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- May 18, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 20
The Only Baseball Boss Who's Young, Female and Black, Tracy Lewis Holds the Cards in Savannah
"Hey, you The Lady, ain't ya?" says the fat boy.
"Hey, yourself," says the woman.
"Is you The Lady?" asks the tall boy.
"Yes, I'm The Lady." The boys slap palms and fall in behind her.
"You sure are cute," says the fat boy.
The woman stops, hands on hips. "Cute! Boy, you better be stickin' to your school books and not go callin' no woman cute who's old enough to be your momma." The other boys laugh.
The fat boy says, "Can you give us some free tickets for tonight's game?"
"Free!" the woman says. "Boy, you get yourself a paper route and buy a ticket. You old enough." Then she fumbles in her purse and scribbles a name and phone number on a scrap of paper. "Call this number and ask for Sandra. She'll get you tickets."
The Lady is Tracy Lewis, 25, tall and bright and sophisticated, daughter of a wealthy black Chicago family, a graduate of prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts, and now president of the Savannah (Ga.) Cardinals of baseball's Class A South Atlantic League.
"I've been the president for two years," she says, "but until now no one noticed."
People notice now because last month Al Campanis, a vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told Ted Koppel on Nightline that some blacks might lack "the necessities" to direct the fortunes of baseball teams. For that Campanis lost his job. Tracy Lewis still has hers. She is the only black president of a professional baseball team in this country. Her father, Tom Lewis, 52, a self-made millionaire who owns a chain of radio stations, bought the Cardinals for $285,000 in 1986 after he saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal. He told his daughter, then managing one of his radio stations, in New Orleans, that she was going to be the team's president.
" 'You bought what?' " Tracy remembers asking. " 'A baseball team!' Not only didn't I understand the pressures of running a team, I didn't even like the game. When I was growing up we lived only a few blocks from Comiskey Park in Chicago, but my father wasn't into sports. He was the kind of guy who put on a suit and tie every Saturday morning. I was taking piano lessons. I mean, I loved to shop."
Tracy had gone to New Orleans to attend Tulane law school, where she lasted a year. She thought she wanted to be a lawyer, she says, because that was what she had been programmed to think. Most upper-middle-class black parents, she explains, like white immigrant parents before them, groom their children for solid middle-class occupations: doctor, lawyer, CPA. "Black kids don't go to college to teach English at some boarding school in Switzerland," she says. "And they don't go backpacking around the world to find themselves. Maybe white kids can do those things and their parents will think it's great, but black parents will say, 'Like hell! That's not what I paid $10,000 a year for!' That's one reason blacks never thought of sports management as an acceptable occupation. But my father saw my being president of the Cardinals as a steppingstone for other blacks."
Her own first step was to attend a meeting of baseball executives. There she saw only white older men, dressed almost identically in cardigan golf sweaters, pastel slacks and white patent-leather loafers. "It was one big clique," she says. "I was the only black there, and Marge Schott, the Reds' owner, was the only other woman. It was clear these people were recruiting from their own peer group—boys who hung around the locker room for 30 years. When I got up to speak one gentleman said, 'Well, Tracy, I know you're new and...' I cut him off right there. 'Everybody in this room knows that, including me,' I said. 'That's condescending.' He apologized."
The business staff of the Savannah Cardinals is having a meeting in their office at radio station WSAI, which Tom Lewis owns and Tracy manages. The problem is attendance, or rather the lack of it. Only 173 fans showed up for last night's game, in large part because the team has won only five games and lost 16.
"We gotta get somebody back in that bird outfit," says Tracy. Last year the team mascot helped draw fans from the very first time he leaped out of a plane and parachuted onto the field. Halfway down, the bird's head flew off and landed in a Burger King parking lot. "I was sure it was going to hit someone," says Tracy.
Someone suggests a singles night to bring out a crowd.
"How you going to know if they're single?" says Tracy. "What if married guys show up?"
"Well, maybe we can raffle off one of the players for a date," says Sandra James, 29, the team's black sales manager.
"One who's not married," says Tracy.
"And speaks English," says Sandra.
"And has enough money to go out on a date," says Tracy. She shrugs. "Oh, we'll just pay for it."
The discussion goes on for hours. Tracy sits sideways in her chair, listens, nods, comments. She talks easily, at times slipping into a black dialect, as she did with those boys on the street, and at other times talking like a woman who majored in English literature and wrote a term paper on Anthony Trollope.
At twilight a few fans begin to straggle into Grayson Stadium, home of the Cardinals. The crowd is racially mixed, as is the city of 145,000. A few years ago many of the older black fans would instinctively gravitate toward the left-field bleachers, the "Colored Only" stands of an earlier time. Tonight they gather behind home plate in freshly painted red reserved seats. Grayson is a beautiful minor league park. The infield is perfectly outlined and the dirt is red, rich, Georgia clay. The outfield looks like an emerald carpet that has been vacuumed all in one direction. Beyond the outfield fence is a stand of tall Georgia pines.
Before the Cardinals take the field against the Greensboro Hornets, Tracy is in the dugout, kidding with the players. She likes the athletes, and when she found out that some of the Spanish-speaking team members had to walk miles to their rooms after a game, she began driving them home. "Some of these kids live five to two bedrooms," she says. "They don't have any money. They get three days off in 140 games. Even if they never make it to the major leagues, I think they should be proud of themselves. At least they went for it. It doesn't take much imagination to be a banker. But it takes courage to take a chance in baseball."
When the game begins, Tracy is sitting behind home plate with her staff and some fans. "I used to dread having to watch these games," she says. "Now I wouldn't miss one." She stands to cheer a Cardinal home run. Back in her seat, she tells how she had to fire one of her white security guards when he saw a white girl holding hands in the stands with a black boy and told her that if he were her daddy, he'd beat the daylights out of her. "I can't have that in my stadium," says Tracy. "I'm running a business. I can't have my staff chasing off fans. You know, I know one owner who lost five million dollars over the years and he couldn't care less. All he ever wanted was to play second base. Now he has his own team." She shakes her head. "You gotta love it, I guess."
Does she? "Now that I'm in this game," she says, "I just might stay in. I might actually get good at it. Maybe I'll even marry a famous baseball player." She laughs. "I could live with that, being a star's wife. Or maybe I'll become an ambassador to a foreign country. I'd like that, too."
Tracy used to keep an apartment in Savannah, but now she just stays with friends when she's in town—about one week a month. Meanwhile she lives in St. Louis and commutes between there and Savannah and New Orleans, doing the different jobs her father lays out for her. Sometimes, with all her traveling, she is so exhausted that when she gets a few minutes off in Savannah she has no desire to do anything at all. "So I go out to the ballpark," she says. "It's deserted and it's so peaceful. I just sit in the stands and look at it. It's a beautiful ballpark, isn't it?"
December 19, 2014
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