8th of Jun | Story

First Person: Michael Gartner


DES MOINES, Iowa | Michael Gartner lives so close to his Iowa Cubs, right across the street, that he can run the distance between his apartment and Principal Park in less than a minute, can walk it in two minutes, can stroll it in three. Years back, he would often leave games in the eighth inning so he could walk home and bring his dog to the park for the ninth. He still watches fireworks from the comfort of his own place.

Gartner is a baseball man now, an owner of the Cubs for more than a decade, though he will always be a newspaperman. He started in high school at the Des Moines Register and worked as the Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal in his 20s before heading to television, where he hired some of the bigger stars in the industry during his years as the president of NBC. In 1997, three years before he bought the Cubs, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing while at the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa. Now back in Des Moines, he has a baseball team and a political column in the alternative newspaper. “I write some, yeah,” he says. “It kind of depends on what I want to do. I’m 73 years old. I’m kind of to the point where I do whatever the h— I want to do, which is nice.”

I was born and raised here. Baseball came back in 1947, so my Dad and I would take the streetcar down. It was on this site, but it was an older park. They were affiliated with the Cubs then, too, and they were called the Des Moines Bruins. I was 8 or 9 years old.

Some days, I could tell you that starting lineup more than I could tell you this starting lineup.

“I fell into this job in New York, at the Wall Street Journal, out of college, which was great. I loved it, and it was easy. There was no heavy lifting. If you screwed up today, you start over tomorrow.” — Iowa Cubs owner Michael Gartner

My father only made me do two things in his entire life. He made me learn how to type when I was 10, and he made me learn how to keep a box score. Probably the two most valuable things I ever had to learn.

I started out working in the Sports department of the Register. I started working in high school and I paid my way through college, working the summers and holidays. My dad started his life as a sports writer up in Waterloo, and my brother was a sports writer for a while, too, so it’s sort of in our blood.

I fell into this job in New York, at the Wall Street Journal, out of college, which was great. I loved it, and it was easy. There was no heavy lifting. If you screwed up today, you start over tomorrow.

I was the No. 2 guy at the newspaper. I was 28, 29, and I talked to the managing editor 50 times a day, normally just, ‘What’s new?’ ‘Oh, nothing.’ One day, ‘What’s new?’ ‘I’m getting married.’ ‘Oh, bulls—.’ I was in law school full time and I was working there full time, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Anybody I know?’ I said, ‘Matter of fact, it is.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Someone on the copy desk.’ ‘Well, who?’ And that p—ed me off, because there was only one woman on the copy desk. He said, ‘You’re marrying Barbara McCoy?’ ‘Yeah,’ ‘Really?’ ‘Call her over, if you don’t believe me.’ Then he gets this stricken look on his face. ‘Well, she has to quit. We have a nepotism rule.’ I said, ‘Well, f— it, I quit.’ He said, ‘You can’t quit.’ ‘Yes, I can. I have a standing offer from Time magazine. I can go up there any time I want.’ ‘You’re kidding me.’ ‘No.’ I typed out a resignation letter, effective May 25, 1968, and I said, ‘Here, I’m outta here.’ He has this pained expression on his face, sticks it in his pocket and storms out. Comes back about an hour and a half later and said, ‘The management of Dow Jones has just informed me we no longer have a nepotism rule.’ That’s my contribution to journalism in America.

They gave me way too much responsibility, more than I should have ever been given, but that’s why I always pick young guys and give them a shot.

I put Katie Couric on the air, I put Tim Russert on the air, Maria Shriver. Brian Williams was the last guy I hired before I left. Bryant Gumbel would be my favorite — Bryant and Katie and Russert and Maria Shriver would be the four really outstanding human beings.

I was on the Pulitzer board for 10 years — I’m the only person who’s been on the Pulitzer Prize board that went on to win one — but I was the president of the Pulitzer Prize board on the 75th anniversary of the prizes and they invited every living winner to a big dinner in New York. I was there, and the speaker was a colleague on the board, Russell Baker, who had been a great, great columnist at the New York Times, and he got up and he looked out at all these people — newspapermen, biographers, novelists, it was everybody — and he said, ‘I know the first line of the obituary of every person in this room.’ And he was right. It’s an obituary-changer. It’s real nice, but you still have to go to work the next day. A lot of it is just luck. I would rather be lucky and win one.

My dad and mom were still alive when I won. He lived to 102, and she lived to 95. I looked out of the corner of my eye and I saw a reporter interviewing my dad at the party. ‘What the h— is he asking him?’ I picked up the Register the next day and read it, and he said, ‘I taught him to dangle his first participle.’ My dad was a very funny man.

When we moved back in ’74, we moved into a nice big, old house on the west side of town. I won’t go into the suburbs. I don’t like the suburbs. I won’t go west of 63rd Street.

My friend Mike, he’s a lawyer in town and a longtime friend, 20 years younger than I am, he called me up. ‘I heard Kenny’s thinking about selling the Cubbies.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘I think we should buy them.’ ‘What do you mean we? You don’t have any money.’ ‘That’s why I said we.’

“Somebody asked me when I bought the team, ‘Did you play baseball as a kid?’ I said, ‘Yeah, and my problem as a shortstop was the same as my problem as an editorial writer — I couldn’t go to my right.’” — Gartner

We bought it and worked out a deal so he has a quarter of it. Then the guy died on opening day before we had a deal, dropped dead in his box, and buyers came out of the woodwork, including Kevin Costner. Nobody knew who even owned it. It was a very complicated deal involving trusts and lawyers and banks and children and step-children, but ultimately his widow sold it to us in ’99. We took it over in 2000.

Somebody asked me when I bought the team, ‘Did you play baseball as a kid?’ I said, ‘Yeah, and my problem as a shortstop was the same as my problem as an editorial writer — I couldn’t go to my right.’

First thing I think about is the weather. The weather is the single-most important thing here, from a business perspective. 

I come in, I work a little in the morning and then in the afternoon, I’ll stand behind the cage and watch batting practice and talk with the manager or the coaches or some of the players. It’s not a bad life. Go home for dinner, walk across the street, come back.

Most games, I’ll wander around and talk with people. People want to see the owner. This is a customer-service business. 

I used to work for NBC, and when I left, I said, ‘I’m never going to another meeting unless I call it, and I’m never going to call any meetings.’

I don’t know who my favorite player would be. It would probably be Mantle, because I was in New York during his heyday — DiMaggio was just leaving and Mantle was there, and he was fun to watch, and he was always in agony. You kind of had to admire him. He was a hard liver, too, and you had to admire how he could get up every day and come to the ballpark. See, I’m from the era where Mantle, Mays, Snider, those were the ones who were etched in my mind because I was a young man when they were great. Your favorite player is always from the era when you were really intense.

If you find a person to love and a place to love, you don’t need anything else.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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