Baseball fans and historians have doubtless wondered about the mystery woman in Cubs team photos of the late 1920s that often show her sandwiched between Cubs owner William Wrigley, Jr. and Cubs president William L. Veeck.
There was good reason why the woman was front-and-center in the team family. If Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, Wrigley, and Veeck were the popular faces of the 1929 Cubs, then Margaret Donahue was its behind-the-scenes beating heart and was the first female front-office executive in Major League Baseball who was not also an owner.
At ease with the Murderer’s Row of that great team and with lost children she consoled in her ballpark office, “Midge” Donahue was baseball’s pioneering female executive. Veeck hired her as a stenographer in 1919, and promoted her to corporate secretary in 1926. By the 1950s she was a vice president in the organization and was considered the leading expert on baseball waiver transactions before she retired in 1958.
A woman as a major-domo executive of a big-league baseball team, the ultimate boys club? Consider how groundbreaking it was in 1926 for a woman to be an executive with a big-league team, let alone any corporation. Just six years previously, women had first received the right to vote nationwide.
History often overlooks the some of the greatest achievers. Donahue was just such a person for the Cubs for nearly four decades before finally retiring with high honors from both owner Phil Wrigley and her many friends in baseball. She was every bit William Veeck’s right-hand man, only this time of the other gender.
The 1929 Chicago Cubs had become big business in their first pennant season of the Wrigley family ownership, and Donahue was crucial to maintaining the bottom line for Wrigley and Veeck. The big bosses did not try to hide her crucial role, as evidenced by her prominent placing in team photos.
Donahue, hired soon after Veeck became team president in 1919, had only two years’ education, including secretarial school.
Yet after seven years working for Veeck, he announced a startling promotion at a New York meeting. “I haven’t signed any players recently,” Veeck said, “but I’ll tell you what I have done that means much to our club. I have, or rather our board of directors has elected a new club secretary, a woman, the only woman secretary in organized ball. Her name is Miss Margaret Donahue. … We feel that in Miss Donahue we have added a real asset to our club organization.”[fn]Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick (New York: Walker and Company, 2012).[/fn]
Her promotion shattering baseball’s glass ceiling made national news. The Sporting News ran a story about her, and her new job was featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s sports section, where she was pictured sitting at a desk.[fn]“She’s a Baseball Boss,” Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1926.[/fn]
Bill Veeck biographer Paul Dickson wrote: “As though he thought the title might be underappreciated, he pointed out that the secretary was one of five jobs at the club that required annual reelection by the board of directors. Donahue — who had been the team’s bookkeeper and had handled season tickets, press passes, cash receipts, and transfers for the Cubs and all other Wrigley Field events — was the first female baseball executive who rose from the ranks.”[fn]Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn]
Along the way of this amazing career that has largely gone under the radar in baseball history, she came up with the idea of season tickets in 1929, later adopted by the rest of baseball and other sports. She came up with other novel promotional ideas that are now commonplace, from selling tickets off-site at Western Union locations to offering a discounted ticket price for youngsters under 12 years old.
Donahue inaugurated the practice of selling season tickets prior to the 1929 season, which was an immediate success. On February 25 Veeck announced that demand for tickets had broken all Cubs records, with thousands of “pasteboards” sold more than a month before the season began. “It’s the greatest preseason rush in Cub history,” he said.[fn]Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn]
“She said that they would often save seats for people on game day, and sometimes they didn’t come,” said her niece Margaret Manning. “And they were saving some of their best seats, and people weren’t coming. So she thought they would probably be forced to come if they bought the tickets in advance.”[fn]Author interview with Margaret Donahue’s nieces, Huntley, Illinois, in the summer of 2013.All interviewees’ quotes appeared in a two-part story at ChicagoBaseballMuseum.org.[/fn]
Donahue had arranged for tickets to be available at any Western Union telegraph office, rather than only at the box office, and after a three-year battle she succeeded in instituting a reduced price for children under 12. “She thought it would be convenient to give people the option of buying tickets at other locations than the park,” Manning said.
“(Donahue is) as astute a baseball operator as ever came down the pike,” wrote Wrigley Field colleague Bill Veeck, son of William L. Veeck, in 1954. “She has forgotten more baseball in her 40 years with the Cubs than most of the so-called magnates will ever know.”[fn]John Owens, “1929 female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues,” Chicago Tribune July 22, 2013.[/fn]
Donahue ended up being a major influence on Bill Veeck, future owner of the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns, and Cleveland Indians, and the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers. The younger Veeck worked with Donahue after his father died in 1933.
“They worked side by side in the Cubs front office (in the 1930s),” Dickson said at the Chicago Baseball Museum’s September 2012 “One Family One City Two Teams Symposium” on William L. Veeck and Bill Veeck. “She fed him this idea that baseball wasn’t just about the men in the ballpark, that a ballpark should also have a family atmosphere.”[fn]Excerpt of speech by Paul Dickson at September 2012 event honoring Veeck family at Chicago History Museum.[/fn]
In fact, she was such a groundbreaking baseball executive that Cubs history could have forever have been changed if she had been named the Cubs president in October 1933 after the sudden death of the elder Veeck during the ’33 World Series.
“They (the Cubs) should have made (Donahue) the club president in the 1930s,” a Chicago Tribune article in July 2013 quoted this author as saying. “If they did that, they probably would have avoided their downfall.”[fn]John Owens, “1929 Female Cubs executive.”[/fn]
P.K. Wrigley commented later that he had hoped to find another Bill Veeck (Senior) to be the next Cubs president to fill the huge void that occurred after Veeck’s death. Wrigley failed to tap the one person who had the talent and experience to fill William Veeck’s shoes until his son Bill Veeck was experienced enough to guide the Cubs future. Instead, Wrigley’s poor choices in hiring lackluster general managers Jim Gallagher, Wid Matthews, and John Holland are among the main reasons for the Cubs’ decline and subsequent decades of mediocrity.
P.K. Wrigley, who inherited the Cubs from his father in January 1932, got the opportunity to see how a baseball team should be run in the two seasons, including the pennant winning year of 1932, with William L. Veeck at the helm and Midge as his “right-hand man.”
Wrigley failed to tap the knowledge that Donahue learned from the elder Veeck. Her comments when she retired in 1958 about the Cubs’ poor strategy in player development still ring true in the 21st century. “I believe we fell behind the parade because we didn’t go into the farm business soon enough,” Donahue said. “Late in the ’30s, when others were developing their players, we were still trying to buy them. And we also refused to pay bonuses until recently.”[fn]Edgar Munzel, Chicago Sun-Times, 1958.[/fn]
While recognizing the Cubs’ biggest Achilles heel, Donahue also realized the missed opportunities she witnessed at the franchise’s peak in 1929. Passed down to her family were memories of a gloomy train ride back to Chicago from Philadelphia after the disastrous end to the 1929 World Series.
Until her dying day Midge was haunted, as modern-day fans are by the “Steve Bartman game” in the 2003 NLCS, with the recurring memory of Hack Wilson stumbling in the sun-soaked Shibe Park center field in Game Four in 1929. Wilson dropped a fly ball that would have stopped the floodgates of the Athletics’ ten-run seventh inning after the Cubs had led 8-0 and were about to tie the Series two games apiece, guaranteeing a return trip to Chicago for Game Six at Wrigley Field.
But her positives will be remembered far longer than that depressing moment. Donahue finally got some latter-day recognition. In 2014 she was honored as part of Wrigley Field’s centennial celebration. Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts considered her an inspiring figure. By the time Donahue retired in 1958, she was vice president and executive secretary of the Cubs. Her reputation at Wrigley Field had long been well-established and respected.
“I was trained by Mr. Veeck to do my best to make customers leave the ballpark happy, no matter what happens,” Donahue, who got her job via a help-wanted ad, said in a 1955 interview.[fn]International News Service, St. Petersburg Times, 1955.[/fn]
“I wanted a job somewhere in the Loop,” Donahue said. “… I declined the job (but William Veeck) offered me far more than what I was making (at a laundry supply company) and persuaded me to take it. At the end of the season, I tried to quit again but he countered by making my hours 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., and I stayed.”[fn]Edgar Munzel, Chicago Sun-Times, 1958.[/fn]
The existing record of Donahue, who never married or had children, has been faithfully kept by her nieces in their native Huntley, 50 miles northwest of Chicago. Their most prized possession was Donovan’s “golden pass” signed by Major League Baseball’s ruling leaders in 1958, which offered her free lifetime access to any game in any major-league stadium. She received this honor for her “long and meritorious service” with the Chicago Cubs.
After her retirement, in 1958, Philip K. Wrigley issued a proclamation on behalf of the Cubs’ board of directors stating Donahue was “a nationally acknowledged authority on the intricacies of baseball rules and regulations.”
Donahue was born on a farm on December 13, 1892, when Huntley, Illinois, was just a tiny agriculture-based community. She was the second of eight children of Daniel and Hannah Connor Donahue. In recent years the farm became the site of Huntley’s Wal-Mart. After retiring from the Cubs and living with three unmarried siblings in Chicago, Donahue returned to her family home in Huntley, where she lived until her death on January 30, 1978.
The night of her funeral she was eulogized on WGN by Jack Brickhouse, whom she had welcomed to Chicago at the start of his longtime broadcasting career. Sports Illustrated announced her death in its February 13, 1978, issue.
Donahue, who is buried in St. Mary Cemetery in Huntley, became more than just a point of pride for her relatives, who knew her as Aunt Midge. She was like an associate mother to three nieces in Huntley.
In July 2013 Mary Beth Manning and Barbara Ernesti sat down with sister Margaret Manning at the latter’s dining-room table in Huntley. Surrounded by memorabilia of Aunt Midge, they recalled a woman — way ahead of her time — who combined an impressive business mind with a delicate human touch for both her family and Wrigley Field fans.
“She was a very gentle person, very friendly with all of us,” Margaret Manning said. “But still a very strong person, quite an organizer. She had things pretty much under control at home and at work. She could get right in at the crux of the matter.”[fn]Author interview with Margaret Donahue’s nieces.[/fn]
Said Mary Beth Manning: “I think she grew into the job. She was hired in 1919 and was named secretary by 1926. So she must’ve shown her ability in that short of a period that pushed her into that big job that had never been filled by a woman before.”
“They all came about gradually, her responsibilities, and she handled them well,” said Ernesti. “She was not pushy at all. People — the men — didn’t feel intimidated by her. She handled details apparently very well. She had the ability to accept more and more responsibility. She was the authority on waivers and trades, and did all the paperwork.”
Pointing to a vintage photo, Mary Beth Manning sketched her aunt’s personality: “She’s very young, but you can see the intensity at her desk, in her eyes.”
From their 21st-century vantage point, the sisters could see how Aunt Midge broke barriers, certainly helped by the forward-thinking William L. Veeck.
“She had this great organizational ability to see what was wrong,” said Margaret Manning.
Donahue came up with the season-ticket idea for simple economic reasons. “She was upset because they’d save tickets, people didn’t show up and that was a waste,” said Margaret Manning. Later, she created the forerunner of TicketMaster, TicketTron and all the electronic ticketselling services. Donahue arranged for Cubs tickets to be sold at the downtown Western Union office.
Aunt Midge was a gracious host to the Huntley girls — whether at Wrigley Field, her home in Evanston (after previously living in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood), at other events in Chicago, or even at the World Series in Milwaukee.
“As time went on, and we grew older, we used to go into there to visit, and they’d take us downtown on Saturday,” Margaret Manning said. “She got us tickets to plays, the Ice Follies because being involved with the Cubs, she’d have access to tickets. At the Ice Follies, we had front-row seats. She was sitting right there. One of these clowns jumped right into her lap.”
“Frick and Frack,” said Mary Beth Manning.
“She had a horrified look on her face,” said Margaret Manning. “She had on a new fur coat. The clown was all sweaty. She laughed about it and said that’s what you get for getting a free ticket. They know you’re right there in front.”
A trip to Philip K. Wrigley’s office in the Wrigley Building also was a side benefit of hanging with Aunt Midge.
“I remember she used to have an office down in the Wrigley Building,” Ernesti said. “We went down on a Saturday, and (Wrigley) wasn’t there. She said let’s go in (to Wrigley’s office) and look out over the lake. Wrigley’s secretary was there.”
Even more fringe benefits were available to young Donahue kinfolk.
“When I’d go and stay with them in Evanston, I’d go down (to Wrigley Field) later,” Margaret Manning said. “She’d leave a ticket for me. One day there was a great big guy sitting in the box with me, and he said you’re going to be on television because this is a busman’s holiday for me. He was Tom Gorman, the umpire. He taught me the official way to keep score.”
Donahue probably had more varied duties than any other Cubs employee. In addition to signing checks — Ernie Banks’ payout bore one of her later signatures — and contracts while confirming waivers, she distributed the baseballs to the umpires before each game. The balls were stored in a cabinet in her office. Running the ballpark office staff, she also supervised first aid and gave comfort to lost children.
“It’s a rare day when I get to watch a complete game even though the team is playing but a few steps from my door,” Donahue said in 1955.[fn]International News Service, St. Petersburg Times, June 5, 1955. 8[/fn] She worked in a wood-paneled office under the grandstand.
“When I stayed with her on weekends and went to games, there was someone who was hit with a broken bat,” Margaret Manning said. “She spent a lot of time dealing with those incidents at the park, making sure they got to first aid. We’d hear some of those things at night from her.”
Donahue kept candy, gum, and baseball stickers to soothe the nerves of children who temporarily got separated from their family at games. She also had cleaning fluid on hand for the kids after they spilled concessionaires’ products on their clothes.
Donahue literally rode shotgun for the Bears’ gate receipts in the decades the NFL team played at Wrigley Field. After George Halas paid the players, the officials, and other team workers, Donahue and two Chicago police officers took the remaining cash in a cab to store overnight in a safe in the Palmer House until the bank opened Monday morning.
Standing out among the nieces’ memorabilia was a letter dated May 13, 1980, two years after her death, by Bill Veeck. The then-White Sox owner gave thanks to Donahue’s sister, Mabel Hemmer. The Cubs front office of Bill Veeck’s youth was obviously a fond time.
“My sincere appreciation for sending along the photograph of my daddy, which you found among Margaret’s effects,” Veeck wrote to Hemmer. “It truly was a delight to receive the picture, which I might add arrived in excellent condition. It will be kept among my treasured possessions. Many thanks for your thoughtfulness in remembering me.”
The piles of letters and newspaper clippings, along with photos and other tidbits, were kept in boxes originally by Donahue’s parents and sister. Eventually they found their way to Hemmer and in turn to her three daughters.
But what Donahue left behind paled in comparison to the oral history her nieces could recall.
Margaret and Mary Beth Manning and Barbara Ernesti got to spend time with Donahue in her senior years when she and her three siblings — two sisters and a brother — returned to be close with family in Huntley.
The farm-oriented town, about 12 miles northwest of Elgin, once had Al Capone’s associates bring his car to a local repair shop to throw off potential saboteurs or assassins. Huntley was still rural when Donahue returned. Used to long workdays at Wrigley Field, she did not exactly become inactive.
Mary Beth Manning recalled how Aunt Midge volunteered for various activities. An appreciative family, remembering how good a hostess she was back in Chicago, would cook for her.
As her health declined, some who worked with her tried to re-establish contact. One was ex-GM Jim Gallagher.
Donahue experienced stress working with Gallagher, according to her nieces. But her former boss was profound in a January 13, 1978, letter — also part of the Huntley memorabilia collection — to her family, two weeks before she died at 85. Gallagher wrote that he had “neglected to express my affection until it was too late” and added “how much she meant to me. … Please tell Margaret that I love her.”
The letters flowed out from the family, too. Midge’s nieces debriefed the Cubs’ Ricketts ownership family in an April 22, 2013, letter, a copy of which was provided by the three sisters:
“We appreciate your efforts, as the present owners, to initiate plans both to preserve Wrigley Field as an iconic destination and the Cubs’ ‘home base,’ and to guide the team into the future — one that we all hope has a World Series appearance in it! In fact, we were relieved to learn only last weekend that you’ve secured an agreement with Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago.
“We ask now that you consider Margaret Donahue’s career with the Cubs, and we hope you will agree that she merits a commemorative tribute at the park where she worked for almost four decades — perhaps a ‘Midge Day’ as part of a special ‘Women in Baseball’ type of event.
“It is securely a part of club history that the Cubs were ahead of the times in promoting a woman to such a high-profile position. Notably, however, a book appeared in 2012 that underscores the importance of her career all over again: Paul Dickson’s Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. He writes engagingly, to be sure, about Bill Veeck, Jr.’s, storied tenure in professional baseball.
However, Mr. Dickson also covers the early history of the Chicago Cubs organization involving Bill’s father, William, Sr., and — most exciting to our family he even provided us with new information about Aunt Midge!
“Our aunt’s accomplishments as part of the Chicago Cubs organization have been a source of pride to us and our extended families for all of these years. Her role with the team is the largest contributing factor to the fact that we all bleed ‘Cubby blue’ to this day.
“As you embark on a new era at Wrigley Field, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss potential ways to commemorate and honor Margaret Donahue’s meritorious service to the Cubs organization. It has been our dream all these years to see the development of a meaningful recognition of Aunt Midge’s career. We can assure that we would love nothing better — except seeing the Cubs in a World Series, of course!”
This biography appears in “Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
December 13, 1892 at Huntley, IL (US)
January 30, 1978 at Huntley, IL (US)
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