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The Age of Einhorn

Eddie Einhorn built the modern White Sox

Triumph of the Sunshine Boys
Triumph of the Sunshine Boys

A generation has passed since Eddie Einhorn was actively involved in running the White Sox, but his tenure as team president from 1981-1990 was impossible to forget. As far as Sox fans are concerned, Jerry Reinsdorf is the face of White Sox ownership. Even though Reinsdorf runs the show, Einhorn's shadow still looms large over the franchise. From the broadcast team to the ballpark, the White Sox are made in Eddie Einhorn's image.

I have written extensively about the White Sox in the early 1980s:

When the ownership group of Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf bought the White Sox from Bill Veeck in January of 1981, Einhorn received top billing. He was the flashy TV executive from New Jersey who was an executive at CBS Sports. In the 1960's, he created regional sports networks to televise college basketball. His job was to drag the White Sox into the 1980's.

Einhorn arrived on the scene at a time when baseball was undergoing a great deal of generational change. Free agency had been a fact of life for five years. Six months after Einhorn got the keys to Comiskey Park from Bill Veeck, baseball went on strike over the degree to which teams should be compensated for losing a player to free agency. Some teams were still owned by the descendants of their founders. One by one, executives who had success in other businesses started to enter the ranks of baseball ownership. Mid 20th Century baseball was dying, but it still had passionate defenders.

Einhorn learned firsthand about that generation gap. During the introductory news conference, Einhorn said he was going to run the White Sox as “a class organization.” He meant that the fans could expect good things from the new ownership. Veeck, who already felt slighted by the American League owners' decision to veto his plan to sell the Sox to Ed DeBartolo, took it as a personal insult. Veeck had spent 20 years cultivating his own network of sportswriters in Chicago. They were more than happy to spread the word far and wide: the new guys don't respect the Sox, their fans, or their history.

But that was just one faction of White Sox fandom. Another wanted their own version of George Steinbrenner, aggressive owners who would make the Sox players in Free Agency for the first time ever. Thanks to Ed DeBartolo's money, Veeck signed Jim Essian and Ron LeFlore to high dollar deals at the end of 1980. Einhorn's first 100 days in 1981 rivaled FDR's in 1933. In March, Einhorn was able to sign both Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinski (Einhorn did a victory lap with Chet Coppock on Channel 5 the afternoon Fisk was signed).

Einhorn appeared to be just as accessible as Veeck. During a double-header sweep of the Orioles in April, he was in the broadcast booth with Harry Caray. As the strike loomed in June of 1981, he joined the telecast to provide updates on the negotiations in New York.

The 1981 baseball strike stretched from mid-June to the beginning of August. The White Sox were two and a half games out of first place when the strike hit. Baseball returned with a delayed All-Star game. NBC's telecast began with highlights of the first half of the season. Bryant Gumbel said the White Sox were “a surprise brewing on the south side of Chicago” over video of Fisk hitting a home run into Comiskey's left field seats. Under the split-season arrangement devised by the owners and the TV networks, a sprint into September would have put the White Sox in the American League Division Series. That was not the case. The Sox went 23-30. It was during this stretch of futility that Jimmy Piersall made the comments about the players' wives that sent Einhorn into a rage. Einhorn suspended Piersall for a couple of games. That incident was a contributing factor into Harry Caray's decision to leave.

Let's talk about Einhorn's broadcasting savvy. Yes, he will be remembered for SportsVision. However, take a look at the decision in the context of the time. Harry Caray was a divisive figure. He had an outsized personality. He criticized players and coaches. He constantly shilled for his friends. Jimmy Piersall actually choked a guy (Rob Gallas, then a reporter for the Daily Herald. He later ran the White Sox PR department). As a fan, you either loved him or you hated him. When Caray decided to accept the offer from the Cubs and WGN, Einhorn acquired a pair of outstanding replacements.

Don Drysdale was part of the California Angels broadcast team. He was also part of the baseball broadcast crew for ABC. Ken Harrelson was the outspoken color analyst for the Boston Red Sox (with Dick Stockton doing PBP). Hawk was also part of the rotation for NBC's “Game of the Week.” Einhorn took two guys who were regarded as a circus act (at the time) and replaced them with network-quality broadcasters.

As for SportsVision? Right idea. Right business model (look at the multi-billion dollar paydays teams are getting from cable TV). Wrong price. Wrong technology. Chicago wasn't really wired for cable when Einhorn rolled out SportsVision in 1983. The suburbs had only a handful of cable systems. In the absence of a robust cable TV industry, Einhorn looked for a technological workaround. That workaround was ON-TV.

ON-TV involved scrambled over-the-air TV signals. In this case, WSNS-TV 44 would scramble their nighttime signal. Subscribers would then rent a box that would allow the viewer to descramble the picture and watch the game. The problems were twofold: the price point was too high and the boxes were really easy to hack. Electronics stores were selling descrambler box kits. Even though they were for “novelty purposes only,” everyone know they existed in order to pirate pay TV.

Einhorn gave up on SportsVision as a White Sox product in 1984, selling it to CableVision, which immediately placed the channel on their basic cable tier. Although SportsVision didn't really work, the idea of creating a local sports channel in which every team had an ownership stake eventually caught on.

Einhorn knew there was a way to monetize the fans who were watching the games on TV, and he found it. MLB is now awash in TV money. He knew what was in the gold mine, it just took awhile for him to find it.

Einhorn stepped down from the day-to-day operations of the White Sox in 1990. There are no news stories from the era that suggest there was a public divorce, perhaps he just wanted to do something a little less stressful. The triumph of 1983 turned out to be a fluke. There would be only one more winning season in the 1980's. In 1988, as the Sox were about to embark on their third losing season in a row, Einhorn admitted to the Tribune that he had to own the team's failures on the field.

Einhorn's final legacy is the ballpark in which the White Sox currently play. Much has been written about the political drama that surrounded the effort to find a replacement for Comiskey Park. What we do know is that St. Petersburg built the Florida Suncoast Dome with the purpose of bringing baseball to Florida. The State of Florida was also seen as a lucrative baseball market. Florida was without baseball in 1988. An owner would have exclusive access to millions of fans – and cable TV subscribers. Einhorn and Reinsdorf held regular meetings with state and local officials in Florida. Whether they were conducting due dilligence or were simply trying to apply pressure to politicians in Illinois will never be known. Their methods rankled Sox fans, but the result is a ballpark at 35th and Shields that will celebrate its 25th birthday in April.

Eddie Einhorn broke ground for the modern White Sox. Last week marked the end of his life. But it is not the end of his era.