This article was written by Clayton Trutor
Richard E. “Dick” Jacobs was the majority owner of the Cleveland Indians from December 1986 until February 2000. He purchased the team with his older brother, David H. Jacobs (1921-1992), from the estate of the late F.J. “Steve” O’Neill in December 1986 for $35.5 million. Jacobs oversaw the restoration of the Indians to on-the-field and at-the-box-office success following three decades of mediocrity.
Before purchasing the Indians, Jacobs became one of the richest men in the United States in the real-estate development business. He played a prominent role in the revitalization of downtown Cleveland during the 1980s and 1990s through his work as a developer as well as his support for the Gateway Project, which culminated in the construction of Jacobs Field (later renamed Progressive Field), a Cuyahoga County-owned downtown ballpark that hosted the Indians as its primary tenant, as well as the Gund Arena (later the Quicken Loans Arena), an indoor coliseum that lured the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team back into the city. Jacobs’ stewardship of the Indians from a national joke into one of the most profitable and successful franchises in professional sports preserved major-league baseball for Cleveland. “The reason the Indians remain in Cleveland,” wrote Terry Pluto soon after Jacobs’ death, “is because Dick Jacobs bought the franchise in 1986.”1
Richard Jacobs was born on June 16, 1925, in Akron, Ohio. His parents, Vivian and Adeline (Yeiter) Jacobs, were of German extraction and natives of Michigan. Richard’s older brother, David, was his only sibling. The Jacobses were pious Methodists. Vivian “V.R.” Jacobs, Richard and David’s father, had relocated from Michigan after serving in the Coast Guard during World War I to work in the marketing department at Goodyear. V.R. climbed the corporate ladder quickly, reaching the corporation’s executive ranks while his sons were teenagers.2 Richard grew up in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood on the east side of Akron. The family lived close enough to the Goodyear tire plant to smell burning rubber throughout the day.3
An industrious young man, Richard began working at an early age, doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. The most formative of his early jobs came when he worked at Swenson’s, the regionally famous drive-in car hop near his home. Jacobs began working at Swenson’s at age 12 as a potato peeler. A year later, he was promoted to car hop, a job he held throughout his adolescence.4 Jacobs graduated from Buchtel High School in Akron in 1943. At the height of World War II, he was accepted into the US Army Officer Candidate School, where he was trained in the artillery. Second Lieutenant Jacobs served in the Philippines, where he commanded an artillery company. After V-J Day he commanded a company in the occupation force in Osaka, Japan.5 Jacobs attended several colleges during the late 1940s, including Albion College (Michigan), Kent State University (Ohio), and the University of Akron. He completed his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Indiana University in 1949.6
After college, Jacobs worked in sales for several years. He showed great ability as a salesman and soon joined his brother David in the real-estate business. In 1955 Richard and David established the real-estate development firm of Jacobs Visconsi Jacobs (JVJ) with pioneering suburban shopping-center developer Dominic Visconsi. Based in Cleveland, JVJ built and leased shopping malls, office buildings, hotels, and mixed-use urban and suburban developments. When Richard and David Jacobs purchased the Indians, JVJ was the nation’s fourth largest shopping-mall management company.7 The success of JVJ enabled all three partners to become wealthy. When Richard Jacobs purchased the Indians, he was estimated by Forbes to be worth $500 million and was listed by the magazine as one of the 400 richest Americans in 1986.8 The leadership triumvirate at JVJ remained intact for decades until the Jacobs brothers bought out Visconsi in 1988 and renamed the company the Richard and David Jacobs Group. Richard was the chairman and CEO of JVJ for decades while David was vice chairman and oversaw construction projects.9 (After David’s death, Richard renamed the company the Richard E. Jacobs Group in 1992.)
In a 1987 profile of Richard Jacobs for Cleveland Magazine, Edward Whalen wrote that JVJ was able to “capitalize on one of the greatest demographic changes in modern America – the growth and malling of the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s.”10 During the 1960s, JVJ emerged as one of the nation’s leading developers of suburban shopping centers. Its first major successes came in the Columbus (Ohio) metropolitan area. Working closely with Sears, JVJ developed the Northland Mall north of downtown Columbus. Opened in 1964, the Sears-anchored mall was the first in the Columbus area. Northland was an immediate hit with area shoppers. It prompted the development of several other JVJ-designed and -operated malls in the Columbus area over the next decade: Eastland (1967), Westland (1969), and Southland (1975). Sears was one of the anchor stores at all four of JVJ’s Columbus area developments. The relationship that JVJ and Sears developed in Columbus inaugurated a highly profitable series of partnerships between the real-estate development firm and the department store. More than 30 JVJ properties included Sears stores as one of their anchors.11
Building on its success in Columbus, JVJ expanded its empire across Ohio and eventually across the Midwest, Northeast, West Coast, and Southeast. By the time of David Jacobs’ death in 1992, the Richard and David Jacobs Group, JVJ’s successor firm, owned 40 properties in 15 states.12 Beyond suburban shopping centers, JVJ played a major role in the redevelopment of downtown Cleveland. In 1986, JVJ purchased the 40-story Erieview Tower in downtown Cleveland for $45 million. The following year, JVJ opened the $43 million, two-story Galleria Mall at Erieview, the first enclosed mall in downtown Cleveland. The mall helped lure suburban shoppers back into the longtime shopping desert of downtown Cleveland for the first time in years.13 In 1991 JVJ opened the Society Center (later renamed the Key Tower), a 57-story mixed-use development on Public Square in downtown Cleveland and the largest building between New York and Chicago.14
JVJ and its successor firms also developed office parks around the country, including the Chagrin Highlands Office and Research Park in Beachwood, Ohio, which opened in 1999.15 JVJ’s other investments included stakes in Marriott hotels in several Midwestern cities as well as the Pier House Hotel in Key West, Florida. The Jacobs brothers also owned 25 Wendy’s franchises in the New York metropolitan area.16
When the Jacobs brothers purchased the Indians in 1986, Pat O’Neill, the nephew of deceased Indians owner Steve O’Neill (1899-1983), was operating the franchise on behalf of the former owner’s estate. Pat O’Neill took his time finding a new owner for the Indians. He was set on finding a Northeast Ohio-based owner for the club to ensure that it would stay in Cleveland.17 Additionally, he wanted to get a good price for the team since most of the money was to go to Steve O’Neill’s favorite charity, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.18 Numerous individuals and ownership groups from out of town made generous offers for the team.Several underfunded local investor groups also tried to buy the club.19 The Jacobs brothers met both criteria.They were well-heeled and they were local. Foreshadowing their conduct as owners, the brothers remained aloof from the press during their negotiations with the O’Neill estate.20 After a half-year of quiet negotiations, the Jacobs brothers agreed to purchase the Indians for $ 35.5 million in December 1986. Richard agreed to buy 75 percent of the Indians while David purchased the remaining 25 percent.21
Outside of business circles, Richard Jacobs’s name was not well-known in Cleveland at the time he purchased the Indians.22 He became famous by buying the Indians, but he shunned that fame during the 14 years he owned the team, preferring instead to work behind the scenes. Jacobs sat in his loge behind home plate at most home games, but he rarely agreed to interviews and appeared in public infrequently. Jacobs hired a cadre of baseball experts to run his franchise. He kept his hands off the on-the-field product and allowed his experts to build a winning team. He made his ample resources available to them so that they could rebuild a strong foundation for the Indians franchise. “He never told them what to do, only that they keep him informed, operate within the budget and be successful,” his obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said of Jacobs’ relationship with his personnel.23
The Jacobs-era Indians invested heavily in their farm system. Jacobs hired Baltimore Orioles general manager Hank Peters, an expert on developing minor-league talent, to serve as president of the Indians. Peters (1987-1991) and his successor, John Hart (1991-2001), built the Indians from the ground up, developing one of baseball’s premier minor-league systems.24 Jacobs showed patience while Peters and Hart built this base of future success. The Indians struggled on the field in the early years of the Jacobs era, continuing a dubious legacy that dated back to 1959, the last time the Indians had finished above third place. The Indians’ sixth-place finish in the American League East in 1993 was the franchise’s 34th consecutive finish in third place or lower in the standings. In the words of Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Bill Livingston, the Indians had the “national profile of a bump in the road” when the Jacobs brothers bought the team.25
The Indians finally finished above third place in 1994, posting a 66-47 record and a second-place finish in that strike-shortened season. The Tribe would have qualified for the inaugural wild-card bid had the postseason been played. In 1995 the Indians won the first of five consecutive American League Central Division titles (1995-1999) under the Jacobs ownership. The 1995 division championship was the Indians’ first postseason appearance since they won the 1954 American League pennant. The Indians won two pennants under the Jacobs ownership, in 1995 and 1997. The Indians lost the World Series on both occasions. In 1995 the 100-44 Indians, who owned the best record in baseball that season, lost in six games to the Atlanta Braves. The 1997 Indians came within two outs of capturing Cleveland’s first World Series in five decades. A ninth-inning rally in Game Seven by the Florida Marlins off Cleveland’s previously lights-out closer Jose Mesa tied the game and sent it to extra innings, and the Marlins won in 11 innings.
The success the Indians enjoyed during the late 1990s was a product of the minor-league system that the Jacobs organization built and the free agents the organization brought in, beginning in 1994. Products of the minor-league organization who became stars for the team during the 1990s included Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Charles Nagy, and Manny Ramirez. Prospects acquired by the Jacobs-era Indians early in their careers including Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar, and Jose Mesa. High-profile free agents brought in by the Indians during the mid-1990s included Dennis Martinez, Jack Morris, Eddie Murray, Tony Peña, Orel Hershiser, and Jack McDowell.26
The success the Indians enjoyed on the field during Jacobs’ tenure as owner was facilitated in large part by the construction of Jacobs Field, which may well have been Jacobs’ greatest accomplishment as owner. From the moment the brothers bought the Indians, they were looking for a new stadium. The Indians had been tenants of Browns owner Art Modell since 1973, when Modell bought Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the decaying waterfront playing facility that had been home to the Indians since the Great Depression. The Indians were undoubtedly second-class citizens at the “Mistake by the Lake,” the best known of epithets for Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Modell tapped heavily into the meager revenue streams available to the Indians at the ballpark, including parking and concessions. Proposals for a replacement ballpark had been floating around for years.27 When Modell proposed the construction of a new multipurpose football and baseball stadium in downtown Cleveland during the late 1980s to Jacobs, the Indians owner told Modell that “it’s hard for two guys to share the same lunchbox,” a statement Jacobs understood all too well from the years he had already spent in a shared venue with the Browns.28
Jacobs supported the Gateway Project, a countywide effort to build a new baseball park and basketball arena in downtown Cleveland. The project aimed to revitalize downtown Cleveland by making the ballpark and arena its centerpiece. Simultaneously, the Gateway Project sought to bring professional basketball back to the city from the suburbs.29 In May 1990 a slim majority of Cuyahoga County residents voted to approve the project. Richard Jacobs expressed his public support for the Gateway Project, both because of its positive impact on the Indians and his belief that the new ballpark would continue the momentum he helped kick-start for the redevelopment of downtown Cleveland.30
Jacobs was intimately involved with the planning of fan-friendly, nostalgia-laden Jacobs Field, the second of the retro-ballparks that proved popular with fans during the 1990s.31 The $175 million facility, which bore Jacobs’ name during its first 15 seasons of operation, drew record crowds to watch the Indians play. On Opening Day 1994, President Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch, helping to foster the national media buzz surrounding the ballpark’s debut. By that summer, the Indians’ success on the field and the positive reviews the ballpark received in the media helped transform it into a national hot-spot where celebrity sightings were common.32 The Indians’ financial success at Jacobs Field enabled them to keep reloading their roster with high-priced free agents and helped them continue to compete for a world championship for the remainder of Jacobs’ ownership.33 From June 12, 1995, until April 4, 2001, the Indians sold out 455 consecutive games at Jacobs Field.34 This was a record number of sellouts until the Red Sox surpassed the streak at Fenway Park in 2008 with a streak that reached 820 games (2003-2013).35
Jacobs sold his controlling interest in the Indians to Larry Dolan for $323 million in February 2000, an almost tenfold return on the original investment of the Jacobs brothers. Additionally, Jacobs earned $50 million in a public stock sale of a minority interest in the Indians in 1998. Jacobs told Terry Pluto that he lost $40 million on the Indians between 1986 and 1993. Additionally, he paid $13 million for the naming rights to Jacobs Field for the first 15 years of the ballpark’s existence. Public documents released after the stock sale revealed that Jacobs made $55 million on the team between 1994 and 1999.36
In 1952 Jacobs married Helen Chaney, a college classmate originally from New Jersey. They divorced in 1983. The couple had three children, Jeff, Marilyn, and Nancy. Jeff Jacobs became a noted developer and Republican politician in Ohio.37 In addition to his home in Lakewood, Ohio, Jacobs maintained a residence in New York City, where he often conducted business and became an art collector of renown.38 Jacobs died on June 5, 2009, at his home in Lakewood, 11 days short of his 84th birthday.
This biography was published in “1995 Cleveland Indians: The Sleeping Giant Awakes” (SABR, 2019), edited by Joseph Wancho.
The Sporting News
Cleveland Indians Website: Indians.com.
Richard E. Jacobs Group Website: rejacobs.com.
1 Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line? Dick Jacobs Gave Cleveland Indian Fans a Lot to Be Thankful For,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 5, 2009. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://cleveland.com/pluto/blog/index.ssf/2009/06/bottom_line_dick_jacobs_gave_c.html.
2 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun,” Cleveland Magazine, March 1987. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://clevelandmagazine.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=E73ABD6180B44874871A91F6BA5C249C&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications::Article&mid=1578600D80804596A222593669321019&tier=4&id=F1C8A394BCF64BB4924CD7100FBEFEE5.
3 Ibid.; Bill Livingston, “Dick Jacobs Gave the Cleveland Indians the Gift of Renewed Pride, and So Much More,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 5, 2009. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://cleveland.com/livingston/index.ssf/2009/06/dick_jacobs_gave_the_cleveland.html.
4 Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”; Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”; Bill Livingston, “Dick Jacobs.”
5 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
7 “David H. Jacobs, 71, a Developer and Owner of the Cleveland Indians,” New York Times, September 19, 1992, 47; “The Richard E. Jacobs Group History,” Richard E. Jacobs Group Website. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://rejacobs.com/index.aspx/?id=34/.
8 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun”; Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”
9 “David H. Jacobs, 71,” New York Times, September 19, 1992, 47; “The Richard E. Jacobs Group History,” Richard E. Jacobs Group Website; Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
10 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
12 David H. Jacobs, 71,” New York Times, September 19, 1992, 47; Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
13 Peter Zacari, “Indians Former Owner, Developer Dick Jacobs dies at 83,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 5, 2009. Accessed on November 19, 2014: cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2009/06/dick_jacobs_dies_at_84.html; Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
14 David H. Jacobs, 71,” New York Times, September 19, 1992, 47.
15 Peter Zacari, “Indians Former Owner.”
16 Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”; Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
17 Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”
20 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
21 David H. Jacobs, 71,” New York Times, September 19, 1992, 47.
22 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
23 Peter Zacari, “Indians Former Owner.”
24 Bill Livingston, “Dick Jacobs.”
28 Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”
29 Tom Verducci, “Grand Opening With a New Stadium as Backdrop, Cleveland Ushered in an Era of Optimism With a Win Over Seattle,” Sports Illustrated, April 11, 1994. Accessed on November 19, 2014: si.com/vault/1994/04/11/130838/grand-opening-with-a-new-stadium-as-backdrop-cleveland-ushered-in-an-era-of-optimism-with-a-win-over-seattle
30 Tom Verducci, “Grand Opening”; Verducci, “Good Home Cookin’ by Eating Foes Before Raucous Crowds at New Jacobs Field, The Indians Streaked into First Place,” Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1994. Accessed on November 19, 1994: si.com/vault/1994/07/04/131578/good-home-cookin-by-eating-up-foes-before-raucous-crowds-at-new-jacobs-field-the-indians-streaked-into-first-place
31 Bill Livingston, “Dick Jacobs.”
32 Tom Verducci, “Good Home Cookin’.”
33 Bill Livingston, “Dick Jacobs.”
34 Anthony Castrovince, “Sellout Streak Etched in Tribe Lore,” Indians.com, September 4, 2008. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://m.indians.mlb.com/news/article/3418249/.
35 Gordon Edes, “Boston Red Sox’s 820-game Sellout Streak Ends,” ESPNBoston.com, April 11, 2013. Accessed on November 19, 2014: https://espn.go.com/boston/mlb/story/_/id/9158007/boston-red-sox-820-game-sellout-streak-ends.
36 “Former Indians Owner”; Terry Pluto, “Bottom Line?”
37 Edward Whalen, “Top Gun.”
June 16, 1925 at Akron, OH (US)
June 5, 2009 at Cleveland, OH (US)
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