“A savvy negotiator creates leverage”: That time the White Sox pretended to move to Florida to get stadium money from Illinois

One of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied during our sports-deprived present has been watching old baseball games, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s with ridiculous uniforms. Most recently I landed on a Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers game from 1988 at Comiskey Park, which featured this:

…plus lots of discussion from Tigers announcers George Kell and Al Kaline about what a shame it would be if the White Sox moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Readers of Field of Schemes the book and Field of Schemes the website will be familiar with this as one of the most memorable move threats of the early modern stadium-grubbing era. To recap: Unhappy with their historic but insufficiently state-of-the-art stadium, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn had asked the Illinois state legislature for a new one, at public expense. And since giving the local sports team owners $150 million to build a new stadium across the street from the old one wasn’t entirely popular — Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, Reinsdorf later recalled, advised, “It’ll never happen unless people think you are going to leave” — Reinsdorf hopped on a plane to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was in the process of building its Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) in hopes of luring an MLB team, a trip that made headlines back in Chicago and helped prompt the banners at that Tigers-White Sox game in late May.

By June 30, the Illinois legislature was ready to vote, with a midnight deadline if proponents didn’t want to have to muster a three-fifths majority, likely an insurmountable obstacle. And thanks to arm-twisting by Thompson — plus a bit of subterfuge by house speaker Michael Madigan, who set his watch back by four minutes so that a 12:03 am vote could be recorded as being at 11:59 pm — the new stadium bill was approved, 30-29 in the state senate and 60-55 in the state house.

Reinsdorf’s Florida jaunt clearly had made an impact: The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the vote flatly stated that rejection of the stadium subsidy bill would have “[left] the Sox no choice but to leave the South Side for St. Petersburg.” But was Reinsdorf serious, or just following Thompson’s advice to throw a scare into the Illinois populace? Seven years later, Cigar Aficionado magazine asked the Sox co-owner about it, and received a response for the ages:

“A savvy negotiator creates leverage. People had to think we were going to leave Chicago.”

As for St. Petersburg, city officials there kept shopping around for another team to lure to town, eventually helping the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers create leverage to score new-stadium deals at home as well, as memorialized in a FoS magnet. Finally, it looked like the city had hit paydirt when San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie, frustrated at having failed four times to get stadium-subsidy referendums passed in the San Francisco Bay Area, announced he was selling the team to Tampa Bay businessman Vince Naimoli. The rest of the National League owners, however, voted to reject the sale and to tell Lurie to instead sell to local supermarket baron Peter Magowan, which he did, saving the Giants for San Francisco.

This time, though, Naimoli had actual evidence of MLB interference in St. Petersburg landing a team — since Lurie had actually announced a deal, unlike Reinsdorf and other earlier owners who’d merely played footsie with Tampa Bay. He sued MLB, and, with the league unwilling to risk its decades-old antitrust exemption in a court battle, within two years was awarded the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an expansion franchise, setting the stage for another relocation-threat saga that continues to this day.

Anyway, go watch that Tigers-Sox game if you want an interesting glimpse at the origin story of the sports move-threat campaign. Those White Sox fans with the “Stay In Chicago” banner likely didn’t know that they were unwitting pawns in a political battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, and knowing baseball fans they might not have cared if they were. But they — and Reinsdorf’s “savvy negotiations” — have echoes in every sports stadium battle of the last 30 years, and likely will for the next 30 unless cities start calling owners’ bluffs. Not to mention setting their watches right.


12 comments on ““A savvy negotiator creates leverage”: That time the White Sox pretended to move to Florida to get stadium money from Illinois

  1. I remember when MLB “saved” Houston by stepping in to scuttle the Astros to Northern Virginia deal to give Houston more time for a stadium deal.

    My best friend was extremely pissed at me when I voted against the creation of a stadium sports authority for giving away taxpayers’ money for a ballpark (and future other stadiums). And that was when I was still a somewhat baseball fan after the 1994 baseball strike.

    I am now a short-term baseball fan for the Kiwoom Heroes until soccer re-opens. Kiwoom is 6 W -1 L baby!

  2. The Edmonton Oilers did the same thing more recently. But what happens if the team is in bad shape and is not bluffing with their demands? Take the Baltimore Orioles. Their lease in Camden Yards is ending, they owe lots of money to the Nationals because of MASN, the ownership is not good, and the City is in bad shape unable to meet those demands? Throw Coronavirus and the possibility of a strike after 2021 into the mix. Maybe they actually have to move or even declare bankruptcy, and the City is stuck with Camden Yards and no tenant? It is not out of the realm of possibility:

    • How would moving help their finances? And wouldn’t plenty of rich dudes happily buy the Orioles long before they had to file for bankruptcy?

      I feel comfortable filing this under “not in the realm of possibility.” Unless maybe if a vaccine isn’t developed and going to live sporting events becomes entirely a thing of the past, but at that point we have way bigger things to worry about than where the Orioles play.

  3. It’s inaccurate to include the Rangers in that list. While Tampa Bay was briefly in play, it was because a TB group (Naimoli or whoever, don’t know) had a deal to buy the team from Eddie Chiles, who was said to be in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimers and legitimately didn’t know who he was selling it to or what their plan was. A group fronted by Rusty Rose and George W. quickly formed to buy the team and keep it in DFW. That group never threatened to leave beyond a few “maybe they’ll go to Dallas” local news stories and had a very easy time getting money out of Arlington (not unlike what’s happened in the last few years with the Ballpark’s replacement). I’m not sure if that counts as better or worse than leveraging money out of a less-than-willing participant, but it’s different.

    • I think it’s fair to say that the Tampa Bay footsie played some role in the eventual Arlington vote, if only because it set up GWB as the man who saved the Rangers and helped his sales pitch for a new stadium. Or close enough that I don’t plan on redesigning the magnets, anyway.

  4. After watching the Dorktown’s History of the Mariners episode, “This Is Not an Endorsement of Arson”, I’ve come to the conclusion the only time the MLB expands is that they’re getting sued and don’t want to risk losing that suit since it would jeopardize the anti-trust exception. Kansas City, Seattle, Tampa, the list goes on and on.

    • LOL. I can see them going to 32 teams within a decade. I really don’t see expansion happening beyond that in my lifetime (and I’m in my 50s, not 90s…)

      Nobody wants to split the pooled revenue pie into additional pieces. But at some point, the overall pie stops growing if you don’t add teams when markets, discretionary income and population demand it.

      Otherwise we’d still have just 3 or 4 franchises west of KC…

  5. What’s wrong with ridiculous uniforms???

    Charlie Finley has alot to answer for in the baseball world (DH, orange baseballs, mustache clauses etc), but the occasional splash of vibrant colour is ok by me. I don’t want to see every team wearing fluorescent orange, yellow, lime green or that wonderful mustard/brown combo that the Padres used to rock… but a little colour here and there is no bad thing.

    Besides, even if the opposing team does have better players and is beating the crap out of your guys, you can still laugh at them because they have to wear bright yellow from head to toe…

    We may be getting crushed, Parker, but you look ridiculous…. and you’re on national TV!

    • The 1980 White Sox uniforms didn’t feature any color at all, actually. But man, those lapels…

      • I think they were supposed to evoke epaulets or start a new tradition or something. They didn’t.

        It’s fun looking back at old baseball cards from this era… poor Ralph Garr, Chet Lemon and Lerrin LaGrow….

        I liked the ’83 White Sox unis though. They have recently (?) started wearing them again from time to time.

  6. It’s a timely reminder against feeling any sympathy towards St Petersburg’s current “struggle to keep the Rays”. There are no good players in this game.