CINCINNATI'S NEW TOP DOG : If Her Baseball Team Does as Well as Her Other Businesses, Watch Out

Times Staff Writer

If there's a place in this world for a dancing bear in black tie, elephants in the backyard, a car parked in the living room and a St. Bernard in the executive suite, then there's a place in baseball for Marge Schott.

That place used to be in the air space high above Riverfront Stadium, from where Schott launched salvos that would score direct hits on the people responsible for the dismantling of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.

Once, when the Philadelphia Phillies were in town with ex-Reds Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, she had a plane buzz the stadium trailing this message: "Tony, Pete, Joe, Help. Love, Marge."

It wasn't just another special occasion for Schott the night last summer when Rose finally returned as player-manager of the Reds. It was her 54th birthday. And now, mere months later, Marge Schott is not only a Rose booster, she's his boss, the new majority owner of the Reds.

"Let a woman in and all hell breaks loose, huh?" she said with a laugh.

Let a dog in, and the world really takes notice. At the press conference last December announcing her purchase of the team from the Williams brothers, William and James, Schott was escorted by her St. Bernard, Schottzie, decked out in a Reds cap.

Now, for anyone who knows Schott--and just about everyone in Cincinnati does--that was no more startling than Yankee owner George Steinbrenner threatening to fire his manager. Schottzie, after all, is a regular on TV ads for Schott's car dealerships.

And it could just as easily have been the bear, which Schott hired out as her escort to a high-society birthday party for one of the Williams' brothers. Or the elephants Schott borrows from the zoo for the annual Reds' rally, a charity bash she hosts at the 70-acre estate she owns in Indian Hills, on Cincinnati's West Side.

So it was not as if Schottzie's presence was without precedent. But there were those who took exception, like A. Ray Smith, owner of the minor-league Redbirds, who lost out in the bidding for the Reds to Schott.

"I don't know the lady, but she obviously is making a bad impression," Smith said. "My God, that dog at the press conference must have really embarrassed Bill Williams."

Schott took Smith's attack in stride. Well, actually she stuck her tongue out. "We send our love back," she said with a wink.

One can only imagine Smith's reaction when he overheard Schott talking to her dog one recent morning in her office in downtown Cincinnati.

"Wanna be chairman of the board?"she asked.

Schottzie, absorbed with a bag of corn chips at the time, did not respond.

"Schottzie's going to shag for Rose," she said. "I just learned that word at a dinner the other night."

Schott, of course, is not the first woman to own a major-league baseball team. Joan Payson owned the Mets and Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald's empire-builder, owns the San Diego Padres.

"I'd love to meet Mrs. Kroc, she sounds like a super lady," Schott says. "I love McDonald's. I cry at their commercials--you know, with the kids, and 'You're the one.' So touching."

Schott would soon get her chance to meet Joan Kroc. They were scheduled to appear together on a TV talk show in Los Angeles, with another prominent female owner of a sports franchise whose name escaped Schott.

"What is it, Ferraro, or Rosenbaum?" she said. "Mrs. Footsie-o-Tootsie. I don't know if she's going to be there. She married a band leader, right? Is he Italian? Did she go from a Jewish husband to an Italian husband?"

Told that Rams' owner Georgia Frontiere had made multiple trips to the altar, Schott looked incredulous. "Where did she find the time?" she said. Then, laughing: "My people are trying to hitch me up to Lee Iacocca."

No such luxury for Schott, whose only husband, Charles, died of a heart attack 17 years ago at the age of 42. Since then, she's been too busy overseeing her car dealerships and shopping centers and brick and cement factories, so successfully that she was the first woman to be elected to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce in 132 years.

When Schott, who had been a minority partner with the Williamses, was first announced as the Reds' buyer, there was some speculation that she lacked the funds to meet the asking price, estimated at $25 million. That skepticism apparently didn't include the Cincinnati business community.

"They're very impressed she made the cabbage," said Charles Bartlett, insurance company president, prominent local philanthropist and longtime friend of Schott.

"There are no credentials admired as much in the business community as making money. If she convinced the bankers who loaned her the money (to buy the Reds), then she must have the cabbage.

"She took over the car dealerships at a very bad time and has done very well."

As Schott tells it, her desire to run the Buick and Chevrolet dealerships after her husband's death met considerable resistance back in corporate headquarters in Detroit. This was a few years ago when it wasn't unusual for the coat-and-tie set to question a woman's ability to handle a job such as this.

"People didn't know the word 'libber' then," she said. "And I was no libber. I loved to stay home. After Charlie died, I waited for that great white knight to come. But finally I just jumped in there myself."

To make her point with General Motors, when they came out with the new Opel, instead of displaying it in the company showroom, she had it delivered to her house--and placed in the middle of her living room. Which wasn't easy.

"It sounded so simple, but the first one they dropped on its side and smacked it up," she said. "The second one got stuck coming in the front door. I had to call a stone mason to take some stones out.

"The guys we used to get it in (the house) looked like they'd come from the drunk tank. When we finally got the car in, I had them pose for a picture, sent it to Detroit and wrote, 'These are my board members.' "

In the face of such bravado, General Motors caved in. And Schott prospered, especially after her 'Buy American' advertising theme struck a chord here in what she calls the "biggest greatest little town in the country." When Forrest Gregg, the Green Bay Packer football coach, who was then coaching the local Bengals, did some Toyota ads, Schott accused him of being un-American.

"The response was so great," she said. "I'm just a strong believer in our country. I don't think you should buy a bunch of junk, but it's a shame that we were once the greatest manufacturing country in the world and now we've lost it."

That manufacturing tradition runs deep for Schott. Her grandfather, a German immigrant, operated what she said was the biggest cigar-box manufacturing company in the world on Dayton Street here. Her father, Edward Unnewehr, whom she still refers to as Daddy, converted the business into a plywood operation. Her mother, Charlotte, studied piano at the local conservatory of music, but Marge, one of five daughters, became the son Edward Unnewehr never had. Marge's nickname as she was growing up was Butch.

"I used to hate playing butler in my pajamas with my sister Lottie," Schott said. "Lottie was the grand lady. I used to serve her tea all the time.

"I used to wonder why I had to be the butler all the time. It was disgusting."

Lottie later married and had 10 children. "Butch" got an education in the family business.

"Daddy would say, 'Butch can run every machine in here,' " Schott said. "He promised me a Packard if I'd stay home after college and work for him."

It may have been in her father's factories that Schott developed a greater affinity for the blue-collar types than the Blue-Book set, even though she's listed among them.

"I don't think those people are real," she said. "The more down-to-earth you are, the more real you are.

"I just like people. I spend more time with my plumber than I do with my friends."

Marge never went into her father's business. Instead, she met Charles Schott, son of another prominent Cincinnati manufacturer.

"I dated his two best friends," she said. "I used to listen to his girlfriends cry in the bathroom about Charlie."

Instead of offering a hand in sympathy, she offered her hand to Schott. They were engaged in New York's 21 Club and married soon after.

She was 38 when he died. Why hasn't she remarried?

"I always say everything good has been taken," she said.

"And once you've been mixed up with the Schotts, normal people don't seem normal anymore. They were crazy, I'll tell you."

They were in Switzerland together when Marge persuaded her husband to buy her a St. Bernard. It wasn't long before they returned home before the number of St. Bernard's climbed to double figures. Puppies.

Schott also bought her an elephant, but they later donated it to the zoo. When it died, Marge bought the zoo another--from the king and queen of Denmark.

"The Schotts were buyers and sellers," she said, "not keepers."

"When Pete came back, I said, 'No more woes, we got Rose.' "

It won't be quite that easy. The Reds, who finished in fifth place in the National League West last season, lost an estimated $4 1/2 million in 1984. After drawing more than two-million fans for a record seven-straight seasons, attendance has dropped dramatically. And being in a smaller market, the Reds don't have the big TV-radio revenue that can compensate for that drop at the gate.

"Some guy sent me 10 bucks--he thought we were taking up a collection," Schott said. "He was out of work but he wanted to help with the '84 loss. He wrote, 'God bless you lady.' I sent him back a new $10 bill and an autographed ball. How about spirit like that?"

Schott won't have to pass the plate, but the challenge is a formidable one.

"I told them (the other baseball owners) that we'll put two million in here if we have to buy the people and put them in," she said. "Schottzie will herd them in."

The fact that Rose will be in pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time hit record will help. So should Schott's promotional talents.

"She's going to have some very positive input," said Reds' Vice President Bill Bergesch, who came here from the Yankees last November. "She's very well-known and very visible, something we haven't had. The previous owners preferred to stay in the background."

The previous owners also were reluctant to spend money, especially in the free-agent market. That's how they lost Rose in the first place. The signing of Dave Parker a winter ago was the Reds' first significant free-agent acquisition.

Will that change under Schott, who only recently purchased a telephone with (multi-line) buttons that lit up because she didn't want to pay an extra $1.50 a month?

"We can't, by any stretch of the imagination, be called one of the wealthiest clubs," Bergesch said. "But she has said we'll have the necessary funds to go after a player in the re-entry draft if we want him.

"The first thing we did was hit her with the Parker thing (he'd sought a contract renegotiation) and she didn't bat an eye. She gave us the go-ahead on it.

"She knows it's a very expensive proposition and she was willing to get into it."

For now, Schott said she will not get involved in baseball decisions, leaving those to Bergesch and club President Bob Howsam, who has announced he is resigning in June.

"She doesn't know much about baseball," Bartlett said, "but she's shrewd enough to get people who can help her."

Schott's phone number is listed in the Indian Hills directory. Rose, who lives five minutes away, has his phone number unlisted.

"A woman called me this morning--her kids had built three snowmen: Pete, Marge and a batboy. Cute," Schott said.

"They're thinking about baseball in the winter. I hope they're thinking about it in the spring."

Schott found herself thinking baseball, too, one recent morning while chasing her 17 bulls around the grounds of her estate with Bonnie Paul, a friend and co-organizer of the Reds' annual rally.

"We were up to our knees in mud," Schott said. "I said, 'We don't need this BS. I'm owner of the Reds.' "

Her fondest hope for the Reds?

"A World Series, of course," she said.

Should that happen, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan has envisioned this scenario: Bases loaded, two outs in the ninth, when a message plane flies over Riverfront Stadium.

"Punt, Pete," the message says. "Love, Marge."

"I just love Cincinnati," Schott said, explaining her reasons for buying the Reds. "I love the team. I didn't want to see anything happen to the team.

"The Reds are a traditional team, the oldest in baseball. I love tradition--beer, brats and baseball. Corny, but true."

If she has a regret, it is that she has no children to share this with. There are Lottie's 10, of course, and her younger sister, Winnie, had two despite an accident that left her a paraplegic. "We call them her miracle babies," Schott said.

"We were never blessed. That's the one heartache in my life. It's something you can't buy."

But as substitutes go, you could do worse than a baseball team.

"It's like having a bunch of sons down there," she said. "We'll see what happens."

Marge Schott wears the mantle of owner of the Reds; Schottzie wears the cap.

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