The old man is dead now, and the empire he built on hot dogs and peanuts is under fire and in danger of coming down on the heads of his sons, whom the old man tried to make in his image. The empire itself is a phenomenon, extending almost unnoticed beneath the structure of American sport, like a vast catacomb. To understand the empire one must appreciate the late emperor. His friends called him Louie, or L.M., and they knew him as a very attentive listener. In conversation he would often stop himself in midsentence to listen because, he told his sons, "I already know what I have to say, so I listen and learn what the other person has to say." He listened, typically, to Danny Menendez one night calling from Toledo. Menendez was dispirited. He said the baseball franchise he owned in Toledo was in deep trouble. "Mr. Jacobs," he said, "I'm going under." The train from Buffalo to Chicago made a stop in Toledo. The old man said he would be on the train that night and for Menendez to be there when it reached Toledo at 4 a.m. It was winter. Menendez stood on the platform, pounding his hands against the sides of his topcoat, when the train pulled in. The old man got off in his pajamas and slippers and bathrobe. He handed Menendez a check, turned and got back on the train.
The Toledo franchise survived, and Louie Jacobs (see cover) continued to sell his hot dogs and peanuts there. And he sold them in many other ball parks, he and his two older brothers Marvin and Charley, first under the name Jacobs Brothers, then as Sportservice. And whenever there was an owner in distress, Louie Jacobs seemed always to be nearby, listening, subjecting himself to lamentations, and then accepting an offer to borrow some of Sportservice's money in return for extended concession rights.
Bill Veeck was a regular visitor to the second-floor office at 703 Main Street in Buffalo, where the old man worked far into the night and all day Sunday. Veeck and Louie Jacobs were signature-to-signature through Veeck's franchise deals ( Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago) from the 1930s on. Veeck has said that whenever he had a financial problem, "I did what any man of minimal intelligence would do. I took it to Louie Jacobs." Lots of baseball men did. For instance, Connie Mack took it to Jacobs in 1951 when his Athletics were floundering in Philadelphia, and Louie responded with $250,000, interest free, and later helped Mack sell the club, which moved to Kansas City. Louie Jacobs' largess seemed inexhaustible. The Jacobs brothers became known as the angels of baseball.
Unorthodox angels, to be sure. In their youth, they had been shaped by poverty. The Jacobses were from the Delancey Street area of New York's Lower East Side, the sons of an immigrant Polish tailor. There were six in the family that moved to Buffalo at the turn of the century, with train tickets for only five. One little Jacobs was sent to the washroom whenever the conductor came around. As a small boy, Louie Jacobs had hawked peanuts at the ball park in Buffalo and popcorn at the Gayety Theater, a burlesque house, and the brothers sold papers and shined shoes and rented canoes at Delaware Park Lake. Not only did they learn the value of money, but how to wield it. Money was a crowbar. It opened doors. It opened concession booths. And it kept them open.
The Jacobs brothers' first big-league concession contract was with the Detroit Tigers in 1927. Louie went to Detroit and lived with his employees there, hovering over the syrup dispensers and the formula mixes for the hot dogs, and when the season was over he had grossed twice as much as the previous concessionaire. Then Louie did an extraordinary thing. He wrote out a check for $12,500 and took it to Frank Navin, who owned the Tigers.
"What's this for?" said Navin.
"You made a bad contract," said Louie Jacobs. "You deserve more than you were guaranteed."
As Jacobs hoped he would, Navin spread the word among his fellow owners. "Do you know what Louie Jacobs did...?" In baseball, as Louie once observed, "everyone is a brother." The brotherhood beat a path to Louie's door in Buffalo, and Louie listened. His logic was inescapable: a man cannot sell peanuts in a shutdown ball park.
As angels go, Louie Jacobs was not much to look at. A short man, barely 5'8", with gleaming black eyes and a fleshy nose, he wore steel-rimmed glasses and affected gruff mannerisms to make himself seem older. (At 15 he had been arrested for hiring boys to run cabs for him in Buffalo; under the law, he was too young to be an employer.) Even when he became acquainted with riches, Louie Jacobs was loath to appear ostentatious. His wardrobe consisted of 10 dark suits, each with two pairs of pants, purchased in a bunch once every 10 years. He never had a personal bank account. He did not take vacation trips to Europe. He did not own a summer place. "The same sun shines in Buffalo," he said.
Eventually Louie arranged his corporation's ownership so that he became an employee of two of his sons, Jeremy and Max. He was an employee, but he was preeminent. Jeremy Jacobs, the youngest son and heir apparent, learned at his father's feet.