Sunday, January 09, 2011
If You Own a Track, Your Stigma Might Be Showing
The late Dick Young of the New York Daily News would sometimes refer collectively to the owners of major-league baseball clubs as the "lords of baseball." No flatterer, he. When Young started calling them "the lords" in print, it meant that his blood pressure was rising and he had a brickbat in hand. I thought of this the other day when Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, said that he would make a bid to buy a harness track in Maryland. As though he needed a reminder, Angelos was quickly told that he'd have to divest himself of the Orioles in order to purchase Rosecroft Raceway. The lords of baseball had righteously risen again, the better to remind their brethren that while owning a track might not be sinful, it sure as hell doesn't make you a better person.
The big-league owners work in strange ways. When the late George Steinbrenner owned the New York Yankees, he also dabbled in race tracks, and (gasp) owned horses as well. Steinbrenner even got himself in hot water, admitting that he made an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. There were a couple of penny-ante fines doled out, and Steinbrenner wasn't allowed to come to the office or go to the games for 15 months, but that was the equivalent of being flailed with a strand of wet linguine. In the 1980s, I asked the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, why no one had found a copy of "War and Peace," or maybe Joyce's "Ulysses," to throw at Steinbrenner, and insist that he own either the Yankees or the tracks, but not both. "Easy," Kuhn said. "The rule about track ownership came about after George already had those racing investments. So he was grandfathered in."
When the Angelos situation in Maryland came up, I put in a call to the offices of Major League Baseball in New York. I mentioned the DeBartolo affair, 30 years ago.
"We take these things on a case-by-case basis," a spokesman said, "but I need to talk with our lawyers before I say any more."
A few hours later, he called me back and said: "The rules have not changed regarding (club) ownership and gambling."
There was an oldtime radio show called "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons," and eventually someone did a parody called "Mr. Tracer, Keener Than Most Persons." I suspect that Angelos, a defense lawyer with an enormous practice, is also keener than most persons, and despite baseball he will find a way, such as listing the harness track in his wife's name. Despite his failings with the Orioles--Sports Illustrated once suggested that he was the "worst owner in baseball"--Maryland racing authorities will gladly welcome Angelos. They've had many years of Frank Stronach there, for corn's sake. "Mr. Angelos is a good businessman, a prominent lawyer and well-known in the community," said John Franzone of the Maryland Racing Commission, forgetting to include that Angelos breeds and races horses. "To me (he's) like a trifecta," Franzone ended up saying. Before Angelos, or his missus, owns Rosecroft, however, they will have to outbid a few other parties at a public auction.
The wife-owns-one-the-husband-owns-the-other fandango has satisfied baseball's morals police at least once before. Bob Levy owned Atlantic City Race Course and his wife owned a piece of the Philadelphia Phillies. "But how about this," said a friend of mine, who works in baseball and asked not to be named because he wants to continue working in baseball, "major casinos all over the East advertise liberally on radio broadcasts of major-league teams. The Boston Red Sox carry a lot of casino advertising, and so do the Yankees. There may be others, but the point being is that baseball doesn't mind taking money from casinos, yet it frowns on someone owning a team just because he's deeply involved in another form of gambling."
I'm reminded of the time when Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame shortstop, was broadcasting Yankee games, but for another station he did commercials advertising New York City OTB (you all remember New York City OTB, don't you?). "Bet with your head, not over it," the Rizzuto spot said, borrowing from a slogan that could be found on the wall in one of the track kitchens at Belmont Park.
Steinbrenner might have been a track owner, but he didn't countenance one of his minions pushing an enterprise that operated at the same time the Yankees played some of their games. Forthwith, he introduced Rizzuto to his carpet.
"Scooter (Rizzuto surely was the oldest person to ever be called Scooter, although some day Scooter Libby will take away his title)," Steinbrenner said, "how could you? What were you thinking?"
"George, it was no big deal," said Rizzuto, one of only a few people who could talk to Steinbrenner like that. "I had a chance to make a few bucks, and I did it."
What Steinbrenner said next, I never heard. What I wish he had said was, "We're going to yank those commercials." It would have been a verb that fit the occasion perfectly.