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White Sox History: When Ed DeBartolo almost bought the White Sox

Ed DeBartolo turned the San Francisco 49'ers into the team of the 1980's. He was also Bill Veeck's choice to buy the White Sox. What happened?

David Banks

Bill Veeck kept the White Sox in Chicago. When the American League owners approved Veeck's purchase of the team in December 1975, they ended months of speculation that the Sox would move to Seattle. Two weeks after Veeck's sale was finalized, a federal arbitrator ruled in favor of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Baseball's reserve clause, which said a player was bound to a team until he was traded or released, was effectively dead. The era of free agency had begun.

Veeck was one of the few owners who had been opposed to the reserve clause. He testified in support of Curt Flood in his unsuccessful challenge to the reserve clause in 1969. Unfortunately for Veeck, the end of the reserve clause meant the end of his business model.

Veeck liked to say he would skrimp, beg, borrow, and steal to cobble together the money to buy a ballclub. A combination of good players and crazy promotions would get paying customers into the seats. The free agency decision priced Veeck out of the game.

Veeck could no longer afford Bucky Dent, Steve Stone, Rich Gossage, and the other stars that came up through the White Sox system. To stay competitive, he resorted to "rent-a-player," trading for players in their last year before free agency. Bucky Dent and Gossage were traded for Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble in the 1976 offseason. The strategy paid off in 1977, as the "South Side Hitmen" won 90 games in what turned out to be the only competitive year in Veeck's second tenure as Sox owner.

A well-capitalized owner could have re-signed Zisk and Gamble, and then added new players that could push the Sox over the top in 1978. Veeck didn't have the money, and the Sox slid back into mediocrity in 1978 and 1979. Things were so bad, the team had a hard time making payroll. By 1980, Veeck realized he couldn't compete baseball's new world. He decided to sell the White Sox.

Three ownership groups were considered the front-runners. Nick Kladis and Fred Brzozowski were members of the Sox board of directors. Their group consisted of Veeck loyalists. Harry Caray even tossed in a couple of bucks. William Farley, a Chicago financier and White Sox shareholder led a group that consisted of a real estate mogul named Jerry Reinsdorf.

But Ed DeBartolo, a shopping mall magnate from Youngstown, Ohio, was Veeck's choice to buy the team. DeBartolo made his money in shopping malls and real estate. He owned the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he bought the San Francisco 49'ers for his son, Edward Jr. DeBartolo also owned three racetracks, including Balmoral Park in Crete. He already tried to buy the Oakland A's, but the team's lease with the Oakland Coliseum prevented his ultimate goal - to move the A's to the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

Veeck sold the White Sox to DeBartolo in August of 1980. The sale price? $20 million. They bought the team, Comiskey Park, and $2 million of team debt. The sale was final, pending approval of the American League (he had to get the OK from the AL owners by December 15, 1980). With DeBartolo guarding (much larger) purse strings, Veeck would be able to run the White Sox free of financial constraints. Veeck believed DeBartolo was the man to keep the Sox competitive into the 80's.

Ed DeBartolo, Jr. talked to the Tribune about his father's plans. "He has told me his first move is to get good people in the front office, then good people to direct the field operation, and to develop a feeder system of young players. He knows you need to develop talent."

The younger DeBartolo said fans shouldn't count on the White Sox to sign a bunch of free agents for the sake of signing free agents.

The plans came crashing down on October 24, 1980. Veeck needed the approval of 10 AL owners to sell the team.

He got 8.

There were no concrete reasons as to why the League blocked the sale of the Sox, but over time a story began to emerge. The owners were concerned that DeBartolo wanted to move the Sox to New Orleans. They also believed that DeBartolo would be an absentee owner because he still lived and worked in Ohio. Lastly, they were worried about possible ties to gambling interests, because he owned three racetracks.

The ballots were secret, but the Chicago Tribune tried to guess how the vote went down. Veeck/DeBartolo had the support of the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley of the A's, Edward Bennett Williams in Baltimore, Gabe Paul in Cleveland, Danny Kaye of the Mariners, Gene Autry of the California Angels, and Peter Bavasi of the Blue Jays.

Bud Selig of the Brewers, Ewing Kauffman of the Royals, and Heywood Sullivan of the Red Sox were publicly opposed.

Detroit's John Fetzer, Minnesota's Calvin Griffith, and Texas' Eddie Chiles were uncommitted.

DeBartolo said he was going to try again at the AL's Winter Meetings that December. In an attempt to mollify the opposition, DeBartolo promised to sell the racetracks and move his business operations to Chicago. He also promised, in writing, to keep the team in Chicago. DeBartolo "sources" started telling newspaper columnists about their plans to turn Comiskey Park into a domed sports and entertainment complex.

With the sale of the White Sox in limbo, Veeck went to the free agent candy store. Flush with DeBartolo's money, he signed Ron LeFlore to a two million dollar contract. He also locked up free agent catcher Jim Essian for a cool million (a move that would be rendered useless by the signing of Carlton Fisk five months later). The Sox also negotiated a deal that would allow Cablevision (which was only available in two suburbs) to televise all Sox home games. Road games would air on WGN. The flurry of activity prompted reporters to ask who was running the team...Veeck or DeBartolo?

While Veeck and DeBartolo counted the days until December, William Farley told everyone who would listen that he and Reinsdorf were still available. Reinsdorf even said they would match the DeBartolo offer "dollar for dollar." Reinsdorf's comments were cited by some AL owners as the reason why they rejected the DeBartolo bid in the first place. Why approve the guy from Ohio when a local ownership group was willing to pay the same amount?

While Reinsdorf was willing to admit that his pockets weren't nearly as deep as DeBartolo's ("he can afford to buy the entire league," Reinsdorf told the Tribune in 1980), he said they had the money to attract free agents and sign existing players to long term deals.

"Our group consists of a lot of well-known Chicagoans."

The DeBartolo bid ended for good on December 16, 1980. The AL owners, meeting in Dallas, once again voted down DeBartolo's plan to buy the White Sox. In hotel's "Crocodile Room," Veeck railed against the Lords of the American League. To him, it was the last and greatest injustice. According to the Tribune, DeBartolo "whispered in his anger to avoid screaming it."

After Veeck's tirade, Steinbrenner admitted that the vote was more anti-Veeck than anti-DeBartolo. For years, Veeck spoke out against the owners...and this was their opportunity to kick him in the rear on his way out the door.

"I think I can safely say that the last vote went so strongly in the numbers against Mr. DeBartolo was, in fact, a vote against Bill Veeck not Ed DeBartolo. I think if Bill Veeck was applying for membership today in the American League, he would find it hard to get one vote," Steinbrenner said.

Andy McKenna, acting chairman of the Sox board of directors, discussed their next move.

"My guess is we'll reopen discussions with Jerry Reinsdorf."

Farley dialed back his financial commitment to the White Sox. His million dollar commitment became a quarter of a million dollar commitment. Reinsdorf's new general partner was a CBS Sports executive named Eddie Einhorn.

What would have happened if DeBartolo was successful in his bid to buy the White Sox? The team would have gone from the poorhouse to the penthouse. DeBartolo was one of the wealthiest men in America. Ownership would have had the ability to maintain Comiskey Park, keep good players, and sign free agents.

Ed DeBartolo, Jr. turned the San Francisco 49'ers into the team of the 80's. There were no signs that Ed Jr. was going to run the White Sox, and the NFL frowned upon cross-ownership. If anything, Veeck would continue to call the shots. Roland Hemond would still be the general manager.

Bill Veeck may have hindered the Sox ability to sign free agents. In late 1980, Dave Winfield wrote a letter to the ballclubs for which he did not want to play. The White Sox got one of those letters. Veeck issued a public response, which basically told Winfield to go screw himself.

Sportswriters loved it. They loved the idea of Veeck telling the sullen, selfish superstar to stick it where the sun don't shine. But Bill Veeck's mouth could have kept other free agent stars from choosing the White Sox.

With Bill Veeck's blessing, the Chicago media would be more willing to embrace the new regime. Veeck had spent decades cultivating sportswriters, and they viewed Reinsdorf/Einhorn with suspicion. Despite his personal wealth, Veeck was still a blue collar guy who held court for journalists at any number of bars around town. He also picked up the tab. Veeck was relatable. To the old guard of Sportswriting, Veeck was a shot-and-a-beer guy. Reinsdorf was white wine and expensive suits.

After Reinsdorf officially bought the Sox in 1981, the new owners celebrated the deal with pizza at Gino's East. Tribune columnist David Israel wrote about how Reinsdorf and Einhorn went into an intense round of baseball trivia.

They were baseball guys, Israel said.

Jerome Holtzmann was also at that table. He noted that their trivia questions were about the Brooklyn Dodgers. The new owners of the White Sox knew nothing of Jimmy Dykes and Ted Lyons.

They were talking about baseball players from New York.

To him, it was the greatest sin of all.