For All the Deals He’s Done, Trump Couldn’t Buy the Indians
Vince Guerrieri | On 09, Nov 2016
Editor’s note: this story originally posted March 9, 2016.
Donald Trump and New York City go hand in hand.
From his roots in Queens to his real estate deals in Manhattan to his pronounced accent (“yuge!”), Trump is inextricably linked to the Big Apple.
But in 1983, before his bid for president, before his television show, before his marriages and divorces had become tabloid fodder, even before “The Art of the Deal,” his bestseller that made him nationally famous, Trump looked to Cleveland to expand into professional sports — like George Steinbrenner in reverse.
In what might be the funniest thing Tony Grossi’s ever written, he said, “Trump’s sudden and inexplicable interest in purchasing the Cleveland Indians evokes the image of a man who awakes in a cold sweat with the frightening realization that a billion Chinese never heard of him.”
Trump had made attempts to buy the Kansas City Royals, the San Francisco Giants, the Seattle Mariners and his hometown Mets, which had been sold in 1980 to Nelson Doubleday. But he almost found a willing partner in Cleveland.
In 1983, the majority owner of the Indians was Cleveland trucking magnate Steve O’Neill. The Indians were in a 25-year slump, playing in a decrepit stadium (and being gouged for rent by Browns owner Art Modell – another son of Gotham – for the privilege, which led to a flurry of lawsuits) in a city that was a hair away from bankruptcy.
Gabe Paul said he’d talked to Trump about the offer, but the Indians were not for sale. Depositions from the ongoing suits between the Indians and Cleveland Stadium Corp. indicated that Trump was not the only suitor. Youngstown real estate developer Edward DeBartolo was also interested in buying the Indians (three years earlier, he had all but purchased the White Sox from Bill Veeck, but the sale wasn’t approved by major league owners).
But on August 29, 1983, Steve O’Neill died. Trump made another attempt to buy the Indians, and he had the support of Veeck, who called him a “class act.” The deal seemed to be there. Trump offered $34 million, $9 million more than anyone else at that point, and he said the magic words. “One of the things I would fight for very hard is for a new stadium,” he said in the Plain Dealer. “I think it is very important to that city because the stadium you have is rated the worst in baseball. It’s not a baseball stadium. It’s too big, too awesome, too unfriendly. And it’s got a lot of problems.”
But talks to buy the Indians broke down. Trump refused to sign a long-term lease in Cleveland Stadium. He said that he’d ideally sign a short-term lease at Cleveland Stadium, playing there until he had a new stadium built. But where would the stadium be? The Indians had been within a whisker of relocating before, to Seattle in the mid-1960s, and made plans to play a series of home games in New Orleans in the 1970s.
Rumors kept flying. Would the team be sold and moved to Denver? Tampa? Would DeBartolo – who said he had a lot of support from Cleveland leaders – finally buy a baseball team? As it turns out, the answer was none of the above. O’Neill’s estate continued to own the team until 1986, when it was sold to the Jacobs brothers, who succeeded in getting the new stadium downtown.
By the time the deal to by the Indians died, Trump had a football team to occupy him, having bought the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Trump offered Dolphins coach Don Shula $1 million to coach his team. He declined. The Generals had Herschel Walker, but were looking for a quarterback, and rumors started during Browns training camp that it would be Brian Sipe.
On September 30, 1983, Modell said, “I am confident Brian Sipe will be with the Browns next season.”
Sipe signed with the Generals two months later.