News broke on Wednesday that the Wilpon family, longtime owners of the New York Mets, were in the midst of negotiations to sell their controlling interest in the team. The Wilpons have long been reviled by Mets fans and the news was met with almost universal celebration from the team’s long-suffering faithful. Mets boosters have vociferously expressed their frustrations with the team’s mismanagement and (relatively) streamlined payroll, the latter point largely driven by the Wilpons being amongst the 37,000 victims of the malfeasance of Bernie Madoff, a longtime Wilpon family friend.
However, some fans (this author among them) have pointed out that the buyer should set off alarm bells for those who were concerned by the Wilpons’ business dealings with Madoff. The purchaser is none other than Steve Cohen, one of the most notorious figures in the history of Wall Street. Cohen already owned a minority share in the team, a move the Wilpons made after the Madoff scandal left them financially scrambling to cover the costs of the club. Now, he stands to become the majority stakeholder with 80% of the team under his control.
Cohen was the hedge fund manager behind SAC Capital, so named because the letters represented his initials. In 2013, SAC pleaded guilty to wire fraud and insider trading, a case that Southern District of New York U.S. attorney Preet Bharara called “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” The resulting fine of $1.8 billion was one of the largest ever seen on Wall Street. Cohen avoided prison mainly because he covered his tracks, claimed ignorance, and threw his employees under the bus, most especially his closest confidant, Mathew Martoma, who was sentenced to nine years.
SAC was forced to close shop and Cohen was banned from hedge fund management in the United States until 2018. As soon as he was legally able, Cohen relaunched his career and, under the billionaire-friendly deregulation of the Trump administration, he has quickly gotten himself back in the game. He remains unable to trade in the U.K., as the British Financial Conduct Authority continues to see him as “not a fit or proper person,” to manage the wealth of their citizens. Still, his net worth is valued somewhere between $9 and $13 billion, which would make him the wealthiest owner in all of major league baseball.
There is a long history of criminals owning baseball teams, and New York has a special place in that story, dating all the way back to the beginnings of the professional game. Prior to the formation of the National Association, the first “major league,” the New York Mutuals were one of the most competitive teams to come out of Manhattan. The roster of the Mutuals featured some important names from the 19th Century, including John “Candy” Nelson, who had a lengthy professional career that lasted from 1872 until 1890, and Lipman Pike, the first Jewish person to ever play professional baseball.
When the National Association was founded in 1871, the Mutuals were one of the teams that made the transition to the big leagues. Once there, they did not perform as well as they had in the pre-pro days and they were excised from the league after 1875. Ownership, who had tired of losing money on a failing team, refused to pay for them to go on their final road trip. The punishment for failing to complete their schedule was banishment. It wasn’t a huge concern to the owners, however, as the greater percentage of the consortium really made their money as members of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party machine that ran New York City politics for the latter half of the 19th Century and the first portion of the 20th.
The best remembered name from Tammany Hall was William Magear “Boss” Tweed, one of the most notorious criminal kingpins in City history. Famed baseball writer and a founding father of the sport, Henry Chadwick, once claimed that Tweed was the president of the team, but Chadwick inflated Tweed’s role. His titles were mostly honorary, including that of “trustee.” What is certain is that in 1870, Tweed contributed $7,500 to the team’s coffers, approximately $148,000 in today’s money. At the end of year ceremony the club president made a point of announcing to the gathered crowd that Tweed did so “without any intention of using the Mutual players as gambling instruments.” Right.
Over a quarter of a century later, another Tammany alum got into the baseball game. William Stephen Devery has the historical distinction of being the last superintendent of the New York City Police Department and the first police chief of the five boroughs after the unification of the City in 1898. He was also one of the most corrupt cops to ever wield power in New York history. In 1897, he was charged with bribery and extortion, and was convicted. He was able to elude punishment when he won his appeal in the New York Court of Appeals and was quickly reinstated onto the police force, where he was given his powerful titles. When he finally resigned from the force in 1902 he held the title of Deputy Commissioner.
His days of graft and shakedowns had left him a rich man. Working with Frank J. Farrell, a gambler who owned several pool halls around the City, the two of them joined forces at the beginning of 1903 to purchase the struggling Baltimore Orioles franchise. Ostensibly, they “moved” the team to New York City, calling it the Highlanders. However, few of the Orioles made the trip with them, so it is a stretch to claim that they were the same team. In fact, the Highlanders, who are now more commonly known as the Yankees, officially mark their foundational year as 1903.
For a long time, legend had it that the Yankees owed Devery for their iconic interlocking NY, first introduced in 1909. Originally realized by Tiffany and Co. in 1877, the design was created for a medal of honor that was given to police officer John McDowell, who had been shot in the line of duty by a man named, coincidentally, James Farrell. People have pointed to that police connection to credit Devery with its introduction into Yankee lore. However, researcher Tom Shieber has shown that the interlocking letters had been in use by baseball teams before the Yankees, including just the year before by the New York Giants. During Devery’s tenure, the Highlanders were one of the worst teams in the league. It wasn’t until he sold the club to Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston in 1915 that the team’s fortunes began to rise.
The following year, 1916, marked the season in which Alex Pompez made his initial foray into team ownership. The dark-skinned, Florida-born son of Cuban immigrants created a squad of African-Americans he called the New York Cubans, trading on the popularity of a similarly named team out of Chicago that had been formed years before. Pompez, who lived in Harlem, toured his Cubans through Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba that first season, but soon enough they set up home base in New York, playing out of Dyckman Oval in northern Manhattan. The team would soon change their name to the Cuban Stars and they became one of the most important clubs in Negro League baseball history.
Pompez’s own history was a checkered one. After all, there weren’t many Blacks at the beginning of the twentieth century with the kind of capital it took to run a professional baseball team. Pompez had made his fortune running a numbers racket out of Harlem. He was a crafty businessman who had the wisdom to know just how big he could make his empire and still stay off the police radars. Unfortunately, he couldn’t evade the watchful eye of Dutch Schultz, one of the most infamous gangsters of the age. Schultz saw the success that Pompez was having with his lottery and he forced the reticent racketeer to become a part of his larger criminal syndicate.
That was how Pompez came to the attention of New York Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who had made it his mission to destroy the gangs that littered the city, and Schultz especially. Pompez learned that Dewey was coming after him with an offer to either testify against Schultz’s syndicate or face imprisonment. In 1936, the wily businessman fled the country, running first to Canada, then Europe, and then ultimately Mexico. It was in Mexico where he was captured and extradited back to the United States. Schultz had been assassinated by then, so Pompez ended up testifying against Tammany boss James Hines and through that cooperation, won immunity.
After his close call with the law, Pompez focused the remainder of his career on his baseball interests, and what a career it was. His Cubans won the Negro League championship in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. The integration of Robinson, and the many Black players who followed, spelled the end for the Negro Leagues, but Pompez kept his Cubans in business until 1950. After that, he was hired by the New York Giants to be their scout in charge of finding Black and Latin players, a position he held until 1971. Over the years he was responsible for the signings of future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, along with dozens of others of the biggest names in baseball history, including Minnie Miñoso, Sandy Amoros and the Alou brothers.
Just two years after Pompez finished working with the Giants, a Cleveland-based ship builder purchased the New York Yankees from the CBS television network for $8.7 million dollars. Over the next forty years George Steinbrenner would have one of the most tumultuous careers of any owner in baseball history. “The Boss” was widely known for his omnipresent hand in the affairs of the club and, at first, it seemed like it was a good fit, as the Yankees won championships in both 1977 and 1978. However, the ’78 crown marked the last for almost two decades. In the interim, the Yankees became better known for their fractured clubhouse, their on-field failures, and the schizophrenic-like whims of their owner, who would hire and fire managers with a rapidity that soon became a punchline.
It was no small miracle that Steinbrenner managed to remain in control of the team for almost all that time. The year after he purchased them, he found himself embroiled in scandal, when it was discovered that he had illegally contributed to the campaign of Richard Nixon. Steinbrenner was found guilty of election fraud and obstruction of justice and was fined $15,000 for his role in the crime, though he never served any time in jail. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn responded by banning him from baseball for two years, though he later reduced the punishment to just fifteen months. In 1989, Steinbrenner was pardoned by Ronald Reagan.
The Boss found himself in hot water again in 1990 when he paid gambler Howard Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Yankees star Dave Winfield. Steinbrenner and Winfield had clashed for years, beginning when Winfield had a lackluster performance in the 1981 World Series. The Boss loathed that Winfield, who he blamed for the Yankees loss to the Dodgers, remained a popular figure in New York throughout the 1980s, where the lanky outfielder was ensconced on the Yankees roster under the safety of a blockbuster 10-year contract. When Commissioner Fay Vincent learned of the scheme, he banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life, a punishment that actually only lasted until 1993. It was no coincidence that is was during the brief respite from Steinbrenner’s interference that the remaining Yankees brass assembled the core of the team that would dominate the latter half of the 1990s.
Now, the Yankees’ crosstown rivals are on the verge of hiring a new owner that sources claim will also be very hands-on, despite the fact that his only experience in the world of baseball has been his minority ownership and his claim of being a lifelong Mets fan. The team’s faithful are excited by the possibility of Cohen’s giant checkbook being used to sign some of baseball’s bigger names, including an early wish for Mookie Betts, who the Boston Red Sox have hinted they are looking to move. However, a look at other teams that have super-rich owners, including the Tigers (Marian Ilitch, estimated net worth $3.7 billion), the Rangers (Ray Davis, estimated net worth $2.3 billion) and the Angels (Arte Moreno, estimated net worth $3.1 billion) should serve as a warning that wealth does not equal success.
To this author, it is a former owner that Cohen is most reminiscent of, however. Jeffrey Loria, who was born and raised in Manhattan, owned both the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins, teams that were well acquainted with failure. Like Cohen, Loria is a collector of fine art, a hobby that more than one ultra-wealthy criminal has used to launder money (though there is currently no evidence that either Loria or Cohen are doing so). After becoming the most hated owner in baseball (one poll put his popularity rating in Miami at 6%, just ahead of Fidel Castro), Loria sold the Marlins in 2017 for a cool $1.2 billion. He later stated he made no profit from the sale, a claim that detractors cry is an attempt to avoid paying taxes to the city of Miami and the state of Florida. Mets fans can only hope that when Cohen decides to cash in on his plaything, he doesn’t leave them in the same state as the woebegone Marlins.
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