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Today in Baseball History: George W. Bush ‘buys’ the Texas Rangers

MLB Photos Archive

UNDATED: Co-owner and managing general partner of the Texas Rangers George W. Bush and mother Barbara Bush attend a Texas Rangers game circa 1989-1998 in Arlington, Texas. George W. Bush served as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 until he was elected Governor of Texas on November 8, 1994. George W. Bush and his investing partners sold the Texas Rangers to Thomas O. Hicks in 1998. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

MLB Photos via Getty Images

There’s a reason for the quotes in “buys” in that headline: the future President of the United States hardly put up any money for the team at all. The purchase was overwhelmingly financed by others. George W. Bush’s involvement was, primarily, motivated by his desire to build up his resume for his political career. And, obviously, it worked.

So let’s talk about how it all came together, shall we?

Eddie Chiles was an oilman who started his drilling supply business in 1939 and parlayed that into a massive fortune. He used part of that fortune to purchase the Texas Rangers in 1980. He wasn’t the worst owner around. For one thing, he hated Bowie Kuhn. Indeed, unlike most owners, Chiles criticized Kuhn publicly, often, and helped end Kuhn’s tenure as commissioner by voting against his contract being renewed in the early 80s. Chiles also turned the Rangers around financially. They lost money in the 70s but were profitable under Chiles. They also mostly stunk and had low payrolls, though, so let’s not canonize the guy. There were better baseball owners than Chiles, but there were worse ones too.

By the late 80s, however, oil was a tough business to be in. The price of oil dropped -- I remember my dad gassing up the van for 79 cents a gallon in the fall of 1987 -- and Chiles’ business took some big hits. In the fall of 1988 he decided to unload his baseball team to help balance his books.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, the son of Vice President George H.W. Bush who was about to become President George H.W. Bush following the 1988 election, was sort of flailing. He had owned and run a string of mostly unsuccessful oil companies and mounted a failed bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. His political ambitions still persisted, however, and he had his eye on the Texas Governor’s mansion. He knew, however, that he didn’t have the credentials for it yet. As he told Time Magazine in 1989, “My biggest liability in Texas is the question ‘What’s the boy ever done? He could be riding on Daddy’s name.’”

Bush knew he needed a shiny line on his resume that was more than “he’s the president’s kid.” He decided that resume piece would be “Owner of the Texas Rangers.”

Not that Bush, in practice, was too concerned about using his daddy’s connections to make that happen. Indeed, they were essential to his bid for the team.

The idea to buy as baseball team was in large part that of Karl Rove’s, who Bush first met when Rove was one of his father’s assistants from back in the early 70s. Rove told Bush that getting into baseball “give him . . . exposure and give him something that will be easily recalled by people.” Cincinnati businessman and future St. Louis Cardinals owner William O. DeWitt Jr., who had been Bush’s partner in one of his oil businesses, is who told Bush that Chiles was selling. Chiles, meanwhile, who went way back with George H.W. Bush, was eager to sell to a Bush-led group.

Bush went about finding investors. When Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who did not want the Rangers moved out of the Dallas area, told Bush that he would not approve the deal without more money from local investors, Bush, at the prodding of Ueberroth, brought on Richard E. Rainwater. Rainwater was a billionaire financier and a large contributor to George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Rainwater’s condition was that his business parter, Edward “Rusty” Rose, would be installed as Bush’s business partner in the day-to-day running of the team.

In all, the group put up $83 million to take controlling interest from Chiles. George W. Bush put up $500,000 -- or 0.6%. -- of the purchase price. Bush borrowed the $500,000 from a bank for which he was on the board of directors. It was enough, however, to get Bush named General Managing Partner of the Rangers. The deal closed on April 21, 1989.

Critics have long said that Bush would never have been able to buy the Rangers, let alone take active control of the team, if it wasn’t for who he was and, more importantly, who his father was. To his credit, Bush didn’t deny it, at least to a point. Here he was talking about it in the late 90s, again in Time Magazine:

“Look, I don’t deny it. How could I? Being George Bush’s son has its pluses and negatives. Eddie [Chiles] felt comfortable with me because he felt comfortable with my family. But I was also the person that aggressively sought the deal. I was a pit bull on the pant leg of opportunity. I wouldn’t let go.”

People in Bush’s position often undersell how important the “opportunity” is and how, given the same “opportunity,” a great many people might’ve been able to do the same job. Moreover, most people in and around baseball at the time give far more credit for the deal coming together to Ueberroth, who had insisted on Rainwater’s involvement.

That said, I won’t beat Bush-the-baseball-man up too much here for a couple of reasons.

The first reason: this was Major League Baseball, and if there is a business that rewards nepotism, baseball is it. He was not the first guy to get into baseball’s inner sanctum in large part because of who his daddy and who his friends were, and he certainly won’t be the last. His story is not unique at all in this regard. Ask Bill DeWitt, who hipped him to the deal, and whose father was a baseball owner as well. Ask every “Jr.” who ever held an executive or ownership rank in baseball for that matter.

The second reason: Bush was a pretty hands-on owner who, actually, seemed to like baseball a great deal and seemed to do a pretty good job running the team.

Along with Rose, Bush led the drive to get The Ballpark in Arlington built. Yeah, it was publicly-funded, but again, that is not at all unique. He regularly attended games, often sitting in the stands with fans and signing autographs for anyone who approached him. He was a generally well-liked figure among Rangers fans, in no small part because the team got better in the six seasons in which Bush served as an active owner, finishing above .500 in four of those seasons. More importantly, the team developed or acquired some of the biggest stars in the franchise’s history during that time, and that basic core of players would lead the Rangers into the playoffs in 1996, 1998, and 1999.

Throughout this time, baseball’s headquarters had fallen into turmoil. Commissioner Fay Vincent was taken out by an ownership coup, and Bud Selig was installed as interim commissioner. As labor strife loomed, many around baseball talked about Bush, perhaps, one day, becoming Commissioner himself. Bush, however, never forgot the reason he got into baseball in the first place: to burnish his resume for political office.

Bush declared himself a candidate for Texas governor in September of 1993, a few months before the opening of The Ballpark in Arlington. While his earlier political efforts were felled by his perceived petulance and temper, and the perception that he was a daddy’s boy, his time as a baseball owner had helped him refine his campaign style. While his father’s 1992 reelection campaign was a failure, W’s efforts on his behalf as a Texas campaign surrogate increased his profile, thanks mostly to what he called his “Baseball, Apple Pie and First Family” stump speech, in which he’d reference the Rangers and the lessons he had learned in baseball pretty constantly. He kept that same folksy, baseball-heavy approach in his gubernatorial bid, using it -- and a massive national Republican wave -- to unseat the popular incumbent Ann Richards in November 1994.

Bush would resign his role as Rangers CEO in December of that year but would retain his ownership stake. In 1998, the Bush group sold the team to Tom Hicks for $250 million, which was one of the largest prices ever paid for a baseball team to date. Due to that price, and to various escalator clauses in Bush’s contract, his initial $500,000 borrowed investment paid him almost $15 million.

A couple of years later he’d run for president. But we’ll leave that for another time.

Also today in baseball history:

1904: Ty Cobb makes his professional debut for Augusta of the South Atlantic League, hitting a double and home run in an 8-7 loss.

1910: League Park opens in Cleveland. The Naps lose to Detroit 5-0. They would call League Park home before moving to Municipal Stadium on a permanent basis in the early 1930s.

1925: No games are played in the National League due to the funeral for Dodger owner Charles Ebbets, who died three days earlier. Edward McKeever, who became president of the Dodgers upon the death of Ebbets, contracts pneumonia at the funeral and will die eight days later:

1961: The Twins, who had been the Washington Senators until this year, play their first home game, losing to the new expansion Washington Senators franchise at Metropolitan Stadium. The new Senators will become the Texas Rangers 11 years later.

1967: The Dodgers are rained out at home for the first time since moving to Los Angeles. They had played 737 consecutive home games before having one banged for weather.

1972: The Texas Rangers play their first game in Texas, beating California, 7-3.

2012: Phillip Humber of the White Sox pitches baseball’s 21st perfect game, blanking the Mariners 4-0. It’s his first ever major league complete game. Humber will post a 6.44 ERA this season and 7.90 ERA in 2013 and will be out of baseball for good after that.

Follow @craigcalcaterra