On January 29, 1981, American League owners approved the sale of the Chicago White Sox to a group led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn. Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal saw fit to mark the anniversary by recounting the process. I encourage you to read the article for the blow-by-blow history of the events of 1980 and 1981; a brief summary follows.
Back in 1980, Bill Veeck made no bones about the fact that his group didn’t have enough resources to stay in baseball. That August, he agreed to sell the Sox to Ohio shopping mall developer Edward DeBartolo. Though the sale wasn’t finalized by the end of the season, the last series of the year served as a farewell to the man who had owned the team the past five years.
Three weeks after the season ended, AL owners (including Bud Selig) rejected DeBartolo’s bid, with reported concerns involving DeBartolo’s ownership of racetracks. DeBartolo worked to try to get approved again in December, to no avail. During this time Veeck continued to run the team, and, assuming DeBartolo would eventually get approved, he signed free agents Jim Essian and former All-Star leadoff hitter Ron LeFlore.
DeBartolo eventually gave up on his baseball dreams. Over the next decade, his family won multiple Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Veeck turned to a group led by a man he’d rejected that summer, Jerry Reinsdorf.
Reinsdorf was a 44-year-old real estate lawyer. Before the DeBartolo bid, he gave an interview to longtime Tribune sports columnist Dave Condon. Rosenthal looks back on that interview with the perspective of someone who’s seen how Reinsdorf’s operated, and it includes a beauty of a quote.
Chicago Tribune columnist David Condon introduced the Northwestern Law graduate to sports section readers in July 1980 as a “mystery money man making a high-priced bid to buy the White Sox … and a self-identified ‘baseball fanatic who grew upon the shadows of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and occasionally played stickball with Duke Snider.’ ”
Reinsdorf said he would advise his group’s limited partners that “there’s just not a lot of money to be made with investments like this,” which he cast as more of a civic duty project.
“I’ve always looked at the ownership of a baseball franchise as a public trust, maybe even a charitable thing,” Reinsdorf told Condon. “I’m serious about that. I never did forgive Walter O’Malley for moving the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.”
That “charitable thing” Rosenthal notes, has increased in value: “Forbes in 2020 estimated the White Sox, purchased in 1981 for the equivalent today of $59.3 million, to be worth $1.65 billion.” Beyond that, within five years, the heartbroken Ebbets Field mainstay was threatening to move the team to Tampa Bay if he didn’t get a publicly-funded stadium in suburban Addison. That didn’t happen, but the threat successfully led the state of Illinois to fund a new park next door to old Comiskey, tearing down a neighborhood to do so.
By the time the new park opened in 1991, Reinsdorf had established what kind of owner he would be. Initially, he gave fans hope of using capital to bolster the talent on the field, signing Carlton Fisk during spring training 1981, and nabbing Floyd Bannister, the top free agent pitcher after the 1982 season. Those moves, along with the young talent Veeck and Roland Hemond had assembled between 1975 and 1980, led in 1983 to the first postseason appearance by a Chicago baseball team since 1959. After disappointing seasons in 1984 and 1985, Reinsdorf’s quirks became more evident, shunting Roland Hemond aside to make…questionably equipped friend Ken Harrelson GM. Around the same time, Reinsdorf established his combative stance towards the players, a stance that manifested in collusion, the 1994 lockout, and a history of pennywise and pound-foolish free agent signings while, with the notable exception of the Albert Belle contract in 1996, avoiding the top of the market again after the Bannister signing,
Back in 1980, Reinsdorf drew a contrast between himself and Walter O’Malley. It’s a fair contrast: in the years O’Malley and, later, his son Peter, owned the Dodgers (1950-1998), the Dodgers won NL pennants in 1952, 1953, 1955 (also winning the Series), 1959 (sigh), 1963, 1965, 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1988. Ten pennants and six World Championships in 48 years.
Jerry Reinsdorf has owned the Chicago White Sox for 40 seasons so far. During that time, the team has won one AL pennant, back in 2005, winning the Series that year. If you measure the White Sox ownership groups by pennants won, Reinsdorf is tied with Bill Veeck at one, a mark Veeck achieved in the first of his non-consecutive seven-plus seasons owning the team. Both trail the Comiskey family, who won four AL pennants (1901, 1906, 1917, and, um, 1919) in 58 seasons, including two Series winners.
Reinsdorf’s teams have had more success that the Sox had under the Allyn brothers. John and Art Allyn fielded several contenders, but won zero pennants in fifteen seasons after buying the team from Veeck in June of 1961. In forty seasons, we can say Jerry Reinsdorf has provided White Sox fans with more AL pennants than the least successful ownership group in team history while the value of the team to his partnership has increased to $1.65 billion.
The O’Malleys are gone from baseball, having sold the Dodgers to Fox in 1998. Actually, that’s not true, not any more. Walter O’Malley’s grandson Peter Seidler became the chairman of the San Diego Padres in November after initially buying into the team in 2012. Watching what his franchise is doing, in a smaller market than Chicago, represents continuity with his family’s long history in the game, much as watching what the White Sox are doing represents continuity with the past forty seasons under Jerry Reinsdorf.
I imagine Jerry still dislikes the O’Malley family, but for different reasons than he had when he was a young man.
(Photo by Paul Bergstrom/Icon Sportswire)
If I had the power and could change history and remove JR from Sox lore, would I do it? I don’t know. They did win a WS and they’re still on the Southside. That’s something that wouldn’t be a slam dunk with a different owner/owners. However, I think I’d ultimately take a chance and pick door #2.
It’s an interesting hypothetical. I’m not certain what would have happened had the Harry Newberger-Socrates Babacas group purchased the Sox. Since the DeBartolo family owned teams in the NFL and NHL, I feel confident that we have an idea of how they would have run the Sox. Money would be spent, including on the front office and head coach/manager positions.
Other things would change. DeBartolo’s background developing malls might have made for a very different stadium situation than what transpired. It may have been worse; I could see him erecting Chicago’s equivalent of the Kingdome. (Not the Metrodome; few sports architecture design decisions were as stupid as the roof that collapsed under Minnesota snow.) If Eddie Einhorn isn’t around; SportsVision never happens. Would Harry Caray have stayed with the Sox? If so, would that have had an effect on the Tribune Corporation’s expansion of the Cubs’ fanbase in the mid-80s?
Had Jerry Reinsdorf never become a baseball owner, his absence may have changed sports history. Is there a 1994 World Series? If he doesn’t buy the Sox, does he buy the Bulls in late 1984? If not, how would the Chicago Bulls have built around Michael Jordan? How might NBA history look different?
One issue beyond debate is that Jerry Reinsdorf has been a historically influential sports owner. We can certainly debate the merits of that influence.
I had not thought about the ramifications of a non-Reinsdorf Sox with regard to the Bulls. Cogent point.
What were the values of the Cubs and Sox at the time of Reinhorn’s acquisition? I bet it was pretty close. Another ownership organization might not have made a huge difference, but SportsVision and other mishandled, controllable factors left the Sox climbing uphill for market supremacy.
Almost identical. The Cubs sold for $20.5 million in June of 1981, about half a million more than Veeck got for the Sox. I imagine the gap between the two franchises was significantly larger five years later.
The Bulls were great because Jerry Krause was a genius, He found Phil Jackson, he drafted great players, he acquired great pieces. Reinsdorf was more of a bystander, just reaping the rewards of a well managed team.
If we give credit for the Bulls dynasty to Jerry Krause, we have to give credit to Jerry Reinsdorf for replacing Rod Thorn with Krause, who was one of the White Sox scouts when Reinsdorf bought the Bulls.
Yes, Rod Thorn is the man who drafted Michael Jordan. He is also the man who drafted Quintin Dailey and traded away Artis Gilmore, making the Bulls terrible enough to be in position to draft Jordan. Reinsdorf replacing Thorn made sense, and turned out splendidly.
I’m not totally denying any credit going to ownership and Krause, but if they did not win the lottery getting Jordan… how much of a genius would Krause be, really? I think multiple if not most GM’s could have figured out how to build a team around the greatest player ever. That isn’t to say he did not do a great job, but without Jordan, the word genius would never be used to describe any Bulls GM, and there would likely be zero banners in the United Center. And the GM of whatever team got Jordan would probably be the genius.
Great piece. Eventually when we get a new ownership group, they’ll hopefully be more dedicated to winning than their personal ROI.
@asinwreck wondering what is your prediction regarding the eventual selling of the White Sox? I think we will have some good, competitive, maybe even championship seasons during the next five years. Good. I believe Reinsdorf is on record that his group/family should sell the team after he steps down. I hope he sells to the highest bidder, but I wonder if he will take less for a “fiscally responsible” owner to protect, I don’t know, the “sanctity of the game” or something? Boy, I hope not.
I’ll be direct rather than delicate. Jerry Reinsdorf will own the Chicago White Sox until the day he dies. If we take him at his word, his estate will then sell the team.
I cannot imagine the estate doing anything other than getting the highest return possible on this asset. Now, that may or may not be the best thing for the long-term future of the White Sox. Fox sold the Dodgers to Frank McCourt for the highest return possible, and he was so leveraged even before the remarkably ugly divorce that it hurt the dominant team in the nation’s second-largest media market.
Could be that the family decides to sell to the Wirtz family, as they know them well over United Center management. Or maybe someone like David Einhorn (no relation) will follow in the footsteps of Steve Cohen and buy a team after past failed bids. However the new ownership group is structured, it’s one that will have to be able to give the estate well over $1.5 billion.
Jerry’s 85 in three weeks. How his estate is structured, and what actions it will take upon his death are the biggest questions hanging over the long- and short-term future of the team.
How much of the team does Jerry own vs. other partners?
That’s not public knowledge, but in 2013, Reinsdorf disputed reports that he owned 14% of the team.
We’ll find out after he dies.
If he owns like 20% of the team, how does he maintain power like this?
I highly recommend reading the 2013 article linked in the comment above for more on this most unusual arrangement. Oh, if an ethnographer could spend a couple years at Sox board meetings and Bard’s Room lunches!
I’m guessing, if it’s a ton of other partners with something like 1% stakes, they might not be all that interested in taking a hand in the day to day management of the team. I’m sure that for some of the people in the ownership group, it really is just another investment.
Although I’ll mention that a couple weeks back, the guys over at the 108 podcast were doing their holiday Festivus webcast, and they had Chris Lanuti of the Sox in the Basement podcast on. This is all very “Ferris passed out at 31 Flavors last night,” but he said his dad worked security at Comiskey, and actually got to know some of the silent partners whose names are never made public, and some of those folks wished that Reinsdorf would be a little more proactive in spending on the team.
Any which way, the prospect of a new owner/group isn’t necessarily reassuring, as we have no reason to believe that the next group wouldn’t be filled with hedge fund-types who just view the team as an asset to their portfolio, and might be glad to continue Jerry’s level of spending if they see level’s of value increase similar to what Jerry’s seen the last 40 years.
In the linked 2013 article it explains that he has a controlling position in the corporation that runs the team even though he doesn’t have a majority in terms of ownership of the team. Plus board seats can’t be inherited so it’s quite literally an old boys club.
It also has quotes from the other partners that make it clear they are not interested in rocking the boat in anyway.
Because partnerships aren’t generally managed by “who has the majority” like in corporations, but management is led by the partnership agreement.
Let’s say you want to buy a restaurant, but you don’t have money enough and have not idea how to run a restaurant. But you know Jerry, who knows the restaurant business for years, and he is a top chef himself. You form a partnership with him where you own 70%, and he owns 30%, but in exchange, you let him run the business, and you go 50%-50% on the profits.
You own the majority, but that only means that when the partnership dissolves, you’ll get more (70% to be exact) of the selling price.
Just dropping in to say thanks for this terrific post.
Thank you Ted.
I am a lifelong, diehard White Sox fan who despises Uncle Jerry. He started his tenure taking shots at Bill Veeck (“Bill Veeck is a penny ante operator’), then on to his hiring of Hawk as GM, the treatment of Carlton Fisk, the negotiations with Jack McDowell (“Nobody comes to the ballpark to see someone pitch a shutout.”), the blackmailing of the state of Illinois to build the ball mall \, the insistence on signing Joey Belle, his recent hiring of Tony TheUseless, and several other incidents including being the hardest hard liner in 1994.. Blame his BFF Bud Selig for denying Eddie DeBartolo entrance into the club and giving White Sox fans Uncle Jerry. Some fans give him a free pass because of 2005. I will never give him a pass until he either sells the team or has his “Bill Wirtz moment. Why does a great city like Chicago have such bad across the board sports ownership?
What was wrong with signing Albert Belle?
I’m not the biggest Jerry supporter, but I’ve got to side with him on a few of those. Belle was awesome, and for those who like to use Hawk’s GM tenure as a punchline they should take a closer look at his transaction history. Other than firing Tony, his talent evaluation was pretty good. I think not signing McDowell to a big contract turned out pretty well, too.
My favorite Harrelson move was taking Bobby Bonilla in the Rule 5 draft. Trading him back to Pittsburgh for De Leon wasn’t great, nor was the Grady Hall pick. Joe Cowley was entertaining to watch, though not good.
Harrelson making La Russa play Fisk in LF is the sort of thing a Serial-type podcast should do while all three men are still alive to discuss it.
Jaime Navarro over Clemens and letting Ventura walk are strikes against him
That wasn’t Hawk.
Neither was Jack McDowell
I was addressing Chips beefs. If you want to start listing all of the bad stuff that happened on Jerry’s watch it’s probably going to take a while.
This puts me in mind of Jim pointing out after the Machado fiasco that, despite it all, Reinsdorf might still be one of the best owners the Sox have had in the history of the franchise.
They have won 1 championship in the past 100 years. How good can any of the owners be considered, geez?! There has been almost nothing but bad owners around Chicago sports teams for most of my life… Bears, Sox, Cubs… brutal really. Good owners build winning teams, that’s the only metric worth evaluating an ownership on.
In my opinion, the biggest failure of Jerry’s tenure as owner isn’t a single event, but the overall loss of market share to the Cubs.
Both franchises sold for near identical amounts within 6 months of each other in 1981. Now the Sox are estimated to be about half as valuable ($3.2B v $1.65B). From 1940 to 1980, the Sox led in attendance in 21 seasons and the Cubs led in 20. Since 1981? The Sox have only led in attendance 6 times: the first four years of Jerry’s ownership (1981-1984) and the first two years of the new stadium (1991-1992). It’s been 27 years since they were even within 100,000 fans of the attendance crown.
A lot of White Sox and Cubs fans like to dismiss the rivalry. 6 games a year and no direct implications on playoff spots make that easy to do. But where the rivalry is very real is in the competition for fans in seats and eyes on tv sets. In a sport that is so regional, hemorrhaging market share to your geographical rival is horrible for business (just ask the Baltimore Orioles how the last 15 years have been).
One common explanation of Jerry’s weird ways is, “well, he runs the team like a business.” Like I’ve said many times before on this forum it’s not that he’s a business man, it’s that he’s a bad business man. It’s not just the refusal to spend on top talent, or the fact that in the poorest division in baseball, the Sox’ peak payroll is well short of 3/4 of their rivals. It’s not just that he threatened to move the team to get the stadium deal, or that they rushed it and missed out on the Camden revolution. It’s not just the ill-fated TV network, or the cronyism. It’s not just the poor product on the field, or the open contempt for fans who wish to see it improved (evident through the organizations mouthpieces in these recent weeks).
It’s all of these things and more. A new owner might come sooner rather than later, but Jerry has made sure that they’ll have a 40-year hole to dig out of to be truly competitive in this city again.
Shortly after the new park opened, Sox historian Richard Lindberg wrote a book called Stealing First in a Two-Team Town: The White Sox from Comiskey to Reinsdorf. Written at the end of several years of Reinsdorf stating the team required a new park in order to be competitive, Stealing First has an arc of triumphalism in which many years of struggle result in the creation of a powerhouse.
Released soon after the Sox won the AL West, Stealing First was an optimistic look at a prosperous future built by Reinsdorf. A few months after it was published, MLB locked out the players. The rest, as well as the narrative’s relevance to reality, is history. Stealing First has been out of print so long that it doesn’t show up in Google Books searches. The curious can still purchase copies from the author; I recommend it as an artifact of what seemed like a possible future based on the statements Reinsdorf made in his first decade of ownership.
Relevant books written around that time that are still in print include John Heylar’s Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (Random House, 1994) and one that is linked in my essay above. Charles Euchner’s Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) is a national study of cases like the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, but he devotes a lot of space to how the White Sox got New Comiskey. Euchner’s history is far less celebratory; readers with the knowledge of how Reinsdorf operated after 1993 will find that the passages on the Sox have aged well.
1 championship in 100 years on each side of town. Chicago baseball owners have been the worst. I mean is there any other metric that really matters, or does the fact that either park has good hotdogs constitute good ownership? The Florida Marlins have won twice and have been around less than 40 years!
IMO, the answer to your question is yes, there are other metrics that matter when evaluating ownership. Winning World Series is important, probably the most important thing. But baseball fandom is a leisure activity, and other things matter for that enjoyment. Building competitive teams, actually trying, even if they don’t literally win the World Series, counts. Building fun teams, with interesting players and personalities to root for, counts. Being connected to the community. Being on the right side of social justice and change. Even quality hot dogs, which counts as a part of ballpark experience.
I’m not commenting on how any of these specific things relate to Jerry Reinsdorf himself, just that they are all factors in the fan experience that matter, and owners are, or should be, responsible for considering and providing.
On average Sox fans would have been better served over the last 40 years if MLB used a random number generator to assign division titles, pennants, and World Series titles than they have been with this ownership group.
That’s true. Moving forward, however, is it reasonable for a fan base to expect one WS title every 30 years? 30 different teams, 30 different champs. In Chicago, yes. In Pittsburgh, no. It’s not a fair system. And as previously mentioned in this article, the Sox and JR have moved the team in 40 years from the haves to the have-nots.
Great article. Thanks for writing it. So this Veeck sold the team twice? To awful new owners to boot? That gotta be a record.