Big Red Embarrassment

updated 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

MARGE SCHOTT, THE PRINCIPAL OWNER OF the Cincinnati Reds, was widely regarded as a colorful character who was good for baseball. She was a rough-hewn eccentric, famous for bringing a dancing bear as her escort to a black-tie party and for unleashing her beloved St. Bernard, Schottzie, to romp among Reds players during pregame warm-ups. A husky-voiced chain-smoker, she was often described as crusty and contentious. But no one ever publicly called her a racist and a bigot—until now.

On Dec. 7, at its monthly meeting, Major League Baseball's executive council will give serious attention to remarks allegedly made by Schott over the years. Responding to published reports that Schott, 63, had made liberal use, in public and private, of such epithets as "nigger," "Map" and "money-grubbing Jews," observers ranging from baseball great Hank Aaron to Abraham Fox-man, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, have urged that she should be ousted from the game.

The firestorm began last month when depositions taken in preparation for a lawsuit against Schott were made public. Ex-Reds controller Tim Sabo filed the wrongful firing suit (since dismissed), alleging that one of the reasons Schott canned him was his opposition to her discriminatory hiring policies. In one of the depositions, Schott acknowledged her use of the term "nigger.

Other allegations quickly followed. One ex-employee said Schott had once referred to former Beds stars Eric Davis and Dave Barker as her "million-dollar niggers" (which-he denies). Parker, understandably, is incensed. "I feel as though I should be put on a podium, stark naked and turning around, like at a slave auction," he says.

Schott, who contributes generously to local charities, including the Cincinnati Zoo and the Children's Heart Association, has defenders in the community, Few people are willing to characterize her as a bigot or hatemonger. Instead they attribute her alleged comments to her generation, her conservative family back-ground and her lack of sophistication and sensitivity. "She's from the old school," says Sheila Wilson, president of Cincinnati's Urban League. "She shoots from the hip, and what she feels, she says. She's absolutely blunt, but that's no excuse for racism."

Inside her memorabilia-filled office in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Marge Schott looks tired and drawn, her voice a whisper. "People who know me, my friends and my longtime employees, know I'm not a racist," she says. "Sometimes we all put our foot in our mouths, but I would never say or do anything to hurt anyone.

A widow for 24 years, Schott—who usually wears red, her team's color—has said that she was just a spoiled housewife when her husband, Charles Schott, died in 1968 and left her with a Cincinnati car dealership and a huge inheritance.

With no operating background in baseball, Schott bought a controlling interest in the Reds in 1984 to become, as she put it, "the only woman in a boys club" of major league owners. She soon established her austere management style ("I'm a saver," she likes to say), which others, less generously, call "cheap."

Roger Blaeimire, the Reds vice president of business operations for nine months ending in April 1986, says that Schott not only ordered employees to use scrap paper on both sides but also actually checked the wastebaskets to make sure that they did.

Still, Schott, who has hired and fired three general managers in eight wars, turned the Reds into winners both on the field and at the bank. A money loser in 1985, the team—world champions in 1990—made about $15 million last year.

The owner, who weathered the 1989 tempest surrounding former Reds superstar and manager Pete Rose's gambling activities, may well weather this one too. Her fellow owners only recently discharged baseball's commissioner, Fay Vincent, for interfering too aggressively in their business. They could be reluctant to hand down a major punishment—like a year's suspension—to a fellow owner. One thing is certain. Marge Schott will not go quietly, if she goes at all. Says her longtime friend Dr. Beverly Carpenter: "Marge has held up under many kittles. She is resilient, and she has stamina. She's a fighter."

CIVIA TAMARKIN in Cincinnati, with additional reporting by JANE BRIGGS-BUNTING

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