Steinbrenner’s Near Purchase Of The Tribe
By Vince Guerrieri
He was the son of a collegiate track star who went on to become a Cleveland shipping magnate.
He was an assistant football coach for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and former Brown Lou Saban at Northwestern.
And George Steinbrenner was almost the owner of the Cleveland Indians.
In 1966, Vernon Stouffer bought the Indians. Stouffer and his brother Gordon made their fortune in restaurants and then frozen foods. Five years later, after Stouffer’s merged with Litton, making him a fortune, and then Litton’s stock prices dropped, depleting his deep pockets, he was ready to sell the team.
Steinbrenner grew up in the Cleveland area and was an Indians fan. He had his first taste of sports ownership in 1962 with the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. The team had a chance to buy into the NBA, but couldn’t afford the fees and folded. Steinbrenner, who was known to hold court with Art Modell at the Cleveland landmark Theatrical Grill on Short Vincent, was interested in getting back into the game. Among Steinbrenner’s partners in the Pipers was Jim Stouffer, Vernon’s son.
Steinbrenner and the younger Stouffer ended up having a falling-out over the fate of the team.
He offered Stouffer $8.6 million, and had contacted Gabe Paul, who agreed to stay on and run the team. Stouffer countered with an offer of $9 million — $1 million more than he paid for the team in 1966 – and Steinbrenner agreed. It looked like he would buy the Indians.
Cleveland at the time was a two-paper town, the morning Plain Dealer and the afternoon Press. Word of the deal leaked to the PD, possibly by Steinbrenner himself. Within a week, the Press was reporting that the deal was dead, in part because of Stouffer’s grudge against Steinbrenner for the treatment of his son, and in part because of Steinbrenner’s own ego.
Stouffer ended up selling the team to Nick Mileti, a Cleveland sports impresario and Bowling Green State University alumnus (the alumni center on campus bears his name), who at one point owned the Cavaliers, the old Cleveland Arena and the Cleveland Crusaders and Cleveland Barons hockey teams. He also built the Richfield Coliseum, the Cavaliers’ home for 20 years.
Steinbrenner explored buying the Tigers, but Paul came to him with what in retrospect turned out to be one of the greatest bargains in American business history. CBS had bought the Yankees in 1964, and since then, they had fallen from the lofty heights they once attained. The Tiffany Network was looking to unload the team, which lost $11 million in 1972. Would Steinbrenner be interested?
In 1970, a group led by used car dealer Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots for $12.2 million. CBS was asking $10 million for probably the most recognizable sports team in America, a bargain basement price. Some considered the true value of the team nearer $25 million.
Steinbrenner jumped at it, and the deal was announced Jan. 3, 1973. In one of the great historically ironic statements ever, Steinbrenner said at his introductory news conference, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.”
Steinbrenner owned the team until his death in 2010, and his family still owns it. The Yankees made a large splash at the beginning of free agency, making three consecutive World Series appearances from 1976-78, winning two. The Bronx Bombers went on to win four World Series in five years, in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Yankees, who annually have the highest payroll in the major leagues, are valued around $1.7 million.
This, of course, leads to the question: Would Steinbrenner have had similar success with the Indians if he bought them? Or would the Indians, who were already a whisker away from relocating while Stouffer owned the team, have headed someplace warmer, with a new stadium?
Photo: Associated Press
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