When a family with a sports franchise undergoes a divorce, one heart-rending question is:
Who gets the team?
That’s the issue at stake between Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his estranged wife, Jamie.
McCourt, who fired his wife as chief executive last year, says she signed a document giving up claims to the ballclub (and allowing her to keep seven of the couple’s residences).
She says the document isn’t binding. It may lead to the most dramatic ruling in this category since filmmaker Steven Spielberg, during divorce proceedings against actress Amy Irving, submitted a prenuptial agreement written on a cocktail napkin (the judge rejected the napkin and awarded Irving $100 million).
One thing seems fairly certain in the McCourt battle. If they go to trial, it will end in an all-or-nothing verdict as far as the team goes. The judge would be unlikely, for instance, to grant Jamie McCourt custody of the Dodgers during the week and allow Frank to take the team on the weekends.
In case you’re keeping score, Frank McCourt is the second straight Dodger proprietor to have a marital breakup.
His predecessor, media kingpin Rupert Murdoch, divorced wife Anna in 1999 when News Corp. owned the Dodgers. She gained no part of the team but was awarded a reported $1.2 billion, one of the largest such settlements in history.
A previous record-holder in this category was Jean Cooke, the wife of Jack Kent Cooke, who once owned the Lakers and Kings franchises and the Forum arena.
When the two married in 1931, he was 19 and a long way from needing a prenup. She was 17.
They were together until one day in 1976 when, the Washington Post recounted, “Jean Cooke drove off after a fight -- one of many arguments -- and Jack ran outside in his robe to try to stop her. In the process he broke his wrist.”
Cooke, who had had “various romantic escapades,” tried to “recruit his older son to reason with her, to get her to call off the divorce or to accept a settlement on his terms -- roughly $2 million,” the Post said. “Jack sent her letters and tape recordings . . . many of which she threw away.”
Jean was no match for hard-nosed Jack in the ways of the business world, but she knew enough to hire some attorneys who were. Three years later, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner ruled that Jean should receive not $2 million, but $41 million.
(No, the case did not appear on “The People’s Court” television show, which starred Wapner. That program did not make its debut until 1981.)
A little short of dough to pay the settlement, Cooke sold the Lakers, Kings and the Forum to Jerry Buss. Later, Cooke would get back into sports as the owner of the Washington Redskins and get back into marriage, walking down the aisle four more times.
John and Becky Moores also married before the era of prenups. He was 19. They had met in a high school history class.
When she filed for divorce in 2008, more than four decades later, he was the owner of the San Diego Padres. The case was settled out of court last month.
Moores scraped together money for the undisclosed settlement by reaching an agreement to eventually sell off his controlling interest in the Padres.
Around the time the marriage collapsed, the Padres went on a cost-cutting drive, allowing high-paid stars to leave and shunning prominent free agents. They’ve since gone from a pennant contender to a team that finished in last place in 2008 and next to last in 2009.
Do the Dodgers face a similar fate?
Frank McCourt maintains that his divorce will have no effect on the ballclub.
But during the off-season, the team made no serious bids for well-known free agents. And documents submitted by Jamie McCourt indicate that the Dodgers intend to keep their player payroll below last year’s level through 2018, while raising ticket prices.
When little-known journeyman Vicente Padilla was given the honor of pitching for the Dodgers on opening day, manager Joe Torre explained: “I guess the fact that we don’t have a No. 1 -- you just have to line them up some way, and we decided to do it that way.” The Dodgers lost the game, 11-5.
In six seasons under McCourt, the Dodgers have posted a 9-14 record in playoff games, never reaching the World Series.
Though the McCourt divorce won’t result in history’s biggest settlement, it could set a record for legal expenses (at least $19 million) as well as for document tonnage. Frank McCourt’s side alone has submitted more than 100,000 pages, though no cocktail napkins have surfaced yet.
It all gives new meaning to the Dodgers slogan “Think Blue.”
The irony is that the team was once associated with the concept of marital bliss. In the 1890s, it was called the Brooklyn Bridegrooms because several players were newlyweds.
Later, the Bridegrooms became the Dodgers. After the 1957 season the team moved to L.A., having divorced the less glamorous borough of Brooklyn.