Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Billy Martin, five-time Cleveland Indians manager?

New York Times writer Joe Nocera recently wrote an article entitled Was Steinbrenner Just Lucky? There's no reason why this question should not be asked, and even Branch Rickey would admit that many successes are due to things beyond our control.

But in the course of talking about the imapct of free agency, the impact of emerging broadcast media, and other facts, Nocera poses a big "what if" that could have altered the destiny of New York sports forever:

Learning [in 1971] that the Indians were for sale, Mr. Steinbrenner rounded up a group of investors and offered $8.6 million for the money-losing team. But in the climactic meeting, the Indians owner, the frozen food magnate Vernon Stouffer — who, according to Mr. [Bill] Madden’s book, was drunk — turned down the Steinbrenner offer. “You and your friends are trying to steal my team,” he said. “I know I can get at least $10 million for it. So forget about it.”

A little more than a year later, Mr. Steinbrenner, with another group of investors in tow, bought the Yankees instead. The seller was CBS, which had also been losing money on its team and wanted to get out. The purchase price was $10 million, of which $6 million was borrowed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nocera later poses the "what if":

In reading Mr. Madden’s account of Mr. Steinbrenner’s life, though, I couldn’t help wondering something else. What would have happened if Mr. Stouffer had been sober that December day in 1971, and had said yes to Mr. Steinbrenner? Would Mr. Steinbrenner have been as successful if he had owned his hometown Indians rather than the storied New York Yankees?

Or, to look at it another way, what would have happened to the Indians? Is there any reason to believe that Steinbrenner would not have been the same hands-on owner in Cleveland? Could Billy Martin, who played for the Indians in 1959, have returned as a five-time manager for the team?

For the record, the Cleveland Indians have had five owners since Vernon Stouffer finally sold them team - six if you count the estate of one of the deceased owners as a separate owner. Yes, between 1983 and 1986 the Indians were owned by a dead guy. Actually, the dead guy, Francis J. "Steve" O'Neill, figures in the Steinbrenner story:

He bought a minority interest in the Indians in 1961, and was a limited partner during the tenures of William R. Daley, Gabe Paul and Vernon Stouffer. In 1973, however, he sold his Indians interest to become a limited partner in George Steinbrenner's syndicate that bought the New York Yankees. Five years later, he sold off his Yankees interest and bought a 63 percent stake in the Indians.

So in a way, you can say that Steinbrenner's money owned the Indians after all.
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