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Obituaries

Marge Schott, 75; Ex-Cincinnati Reds Owner

March 03, 2004|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Marge Schott, the outspoken former owner of the Cincinnati Reds who was repeatedly suspended from major league baseball for racist statements, died Tuesday. She was 75.

A chain smoker, Schott was hospitalized three weeks ago with breathing problems. She had suffered from lung problems in recent years. Christ Hospital in Cincinnati declined to release the cause of death.

"On behalf of the entire Reds organization, we extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the family of Mrs. Schott and her many friends," said Carl Lindner, the team's chief executive officer. "She will be remembered for her love of baseball and her passion for the Cincinnati Reds."

Since selling controlling interest in the Reds under pressure from baseball officials in October 1999, Schott had appeared infrequently in public, usually at news conferences to announce donations to Cincinnati's zoo and other local charities.

Schott took over the Reds, baseball's first professional team, in December 1984, telling reporters that she had bought the team to keep it from leaving Cincinnati. "A Christmas present," she called it.

During her 15-year tenure, Schott oversaw the team's World Series championship in 1990, but was suspended from baseball in 1993 and from 1996-98, and was forced to sell the club in 1999 after praising Adolf Hitler and making racial slurs.

Schott had said during a 1996 television interview that Hitler was "good at the beginning" but then "went too far."

Even after her first suspension, Schott continued to praise Hitler and use racial slurs against blacks and Jews that baseball Commissioner Bud Selig termed "the most base and demeaning type of racial and ethnic stereotyping."

In May 1996, after talks with baseball officials, Schott apologized for her Hitler comments, saying that she was sorry if she had offended people.

"Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight," she said in a prepared statement. "I do not and have never condoned Adolf Hitler's policies of hatred, militarism and genocide. Hitler was unquestionably one of history's most despicable tyrants."

A month earlier, Schott had expressed disappointment that opening day in Cincinnati was postponed after home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and died on the field shortly after the game began, saying that she felt "cheated."

That same year, Schott fired Manager Davey Johnson because she did not approve of him living with his girlfriend before they were married. Schott at first named Ray Knight, a former player, to be Johnson's co-manager, an unheard-of move in major league baseball. Knight later replaced Johnson.

In addition, Pete Rose, one of the few players Schott knew by name over the years, was banned from baseball for life for gambling in 1989 while Cincinnati's manager.

Despite the turmoil and controversy, Schott had supporters, including many players and fans.

"I think people are remembered for the good things they do when they're gone," shortstop Barry Larkin, a member of the Reds since 1986 and an African American, told reporters Tuesday at the Reds' spring training headquarters at Sarasota, Fla.

"Now that she's gone, they will remember the parties she had to raise money for kids, her involvement in the zoo, her giving to minority groups," he added. "She gave to minority programs before her racist comments came out.

"People ask me all the time about her racist comments. They ask me how I could talk to her. But I had a good relationship with her. I just go on personal experience. She was always respectful to me and my family," Larkin said.

Schott's popularity stayed strong among some Cincinnati residents, even as baseball punished her for racist comments.

"The stuff she said, it's something that slips off everybody's tongue," one Cincinnati fan told The Times in 1993. "Maybe not every day, but certainly once or twice a week. We just wish they would leave her alone."

Born Aug. 18, 1928, to Charlotte and Edward Unnewehr, she was a sixth-generation Cincinnati resident. She married Charles J. Schott in 1952, then inherited his holding company, Schottco Corp., when he died of a heart attack in 1968.

Best known at the time in Cincinnati for campy television ads for her car dealerships, Schott bought shares of the Reds in 1981, then took over as general partner three years later. She was rarely seen without her beloved Saint Bernards, often letting them run on the field.

"She calls everyone 'Honey' because she doesn't remember anyone's name," one former player said of Schott.

A woman competing in a male-dominated world, Schott confounded many people in baseball with her shoot-from-the-lip management style.

Despite admitting that she knew little about the game, she nevertheless became one of its most meddlesome and controversial owners. She had said at the time of her purchase of the club that women should not run businesses because they were too emotional.

"I was very much hands-on," she later said. "I did try and bring some good players in and everything."

Schott certainly did things her way. She was said to have resolved one player's contract dispute by flipping a coin. To save money, she eliminated promotions and trimmed marketing efforts that had made the Reds a hit with fans throughout southern Ohio and Indiana and well into Kentucky.

And in an effort to further trim costs, she eliminated updates on out-of-town scores that flashed on scoreboards inside the stadium.

But Schott also sold hot dogs for $1, kept ticket prices the lowest in the major leagues and kept the small-market Reds competitive for most of her tenure.

"I guess I always thought of her as a tragic figure," former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said Tuesday. "I think she tried very hard to do the right things for baseball, but she had some enormous limitations and she had some difficulty overcoming them."

Schott did not have children. She is survived by four sisters.

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