Once again, Schott makes game cringe Baseball mulls action after image takes hit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Embattled Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott said she was sorry. Sorry for her ill-advised comments on the brighter side of Adolf Hitler. Sorry to all the people she may have offended when she said publicly -- for the second time in four years -- that the most despicable world leader of the 20th century was "good in the beginning."

Will that be enough to repair her long-tarnished image and quiet the angry voices that are rising against her?

Probably not, because there is no reason to think that this is the last anyone will hear from baseball's poster girl for political incorrectness. And, though Major League Baseball has not announced any disciplinary action, there still is the possibility that she will be fined or suspended again.

Schott was suspended from baseball three years ago for using racial epithets and -- peripherally -- for the first Hitler diatribe. She was able to keep her head down for a while, but has spent the past year embroiled in one controversy after another.

Some were minor, such as the time she canceled the Reds' out-of-town score service and wondered aloud why anyone attending a Reds game would care what was happening in another ballpark.

Some were major, such as her public insensitivity after umpire John McSherry died on the field at Riverfront Stadium on Opening Day, and the ESPN interview last weekend in which she restated her belief that Hitler was a good guy who just went nuts.

It was another public relations disaster for Major League Baseball, which is just beginning to rebound from two years of labor unrest. Attendance is climbing, and the image of the game is improving. The last thing the sport needed was someone to refocus attention on its shortcomings.

"Of course, I'm bothered by that," acting commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday, "because baseball is rebounding. These kind of incidents are never very productive. They are counterproductive."

Case not closed

Selig would not comment on whether an investigation is continuing, but baseball sources say that the case is not closed. Selig and baseball's ruling Executive Council are believed to be considering disciplinary action, but apparently want to make sure everything is done by the book.

Major League Baseball has moved swiftly to punish employees caught making racially insensitive remarks. Former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis was fired by the club for stereotyping African-Americans on ABC's "Nightline" nine years ago.

But disciplining an owner, especially when the acting commissioner is a competing owner, is far more complicated.

Theoretically, the commissioner and the Executive Council could vote to force Schott to sell her interest in the club, but that would set the stage for an internal antitrust challenge that Major League Baseball cannot afford.

Schott hoped to quell this latest controversy with a four-paragraph statement released Tuesday night through the club in which she apologized for her comments and condemned Hitler as "unquestionably one of history's most despicable tyrants."

But will that be enough to dispel growing sentiment that she is one of baseball's most despicable owners?

"I think that this occasion calls for Major League Baseball to make a decision about Mrs. Schott's ownership as well as force Mrs. Schott to issue a formal apology to Cincinnati and the people of the United States," said Cincinnati city councilman Tyrone Yates. "One of the problems has been, where are the religious leaders and business leaders who are her peers to ask her to relinquish ownership?"

Good question. Many Cincinnati leaders stood by Schott when she was castigated four years ago for routinely using racial epithets and for her first attempt to defend Hitler's early record. There was a large segment of the local population that was reluctant to sacrifice a well-known civic leader on the altar of political correctness.

This time, no one is rushing to her side, but the initial outrage expressed by the Jewish Community Relations Council and other minority interest groups apparently has not created a groundswell of vociferous anti-Schott sentiment in the community.

"My impression is that Mrs. Schott has engaged in this kind of behavior so frequently that the public has taken a ho-hum approach to it," Yates said. "But this is not about a democratic vote. This is a question where business leaders, community leaders, religious leaders and public office holders ought to be leading public opinion. That's not happening at this point. I don't get the feeling that the leaders that used to embrace her are embracing her now, but there has been very little public outcry from the business, civic and religious sectors."

Other incidents

Schott's popularity in Cincinnati was in free fall even before her latest public relations disaster. She irritated local sports fans when she spoke out against a new stadium for the Cincinnati Bengals and cast herself as a villain again when she complained that she felt "cheated" after the sudden death of McSherry forced the Reds to suspend their season opener at Riverfront Stadium.

"I don't see the overwhelming support that I saw four years ago," said Michael Rapp, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "Maybe it hasn't gone that far yet, or maybe people are just tired of it."

The Cincinnati Post ran a poll last summer that showed that Schott was far more popular than Bengals owner Mike Brown. She was viewed favorably by 47 percent of respondents, compared with 34 percent for Brown. The Post ran a similar poll the day of the stadium referendum (March 19) and got almost opposite results, with Brown viewed favorably by 49 percent of those polled and Schott viewed favorably by 34 percent.

That was before McSherry's death and her latest attempt to defend Hitler's early years in power. Now, it appears, the local populace is more embarrassed than outraged.

Schott has been one of Cincinnati's business titans since the death of her husband, Charles, in 1968. She became a limited partner in the Reds in 1981 and general partner of the ownership group in 1984 before becoming president and chief executive officer the next year.

For most of that time, she has been popular in Cincinnati, but her standing in the community may have reached an all-time low yesterday, when the Cincinnati Enquirer called on her in an editorial to sell her stake in the team.

There was a time when her eccentricity was a seemingly harmless -- even humorous -- local issue. She set up her St. Bernard, Schottzie, in its own office at Riverfront Stadium in the late 1980s and saved some of the dog's fur (for luck) after it died.

Last year, she went to the stadium and rubbed some of that dog hair on manager Davey Johnson and several players in an attempt to get the team out of an early-season slump.

Her stinginess also has become the stuff of legend. She once tried to sell leftover doughnuts from an office party to fans in line NTC to buy tickets. Her decision to shut down the out-of-town scoreboard raised such a furor that she relented and resubscribed to the score service.

'Embarrassment' to city

Through it all, she remained a respected local owner, even after she was reprimanded and disciplined by Major League Baseball the first time around. Now, it seems, the city may be ready for a change in Reds ownership.

"I think she is an embarrassment to Cincinnati," Rapp said. "She has the prejudices of her class -- in this case, low class. Judging from the words she used, I think she's a bigot. Is she a malevolent bigot? I don't have that feeling. I think this is just who Marge Schott is. She's a pathetic individual."

The big question is whether her latest set of inflammatory statements were meant to be so insensitive or if they simply reflect a gross misunderstanding of world history and an even greater lack of coherent judgment. Either way, she has put the city in an uncomfortable position at a time when preparations are being made to build her team a new stadium.

"It's bad if we're going to pump $250 million into a new stadium for her team," said Yates. "I'm not calling for her head, but I'm not willing to say she's just our crazy aunt and let it go at that."

Pub Date: 5/09/96

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