Marge Schott was the first woman to own and operate a major league team, the Cincinnati Reds, but she was forced out of baseball because she embarrassed fellow owners with her use of offensive racial and ethnic slurs.
When she died in 2004 her hometown newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, published a special section commemorating her life. The paper celebrated “good Marge” while lamenting “bad Marge.”
Margaret Unnewehr was born in Cincinnati on August 18, 1928, the daughter of lumber baron Edward Unnewehr and his wife Charlotte. “Kids used to tease me about that name,” she said. “They’d call me ‘Un-aware’ and ‘Underwear.’”
“Daddy wanted a boy,” she told a reporter, but he had five daughters. Marge was the second; she said her father introduced her to business and called her “Butch.” She attended parochial schools and graduated from Sacred Heart Academy.
In 1952 she married Charles Schott (pronounced “shot”), scion of a prominent family and a wealthy businessman who eventually owned a car dealership, an iron works and a brick-making company. They lived on a 70-acre estate in Cincinnati’s Indian Hills section. Her husband died of a heart attack at age 42 in 1968. “Charlie and I were not blessed with children,” she often said.
The 39-year-old widow had not participated in her husband’s businesses, but she was her father’s daughter. She moved to take control of her legacy, an estate valued at $3.3 million.
One of her first problems was that General Motors did not believe she was qualified to run Schott Buick and moved to revoke the franchise. She fought for two years before the company signed a contract making her its first female dealer in a major market. That battle colored her attitude toward the business world. She called it “a good old boys club.”
She told me that, soon after Charlie’s death, she went to St. Louis to visit the brick works she now owned. The company’s male executives gave her little information, but patted her hand and told her not to worry. She fired them all.
She became a well-known character who once took a dancing bear as her escort to a formal ball. She acquired a second GM dealership, though she continued to fight with the company.
In 1981 Schott paid $1.1 million for a minority stake in the Reds. The team was no longer the Big Red Machine of the seventies — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were gone and Johnny Bench was a part-time player — but it drew more than 2 million fans in 1980 in one of the majors’ smallest markets and posted the best record in the National League in the strike-shortened 1981 season. The Reds fell to the bottom of their division in the next two seasons and were next-to-last in 1984 when Rose returned as player-manager.
In December of that year Schott became the franchises managing general partner. She paid $24 million for her controlling stake. Only a handful of women had owned ball clubs before, and with one exception they let men make the decisions. Like Helene Britton, who had inherited ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1911, Schott became the Reds’ high-profile chief executive officer. She installed her Saint Bernard, Schottzie, as the team mascot and gave the huge dog free run of the field at Riverfront Stadium before games, despite complaints from the players, who had to watch where they stepped.
Rose helped boost the club’s attendance and moved the Reds up to second place in 1986, 1987 and 1988. In his memoir My Prison without Bars he recalled visiting Schott’s home and objecting when Schottzie drooled in his lap. According to Rose, Schott told him, “The dog lives here, Pete. You’re just visiting.”
Rose was banished from baseball for gambling in 1989. By then Schott had won a reputation as a cheapskate. She turned off lights in the team’s offices and wanted to fire all the scouts because, she said, all they did was watch ball games. Arrogant and imperious, she would kick the elevator door outside her office until the operator came.
She remained popular with Cincinnati fans and entertained a steady stream of them — especially children — who visited her box seat during games. She kept the price of ballpark hot dogs at $1.
The highlight of Schott’s tenure as the Reds’ owner came in 1990, when manager Lou Piniella led the team to the National League pennant and a sweep over Oakland in the World Series. Even that triumph was shadowed by controversy. The Reds’ star, Eric Davis, was injured in the Series and said the club made him pay his own way home after he was released from an Oakland hospital. “If I were a dog, I would have gotten more care, and that’s the truth,” Davis said.
When I interviewed her the next spring, Schott said she knew people called her “cheap Marge,” but that was the way her father had taught her to run a business. Her voice deep and raspy from decades of heavy smoking, she said other baseball owners treated her with no more respect than those long-ago executives at the brick works. Baseball, too, was a “good old boys club.” She called me “Honey,” as she did many other men, and when she found out I had a young daughter, she sent me home loaded down with Reds’ souvenirs.
In 1991 a former Reds’ executive sued Schott, claiming he was fired because he objected to her refusal to hire black people. In testimony during the lawsuit, former front-office personnel accused her of using racially offensive and anti-Semitic language and keeping a collection of swastikas. One of them said she referred to the highly paid Eric Davis and Dave Parker as “million-dollar niggers.” She denied saying that, but admitted she sometimes used the word jokingly.
“Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far.” That remark drew a $25,000 fine and a one-year suspension from baseball. A Cincinnati sportswriter said her offensive remarks were usually “fueled by drink a Kamchatka [vodka], the cheap stuff, with a little water.”
In 1996 umpire John McSherry dropped dead on the field during the Reds’ opening game. Schott objected when the game — a sellout — was postponed. Later that year she was suspended again after more flattering remarks about Hitler and insults directed at Asian-American and Japanese people and homosexuals.
General Motors was after her again, accusing her of falsifying sales figures. She agreed to sell the dealership.
In 1999, past her seventieth birthday and in poor health, she sold her controlling interest in the Reds under pressure from the commissioner’s office. She had paid $24 million; she sold for $67 million.
Schott devoted the rest of her life to giving away a portion of her money: $1 million to St. Ursula Academy for a building named after her; $1 million for a Boy Scout camp; and several million for an elephant exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. She donated another $500,000 for an athletic field at St. Ursula that was named after her last pet, Schottzie 02.
Mari Lee Schwarzwalder, director of the local Humane Society (another favorite charity), told the Enquirer, “Anything where children or animals are involved, Marge is there for you.”
She knew people scoffed at her good works, saying she was trying to repair her reputation and buy a place in heaven. “Let them talk,” she said. “Let them give something.”
Marge Schott died at age 75 on March 2, 2004. She had been suffering from emphysema, osteoporosis and colitis, but the cause of death was not published.
Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty gave her a sendoff: “The true measure of a person is whether he or she leaves a place better than he or she found it. Is Cincinnati better for having raised and rooted Marge Schott?
“Good Marge competed with Bad Marge, daily.”
The author interviewed Marge Schott in her office at Riverfront Stadium in March 1991.
Cincinnati Enquirer, special section, March 3, 2004.
New York Times, October 28, 1990.
New York Times, November 29, 1992.
New York Times Magazine, December 26, 2004.
August 18, 1928 at Cincinnati, OH (US)
March 2, 2004 at Cincinnati, OH (US)
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