As the worst team in professional basketball hands down, the Lakers had first draft choice in 1958, but Baylor had another year of college eligibility left and he had announced he wanted to stay in school. Short flew to "a cold-water flat" in southeast Washington and talked to Elgin and his mother and his father and his sister and his girl friend Ruby, who is now married to Baylor. He got nowhere. Baylor returned to college in Seattle, and Short pursued him there. He finally got his man. Seven years later, in 1965, Short sold the Lakers to Jack Kent Cooke for the astounding sum of $5,175,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a basketball franchise.
"I didn't want to sell," Short says, "but when the price got so high Walter O'Malley said, 'Hell, take it, you can get into baseball for that.' I'd always liked baseball best, and it looked like the Senators might be available for about that much then, so I took it. But I had to wait until 1968 before I could buy the Senators and by then they cost $9.4 million." And when Paulucci backed out at the last minute, Short had to borrow a lot of money at high interest.
"If something is a good thing," Short observes, "it probably wouldn't come down to me. My name's not Rockefeller—these other characters get the good things. The Lakers were bad, that's why I got them. The same with my hotels and the Senators. Some of them are bad now, but all of them have been good at some point or another under my management. This is not a healthy period for any of my businesses, and if things keep going the way they are I could lose all of them. But I didn't have anything to start with. You can only eat three times a day, drive a car and dress, and you're here a shorter time than most people plan on."
Short is not so fatalistic, however, that he has failed to come up with a few ideas for saving the Senators, at least, from ruin. Fortunately he is no stranger to politics. In 1966 he ran, unsuccessfully, as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota, and this year he was considered by his friend Paulucci to have an outside shot at the gubernatorial nomination. ("Not really," Short says now. "I didn't have a chance in the first place.") He has known Hubert Humphrey since their college days and ran Humphrey's vice-presidential campaign in 1964. In '68 he was prevailed upon to become the party's national treasurer. "I raised the money they needed," he recalls, "and I declared every bit of it, much to the consternation of the Democrats. After the election everybody was talking about how hard it was going to be to pay off the $6 million debt. I said, 'Forget it. Think how hard it was to legally borrow that much.' It was a pretty good trick."
Short also did some work for Lyndon Johnson, serving as chairman of Discover America, Inc., a see-America-first tourism effort. And now he has Richard Nixon on the cover of the Senators' program as the team's "No. 1 Fan." "He gives me advice from time to time on trades," says Short. "But I wouldn't say the McLain trade was his."
All those associations will do Short no harm in his campaign to negotiate a new lease and a new landlord for the Senators. He has been before a congressional committee asking that he, like the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, pay only $1 rent for the first million in attendance (Short paid $149,000 this year), that he get all the proceeds from concessions and parking, and that he not have to pay for stadium police and ground crew. Altogether he figures he was deprived this year of $700,000 that most owners (certainly those owners who have been lured into expansion cities by juicy deals) would have received or would not have had to pay. He also wants control of the stadium shifted from the District of Columbia Armory Board to the Department of Interior, so that the federal taxpayers, rather than Short and the District (which has forked over $400,000 in interest on the stadium bonds each year), can pick up the deficit.
"A stadium," Short says, "if not quite like a courthouse or a public school, still is something the public is going to have to subsidize. Cities are in the business of attracting people." A baseball team, if its owner knows his legal footing, can provide a capitalist with a great little subsidy, since the player-contract depreciation writeoff can free an owner, for five years after he buys the club, from paying taxes on his other businesses. But Short's other businesses are in the red, too, he says, so tax loopholes do him no good. He has had to pay the $1.6 million losses of the last two years out of his pocket. "That's when you start taking money from your wife, or something," he says.
Short would also like to see $2 million in improvements made on the interior of the stadium. "There's no gas in it. You have to have gas to serve hot hot dogs. One of my problems is cold hot dogs. There's not enough refrigeration. One of my problems is warm beer. There should be a plush restaurant—we had the Prince of Wales and had to buy him a cold hot dog from the booth!"
The Senators' TV-radio contract for the past year was the poorest in baseball, says Short—$325,000 as opposed to the Dodgers' $1,750,000, for example. "Even Seattle was getting $800,000," he says, "and it went broke. The Orioles get $800,000. I told Hoffberger [the Baltimore owner], if I had your team I'd make $2 million."
Lacking any Orioles, he does have Howard and McLain and maybe Flood. Perhaps they will do for the Senators what Baylor did for the Lakers, or maybe they will just be stormy petrels. "Flood is not a hard-to-handle player," says Short. "As far as the legal issue goes, he's made his point, the case has been heard and the appeal courts won't go into additional facts now, such as his signing a contract with me. I went after Flood because I thought, 'Here's a player who can hit, and he's not playing. I see a lot of players who are playing and can't hit.' "