Three decades ago, when Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn bought the minor league Utica Blue Sox, one of the first people he told was “my cherished Brooklyn Dodgers friend” Carl Furillo. “You? An owner?” Furillo replied in amazement. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t have two ulcers by Opening Day.”
Kahn sold the team after a year. But he was (and is) a writer. Players turning owners is almost as rare. The latest possibility may be Derek Jeter, who’s reported to be interested in becoming a major player in any push to buy the Miami Marlins.
While assorted wags contemplate their variations on the theme that at this point an arthritic paramecium would be a major improvement over incumbent Jeffrey Loria, Jeter needs to become part of a group to buy the team. The Marlins are thought to be worth at least $1 billion in spite of their fishy owner, and Jeter’s net worth after taxes, from his playing career, is thought to be in the $220 million neighbourhood.
Jeter’s interest in becoming a baseball owner hasn’t exactly been classified information in the past few years. Several published reports, however, say he has competition for the Marlins, including one group led by former Florida governor and failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush (whose brother, George, once owned the Texas Rangers and did get elected to the White House twice), and a second group whose key members have yet to be revealed.
As if to prove that failure can still mean profit, Loria let it be known in February that he planned to put the Marlins up for sale. He’ll probably get the $1.6 billion he seeks, or close enough, only slightly staggering considering Forbes, which first revealed his interest in selling, valued the team at a mere $700 million.
And while Jeter’s one-time Yankee teammate Don Mattingly (whose should-have-been Hall of Fame career ended as Jeter’s will-be Hall of Fame career began) says, “Jeter would be a good owner . . . he pretty much seems to be good at everything he tries to do,” the precedents for major league players becoming owners in due course are mixed at best:
Charlie Comiskey—Once a major league first baseman who’s credited with being the first at the position to play off the pad, allowing him to cover more of the right side of the infield, Comiskey, too, became a manager, before buying the Western League St. Paul Saints and, moving them to Chicago, making them the White Sox of the American League.
Comiskey oversaw both the building of the original Comiskey Park while his White Sox won five American League pennants and two World Series, including the 1906 set against the crosstown Cubs. But the Old Roman’s most notorious for the penury—not just substandard salaries but often cheating players out of promised bonuses—which finally provoked the 1919 World Series fix that scandalised baseball and the country and ruined the careers of eight of his players, including should-have-been Hall of Famer Shoeless Joe Jackson and might-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Cicotte. (The real victims of the Black Sox scandal: the 1919 Cincinnati Reds. Who actually could have beaten those White Sox if the Series was played straight.)
The White Sox didn’t win another pennant until 1959 and another World Series until 2005. Comiskey died in 1931; he was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1939.
Connie Mack—Former major league catcher who became the owner/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack presided over two legendary A’s dynasties before retiring as manager in 1950. He remains the only major league manager ever to have won consecutive World Series in different generations; he was also the last major league manager to manage during games in a suit and tie. (Burt Shotton, managing the Dodgers twice in 1947 and 1948-50, sometimes wore a Dodger team jacket instead of his suit coat.)
Nicknamed the Tall Tactician—he was famous as a manager for repositioning his fielders by way of signaling with his large lineup card—Mack became the team’s co-owner with Ben Shibe after buying out two other partners in 1913. When Shibe died in 1937, Mack became sole owner. Once just as notorious for a pair of fire sales when his operating capital ran low, Mack finally sold the A’s in 1954 when he came close to bankruptcy.
The buyer: Arnold Johnson, with no little help from Yankees co-owner Del Webb, who’d done much of the heavy lifting to swing Johnson’s approval as the new A’s owner. Johnson moved the team to Kansas City, where they became all but a finishing school for the Yankees—the Yankees and the A’s made so many trades, with so many A’s players flourishing in New York, that the A’s were sometimes considered a AAAA farm club as their fortunes plummeted while the Yankees romped through the 1950s—until his death in 1960.
Clark Griffith—Good pitcher turned manager until he bought the Washington Senators (“First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”) with Philadelphia grain broker Bill Richardson in 1919. Though the minority shareholder, the deal gave Griffith the voting power of Richardson’s shares. He stepped down as the Senators’ manager in 1920, then eventually mortgaged his Montana ranch to buy full control. Under Griffith’s ownership the Senators actually managed to win a World Series (1924) and three pennants (1924, 1925, 1933), but he ran the franchise on a shoestring and refused to build a substantial minor league system.
Griffith also earned enough income by allowing the legendary Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues to play their home games in Griffith Stadium while the Senators were on the road. The Grays were so successful that Griffith feared bringing black players to the Senators, it was written, because he needed the Grays’ income to sustain the Nats. When he died in 1955, ownership transferred to his nephew Calvin Griffith, who’d once played minor league ball. The younger Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota for 1961.
The elder Griffith was elected to the Hall of Fame by an Old-Timers’ Committee in 1949, mostly in recognition of how he’d helped build the American League from its inception. (Griffith was a key figure in attracting National League players to the American League in its early years.)
Branch Rickey—He was a major league catcher (three seasons), manager (the St. Louis Browns), and operator (the St. Louis Cardinals, where he pioneered the farm system), before he became both president and a partial owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942. The Mahatma finished the rebuilding of both Ebbets Field and the Dodgers’ farm system, before re-breaking the colour line by signing Jackie Robinson. It helped the Dodgers win pennants in 1947 and 1949, though Rickey’s often duplicitous ways with negotiating contracts for his players became an equal part of his legend.
Rickey was all but forced out by Walter O’Malley after the Dodgers lost the pennant by one game to the upstart “Whiz Kids” Phillies. But for all intent and purpose, the Dodger pennant winners of 1952, 1953, 1955 (their lone World Series triumph while in Brooklyn), and 1956 were Rickey teams: most of the key players on those teams—Robinson, Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, four of whom became Hall of Famers—were Rickey signings.
After his Brooklyn buyout, Rickey moved on to become the general manager of the moribund Pittsburgh Pirates, where some of his actions—including and especially his undermining of their lone drawing card, Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner (Kiner once credited Rickey’s duplicities with doing the most to inspire what eventually became the players’ union)—were controversial enough, and at least one other proved an innovation: it was the Rickey Pirates who adopted batting helmets first. But he and others also planted several seeds that sprouted into the Pirates’ 1960 World Series winner.
Rickey resigned in 1955 over concerned about his health. Not long after, with the Dodgers and Giants moving West, Rickey became part of a group pushing a third major league, the Continental League, formed in part to bring a second major league team back to New York. The Continental League never got off its paper formation but it did provide the impetus for baseball’s first expansion in the early 1960s.
Later, Rickey became an advisor to the Cardinals. His behind-the-scenes machinations may or may not have helped compel manager Johnny Keane to plan his resignation after the 1964 season while accepting a backchannel offer from the Yankees to replace incumbent Yogi Berra, whom the Bombers planned to dump no matter how 1964 ended up. (It ended up with Keane’s Cardinals playing Berra’s Yankees in a thriller of a World Series, the Cardinals winning in seven. And, with both managers gone the day after, Berra being executed and Keane shocking Cardinal owner Gussie Busch with his resignation . . . at the press conference where Busch planned to announce Keane’s rehiring!)
A year later, weakened by heart trouble and the death of his son, Branch, Jr., Rickey died 26 days after he collapsed while giving a speech at his induction to the Missouri Hall of Fame. He was elected to Cooperstown posthumously in 1967.
Nolan Ryan—The Hall of Fame righthander and Texas native got his ownership shot when he was hired as the Rangers’ president in 2008. The following year, Ryan and Chuck Greenberg assembled a group to buy the Rangers from Tom Hicks, beating out Mark Cuban. Two years later, Greenberg left the group over what he called a clash of philosophies with Ryan. Ryan was named chief executive officer and under his oversight the Rangers went to the World Series back-to-back in 2010-11.
However, after a series of shifts in the Rangers’ front office, Ryan stepped down in 2013. He’s long since become an advisor to the Houston Astros.
Among the foregoing, Clark Griffith was a better pitcher than he was an owner. Charles Comiskey, Connie Mack, and Branch Rickey were better owners than ballplayers, never mind the controversies attached to their ownership years. Nolan Ryan probably needs no valedictory, but if the Rangers had won either of the two World Series to which they went under his command, he’d have been the first Hall of Fame player to win a Series as an owner.
Two years before his death, another Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn, then coaching at San Diego State University, joined film producer Thomas Tull in a group aiming to buy the San Diego Padres for whom Gwynn played his entire major league career. But one-time minority partner Ron Fowler ultimately led the group that bought the team from John Moores—without Gwynn, who died in 2014, three months before Jeter played his final game..
If Jeter should find a group and succeed in buying the Marlins, he’d have an excellent chance—assuming his group has or hires people with more than carrot juice for brains—of becoming the first Hall of Famer (do you really doubt he’ll be elected?) to win any World Series rings as a player and at least one as an owner.
It would be the most unheard-of thing anyone ever heard of, but then Jeter did have the image (however exaggerated) among Yankee fans for doing such things on the field. You get the feeling now that those fans seeing him holding the colours of the Marlins would be tantamount to Dodger fans seeing Vin Scully come out of retirement to announce for the Yankees.