Marge Schott: 'A mouth unfiltered'
Former Reds owner's politically incorrect words wouldn't fly in today's world
Marge Schott's seat from Riverfront Stadium is a museum piece in the Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Fame. Striking. Empty. It serves either as a tribute to the colorful, cigarette-smoking owner with the St. Bernard dog in tow -- or as a reminder of the danger of a mouth unfiltered.
This year marks 30 years since Schott took over professional baseball's first franchise, next month will mark 15 years since she sold controlling interest under pressure from Major League Baseball, and Sunday marks 10 years since the day she died. She left behind one of the most controversial runs in sports because, frankly, nobody could tell her what to say.
Watch "Outside the Lines" at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN for more on controversial former Reds owner Marge Schott.
Watch "Outside the Lines"
Watch "Outside the Lines" at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN for more on controversial former Reds owner Marge Schott.
"It's ugly, it's ignorant, it's tragic," says Fay Vincent, MLB's commissioner from 1989 to 1992. "I thought she was one of the most tragic figures I've encountered in a long life."
Schott made comments about African-Americans, Jews, Japanese, gays, Hitler. She was suspended in 1993 and 1996 before she sold control of the team in 1999. There were reports she had falsified car sales in the names of Reds employees and hid the vehicles at her house, to convince General Motors that her dealership had met its sales quota. With the team's partnership agreement soon to expire, MLB and others convinced Schott to give up.
She was able to get away with her behavior in the late 20th century. What happened in Cincinnati could stay in Cincinnati. She was so enmeshed in the city that the slurs could be excused, tolerated, even accepted.
"She couldn't have survived today," says attorney Robert Bennett, who negotiated Schott's first MLB suspension and whose clients included former President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. "Even then, she was the product of an all-male, tough, say-what-you-think culture that was totally politically incorrect. I found her to be a very pathetic person. Of all the clients that I've had in all my years ... she was the one who was the most misunderstood and I thought was really in a way the saddest.
"She just couldn't get it."
Imagine what would happen today if an owner said what she said about Reds players Dave Parker and Eric Davis (her "million-dollar n------") and others. Or about Hitler being good in the beginning. Or about players not wearing jewelry on their ears because "Only fruits wear earrings."
Social media would have been all over Schott. And who knows what camera phones could have captured. There were glimpses at the 1990 World Series. Before Game 1 in Cincinnati, Schott wanted to salute the U.S. troops in Iraq. Vincent said OK, after batting practice, off camera. She dedicated the Series to the troops ... but in the "Middle West." When Schott realized her geographic faux pas, she wanted to try it again. No, Vincent said, via a liaison.
"She was drunk," Vincent says. "The tragedy is that nobody could deal with that. How could I say to her, 'Marge, you're just drinking too much'? Looking back on my time in baseball, there were probably seven or eight really ferocious alcoholics, and there wasn't much to be done. An alcoholic in a position where he owns or she owns a team, it's very hard for the others. I talked to other owners about Marge. They all knew she was dangerous, and after I left baseball is when it really blew up. I think baseball did the right thing. It's really difficult to tell an owner you have to sell the team, but if ever there was a candidate, she was it."
A wrongful-firing lawsuit by controller Tim Sabo in 1991 showed the public her everyday vocabulary. Former employees gave depositions about her slurs and conduct, and Schott admitted to using the n-word, saying she wasn't sure if it was offensive to blacks because "I've never really asked them." Still, the nation seemed to barely notice, and the case was dismissed shortly after the depositions went public. Yet after an investigation, MLB fined Schott and suspended her for the 1993 season.
Vincent and others tried to understand her as a product of her upbringing. Still, it was awkward. A more diverse ownership was good for baseball, but she was an outsider even compared to fellow female owner Jackie Autry. Schott called herself a woman in a man's world, and baseball had to be careful, but as Mel Lehrner says, "It's not the world according to Marge." The former Schott Chevrolet general manager was fond of her, calls her a good person, knows she had issues but remembers the kind side. Good Marge.
Other Cincinnatians saw her as Archie Bunker. Defenders would question whether she should lose a business off a bad joke or private comment. Didn't she keep ticket prices down? Wasn't she charitable? Could an owner today bring such adoration? Name another such in-game attraction for fans, who would line up for her autograph. She would sign her name, adding "Woofs and Licks" and sketching a Schottzie paw print.
"I think one of the realities that brought everybody up short was that people in town seemed to love her," Vincent says. "Ultimately, the public votes. And they really seemed to buy her routine. That certainly affected me. I sat next to her and I watched the people just line up and tell her how much they loved her."
Like Schott, Parker was a Cincinnatian. He revived his career back home, playing four years for the Reds, three for Schott, showing leadership on a young team. He thought the owner appreciated him. Then he learned of the slurs and wondered: After hugging him, did she wash her arms in Clorox?
Today, Parker is retired from baseball and business, living in Cincinnati, dealing with Parkinson's disease. He looks fit at 62, which helps him with the symptoms that began two years ago. He has softened toward Schott.
"When I was coaching with the Cardinals, I'm standing at the hitting cage critiquing swings and running hitting, and I felt this little warm, soft hand grab me by my hand, and I looked down, and it was Mrs. Schott," Parker says. "I think that was her way of saying she was sorry. How can you stay mad at this little old lady?"
He is proud that he stood up for himself and African-Americans, stood alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson when the civil-rights activist got involved. He wished more did. Should an owner make similar comments now, he hopes, it would go viral: Social media meets social activism.
"I think it's more likely that the players might band together because other players have stood up for things in modern-day baseball right now," Parker says, "and the fact that there are all these incidents with young black males bringing guys to the forefront."
"There has been a history of a handful of athletes speaking out on issues and paying tremendous consequences for it, as far back as [Muhammad] Ali and Curt Flood," says the social advocate behind the race and gender report cards in sports.
Lapchick still hopes to see athletes more involved, but says players need the "safety net" of a "mass action."
"Spike Lee and I co-hosted a session with the heads of all the players' associations in the early 1990s to express that players' associations would back the players if they took stands on important issues," he says. "That for me was promising because that seemed to be their safety net, but that never moved forward."
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe contends his advocacy cost him his job last year, although the team denies it. He became a national figure after writing an expletive-filled open letter to a Maryland legislator who wanted the Baltimore Ravens to silence Brendon Ayanbadejo's gay-marriage support.
Twenty years ago, Schott's "Only fruits wear earrings" line brought a headline or two and some eye rolling. "I think if someone were to say something like that today, they would be castigated," Kluwe says. "We're a little bit more tolerant today as a society. And I'd imagine I'd probably write a letter."
In 2014, gay rights are more protected. The NBA just welcomed its first openly gay player, Jason Collins. And Michael Sam hopes to be drafted as the NFL's first openly gay player, although some league officials have said the potential distraction and locker-room discomfort could affect his draft status. Lapchick calls that "coded language" for a degree of homophobia.
The language Schott used against so many groups, Lapchick says, would bring "very swift" opposition today by anyone except maybe a close friend. In the early 1990s, Bennett could help Schott get a relatively mild suspension.
"We live in an era that's much more politically correct," Bennett says. "And people are much less forgiving. So my guess is, an educated guess is, that I could not have gotten the same result if all that was going on today."
Schott's second suspension, in June 1996, pushed her out through the 1998 season. She never returned. Facing another suspension, she sold all but a single share.
"Now I think that Marge Schott today would be shut down," Vincent says. "I think the press would make mincemeat of her. I think baseball would intervene the way they did."
And Cincinnati would react differently, Michael Rapp says. He was on the group of community leaders dealing with Schott's first slur-athon. The head of the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council at the time, he hoped the group could use her situation to raise awareness, not try to change someone who wouldn't or to attack her.
"Although I think she still would have her supporters and they would respond the same way," Rapp says of today in Cincinnati, "those who may have sat in the sidelines would have ended up more involved, saying, 'You can't talk this way.'"
Her name remains visible there. The Schott-Unnewehr (her maiden name) Vanishing Giants exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, for instance. The Marge Schott Scout Achievement Center. Even Marge Schott Stadium for University of Cincinnati baseball. Schott's longtime attorney, Robert Martin, admittedly is a little uncomfortable with that last one, considering what happened to her in the sport.
It came from the Marge and Charles J. Schott Foundation, and Martin serves on the board. The stadium was completed in 2004, shortly after Marge died, and two years later the foundation donated $2 million that put Marge Schott's name on the building.
First-year UC coach Ty Neal grew up an hour north of Cincinnati, watched the Reds as a kid, thought he knew the ballpark's namesake. When told of the controversy, he realized that, now 37, he missed a lot of the story.
"Maybe that's something that might be my job to educate these guys on who Marge Schott really is," he says.
If there is another Marge Schott-type incident, perhaps sports can learn from hers. In an email to ESPN.com, commissioner Bud Selig stressed the importance of "inclusion and respect" in "the sport of Jackie Robinson," that baseball's actions must reflect its status as a "social institution."
"As Commissioner, it is my duty to look out for best interests of baseball and to preserve its integrity," Selig wrote. "We have faced various challenges over the years, though none quite like the one regarding Mrs. Schott's role with the Reds."
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