Last year, as Donald Trump’s campaign was gaining steam, some baseball old timers recalled stories of how, in the 1980s, he tried to buy the Cleveland Indians and, on occasion, was rumored to be in the running to buy other teams. That obviously never happened — as we’ve learned, Trump talks big about a lot of things he has no intention and no ability to do — but back in the 80s people took Trump’s word a lot more seriously than we’ve learned to do today.
One thing I had no memory of at all, however, was Trump’s plan, such as it was, to make an entire rival baseball league. Deadspin has the story on that and it’s a great read, as well as being a great walk through late 1980s baseball history.
Back then Washington didn’t have a team, of course, and Trump got headlines by, well, trumping up claims that he was going to bring baseball back to D.C. He got other businessmen to agree, at least provisionally, to buy in with franchises in other cities that were underserved by Major League Baseball at the time. Portland, Denver and Miami were the most notable, but other places like Hartford and Columbus, Ohio as well. The idea was to begin play in 1990.
The plan was supported by Don Fehr, then the Executive Director of the MLBPA, probably because it provided his union — which was entering Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with MLB that winter — leverage. Trump’s public statements and some carefully-cultivated press also gave the number one overall draft pick that year, Ben McDonald, and his agent, Scott Boras, some leverage in extracting the then-largest ever signing bonus out of the Baltimore Orioles. For a brief period of time, everyone was taking Trump seriously.
And then, of course, there was no followthrough. Trump called a meeting of all potential owners at Trump Tower and he didn’t even bother to show up, leaving a bunch of his would-be partners dangling and angry. All mention in the press of it died and the idea of a baseball league to rival Major League Baseball unceremoniously petered out. Within a year he’d file his first bankruptcy and enter a period when he was more famous for being a minor celebrity than for being a serious businessman.
It’s a fantastic story, which I highly recommend. If you told me this story a few years back, I’d say that we all dodged a bullet by Trump not getting involved in the baseball business. In light of more recent events, however, I’m wondering how much of a shot we’ve all taken by him not succeeding in baseball, which may have kept him otherwise occupied.