Pennant Wise, Dollar Foolish

The first time I met Brad Corbett, owner of the Texas Rangers baseball club, I made a mistake that I learned later is fairly common. I thought he ought to trade his three-piece suit for a giant eggplant and try to make it on Let’s Make a Deal . 

I met Corbett a few weeks before the start of spring training. He had just flown back to Fort Worth in his private jet. He had been off in Florida doing what he loves best — trading players. Some people love to make money, and Corbett is no slouch in this field either, but you can’t play catch with a cashier’s check, can’t buy it a drink at the Palm Bay Club, or have your picture taken with it, or invite it home to meet your mom. Money is just paper; a player is something you can enjoy. In his five years as majority stockholder, Corbett has bought, sold, and traded so many players that the Rangers ought to be required to play their home games at Ellis Island.

Corbett was holding audience in his office at Robintech, Inc., the Fort Worth-based plastic-pipe company he acquired preparatory to realizing his lifelong dream of owning a major league team. It was a large, personalized office, decorated the way his boyhood bedroom back in Queens must have been, with a lot of pennants, trophies, and autographed pictures of baseball players. Corbett had spoken of his dream so many times it was like recalling a favorite move: how as a raggedy nine-year-old newsboy outside Yankee Stadium he had watched Yankees owner Dan Topping escort Lana Turner to a waiting limousine; how he had slapped his cap across his knee and remarked to a companion, “Someday that’s gonna be me!” He worked his way through tiny Wagner College on Staten Island digging ditches and selling hoagies, married the homecoming queen, played two seasons of lower minor league baseball under an assumed name, and saved his pennies. He moved to Texas and in 1967 parlayed a $300,000 Small Business Administration loan into a plastic-pipe empire. By 1974 Robintech was grossing $88 million a year, and Corbett had formed a syndicate of Dallas and Fort Worth businessmen to buy the Rangers.   

On the financial pages, “dynamic” was the term most often used to describe Corbett’s dealings. Sportswriters, who look only at the top line and draw their metaphors from the animal kingdom, were less prosaic. If Oakland’s Charlie Finley was the mule, Corbett might be the beaver. Then again, he might be Woody Woodpecker. There was no way of telling if Corbett was building a team or a monument to self-indulgence.

Many summers ago, when baseball owners wore diamond stickpins and had names like Cornelius McGillicuddy, baseball was pure essence of capitalism. Serious business. The industry was controlled by a cabal of skinflints who, according to tradition, subjected their players to intolerable working conditions and administered regular canings. At night, while the weary nation rested, owners were expected to pry up bleacher boards looking for loose change. Those old fellows are mostly gone now and the brotherhood is floundering. So is the industry, or that is the claim being made by such eminences grises as August Busch, Jr., Phil Wrigley, and Walter O’Malley. Busch, the 78-year-old brewer and board chairman of the St. Louis Cardinals, suggests that the game has deteriorated into a “severe, ugly business,” and, though he stops short of pointing the finger at Brad Corbett, there is no question that Corbett’s methods of doing business threaten the old line with terminal shock. And what is Corbett doing to the national pastime? He is running it like a game. Subsidized by Corbett’s plastic-pipe empire, the Rangers refuse to abide by the old rules. If they blow a few million on bad deals, Corbett will simply sell some more pipe. Some of the owners think that Brad Corbett is un-American.

Watching Corbett that day in his office, I had the impression he didn’t much care what the other owners thought. Corbett was at least doing something. He paced around his desk, a telephone cradled under his ample chin and a long extension cord trailing behind like the wake of a speedboat. With his bumpkin haircut, paunch, and Daddy Warbucks cigar, Corbett looked something like W. C. Fields.   

“Your man’s got a $200,000 tag and we know he’ll play it out,” Corbett was saying to the dealer on the other end of the line in San Francisco. “Geez, Spec, if we weren’t a contender we wouldn’t do it. Yeah, yeah, do that. Think it over and get back to me.” Corbett took a bite out of his cheeseburger and winked at his general manager, Dan O’Brien, who sat across the room in a chair shaped like a second baseman’s glove. O’Brien looked at his own partially eaten cheeseburger but seemed unable to swallow. Corbett had already instigated more than twenty off-season trades, with or without O’Brien’s approval. “People say I’m a dominant owner,” Corbett told me. “Well, I am. I hire the best baseball executives I can, but I don’t always listen to them. But Dan here will be the first to tell you, on balance, year in and year out, we’re on the plus side of the ledger.”  

Dan O’Brien was the first to tell me. “Weigh in what the Houston Astros have done in the last ten years,” he said. “Losing people like Joe Morgan and Cesar Geronimo. On balance, we’re a plus. In baseball today, the difference between black and red is being in the play-offs or the world series. Brad has made this team a contender. When you’re close, like we are, you have to be willing to take that extra step or two.”

“If this team doesn’t go all the way,” Corbett added, “we’ll go back to the trough next winter.”  

There was a time last summer when Corbett was ready to cash in his chips

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