Robert Short, hard-pressed but irrepressible trucker, hotelier, owner of the professedly all-but-bankrupt Washington Senators and recent acquirer of officially bankrupt Organist-Pilot-Pitcher Denny McLain, was in New York last weekend. Short was trying to sign Curt Flood, the unemployed outfielder who is suing Short (along with all the other major league owners) for $1 million and who flew in from Copenhagen where he had been trying to establish residency so he could get a liquor license and open a discothèque. Flood's attorney in his suit against baseball's reserve clause is Arthur Goldberg, with whom Short should be able to deal because Short is a big Democrat himself—in fact, he once ran the party into a $6 million debt. But the weekend negotiations were complicated by the fact that Goldberg was busy running for governor of New York. Short would be running for governor of Minnesota if it were up to Duluth, Minn. pizza and chow mein tycoon Jeno Paulucci, who, incidentally, was supposed to help Short buy the Senators two years ago but got cold feet.
No wonder some of the more conventional people in baseball complained that Short had ruined their World Series for them. Just as they were settling in to watch such solid investments as Johnny Bench and Brooks Robinson play sound, lucrative ball, along came Short with a series of confounding announcements. He was going after the rebellious Flood, he had traded the left side of his infield and two pitchers for the scandalous McLain and three throw-ins, and if the Federal Government did not give him a better lease on Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, he said, he would be totally unable to keep the national pastime afloat in the national capital.
"Two balmy bankrupts," wrote a Mr. Bob Sellers in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, "now conjoin to drive the last stake into Senator ticket buyers. It is now starkly apparent that there is a curse upon this city.... One can only envision with passionate relish Mr. Short, Mr. McLain and Frank Howard picnicking in the outfield as 34 teen-agers (who have paid $12.50 each on garter-belt night) cheer them on." (The Senators do have panty-hose nights and ticket prices are the highest in baseball—$2.25 general admission, which "is cheaper," Short says, "than the movies.")
Even Short's manager, Ted Williams, was disgruntled. It was two years ago that Short, having just bought the Senators, amazed the baseball world favorably by signing Williams, who had apparently permanently abandoned the game for goin' fishin' and had declined even to return Short's telephone calls until Short tricked him by leaving American League President Joe Cronin's name and his own phone number. The '69 Senators finished over .500, their attendance increased to nearly 900,000 from just over 500,000 the year before, Williams was Manager of the Year—and Short lost $600,000. This year the Senators subsided to last place and Short declared a loss of $1 million. Williams did not attend this year's Series, but he conveyed the impression that the McLain trade almost ruined his salmon trip to Canada.
The trade was Aurelio Rodriguez, Eddie Brinkman, Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan to the Tigers for McLain, Don Wert, Elliott Maddox and Norm McRae. Williams wanted McLain, Maddox and McRae and did not mind losing Coleman, a potential 20-game winner who, Short says, "has a father-figure problem" with Williams. But Rodriguez is a 22-year-old third baseman of tremendous defensive gifts who became a home-run hitter under Williams. Brinkman was an obscure good-field-no-hit shortstop until 1969, when Williams' coaching raised his batting average some 80 points. Understandably, Williams had taken both of them to his heart.
"When we sent Ken McMullen to the Angels for Rick Reichardt and Rodriguez," Williams grumbled to his friend Bud Leavitt of Maine, "Short, a terrific man, didn't want to make the deal. I did. He said, "Go ahead, but you gotta live with it.' I slammed down the phone and made the deal. Well, the way it turned out, I called it the best deal of the year in the league.
"The other day Short called me and said, 'We can get Denny McLain." I said O.K., but for who. He said Detroit wanted Rodriguez and Brinkman and I said hell, no. He said, 'You made one last summer....'
"Any way you cut it, I lost the next best third baseman to Brooksie Robinson and I hated terribly to lose that little guy Brinkman, he's an all-out ballplayer. Short could be right and I could be wrong, but I still don't think it was a good deal for our club. Yeah, he's trying to get Flood. I'll take Flood, but I don't wish to give away Frank Howard, Mike Epstein and the Washington Monument. I got to get to Washington in a hurry and put a choke chain on that man, he's too damn enthusiastic...."
David Eisenhower worked for the Senators this past summer as a statistician. When someone from Short's office called David to see if he'd like to go to the Series, says Short, "Julie answered the phone and said, 'Gee, David sure is disappointed about that trade.' You know what that means—the old man's disappointed about the trade. What can I say? There is no way you can justify that trade to a baseball man."
Obviously Short considers himself more than just a baseball man. He is a baseball man who says he is in danger of going broke, for one thing, and also a baseball man who says, "I kind of like stormy petrels." Short has known lean times in sports before, he has dealt with at least his share of stormy petrels and, what is more, he has learned the value of a big name to a failing franchise. He was in the trucking business in his home town, Minneapolis, dealing with no one any more difficult than Jimmy Hoffa (of whom he retains a high opinion), when the plight of the Lakers stirred him to get together 117 civic-minded Minneapolitans and buy the team. His own initial investment was only $5,000, but over the next few years he bought up most of the other shares at 10¢ on the dollar, eventually paying back the other 90¢ although, he says, he was not obligated to. He also sold one of his stars in order to raise payroll money, presented Ingemar Johansson—singing, not boxing—as a spectacularly unsuccessful halftime gate attraction and moved the team to Los Angeles. Nothing improved the Lakers' credit until he signed Elgin Baylor.