Wolff talks love of baseball, vision for A's future
To many in A's Nation, Lew Wolff is merely a name synonymous with A's ownership. But pull back the green-and-gold curtain, and there's a lot more to the ownership group's most prominent figure. From his early days rooting for Stan Musial to sharing a fraternity brotherhood with former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and building a successful real estate business, Wolff's path to owning the A's reveals the merging of his two longtime passions: sports and business.
Athletics Magazine sat down with the team's owner and managing partner to learn a little more about Wolff's past and his plans for the A's future.
A lot of fans know "Lew Wolff the Owner" but don't know much about "Lew Wolff the Person." Tell us a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Times in those days were a lot simpler. My dear mother, Adele, would see me leave early in the summer with my Marty Marion baseball glove (I wonder who remembers the great tall shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals) and tell me to be home for dinner. Our Little League had no carpools or armies of parents. … It was just us kids playing for the love of the game.
I rooted for both the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns, which are now the Baltimore Orioles. All the kids in town had what they called a Knot Hole Pass that allowed us to get into all Cardinals and Browns games for a very small price. My friends and I would ride street cars (now light rail) to go to old Sportsman's Park, the venue shared by the two teams. We would take our homework with us and spend the first couple innings getting our assignments done. I saw a lot of baseball games in those days.
My favorite player was Del Rice, the Cardinals catcher. And, of course I cheered for Stan "The Man" Musial as well. Like a lot of kids who grew up in that part of the country, one of my cousins would clip every photo of Musial he saw in the daily papers and paste them in scrapbooks. Occasionally we'd run into Stan at his restaurant, Stan & Biggie's, and he would invite my cousin and me into his office and sign every page of his photos … what a thrill for us!
I played a lot of sports, and one day after I received a bit of recognition for an athletic achievement, a reporter asked how close my friend Jerry Greenwald (who eventually rose to be president of Chrysler Motors) and I were when we graduated. "The diplomas were given out by grade point average," I said, "and Jerry was home by the time I got mine."
You graduated from the University of Wisconsin and then got your MBA from Washington University in St. Louis. How did those experiences help shape you as a person and prepare you for your career?
My time at the University of Wisconsin was, like it is for so many people who are fortunate to go to college, my greatest personal growth period. I was on my own. I finally had a date my mother did not arrange, I was the only member of my fraternity from Missouri and the world had not entered the radical '60s.
During that time, I met my beautiful wife Jean -- who immediately improved my study habits -- and we've now been married for more than 58 years.
I also developed a long and lasting friendship with my fraternity brother, Bud Selig. Bud roomed with another fraternity brother, Herb Kohl, who became an accomplished U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, and who recently sold the team on the condition they remain in Milwaukee.
I was very lucky to be among individuals who later achieved great and important positions in their respective fields. As Baseball Commissioner, Bud made all of us proud of his dedication to the greatest professional sport. It was of course Bud who opened the door for me at the A's.
After college, you began a successful career in real estate development. How did you break into the industry and what helped you become successful?
After college, I was interested in real estate and went to work as a junior real estate appraiser in St. Louis. I was married, my wife was a fifth-grade school teacher, my father had passed away from a sudden and totally unexpected illness and my mother was left to raise my brother. These circumstances put off my desire to explore living on either coast.
As my brother grew older and my mother remarried, I was finally able to finish graduate school, thanks to the amazing support of my wife. After I graduated, I was offered the opportunity to open a California appraisal office for my firm, and Jeanie and I headed to Los Angeles in our Nash Rambler (I wonder if anyone remembers that car). As my mother and brother were "settled" and as I was looking to be in an environment where new ideas were welcomed more than questioned, it seemed clear that California was the place for us -- and it still is.
My wife continued to teach in Long Beach and I was charged with opening a branch office manned by just me. We had two modest incomes, but my wife always went to the supermarket with a tiny hand calculator to make sure that she had enough to get through the checkout line without any embarrassment.
My work led me to a greater understanding of real estate, so I left my St. Louis firm and -- with my great partner, John McMahan -- started our own real estate research and appraisal firm. Over time, we grew to 100 people and seven offices, while our average staff age was younger than 25 years old. We merged the firm into the national consulting firm Booz Allen, and I went on to private development, primarily in downtown San Jose.
I also fell into a second job, the best "part-time" position in the country, as head of all 20th Century Fox Real Estate. I was on the Fox lot, where I ran both my personal development activities and my Fox responsibilities from that unique location. I even got a screen credit for a hit film, "The Towering Inferno," even though you have to wait until the film is over and they roll the lesser credits to find my name.
My good fortune in my real estate activities led me to sports ownerships at various times, including the San Jose Missions (who are now the San Jose Giants), the St. Louis Blues, the Golden State Warriors (now I wish we had not sold that great franchise!), the San Jose Earthquakes and, of course, the wonderful opportunity of being active with the A's.
I am thankful to my partner John Fisher and his brothers Bill and Bob for our great partnership, and for supporting my efforts to become a part of Major League Baseball.
It's no secret that the A's have been looking to build a new ballpark. How do you foresee the quest for a new Oakland A's stadium ending?
The quest for a new ballpark is more visible than I had hoped, while at the same time being more complex than I anticipated. Our ownership wants to remain in the Bay Area. I have not once mentioned or given thought to any relocation outside of the Bay Area.
The effort we put forth to remain in Oakland and then in Fremont, trying to stay within Alameda County, has been robust and sincere. Those who have objectively looked at our efforts, such as Major League Baseball, will attest that we have expended significant effort and resources to try and implement a new venue in Oakland.
I have had more calls and contact with the current City of Oakland administration in the brief time Mayor Schaaf has been in office then in all the time of the prior three mayors. We recently entered into a 10-year lease to remain in Oakland, which is something that we are very proud of.
We continue to respect the desire of the Raiders for a new football-only venue, while we of course would like to play in a new or vastly improved baseball-only venue.
Are we waiting to see what direction the Raiders take? Yes, we are.
Do I believe that two new venues can be built, financed, and operated on the available Coliseum land? No, I do not.
Are we re-looking closely at Oakland? Yes, we are.
Does the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, wish us to make sure we have re-looked, in detail, at our options in Oakland? Yes, he does.
And are we pleased to be doing so? Of course we are.
So, our current activities will certainly assure our incredible fans that we are absolutely committed to them. The outcome we seek, and the only outcome we seek, is an improved local venue for our fans, players and sponsors that support our team.