The Emperor Has No Clothes, part 3

Jean Yawkey’s death on February 26, 1992 ended her family’s 59-year control of the Red Sox. Her JRY Corporation owned two of the club’s three general partnership shares; upon her death,control of JRY Corporation and the Sox passed to her closest adviser, John Harrington.

At the time, speculation about future control of the Sox centered on Haywood Sullivan, owner of the third general partnership share. The Sox partnership agreement gave Sullivan the right to buy JRY’s shares before they could be sold to a third party. Although Sullivan, a long-time baseball insider, couldn’t afford the club himself, he had cultivated a network of wealthy supporters who could.

Sullivan was the Yawkeys’ natural successor. He had been affiliated with the Sox for decades, and already represented the Sox at owners’ meetings. Sullivan also served on MLB’s executive committee, making powerful friends who could help him in any struggle for control of the club.

By contrast, Harrington was seen as a short-term caretaker. He was an accountant, not a “baseball man,” seemingly more suited to managing the Yawkey investments. The day after Jean Yawkey’s death, Nick Cafardo of the Globe wrote of a “prevailing theory among insiders that Harrington is not interested in being the longterm keeper of the flame, that he dislikes the limelight and prefers a quieter life than running the Red Sox.” Little did he know.

The day Jean Yawkey’s will was filed for probate, Harrington distributed a 3-1/2-page letter to Red Sox employees. His letter suggested that the Sox would soon be sold: “It will likely be consistent with the desires of all concerned for the Yawkey Red Sox interests to be sold, assuming, of course, that a fair price can be obtained for all of these combined Red Sox interests." Harrington later confirmed that he planned to offer the Yawkey interests for sale within three years; Sullivan expressed confidence he’d be able to buy them. His backers were rumored to include future Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft.

But in a stunning development, Harrington bought out Sullivan instead. In November 1993, Sullivan sold his 10% of the Sox, including his general partnership share, to JRY Corporation for $12 million. Seventeen years before, he had borrowed $1 million from Jean Yawkey to buy this stake.

Sullivan explained, "The time was right and they met my price. There are other options I have available to me, and whether I decide to pursue those options remains to be seen in the future." Harrington now controlled all three of the Red Sox’ general partnership shares.

Though Sullivan insisted that health concerns had not motivated him to sell out, he was more ambivalent about Harrington’s role. Earlier in the year Harrington had revised his timetable for selling JRY’s shares. Breaking with his earlier promise to sell the club by the end of 1995, Harrington announced that he planned to retain control through at least 1998.

While saying that the postponement “really didn't enter into my thinking on the final decision,” Sullivan admitted that "If John was willing to negotiate with us, we would have been prepared to make a bid on the team.” Some of his backers (who now reportedly included ousted Commissioner Fay Vincent) may not have been willing to wait. More importantly, none could be confident that Harrington wouldn’t find another reason to postpone the sale.

In fact, in early 1994 Harrington told Will McDonough of the Globe that he had rebuffed more than two dozen inquiries from prospective purchasers. “I tell them all, 'Now is not the time. At least not for another five years, and maybe not even then.' It might be 15 years. But for sure, five more years.”

Over the next months Harrington gave several extensive interviews to the press. He described his plans for improving the Sox, starting with the hiring of Dan Duquette to supervise baseball operations. “I could not change the organization the way I wanted to change it in just another year. There is no way I could have gotten Dan Duquette to come here if I might be out of here in a year or two. He is our guy in charge of baseball.”

Harrington himself overhauled the front office, reducing what he considered a top-heavy staff. He promised better concessions, cleaner bathrooms and friendlier service for the fans. And he settled in for a long run at the helm of the Sox. In March 1996, he explained, "We will sell controlling interest in the team someday, but not until the economy of major league baseball is stabilized and we are in a new stadium. That is going to take a while.”

After stating that he would not put the club up for sale “until it is in the best interests of the trust and the Red Sox to do so,” Harrington added: “We do not have any legal limitations that come into effect for another 15 years or so about when we have to sell."

Meanwhile, Harrington’s influence within MLB grew. He became acting commissioner Bud Selig’s closest adviser, serving on every important committee and chairing the committee which recommended radical realignment. The next installment of this series will examine Harrington’s record on these broader issues.

SIDEBAR: Jean Yawkey’s other options

The aging owners of professional sports franchises must decide what to do with their clubs. They have four options: sell the club while they’re alive, leave the club to their heirs, leave the club to charity, or direct that the club be sold upon their death. Jean Yawkey left the Sox to charity, but recently other owners have followed different paths.

Richard Jacobs, owner of the Cleveland Indians, has put his club up for sale. After building the Indians from basket case to hugely profitable AL powerhouse, the 73-year-old Jacobs is cashing out. He explained: “I want to have a say in passing the torch. I don't want an executor of mine to say, ‘Well, Jacobs, he has no hand from the grave, he can't do anything on this. Let's make up our decision, who should be the owner of this team.’” Jacobs stressed that he will sell the Indians only to a suitable owner “committed to the continuing success of this ballclub.”

By contrast, the late Leon Hess ran the New York Jets until his death last month at age 85. His will, however, specified that the Jets be sold immediately. As a result, the Jets were placed on the market just two weeks after Hess’ death, and new ownership will be in place before the 1999 season.

SIDEBAR: The Kansas City Example

Like Jean Yawkey, Ewing Kauffman of the Royals left his club to charity. But while Yawkey gave John Harrington a blank check to run the Sox for as long as he wishes, Kauffman took precautions to avoid such an outcome.

After Kauffman’s death, title to the Royals passed to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and Affiliated Trusts. The Foundation was authorized to own and operate the club for up to six years, or until a local buyer could be found. If no local purchaser emerges during this period, the Royals will be sold to the highest bidder. Either way, the foundation will get its money, and be out of the baseball business, within six years.

The Foundation put the Royals up for sale in September 1997, at a price of $75 million. It required prospective purchasers to keep the club in Kansas City, and to raise at least half of their money from local investors. When a group headed by attorney Miles Prentice satisfied these conditions, the Foundation accepted their bid. (The sale must still be approved by the American League.) The entire process took only fourteen months.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the June 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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