Down to the sick 16 in Athlon's battle of the bad bosses
By Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)
Welcome to the second round of the Worst Sports Owners Tournament. We're down to 16 of the craziest owners ever. Some won, but spent other people's money like drunken sailors to do it. Some lost, and made themselves look like spoiled children in doing so. Your mission, should you be brave and intelligent enough to accept it, is to decide which is a more grievous offense.
The tournament will roll through three weeks, and the votes will be decided between Athlon’s editorial staff, the comments you post below each piece, and comments on the Facebook pages of Athlon Sports and 4 Quarters Radio. Remember, you’re voting for the owners whose crimes against sport, humanity, and/or nature were the most egregious. We’ll offer anecdotal evidence of each owner’s evil/incompetence, and if you’ve got more, feel free to throw it in.
Here’s the schedule:
Monday, Week 2: Baseball/Hockey/Soccer Round 2
Thursday, Week 2: Football/Basketball Round 2
Monday, Week 3: Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Week 3: Semifinals
Friday, Week 3: Final
In this half of the bracket, baseball's slimiest battle across from some of hockey and soccer's least lovable goofs. Read on.
Worst Baseball Owners Bracket:
(1) Frank and Jamie McCourt (Los Angeles Dodgers 2004-present)
(5) Arnold Johnson (Kansas City Athletics 1954-1960)
Round 1 results:
McCourts def. Wayne Huizenga
Johnson def. George Steinbrenner
In Round 1, the McCourts and Johnson both moved on because they faced opponents who actually, you know, won something. For the unseemly haste with which Huizenga tore the Marlins apart after the World Series win, at least they won a World Series. As for Johnson, there wasn’t so much of a groundswell of support for him as there was a backlash against Steinbrenner’s inclusion. Apparently, a lot of people have worked up some nifty cases of selective amnesia, choosing to forget George’s borderline-sociopathic behavior during the late 1970’s and all through the ‘80s. Either that, or 80% of Yankee fans still can’t legally get into bars. Once George learned to be quiet, stop firing people, and just write the checks, he turned the Yankees into a true flagship franchise, instead of a wild sideshow.
It’s hard to ignore Johnson’s role in keeping the Yankees on top, but there may have been a very real reason for his frantic offloading of talent. The Athletics’ lease with Kansas City contained a three-year escape clause that would have allowed Johnson to bolt if the team’s attendance dropped below one million fans. In 1957, the team’s third season, attendance fell to just over 900,000, giving Johnson the opening that he needed. Rumors had swirled that Johnson was seeking to move the club to Los Angeles, but if he was seeking to get there for the 1958 season, Walter O’Malley beat him to the punch, dragging the Dodgers out to the West Coast just in the nick of time.
With the Los Angeles escape route blocked, the A’s actually staged a mild rebound. In 1958 and ’59, the team recorded its first two 65-win seasons since the Philly A’s won 79 in 1952. Then, in spring training 1960, Johnson’s death (and the Roger Maris trade) put a halt to any momentum the team had gained. The A’s never finished higher than seventh in the American League until they were dragged off to Oakland.
Johnson’s ambition in getting a piece of the action in Los Angeles is something to which the McCourts could easily relate. For all of Frank McCourt’s hubris, his soon-to-be ex has had some lofty goals herself. She collaborated with Dodgers marketing/PR exec Charles Steinberg on an idea called “Project Jamie,” which involved various plans for Jamie using the Dodger brand to pursue public office up to and including President of the United States. Her platform was supposed to be bolstered by something called “Dodgers University,” which would include after-school programs for children, adult literacy classes, and sports business seminars. (Reportedly, the WAC has already invited the DU football team to join for the 2014 season.)
Steinberg envisioned a coalition of women, minorities, youth, Hollywood players and male sports fans that would carry Jamie to victory in any election. After all, the “rely on sports fans that support your egomaniacal husband’s product” electoral blueprint worked so well for Linda McMahon.
(3) Marge Schott (Cincinnati Reds 1984-1999)
(2) Jeffrey Loria (Montreal Expos 1999-2002, Florida Marlins 2002-present)
Round 1 results:
Schott def. Vince Naimoli
Loria def. David Glass
Even though the Rays only started winning once Naimoli sold majority interest, he simply lacked the name recognition to triumph over Schott, who became baseball’s Public Enemy No. 1 while Bud Selig was ignoring steroid evidence. Even though David Glass has evidenced his share of squirmy tendencies, his cheapness could not overcome the fact that Loria completely murdered the Montreal Expos.
The Expos’ death wasn’t a “we did everything we could, but the patient slipped away” kind of death. It was more like a “someone snuck into the room and smothered the patient with a pillow” situation. Granted, the Expos weren’t in the greatest of health, but a team whose attendance had just cratered at less than 10,000 in 1999 had some terrible luck with their broadcast contracts expiring that year. Loria was bound and determined that he would find someone to sweeten the existing deal, but no one was interested. He overvalued the rights, and as a result, Les Expos spent the entire 2000 season off the air, in both French and English. Montreal baseball fans were largely apathetic, but somewhere, Bill Wirtz was surely smiling.
There wasn’t much hope of a drastic improvement in the on-field product, considering that half the payroll for the 2000 season was earmarked for new arrivals Graeme Lloyd (11-8, 4.81 ERA as an Expo, didn’t pitch until 2001), Hideki Irabu (2-7, 6.69), and Lee Stevens (.243, 57 HR, 319 strikeouts to 291 hits).
Loria didn’t endear himself to the city, either, bluntly declaring “We cannot and will not stay here” in reference to Olympic Stadium. Canada has never been a hospitable place for sports owners begging for welfare handouts in the form of new stadiums, and by the time baseball cut the legs out from under the 1994 team, Montreal had little use for the Expos. The proposed downtown Labatt Park never broke ground, but it had a killer 12-by-12 model on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. In a sad twist, that model was demolished by teenage vandals a month after the Expos moved to Washington.
One good thing that can always be said about Marge Schott is that she loved the Cincinnati fans. Her staff and players, however, didn’t quite get the same respect. Her Saint Bernards, Schottzie and Schottzie 02, were frequently allowed to run free around the field while the players attempted to warm up. The dogs routinely nipped at players’ heels and defecated at various spots on the field. Shortstop Barry Larkin claimed that the dogs’ exploits were hard to forget about during games: “The only thing I don't like is when the dog takes a crap at shortstop, because I might have to dive into that s---.”
For a woman in business, Marge wasn’t particularly keen on others following in her footsteps. She was not interested in the Reds hiring women of child-bearing age. After all, maternity leave is a big investment for somebody who won’t be in the office getting their work done, right? In a Sports Illustrated piece from 1996, Marge blamed a lot on working women: "Some of the biggest problems in this city come from women wanting to leave the home to work." Marge wasn’t interested in being an inspiration to other women in baseball, either: "I don't really think baseball is a woman's place, honey. I really don't. I think it should be left to the boys." She was an old-fashioned Cincinnati woman who grew up a tomboy with a father who had been dying for a son, and her attitudes were every bit as crusty as any man from her generation.
Worst Hockey/Soccer Owners Bracket:
(1) Tom Hicks (Liverpool Football Club, 2007-2010)
(4) Atlanta Spirit Group (Atlanta Thrashers, 2004-11)
Round 1 results:
Hicks def. Charles Wang
ASG def. Malcolm Glazer
Hicks and his buddy George Gillett were easy winners over Wang in Round 1, since Wang is far from the typical “I’m yanking my team off to some new town if you people don’t buy me a pretty new stadium” kind of owner. Hicks’ problems were largely self-inflicted, and he needed other people to dig him out of them. ASG took out Glazer because, even though both ownership groups were despised by fans and have terrible money management skills, Glazer’s crazed spending brought home a lot of wins and championships. ASG’s spending put Bentleys in lawyers’ driveways and braces on said lawyers’ kids’ teeth, while only producing one division championship and a subsequent playoff flameout.
Unbalanced people tend to blame everyone else for problems of their own making. Tom Hicks was no different. Despite the fact that Liverpool had received multiple extensions on their debts, which had reached £350 million in 2010, the Royal Bank of Scotland was setting in motion “an epic swindle” by finally calling in the loans, according to Hicks. An enormous conspiracy was afoot to undermine the club, and Hicks considered the RBS to be at the forefront: “I can't go into the details but I can confirm the funds were available to pay off Royal Bank of Scotland entirely but between Royal Bank of Scotland, the chairman and the employees that conspired against us, they would not let us.”
British Airways chairman Martin Broughton, brought on by Hicks and Gillett to help oversee the sale of LFC, did his job and was then accused by Hicks of being in on this major conspiracy himself. According to Hicks, “Martin Broughton wanted a good PR event in his life and be seen as the guy that got rid of those Americans – and he sold to another group of Americans.” Hicks alleged that he had found his own unnamed buyer, but that mysterious party was scared off by “distress chatter and [an] organised internet terrorism campaign.” When the sale was finally completed, Liverpool was sold for £80M more than Hicks had bought it for, but when weighed against the more than £200M in debt on the club, Hicks and Gillett were out approximately £144M in the end.
Considering that Hicks had plunged the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars into massive debt before doing exactly the same to Liverpool, he should count himself lucky he’s got enough of a credit rating left to finance a ham sandwich.
ASG had similar issues, fighting amongst themselves with 30 percent of the club in the balance. As alluded to in Round 1, the group was quick to realize that its members were in over their heads and tried to sell the clubs quickly. By that time, the Steve Belkin lawsuit had kicked off, and nearly a one-third share of the Hawks and Thrashers was in litigation. These two events are mutually exclusive, as very few buyers will make serious overtures knowing that their first action will need to be buying out a disgruntled partner. By the time the suit was settled, the rest of ASG had lost a substantial amount on legal fees and payments for Belkin’s share. Therefore, neither Hawks fans nor Thrasher supporters could look forward to any exciting moves to improve the teams.
(3) Harold Ballard (Toronto Maple Leafs, 1961-90)
(2) Bill Wirtz (Chicago Blackhawks, 1966-2007)
Round 1 results:
Ballard def. Freddy Shepherd
Wirtz def. Peter Pocklington
Ballard’s first-round win over Shepherd was simply a superior body of work. Ballard had three decades of crazed actions behind him, while Shepherd simply made silly football decisions after figuring out that Spanish cathouses weren’t good places to hang out. Wirtz likewise had a much longer tenure filled with goofy decisions and pinched pennies, beating out Pocklington’s bungling of the Gretzky trade. Other than the Gretzky deal, Peter Puck’s resume was somewhat inoffensive. He built a great team, then sat in irrelevance after everyone left. Now, two of hockey’s major tyrants get to go toe to toe.
Ballard had something to his name that very few of his competitors in the WSOT could claim: a jail term. After being charged with tax evasion in 1969, one would think that he’d be motivated to keep his nose clean. In a truly epic fail, then-chairman John Bassett was able to fire Ballard from the board, but did not force him to sell his share of the team. Within a year, Ballard and co-owner/co-defendant Stafford Smythe were able to fight to regain control of the team and force Bassett to sell out in 1971.
Shortly thereafter, Ballard was hit with 49 counts of fraud, theft, and tax evasion. The Crown’s attorneys accused him of renovating his home, buying motorcycles, and renting limos for his daughter’s wedding out of the coffers of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. In addition, some of MLGL’s money found its way into a private bank account that Ballard himself controlled. In August 1972, he was convicted on 47 of the counts, and was then sentenced to nine years in a federal pen. By October of ’73, he was paroled, and emerged none too repentant for his crimes. He claimed that prison life was like staying in a hotel, where one could enjoy the color TV, steak dinners, and even an occasional round of golf. He claimed to have pictures of himself tossing back some beers with his guards and even borrowing a uniform.
Bill Wirtz was never incarcerated, but his name certainly was banded about in legal documents in the latter half of the 1990’s. As head of the NHL’s Board of Governors, he was right next to the league’s president, John Ziegler, in labor negotiations with the players. NHL Players’ Association head Alan Eagleson was a lawyer/agent who was busy representing players at the same time that he was negotiating on behalf of all the league’s athletes. At various times, Eagleson was accused of skimming money from advertising and player pension funds and also taking large payments for himself out of player disability claims. These three men essentially ran the NHL during the 1980’s and early ‘90s.
In 1995, a group of former players filed a class action suit against Eagleson, Wirtz, and Ziegler, claiming that Wirtz and Ziegler had offered Eagleson a variety of bribes to keep the players’ salaries suppressed. Control of international events such as the 1972 Summit Series and the 1976 Canada Cup were granted through Eagleson agreeing to soften the players’ demands for free agency and reducing owners’ pension fund contributions. The NHL’s 1979 expansion, which included four World Hockey Association clubs, effectively destroyed the WHA and lessened players’ leverage in negotiations with their teams. All of this played into Wirtz’s desire to save money wherever he could. For his trouble, several owners helped put Eagleson into the Hall of Fame, an honor which was revoked in 1998. The first players’ association boss to ever make a sport’s Hall of Fame was also the first person booted out of his game’s sacred fraternity. And Bill Wirtz walked away whistling.
The quarterfinals kick off on Friday, and your votes will help determine who moves on. Remember, post them here or on the Athlon or 4 Quarters Radio Facebook pages. Happy reading and happier voting.