Developer, Cleveland Indians Owner
The Cleveland Indians enjoyed a rare winning season in 1986, but Patrick O’Neill — the nephew of deceased Tribe owner and freight baron Steve O’Neill — was looking for a buyer. Sports fans, foreshadowing a paranoia that proved appropriate a decade later with another franchise, shivered from rampant speculation that a new owner would almost certainly move the club out of town.
Quietly, David and Richard Jacobs plotted their $40 million purchase of the troubled team. Though relative unknowns to most Clevelanders at the time of the deal, buying the Indians was far from the duo’s first business partnership. In 1956, the Jacobs brothers teamed with Cleveland strip-mall developer Dominic Visconsi. Thirty years later, Jacobs, Visconsi & Jacobs Inc. was the sixth-largest mall developer in the country, leasing 25.6 million square feet at 40 malls in 14 states.
The brothers wisely deputized matters of the diamond to baseball people. “It doesn’t take two people to carry a lunch bucket,” Richard Jacobs once said. As far as running the front office, they simply applied their pragmatic business sense – a fresh approach for a franchise who bungled regimes fielded players in all-red uniforms, traded Rocky Colavito and signed leases with Browns owner Art Modell.
The Jacobs brothers embraced the Central Market site for a new stadium and the vision for Gateway quickly became theirs, as well. They corralled public funding for the $131 million ballpark, just as they used tax breaks totaling $13.5 million to build the Galleria and Key Center. When David died in 1992, Richard characterized their partnership as having “the highest sense of loyalty and trust for each other.”
The centerpiece of the fresh identity the brothers carved for Cleveland was a new on-field tradition for the Cleveland Indians. General manager John Hart cut loose the hefty contracts of Tom Candiotti and Greg Swindell and, in what became a model for a successful baseball organization, reinvested in the farm system. Minor-league spending more than doubled by 1991. From Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Charlie Nagy to Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia and Jaret Wright, the Jacobs era yielded a bountiful crop of homegrown talent. Hart keenly signed his studs to long-term deals – Nagy in 1992, Albert Belle in 1993, Thome in 1994 – bankrolling it with new revenue streams from merchandise sales, concessions, luxury seats and ballpark advertising. Richard Jacobs ultimately became the deep-pocketed public face of the team as baseball morphed into a sport in which team owners achieve a level of celebrity comparable to the players. Under him, the Indians brought home five consecutive American League Central championships, two AL pennants and came within two outs of winning it all in 1997.
In February 2000, Jacobs showed his businessman’s soul when he sold the Tribe to current owner Larry Dolan for eight times more than he paid for it. Jacobs had simultaneously sold his malls 10 and 20 at a time with much less fanfare. Even his firm’s Westlake headquarters was unloaded to Cuyahoga Community College without a sound. But the Indians were an investment unlike any other. As Jacobs told The Plain Dealer in 1991, “a baseball team is a quasi-civic organization. It will outlive man. It is placed in your trust for a short time.”
The Indians are no longer his, but Jacobs’ fingerprints are all over them. And on summer evenings his presence is felt at the corner of East Ninth Street as crowds file into the ballpark that saved a long and storied baseball tradition from tumbling into obscurity.