THE RAMS: BOUND FOR ST. LOUIS : Few Fond Farewells for Frontiere : Sports: Fans, ex-players and former team executive blame flamboyant owner for demise of once-proud Rams franchise. But she says she’s looking forward to a new lease on life.
When Rams owner Georgia Frontiere boxes up her team and heads east to her hometown of St. Louis, she’s in line for more than a jaw-dropping deal worth more than $20 million in annual profits.
After 15 years of fumbles with the fans, the players and the sports press, the 67-year-old businesswoman and widow of former fabled Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom is heading for a career make-over. She’s hoping for at least one season without banners fluttering from the stands that say, “Georgia, Sell the Team.”
“I guess I’m so used to it the other way, I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Frontiere said with anticipation Saturday. “I know some people say we’re going to have a honeymoon period in St. Louis, but I’m not going to let that happen. I’m fighting for my life.”
St. Louis fans say Frontiere will be starting with a spotless record in their town. Any owner, any team, they say, would look good after the penny-pinching St. Louis Cardinal’s owner Bill Bidwill--"Didn’t the Cardinals invent the 5-and-11 season?” one fan asked.
“We take it as a clean slate,” said Chad Everett, a member of the 3-month-old St. Louis Rams fan club. “It’s sort of like a relationship--you know the other person was married before and has her faults. . . . She’ll be a hero here at first, no doubt. She’ll go from goat to hero in a day.”
But for fans in Southern California, Frontiere’s legacy will not be heroic. She will be known with no small amount of bitterness as the first person to move a football team out of California.
The woman who took the Rams.
In doing so, she joins a handful of owners in recent years who have wrested ailing sports institutions from their roots and transplanted them in wealthier climes.
Among them: Al Davis, who bucked the National Football League to bring his Raiders to Los Angeles; Robert Irsay, who spirited the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, and Bidwill, who flew his St. Louis Cardinals southwest to Phoenix in 1988 after three sour years of wrangling for a better deal.
Now, Frontiere moves the Rams--the first pro football team ever lured to California, some 49 years ago from Cleveland.
“Regardless of how you cut it, she’s responsible,” said former defensive end Fred Dryer, who played for the Rams from 1973 to 1981. “She sits there while she straightens the seam of her skirt and says, ‘I’m so unhappy about the way things are going.’ . . . She’s run that franchise into the ground. All I can say to the people of St. Louis is: Take a long hard look before you spend the money.”
But former Rams running back Dick Hoerner said Frontiere’s front office must share the fault.
“I can’t blame Georgia for everything that is going on,” said Hoerner, who starred with the team from 1947 to 1951. “She hired people who supposedly knew how to run a football team. . . . It’s a money game now. It’s money, that’s all it is.”
For many Rams fans it was inevitable that their hearts would be broken by an owner they never really knew. Dubbed the “Howard Hughes of American football” by one rival owner, Frontiere seemed to prefer singing arias to furthering the on-field fortunes of her team.
For the past several years, all most Rams fans have seen of Frontiere is a flash of blonde curls, maybe a brief wave, at the occasional home game she watched from her two-story luxury box at Anaheim Stadium.
When she finally agreed to sit down and talk with local folks last month about keeping her team in town, she professed amazement at what they were offering--news that had been detailed in local papers and to Rams President John Shaw, the team’s surrogate owner, for months.
“When we talked to Mrs. Frontiere about our proposal and mentioned guarantees, she expressed a great deal of surprise, turned to Shaw and said, ‘John, you mean there are guarantees in this proposal?’ ” said Frank Bryant, president of the Rams Booster Club. “It was as if she never heard of them before.”
For the Rams boosters it was the last indignity. For the soft-spoken, dedicatedly feminine Frontiere it was one more muddled communication in 15 years of misunderstandings from a sporting public who never really accepted her.
“How can you say anything?” Frontiere said in an interview Saturday. “You’re taking something away from somebody, and they’re not going to be happy. I don’t think anyone will ever know how much I fought not to have this happen.
“Maybe if they had reacted sooner, and with some passion, and tried to find a way, but it wasn’t like that. It was like, ‘Oh well, let them go,’ ” she said. “I can’t stand the thought that people are thinking I just ran after the money. I mean, what did I do wrong here? I don’t want to make the same mistakes.”
Trained, almost from birth, for a life as an entertainer, Frontiere long ago hired a pair of accountants to guard her from repeated sacking by the sports press.
From the time she inherited the team in 1979 after her sixth husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, drowned in the rough surf off Florida, Frontiere has had a tough go of it.
Lured by a lucrative real estate deal, Rosenbloom already had set in motion plans to move the team from the Los Angeles Coliseum, where it had played and made history for 30 years, to Anaheim, an hour’s drive and a world away for many of the team’s Westside fans.
“When Carroll died,” Frontiere said during a news conference in 1981, “I had no choice but to move to Anaheim. I never wanted to in the first place. I had to deal with a lot of things that were left over. . . . It’s like having a child you don’t want. You learn to love it.”
Once the team was hers, Frontiere swiftly made a series of unpopular moves. She fired her well-respected son-in-law Steve Rosenbloom and axed most of her husband’s handpicked staff. She let the team lose many of its best-known players, from middle linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds to quarterback Vince Ferragamo.
She was tainted by a 1980 Super Bowl ticket-scalping scandal that landed her most-recent ex-husband, composer Dominic Frontiere, in prison. Frontiere said she meant the tickets he sold to be given away.
She kicked a football in Sports Illustrated, appeared with her players in an American Express “Do you know me?” commercial and exchanged quips with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” She bought a house in Newport Beach, then quickly returned to Los Angeles.
Game days particularly in the early years found her down on the sidelines smooching players and joining in the age-old football fanny-patting tradition.
“Georgia was a new owner, and she didn’t know how to be an owner,” remembered Pat Haden, the team’s quarterback from 1976 to 1981. “It was very uncomfortable. . . . She’d go out and want to throw the football and kick the football with the players.”
The ensuing criticism sent Frontiere, the only female owner of an NFL team, running for cover.
Former wide receiver Jack Snow, currently the Rams play-by-play announcer, said Frontiere drew critics because she was a woman.
“Look at it from her perspective,” said Snow, who played for the team from 1965 to 1975. “When she picks up the paper and reads about herself, it’s normally not positive. She’s down on the sidelines patting players on the butt and hugging them. But because she’s a woman, people criticize her. But if a guy does it to a guy, that’s OK. You’d think people would be more upset over a guy doing it to a guy.”
Football was not a part of Frontiere’s world until she met the charismatic Rosenbloom at a party at the Kennedy’s Palm Beach estate in Florida in the late 1950s.
Almost from the beginning, her world had been music.
Frontiere was born in the west end of St. Louis in 1927 to an insurance broker and his wife, musician Lucia Pamela Irwin. By age 10, Frontiere and her younger brother, Ken, were part of their mother’s singing group, the Pamela Trio, performing at rooftop ballrooms and fairgrounds.
By age 15, she had married for the first time to a young man going off to war. The marriage was quickly annulled.
A few years later, Frontiere, her now-divorced mother and brother had moved to Fresno, and Frontiere and her mother performed as the Pamela Sisters at dinner theaters, including a now-closed club at a Whittier bowling alley.
Around this time, Frontiere married her second husband, who was killed in a bus accident in San Francisco two weeks after they wed.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Frontiere married three more times: to a fellow actor at the Garrick Little Theater in Fresno, to a stage manager at the Sacramento Music Circus and to a Miami television personality.
Then she met Rosenbloom, at the time married and owner of the Baltimore Colts, and soon became a fixture at the Colts training camp and games. She had two children, then married him in 1966, a month after he divorced his wife of 25 years.
In 1972, Rosenbloom swapped his Colts for the Rams, and the couple moved to the five-acre Bel-Air estate in Los Angeles, where Frontiere still lives. While her husband was alive, football was his game, a man’s game, and Georgia was relegated to “Georgia’s Grandstand,” a section reserved for Frontiere and her friends, mostly actors and singers.
When Rosenbloom died, Frontiere staged an elaborate memorial with more than 600 guests, from other NFL owners to politicians and comedians. Jonathan Winters told 15 minutes of jokes.
Within a week of her husband’s death, Frontiere, who had inherited 70% of the Rams, appointed herself president of the team and--after a vicious exchange of later published memos--fired her stepson, who had been groomed to run the team since childhood. She later bought the remaining shares in the team from her children.
Fifteen years later, Frontiere has long since backed off from such an active role in the team.
She divorced Dominic Frontiere in 1988, after he was released from prison, and now lives with Earl Weatherwax, a developer and jazz musician, splitting her time between homes in London; Sedona, Ariz.; New York and Los Angeles--and now a home she says she plans to buy in Missouri.
She is a fan of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, an ardent vegetarian and a devotee of astrology--she says she doesn’t sign papers when Mercury is retrograde.
In recent years she is more likely to be found at charity events than football functions. She gives generously to a number of causes from animal rights to homeless women to the Boy’s Club and she recently gave $1 million to the Fulfillment Fund, which sends needy youngsters to college.
“Georgia’s done a lot that people aren’t aware of,” said Snow, citing her many charitable causes.
The running of the Rams has been taken over almost exclusively by Shaw, an accountant and attorney hired on the advice of recently deceased Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse. Shaw, 43, who started as the team’s controller, quickly rose through the ranks to become the person who sets the agenda for the Rams.
Despite her back-seat role, Frontiere continues to take heat from Rams fans and foes who say she allowed Shaw to dismantle the team her husband built and, once only pieces remained, ship it off to the highest bidder.
It still rankles many fans that she let the great running back Eric Dickerson slip away.
“It took a long time to dismantle that team, that spirit,” said Steve Rosenbloom, who now lives in New Orleans. “Now the fans are losing their team for a few more bucks. How many meals can you eat? I remember when winning was the bottom line. If you won, money came with it. It’s lost perspective. Anaheim is left with a bad taste in its mouth. My dad would die a thousand deaths if he could see what has happened to his legacy.”
But Frontiere said Saturday that her late husband would have gotten the team a new stadium years ago.
“I didn’t want to leave California,” she said. “I mean, it’s hard for my friends and family because everybody says, ‘Why is she so mean taking the team away?’ It’s business; it has to be business.”
Suzanne Shrader, a lifelong Rams season ticket holder who recently moved from Newport Beach to St. Louis, said the St. Louis fans don’t know much about past complaints about Frontiere.
“They will embrace her,” Shrader said, “Until she starts pulling stunts again like she pulled in California: . . . the Eric Dickerson situation . . . her going down on the field and kissing John Robinson and the players . . . not spending enough money on the team.”
But fans both here and in St. Louis say the welcome mat won’t stay out long if the team continues to languish.
“They are going to a city only because she needs money,” former Ram Dryer said. “They are going to a city that has shown it won’t support a weak franchise. . . . She better wear a helmet in St. Louis. Those people back there will skull her in the head with a beer bottle in a minute.”