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Larger-than-life team owners are easy to love—and easier to hate—depending on which colors you wear.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, as featured in the November 2011 issue of SUCCESS, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may be the most visible of the newest generation of owners, but they join a storied line of men who have not been afraid of the limelight. The result of such visibility, however, seems to be something of a mixed bag.
Consider just a few examples:
In 1901, Connie Mack became a partial owner of the Athletics (then in Philadelphia) and gained full ownership in 1936, which he maintained until 1954. As a former player and then as a manager-owner, he was a disciplined and generally quiet personality; however, he had no problem bucking conventional wisdom to shape his team, and such decisions often landed him in the media spotlight.
For example, Mack was not a fan of the sacrifice bunt and often shunned seasoned players who had been taught that skill in favor of younger and more teachable ones. Over the course of his more than 50 years both managing and owning the team, the A’s won five World Series—but also finished last in their division 17 times.
In the 1970s, professional sports found a different breed of team owner in George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.
Steinbrenner was deeply invested in his team’s management. He had a famous decades-long on-again, off-again working relationship with Yankee manager Billy Martin. Upset that Martin had removed outfielder Reggie Jackson from the lineup (Martin had benched him for attitude and discipline) the owner and manager butted heads famously in 1978, which resulted in Martin’s first firing by Steinbrenner. He would be hired—and fired—by Steinbrenner four more times until Martin’s death in 1989.
Though Steinbrenner’s decisions were often controversial and made him a favorite topic in the media, no one can argue that the Yankees suffered from his involvement during the 37 years he owned the franchise.
Charles Wang, owner of the New York Islanders, serves as something of a cautionary tale in terms of how heavy owner involvement can sink a franchise. When he purchased the NHL team in 2000, Wang’s business savvy seemed to bode well for future. Unfortunately, his hiring and firing choices often seemed illogical and unconventional simply for the sake of surprising the press.
So erratic were many of his public decisions that the team has actually decreased in value since he first bought it, making the Islanders one of the only professional franchises to do so in the last decade. At least he’s not entirely out of touch with reality, though; in May of 2010, Wang told Newsday: “If I had the chance I wouldn’t do it again.”
Bill Veeck was a charismatic and somewhat eccentric owner-fan during the post-WWII years. First purchasing the Milwuakee Brewers (then a minor league team) in 1941, he later sold that team and purchased shares of the Cleveland Indians in 1946 before selling them in 1949 and becoming majority owner of the St. Louis Browns in 1951. After he sold his interest in the Browns (at which point the team moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles) Veeck then headed up a group that held the majority share of the Chicago White Sox in 1959.
In Chicago, he started the now-standard practice of displaying players’ names on the backs of their jerseys and installed a new scoreboard that displayed fireworks at Sox homeruns. He sold his share in 1961 because of his failing health, but returned to the White Sox as an owner again in 1975.
Always extremely fond of gimmicks, Veeck was an innovator in the PR realm, implementing a wide variety of techniques to pique spectator interest—or at least generating buzz. Popular, though unverified stories exist that he installed a movable screen at the field in Milwaukee to distract left-handed batters on the opposing team. He also once conducted player trades in full public view in a hotel lobby and, in 1951, sent a midget wearing the number 1/8 up to bat as a pinch hitter. Perhaps most notably, Veeck was one of the masterminds behind one of sports’ most infamous promotions ever: the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night in 1979, which resulted in a riot and a forfeited win to the opposing team.