Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Local Characters: Marge Schott

Dear George,


All cities have their share of eccentrics, oddballs, and crackpots.  Probably the best-known local character in our times is former Cincinnati Reds owner, Marge Schott.   I thought I would write about her because she is an interesting, significant figure in our community’s history and hence in our lives.


Margaret Unnewehr was born in Cincinnati on August 18, 1928, the second of five daughters of lumber baron Edward and classical pianist Charlotte Unnewehr.  Her schoolmates teased her by calling her Unda-wear.  She said of her father: “My poor father, he kept trying to have a son, and he kept getting girls."  Her father called her “Butch”, and he brought her into the family lumber business at a young age.  Schott met wealthy Cincinnati businessman Charles J. Schott while she was a student at the University of Cincinnati, and they married in 1952.  Schott was hostess to elegant society affairs and charity events at their 70-acre Indian Hills estate.  When her husband died in 1968 of a heart attack at age 42, Schott inherited an automobile dealership, as well as a brick factory, a concrete factory, an insurance firm, and a shopping center.  The auto dealership, Schott Buick, had done poorly for years, and she decided to try to turn it around.  Despite GM’s reluctance to give a franchise to a woman, her striking success in boosting sales altered GM’s stance.  In 1980, she opened a second GM franchise, Marge’s Chevrolet.


Schott was a lifelong Reds fan, and she bought a share in the team in 1981.  When the Reds’ general partners decided to sell the team in 1984, she bought the controlling interest for $13 million “as a Christmas present to the city.”  She was the first woman in history to have purchased a major league team.  In 1985 she became president and CEO. While Schott had a public reputation as a cheapskate, down to the nitty-gritty level of counting pencils and pens used in the front office, fans applauded her decisions to keep ticket prices low and hot dogs at a dollar.  Schott sat in a regular box seat at the stadium, participated in the Wave, chatted with fans, signed endless autographs, and, before the game, allowed any child in the stadium to run out to deep center field and back.  The Reds did experience success during her tenure, most notably by defeating the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in four straight games in the 1990 World Series.


Marge Schott loved kids and animals, and her St. Bernards, Schotzie and later Schotzie 02, were fixtures at Reds games and events.  She paraded 170-lb. Schotzie around the field, greeting players and rubbing the Reds’ manager with dog fur for good luck.  She considered replacing the stadium’s Astroturf with a grass field so Schotzie would have a more inviting place to poop.  Pete Rose recounted that, when he visited Marge Schott at her home and complained about Schotzie drooling on him, Schott said, “The dog lives here, Pete. You're just visiting.” 

Schott’s notoriety, of course, resulted from her propensity to make obnoxious, prejudicial remarks about a wide range of minorities.  She was a real-life version of Archie Bunker, though her bigotry was more threatening than Archie’s working class version because of her position of wealth and power.  Controversy erupted in 1992 when a former Reds employee stated that he’d heard Schott refer to Reds outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker as her “million-dollar n*****s”.  Schott said she didn’t understand why the ethnic slur “Jap” was offensive and commented that she didn’t like Asian-American youth “outdoing our kids” in high school.  Another former Reds employee reported that she kept a Nazi swastika armband at her home and that he overheard her say that “sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike.”  On several occasions she defended Adolf Hitler: “Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far.”  Justifying the Reds’ policy of banning players from wearing earrings, Schott said, “Only fruits wear earrings.”  When asked if she were a feminist, Schott replied: “What's that? You mean a 'Mez'?  I get mail addressed to me as 'Mez,' I throw it in the wastebasket.”  Confronted with the storm that her comments had raised, Schott denied that she was a racist and admitted, “I don't always express myself well.”

At the opening day game in. 1996, the home plate umpire collapsed on the field and was pronounced dead at University Hospital an hour later.  When the game was postponed, Schott was quoted as saying, “Snow this morning and now this.  I don’t believe it.  I feel cheated.”  When Schott repeated her statements about Hitler a month later, Major League Baseball banned her from day-to-day operations for three years.  In April 1999, Schott sold the team for $67 million to a group led by Cincinnati billionaire Carl Lindner.  Lindner commented that Schott was “tough but fair…What was on her heart was on her tongue.”   

Though less well known than her racial and ethnic blunders, Marge Schott was a major philanthropist in Cincinnati.  She contributed millions of dollars to the Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the Zoo, Saint Ursula Academy, the Boy Scouts, the University of Cincinnati, and a host of other area charities.  When gossips insinuated that her donations were an effort to restore her good name, Schott replied, “Let them talk…You feel good, honey, making people happy.” 

Schott, a long-term drinker and smoker, began developing health problems in 2001 and was hospitalized several times for breathing problems.  She died in March 2004 at age 75.  Mayor Charlie Luken commented, “Marge was a paradox.  While there is no excusing some of the indelicate things she said, there was a kindness to Marge that made her a woman of the people.”  I tend to think of Marge Schott as like a crazy old aunt – awful on occasion but still part of the family.  She said and did things that seemed like disgusting leftovers from some other era.  Without question, she was an embarrassment to herself, the city, the Reds, the fans, major league baseball, her upper class peers, even to the society as a whole which spawned her.  She was an embarrassment, though, because she overtly expressed sentiments which are widely held, but deemed taboo and denied in the larger community.  She lacked any aptitude for political correctness.  In one sense, her bigotry performed a useful function.  When prejudices are driven underground, they vanish from social consciousness.  Schott’s virulent sentiments were snapped up by the media and thus became objects for public commentary and repudiation.  We are able to act like better people by dissociating ourselves from Marge Schott.  Mayor Luken wrapped it all up by saying there was a Good Marge and a Bad Marge.  I’m inclined to agree.




Sources (via Google search): Wikipedia, USA Today, Cincinnati Enquirer, Spiritus Temporis, Sports.jrank.org, Sports Illustrated.




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