The Cubs want you to know that they are not affiliated with Joe Ricketts. On Monday, Splinter News released emails from the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade’s inbox in which he espoused a variety of paranoid, bigoted, and conspiracy-tinged views, revealing a strong anti-Muslim bias. Ricketts claimed then-President Barack Obama “calls himself a Muslim;” argued “we must all recognize the Islam is a dangerous element in our society due to its radical elements;” and replied “great laugh” to a joke utilizing the n-word. In one email, the Ricketts family patriarch said “we cannot ever let Islam become a large part of our society. Muslims are naturally my (our) enemy.”
Following the release of Splinter’s article, the latest in a series probing J. Joseph Ricketts’ inbox, Cubs chairman and Ricketts’ son Tom Ricketts said in a statement that “my father is not involved with the operation of the Chicago Cubs in any way.” Given that the outcry to the release of racist comments by Los Angeles Clippers ex-owner Donald Sterling in 2014 led to his sale of the team (one of a number of similar instances in the NBA and NFL in the past decade), it is unsurprising that the Cubs would assiduously assure the public that Joe Ricketts is not involved with the club’s “operation.”
The second Ricketts son, once referred to as “the family’s point man” in its purchase of the club, chose an interesting turn of phrase in distancing his father from the organization of which he and his three siblings comprise four-fifths of the board of directors. The chairman did not, notably, state that his father has no ownership stake in the Cubs. It is quite likely that he did not say so because he cannot, and that Joe Ricketts owns a significant portion of the team. While we do not and likely will not ever know his exact financial stakes in the team, we do know that Joe Ricketts played an integral role in his family’s purchase of the Chicago Cubs, and to deny his affiliation with the team elides the serious and damaging scope and effect of his words.
Most of the articles written today about the Cubs’ ownership group will refer to Tom Ricketts as the owner, or to siblings Tom, Pete, Laura, and Todd as “co-owners.” This is a characterization that would seem to ignore a wide swathe of available information; since it changed hands, the ownership group of the Cubs has long been referred to as “The Ricketts family,” a designation that until quite recently included its patriarch. In the August 2009 New York Times article announcing the signing of the sale agreement, it was Joe, not Tom, Ricketts who released a statement saying “our family is thrilled to have reached an agreement to acquire a controlling interest in the Cubs.” By October, however, Tom Ricketts was introduced “as the controlling owner,” beginning to shuffle his father out of the picture.
It certainly appears that Joe desired this diminished role. Prior to all of the post-purchase PR, it was Joe Ricketts who Tom approached with the idea to buy the Cubs, a notion to which he was not initially receptive.
Joe: “Why would I want to buy a baseball team?…”
Tom: “…They sell every ticket, every game, win or lose.”
Joe: “Now you’re talking about a business. Now you’ve got my interest.”
(from Ricketts’ appearance at the 2010 Midlands Venture Forum)
Ricketts’ own words profess a disinterest in the Cubs franchise in any sense but fiscal, and his lack of involvement with the Cubs reflects his retreat from public life. Since his retirement from the TD Ameritrade board in 2011, Ricketts has not held a publicly reported seat on any company’s board, and unlike three of his four children, he does not live in Chicago, but in Wyoming. Ricketts, in fact, has become somewhat reclusive. His name has only appeared in headlines in recent years when he is at the center of a firestorm; in 2017 Ricketts shuttered hyperlocal news site DNAInfo six months after they voted to unionize, and in 2012 he was purported to have explored funding a smear campaign against Barack Obama. Perhaps stung by bad press, Ricketts has ardently attempted to stay out of the spotlight; a series of 2013 emails refers to the Forbes 400 list and efforts to keep Ricketts “below this radar.” Said Joe, “I don’t think I ever want to be on that list. However, I do want to make as much money as possible.”
The elder Ricketts’ guiding interest in the Cubs has always been as a business venture. Ricketts also emphasized from the outset that he, ambivalent about sports, had no interest in the operation of the Cubs and preferred to delegate that responsibility to the son who orchestrated their purchase.
“Tom, listen, if you take my money and you start this business – you buy this baseball team – you have to come over and run it… I know what it takes to run a large business, which a baseball team is.”
And take his money Tom did. In early 2009, Joe and his wife Marlene sold 34 million shares of TD Ameritrade for $403 million to finance the purchase of the Cubs. A note on the Cubs’ ownership structure: the Chicago Cubs were previously owned outright by Tribune Company, which was bought by Sam Zell in 2007 and promptly prepared to sell the Cubs. In order to sidestep a large tax burden, Tribune announced that any bidders had to be willing to enter into a ten-year partnership rather than an outright sale. Thus, the Cubs became operated by Chicago Baseball Holdings, LLC (CBH), which the Ricketts family purchased a 95 percent stake in for $845 million in 2009. In order to facilitate the purchase, Ricketts Acquisition LLC (RAL) was formed. RAL, in turn, was held by the “Joe & Marlene Ricketts Grandchildren’s Education Fund,” more commonly known as the “Ricketts Family Trust.” Finally, the Ricketts Family Trust was managed by RPTC Inc., a Wyoming-based investment company. As recently as 2013 Joe Ricketts was reported as the President of RPTC Inc.
Joe Ricketts’ present involvement with RPTC is unclear, although multiple investment sites do still list him as its president. Lack of clarity as to who owns and controls what is assuredly a feature, not a bug, of the Matryoshka-esque structure the Ricketts have employed in their ownership of the club, and it is not going to become easier to untangle this web. The Cubs recently completed their purchase of the five percent stake the now-named Tribune Media Company retained, and without that publicly available data it would have been much harder to connect CBH and RAL to their new names – Chicago Entertainment Ventures, LLC and Northside Entertainment Holdings, LLC, respectively. It will only get more difficult in future years’ to suss out how exactly the Ricketts have structured their ownership of the Cubs.
What is clear is that Joe and Marlene Ricketts provided the plurality if not the majority of the money that paid for the Cubs. If Joe Ricketts does not maintain that stake and did not sell it to his children, then we are left with only a few reasonable conclusions. The public would have presumably been made aware if Joe sold his holdings in the Cubs to his children. The only options I can think of, then, are that Joe Ricketts either maintains a stake in the Cubs or utilized the Cubs’ interlocking holding networks to circumvent the gift and estate taxes and pass his wealth to his children tax-free. (The latter might make the Cubs’ numerous holding companies an example of GRAT tax shelters)
It seems apparent that Joe Ricketts’ bigoted words and actions have played no role in his lack of operational involvement with the Cubs, and that it instead reflects his personal preferences. Further, compelling evidence exists that Ricketts did play a significant role in the Cubs’ purchase and none exists to show that he is no longer financially tied to the organization. What, it then seems reasonable to ask, is the half-life of Joe Ricketts’ association with the Cubs? I would be remiss not to note at this point that a variety of Muslim leaders in the city of Chicago have also found the Ricketts’ lack of response wanting.
In Joe Ricketts’ own words, he has “hardback books of all the documents that were signed” in the purchase of the Cubs. If, reader, you made or will soon make the excellent decision to buy the 2019 BP Annual, you will have the pleasure of reading the excellent work of a number of writers collected in physical form. You might be one of many readers with a collection of past years’ annuals, because there’s something indelible about writing existing in physical form. It’s why, five hundred years later, scholars the world over still search for Shakespeare’s manuscripts.
In 2013 Tom Ricketts said that it felt like the Cubs “would be a family business forever.” Perhaps that will be the case, but if it is so then the Cubs, like the books full of signatures, will forever bear the mark of Joe Ricketts’ involvement. In hundreds of years, in which most historical documents cease to be truly indelible, in cultural terms the span of forever, perhaps the Ricketts family – if they are able to avoid their patriarch’s admonition that “very few wealthy can keep their wealth for more than two to four generations,” of course – will be able to erase Joe Ricketts as the truthful purchaser of the Cubs in 2009. Perhaps they will not care to. But in the here and now, we can say that this is ridiculous. In 2012, Fortune described Ricketts as “a man indifferent to baseball who bought one of the sport’s best-known teams.” In 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series, Ricketts wrote on his personal blog that he “felt so proud to be associated with this amazing team.” Now, we are to believe that the man who paid for the Cubs’ purchase, the father of 80 percent of the team’s board of directors, is nothing and no one to the team. I believe baseball fans are smarter and deserve better.
The question that remains to be answered, then, is what is the Cubs’ responsibility in this situation? Should there be calls for the Ricketts family to sell the team? Recalling that it is our responsibility as allies to heed the voices of marginalized communities, we can see that a number of Chicago Muslim fans and community leaders were desirous for the organization to engage more openly and fully in dialogue with its fan base regarding how it can fulfill its “Everybody In” slogan. One fan implored the organization to host a Muslim American night this season. An initial meeting between representatives of the two parties has already transpired, but it remains to be seen what “concrete steps” the Cubs will take to ensure that Muslim fans feel welcome and valued. For the time being, however, we can commit to continuously holding the team accountable to that mandatory standard, and look to the Muslim community in Chicago to understand how and whether the Ricketts children can restore their credibility with the Muslim members of their adopted hometown.
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