfortunately, the city has once again embraced the form of ownership for a baseball franchise that enabled Bob Short and Clark Griffith to break thousands of fans' hearts. There is a better way.

Yummy Yogurt on third

Deliberations on which city gets a team center not upon the character of the city but upon the things that weigh more heavily in the minds of baseball men. "I like the market,' Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball, told The Washington Post. Billy Birgfeld of B&B Caterers, which runs the concessions at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, was more specific. "I figure about 400,000 hot dogs,' he said.

But (to mix a metaphor) hot dogs are small potatoes in this deal. Looming much larger, in all probability, are tax shelters. In a city in which the major industry besides power is the building and financing of offices in which the powerful can reside--and emporiums where they can spend their money--it should not be surprising that real estate developers are the major players in the efforts to bring baseball to Washington. Led by people such as Oliver Carr and James Clark, it is a group that, in the words of Thomas Boswell, the Post's baseball columnist, has "gone around the Beltway like modern Johnny Appleseeds, planting Lord & Taylors and Bloomingdale's.'

Professional sports franchises are like shopping malls and Washington office buildings in one respect: they are, in large measure, physical embodiments of a tax accountant's mind. "Sports franchises are a tax shelter,' a former accountant told a reporter for Forbes magazine back in the 1970s. "They generate nice tax losses . . . and you can pass through the losses to your main business, and when you sell, the profit is capital gains.' This, the reporter ventured, might explain why some Washington, D.C. merchants were fighting at the time to buy the San Diego Padres from C. Arnholt Smith, whose financial empire was crumbling.

In his book, The Hustler's Handbook, Bill Veeck, the late Chicago White Sox owner who reportedly pioneered the use of these tax shelters, showed why his fellow owners often wished he would shut up. "It is, in fact, quite possible for a big league club to go on forever without ever paying any income tax,' Veeck wrote. Congress restricted the loopholes somewhat in 1976, but "the number of franchises being sold and the purchase prices continue to escalate,' observed James F. Ambrose, an Oregon tax attorney. From 1982 to 1984, Ambrose points out, no fewer than eight professional baseball teams changed hands.

Whenever I think of developers running Washington's baseball team, I see the ground level of RFK Stadium transformed into "prime commercial space,' containing a Casual Corner, a Trover Shop, Les Gals, Yummy Yogurt, and Au Bon Pain. The present assumption is that the team would play at RFK, but how long would it be before we had a domed, air-conditioned, Astro-Turfed (and taxpayer-financed) stadium somewhere in the exurbs, where the owners could plant more Bloomingdale's and office parks--and collect parking fees from every patron?

Athletic theory of value

Aesthetics are not the primary issue; better to have baseball with a Casual Corner than no baseball at all. But the tax shelters illustrate an important fact. The calculus of loss and gain of individual owners is not the same as that of the community at large. This difference is of no great concern with regard to a restaurant or an exercise spa, but when a civic institution is at stake it matters a great deal. Do the people of Washington want to risk their home team going on the block--or moving yet again to another city-- because a developer's tax accountant tells him he can get more depreciation if he sells the team and uses the money to build a home for David's Cookies or high-priced office space?

Taxes, of course, are not the only reason that individuals choose to own--and to sell--professional sports teams. Having taken the NFL Colts from Baltimore and transplanted them to Indianapolis, owner Robert Irsay may now have to sell that team to satisfy a divorce settlement. Domestic difficulties may evoke more sympathy than does a desire for more depreciation, but the final result is no more comforting to the fans.

But wait, you say, don't owners leave a city because fans don't support the team? The fans that want a team get one, and the fans that don't, don't. Isn't that the beauty of the free market? It's true that in some cases, local fans don't support the team. But often cities lose teams because the owner doesn't support the fans. A congressional inquiry found that from 1946 to 1950 and 1952 to 1956--the year Walter O'Malley took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles--that single franchise provided 44 percent of the National League pre-tax profits. More recently, Oakland was supporting the Raiders. Its owner just thought he could do better in Los Angeles.

Besides, who said baseball was a free market to begin with? If Bob Short had moved a restaurant to Texas, an eager entrepreneur could have moved into his abandoned space and opened the next morning. But because Short moved a baseball team, neither entrepreneurs nor fans have any say in the matter. Protected from the antitrust laws, Peter Ueberroth and the owners, not the free market, get to decide if and when Washington gets another team.

A Marxist who wanted to make a case for egocentric tendencies of American capitalism might well use professional sports as exhibit A. Even a team with the historic roots of the Boston Celtics has not been spared the indignities of a destructive owner. In the late seventies, one John Y. Brown--a name to which the locals provide a very distinct inflection--who made his millions in Kentucky Fried Chicken, bought the Celts, and in nine short months turned the once-proud franchise upside down. Brown almost drove Red Auerbach, the general manager whose popularity probably exceeded that of the state's entire congressional delegation, to the arch-rival New York Knicks. The story goes that a newspaper reporter sought comment in the Celtics' locker room on Brown's subsequent election as governor of Kentucky. "Is it possible for a state to finish last?' one player reportedly responded.

By most accounts, things haven't always been this bad. Earlier owners like Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox and Phil Wrigley of the Cubs had their faults; Yawkey, for example, was the last--and not by accident--to hire a black. But "though tough and hardminded, [the old time owners] still represented a positive family orientation,' Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were concerned about the inner workings of the whole club.' They also had some loyalty to the communities of which they were a part.

Not so the new breed, which has made its millions in franchising or real estate and to which a team is, in Tutko's word, a "toy.' Whether it's Robert Short ditching Washington, or Robert Irsay pulling the Colts out of Baltimore, Al Davis taking his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles --which already had the Rams--or a Charlie Finley or a George Steinbrenner carrying on like a buffoon, the example is not encouraging to Washingtonians seeking safe and steady stewardship for their prospective team.

While disrupting individual teams and cities, these owners have done damage to the game itself. With checking accounts more impressive than their judgment, they bid up player salaries to their present absurd levels. "We spent money like a South American country,' Alan H. ("Bud') Selig, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers, conceded to The Wall Street Journal. It is the owners, moreover, who have brought us the designated hitter rule, silly uniforms, and artificial turf. (If nothing else, Congress should legislate that any owner who wants to install Astro-Turf must also place it on his front lawn and porch.) The playoff season has become so protracted that, if the recent trend continues, baseball will soon qualify as a winter sport. Last fall, baseball fans sat helplessly while ABC switched from Monday night baseball to pre-season football in the middle of a pennant race.

This is not to say that some owners are not worthy of commendation. Walter O'Malley may have committed the unforgivable by moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles, but his son, Peter, is running the team there with aplomb, keeping ticket prices relatively low and his profile lower. ("We owners shouldn't be in the headlines,' he told the Los Angeles Times.) It was hard to dislike Bill Veeck, unless you were another owner. The Wrigley family deserved the gratitude of the nation for refusing to install lights at Wrigley Field. While their refusal poses an inconvenience to television and some who work during the day, it preserves the special grace of afternoon baseball, and enables kids and retired people to enjoy the game.

There are surely many other owners of character, past and present, of whom I am unaware. Maybe the investors now bidding for a Washington franchise would be among them. But once they had it, there would be no telling who would come next. Since Washington is starting fresh, it has a rare opportunity to approach the matter the way a private investor would. It can seek to maximize its gain and minimize its risk. Given the checkered history of baseball ownership in Washington, careful deliberation is especially important.

Peanuts, popcorn, proxies

This is not a brief for government ownership. The answer to George Steinbrenner is not Edward Koch. Fortunately, there exists already a way to avoid this Scylla and Charybdis. That is the model of the Green Bay Packers football team, which is owned not by the government nor by a big-shot private owner, but by the community at large. If farmers can own their own insurance companies, grain elevators, and gas stations; if tenants can own their own apartment buildings through coops; if workers can buy a company like Weirton Steel that a conglomerate wanted to dump and turn it into a profitable operation-- why can't the sports fans and supporters in the Washington area own their own team?

In most big league towns, the local government already owns the stadium in which the major league teams play. Owners, in fact, have become adept at using their monopoly status to shake down localities for stadium improvements and other concessions. Back in 1971, when the Yankees threatened to move to New Jersey unless New York City rehabbed Yankee Stadium (a job that eventually cost more than $100 million), they were owned by CBS, and the city was slipping towards bankruptcy. The Yankees got such a favorable lease that in 1976, after George Steinbrenner had bought the team and had grossed almost $12 million in gate receipts and concessions, the city ended up owing him $10,000.

Sports Illustrated reported that as of 1978, the accumulated debt on sports stadiums would cost taxpayers $6 billion through the twenty-first century, and this is one form of public housing that Gramm-Rudman does not seem to have jeopardized. It would take an estimated $5.5 million dollars-worth of improvements to get RFK ready for baseball, and the city is talking about another $12 million after that. Guess who's going to pay? "We're sure we can do the $5.5 million job out of general obligation bonds, but we may have to float some special bonds for the other $12 million,' city council member Frank Smith, a leader in the baseball effort, told The Washington Post. If the government can own the stadium, and the taxpayers finance it, then it is hardly a radical new proposal to suggest that the fans-- individually, rather than through the government --might own the team.

A former chairman of the board of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team has called the Green Bay Packers "the ideal form of ownership.' Since 1922, the Packers have been a private, non-profit stock corporation, with 1,789 shareholders owning 4,626 shares. The owners cannot trade the stock, there are no dividends, and the only way the team can move is by dissolving, in which case the shareholders will get only the $25 per share they put in, and no more. Management is through a board of directors elected by the stockholders, just as in any corporation. The Green Bay fans know they aren't going to wake up tomorrow and find the Packers in Memphis.

Dave Dixon, the New Orleans art dealer who started the American Football League, is talking about a new springtime football league operating on a one-ticket, one-vote principle, in which each ticket purchase will give the fan one share of stock in the local team. "They'll get to vote on operational matters, and, as wild as it sounds, we might have stockholders meetings after games, right here in the stadium,' Dixon told The New York Times.

A Washington baseball franchise could be structured as a true cooperative, with each fan having one share and one vote. Or it could be structured, in the Green Bay manner, more like a traditional corporation. Whatever the exact legal form, the key principles are:

a) Ownership must be broadly dispersed, and there must be a limit on the number of voting shares any one person can hold.

b) The shares must not be traded, except back to the team, which would pay face value only. There must be no speculative profits. Otherwise, instead of a George Steinbrenner we'll have a Carl Icahn or a T. Boone Pickens owning baseball teams.

c) Management must be delegated, so the franchise can operate on a day-to-day basis much like any other team. This avoids the potential problem of fans firing a manager after every unsuccessful squeeze play.

d) As in Green Bay, the charter of incorporation must positively prohibit the team from moving to another city.

Fans of the world, unite!

Fan ownership would prevent the owner vagrancy that has plagued Washington baseball in the past. It would also help the sport to thrive here economically. Professional sports fans are not incorrigible atoms of economic force. They are capable of qualities such as loyalty and commitment, and these will increase with their degree of involvement with the team. "If you think the Notre Dame student body is partisan,' Dixon said, "try a stadium where all 50,000 people are owners.'

Fan ownership would itself be a market force creating a degree of loyalty which did not exist before. The enthusiasm might well lead to better team performance, a consideration especially important for an expansion club. In a city a little more than 1 percent the size of New York, the Packers have been the only team in professional football in the postwar era to win three championships in a row. And in bad times, there would be a deeper well of residual support from which to draw. If metropolitan Washingtonians became shareholders in the same proportion as in Green Bay, then over 67,000 people here would have a direct connection to the team, enough alone to provide a healthy turnout at RFK. Fan ownership would also preclude the destructive antics of a Charlie Finley or a George Steinbrenner, which have not been known to improve performance on the field. "Blatant, irresponsible interference can hurt a team,' said Peter Bavasi, former president of the Toronto Blue Jays. An interventionist owner with a high-priced roster "gets not what he pays for, but what he deserves.' Don Baylor, whom Steinbrenner recently traded to the Boston Red Sox, had this to say about his former boss: "It's tough enough facing a hardthrowing righthander without worrying about an owner saying you couldn't hit righthanders.' At the other extreme, under this system we would be rid of the owner-millionaires whose main attentions were focused elsewhere. "I'll tell you,' John Mecom Jr., former owner of the New Orleans Saints, once said, "this football team will not be allowed to interfere with the oil and gas business.' New Orleans fans may have suspected a connection between such a statement and the travails of their team on the field.

Broad-based ownership could be especially important in Washington by helping to attract blacks to the ballpark. As in other cities, blacks were not conspicuously in attendance when Washington had a major league team. But the lack of black attendance at Senators games was not due to a lack of black interest in baseball. There is a long tradition of black baseball in the nation's capital. The Homestead Grays of the old "Negro League,' team of the legendary Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, played frequently at Griffith Stadium into the 1940s, and when Satchel Paige and the rest of the Kansas City Monarchs came to town, they would outdraw the Senators several times over. Not to overstate the point, isn't there just a chance that the enthusiasm generated by a fan-owned team might draw fans from throughout the Washington community?

Finally, fan ownership would let us prevent erosion of the game itself. Baseball is our national pastime, but its rules and character are entirely at the whim of a relative handful of millionaires whose qualifications, in many cases, consist primarily of making a lot of money in some totally unrelated field. I agree with Bill Lee, the former Red Sox pitcher known in Boston as "Spaceman.' "They say I'm right out of Marx and Engels,' Lee told the New England Monthly. "But I'm the archconservative of baseball: no designated hitter; real turf; close proximity of fans to players. They [the owners] are the radicals of change.'

Baseball today is a classic case of an organized monopoly against the unorganized millions and another instance in which conventional economic logic breaks down. In theory, fans get to "vote' on rules changes by staying away from the game. But in practice, there's a big difference --to which economists seem completely oblivious--between what people would choose if they could and what they are willing to put up with. Fans may not like the interminable season or artificial turf. But how many are really going to turn off the World Series solely on that account?

Fan ownership would give us a direct say in the character of the game, which is ours every bit as much as it is George Steinbrenner's. And, by golly, we wouldn't get artificial turf unless we really wanted it.

Photo: Library of Congress. Congratulating the 1924 World Series winners, the Washington Baseball Club.
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:George Steinbrenner
Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
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