Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Obituary: Carl Pohlad

The billionaire owner of the Minnesota Twins baseball team is dead. Without putting too fine a point on it, Minnesotans generally regarded Carl Pohlad with the same esteem they reserved for institutions like Northwest Airlines. We saw him as a necessary evil, and as a miserly figure who disappointed the state over and over again.

As I reflect on the third richest man in Minnesota (his $3.6 billion made him number 102 on Forbes' list of the richest Americans), all sorts of warnings about speaking ill of the dead go through my head. I don't have anything nice to say about this man.

(Nasty obits aren't unheard of: A couple days after Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Christopher Hitchens wrote a pretty scathing piece for Slate called The Stupidity of Ronald Reagan -- I guess he couldn't help himself. This in spite of Hitchens' bizarre turn toward the conservative after 2001.)

While I think it's in poor taste to badmouth dead people -- at least on the ocassions of their deaths -- sometimes obituaries and news accounts romanticize divisive characters. Or maybe that's just a way of justifying this obituary.

Pohlad was no Ralph Engelstad (the infamous North Dakota-born casino baron who used to hold Las Vegas birthday parties for Hitler, and who financed the University of North Dakota's hockey arena only under the condition that they keep the controversial "Fighting Souix" mascot), but he wasn't well-loved in Minnesota either. He's been most famous as the man who constantly threatened to move or sell the Twins.

About a year ago, Murray Chass wrote in the New York Times that although Pohlad was the richest baseball team owner in the country, he seemed reluctant to spend money to keep great players like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. This after years of trying to bully the state into funding a new Twins stadium. By not investing in the team, by openly stripping the team of some of its better players, he was making it more and more unpalatable for taxpayers to swallow the idea of giving this billionaire a handout.

"The stadium fight was long and divisive," the Minneapolis Star Tribune said in an editorial today.
"In the end, Pohlad and the Twins prevailed, winning almost $400 million in public aid. The amount Pohlad contributed to the stadium deal — more than $145 million — was significant, though not enough to impress stadium critics who called the package a billionaire’s bailout."
It wasn't the fact that Pohlad wanted state money that I find so disgusting. I believe that the state should help with sports stadiums as much as it should help with theaters (the Guthrie), museums (the Walker) and public transportation. It's the way he fought and the threats he made. It's all the cuts he made and the indignance he showed at Minnesotans for not acting grateful after all of his whining.

Pohlad may also be remembered as one of the businessmen who dismantled the Twin Cities' streetcar system in the 50s, a system we are paying a fortune to rebuild now. This isn't quite accurate. Technically, the system, which was run by Twin City Rapid Transit, was dismantled in 1954, and Pohlad didn't take it over until 1959. (It was an investor named Charles Green who started the damage in 1948. His goal was to transition to buses by 1958. And ultimately, this was part of a nationwide trend of train-to-bus conversions allegedly financed by oil interests and GM.) Pohlad ran the TCRT for about ten years.

Was Carl Pohlad just a "regular guy" as his family says? Was he a clever businessman, or was he merely greedy? Did he have a secret life of generous philanthropy that gets obscured by his efforts to save money on the Twins? (He did start the Pohlad Family Foundation, which gives public and private grants to local causes -- $7 million in 2006 according to the website.) One could argue that he bravely stood up to the absurd escalation in pro athlete salaries. And that he saved the Twins in 1984 from previous owner Calvin Griffith, who wanted to move it. But then why did we all feel so lousy about him?

I don't know the answers to those questions, and it seems inadequate to say only that his public was suspicious of him and his intentions. What is certain though, is that his public image was not a rosy one.

Pohlad was 93, and doubtless he had a family that loved him. Yes, it's sad that he's dead, but lived a very full life, one that many of us might envy -- at least on the surface.

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